When I say that ethnic studies saved my life, I don’t mean that lightly. My first semester in college was a significant time of transition, marked with the fear of entering yet another white-dominated arena. As strong as fear is, I knew I couldn’t let it stall my education, my journey to law school or my path to “success;” I just had to deal with it in order to survive. I came in and immediately declared my political, legal and economic analysis major, not out of passion or a sense of acceptance in the the academic field, but because I felt like I had to be a lawyer one day.
My first semester courses were areas of interest and some major requirements. I wanted to see what Mills had to offer academically. I walked into my Introduction to Ethnic Studies class and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. My professor was a Salvadoran woman who, through just one class, showed me that my education doesn’t have to be traumatizing and done out of obligation, but that it can be reflective of my experiences, amplifying the histories of my community and serving as a source of collective healing and personal growth.
Since then, my ethnic studies education and community has given me the strength to continue my legal studies. It has shown me that my criticism of white-centered academics and the white-dominated careers they lead to is valid, and it has supported the discovery and growth of my authentic self. Ethnic studies saved my life because without it, I know I wouldn’t have been able to make it this far in higher education or have grown to love myself as much as I do now; the fear I started with would have consumed me.
My ethnic studies education has kept me at Mills, and it has shown me what inclusion in higher education and community love looks like. But as I’ve started my third year, fear has found its way back into my life. I am scared for the future of a department that has such a sacred place in my heart and immense historical significance in decolonial-centered educational movements. I came back to a school that was described as undergoing a time of transition, a period of sacrifice to ensure the survival of a campus. It never felt that way for me.
I started the semester grieving for the loss of a beloved member of my ethnic studies community, and worried as I saw those faculty and staff of color who remained carrying the weight of putting on a happy face and moving forward for us students. The Board of Trustees and other college officers never recognized just how much their decisions hurt. There’s almost some sort of taboo behind even saying the names of the people we lost. They don’t want to hear about the pain myself and many students on this campus are still processing. All the conversations are about the future of Mills, and I get that preserving this school is important. But at what cost?
This is my testimonio, which captures the experience of a queer Latina, first in her family to go to college at the same time that Mills College is proposing a new vision for the future which includes initiatives of “breaking barriers” and fighting for “racial and gender justice.” Ethnic studies has allowed me to see that a variety of stories, all at different intersections, can be occurring at once. As Mills begins the path to a sustainable future, students of color right now are trying to survive neglect and attacks on our communities created by choices made for us and not by us, both in and outside of these gates. I hope that by sharing my experience I can pay respect to the struggles of students of color, who fought for ethnic studies, but also connect with others who want to build on that struggle to continue to democratize and decolonize our education.