MSW Graduates of Color Celebrate Their Resilience and Solidarity
Galvanized by the School of Social Work’s redesigned curriculum, three student caucuses hold the first People of Color graduation for Columbia graduate students.
Two nights before University Commencement and the School-wide graduation ceremony at Lincoln Center, a group of Columbia’s MSW graduates gathered in a hall inside the historic Riverside Church and made some history of their own.
They had come together at this church renowned for its ethnically mixed congregation and commitment to social justice to celebrate the first People of Color (POC) graduation at the School of Social Work. It was also, according to a source at the Office of Multicultural Affairs for Columbia College, the first combined POC ceremony for graduate students in Columbia University’s history.
The event was made possible because three of the School’s student caucuses—the Black Caucus, the LatinX Caucus, and the Asian Pacific Islander Caucus—had pooled their resources for a single affinity graduation rather than holding their own separate events, as in the past. Caucus members had arrived at that decision after their experiences with a newly revised foundations curriculum emphasizing the importance of racial dynamics in social work practice.
Celebrating Commonality within the Columbia Context
To anyone who is familiar with the concept of an affinity graduation, portions of the Riverside Church event ran along the usual lines: a celebratory dinner, followed by a keynote speech, followed by each graduate receiving a stole indicating their ethnic or racial identity. As in the past, the intent was to provide an occasion for family and friends to congratulate their loved ones on having overcome the obstacles in obtaining an advanced degree at an Ivy League institution as a person from an underrepresented group. To put this in context: At the School of Social Work, domestic student enrollment is 18.3% LatinX or Hispanic, 14.2% Black or African American, and 11.4% Asian, while at Columbia University the three groups make up 12%, 7.5%, and 18%, respectively, of domestic student enrollment.
But if the event seemed familiar, the occasion was something out of the ordinary. Drawing on a long history of solidarity among their communities, Black-, LatinX-, and Asian-identified MSW students had chosen, for the first time, to come together under one roof to celebrate their unity, resilience, solidarity, and academic achievements independent of school- or university-organized events.
In the words of Black Caucus co-leader Sidney Delince, who served as emcee at Riverside Church: “It’s powerful to be on stage and really look at a room of masters-level Ivy League individuals who are all people of color. To see that representation was a very strong statement, and we were really proud to be present for that.”
Seating at the graduation dinner was “not segregated,” he noted. Instead, the mingling of caucus members at every table demonstrated the intersectionality the three student groups had united to celebrate.
Calling the event “transformational,” Asian Pacific Islander Caucus co-leader Catalina Sa-Ngoun noted that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders “are often grouped into one large category” and subjected to stereotypes such as the “model minority” myth. The People of Color Graduation, she said, went a long way to resolve some of these issues because it “allowed differing racial groups to express the intercultural respect and understanding needed to demonstrate solidarity.”
Associate Director of Field Education and Adjunct Professor Ericka Echavarria (MSW’08) reinforced the themes of intersectionality and solidarity in her keynote speech. She said in English and then in Spanish: “Speak your truth and do no harm, especially to other POC. Try to see yourself in that person, their pain, and their insecurity. Di tu verdad, sin hacerle daño a los demás. Especialmente a otras personas de color. Trata de ver el dolor y la inseguridad del otro.” (Her words also were printed in Mandarin on a program insert.)
Echavarria told us afterwards that she, too, had been moved by the event. “To see all the people of color in the audience and their family members, all in one room together, just celebrating each other and celebrating their accomplishment—that isn’t a space we often get to have at Columbia,” she said.
For Echavarria, it was further moving to remember how far the graduates had to come to reach that point. People of color in a white supremacist culture “are socialized to be against each other,” she explained, “and when you come into a space like an Ivy League institution, it becomes even more ingrained in you.” The challenge, she said, is “to put aside our differences and really find that commonality—which for me was the experience of being unseen and unheard.”
Impact of the PROP Curriculum
The caucus leaders we spoke to about their involvement in the planning of the special ceremony told us it marked the culmination of a journey that had started from the moment they’d entered the School of Social Work, in Fall 2017. Members of the Class of 2019 were the first to be offered a new set of foundation-year courses that incorporate issues of power, race, oppression, and privilege—known as the PROP curriculum or simply PROP. One of the goals of the coursework—which was designed with the input of former student advocates—is to help students become mindful, self-aware practitioners who feel empowered to challenge ideas and create change within a white supremacist system.
Sky Sealey-Otero, another Black Caucus leader who played a key organizing role in the Riverside Church event, credited PROP for being the catalyst for social work students of color to reexamine their bonds for the purpose of building an inclusive community. The POC graduation had been their way of paying tribute to the progress they had made, she said. “Having the opportunity to cheer other POC students who have been in the trenches with you or who you have confided in, being able to sit next to each other and having families and loved ones be introduced—it was really powerful.”
For LatinX Caucus leader Marcos Huerta, PROP had been an uncomfortable experience at first. He recalls being “shocked” by the new curriculum, thinking “I can’t be racist. I’m a person of color.” Eventually, however, it dawned on him that some students of color “have more privilege than others,” and he came to rely on other students of color as a reality check. “If we don’t come together as POC in a predominantly white school, then what are we supposed to do?”
Huerta reported that initially some LatinX students weren’t in favor of holding a common graduation, since they still communicate with their families in Spanish. But they had signed on to the plan once the other caucuses agreed to a bilingual keynote speaker—and like the students in the other two caucuses, had been overjoyed at the outcome. In their view, Huerta said, the POC ceremony felt much more intimate than the one held at Lincoln Center two days later. “It was very emotional because our parents understood, and they were able to see how many people of color were at Columbia.”
To Be Continued as an Annual Event?
All of the student leaders we spoke to agreed that they’d like to see the POC graduation become an annual event. Their only disappointment was that the venue could not hold all the people who would have liked to attend. Fundraising is a challenge for such an ambitious event, they said, but hopefully their successors will be able to afford a larger venue.
Sonam Choedon (MSW’20), a member of the Asian Pacific Islander Caucus who helped out at the Riverside Church event, spoke to us as well and expressed excitement about planning next year’s POC graduation. “I think it’s a really important initiative to continue in the future,” Choedon told us.
Delince suggested going beyond the School of Social Work to bring other Columbia schools into the event. “Make it a movement,” he said.
Said Huerta, “We’re people of color at Columbia; we’re here, and our voices are gonna be heard.”
The combined event was organized by leaders of the Asian Pacific Islander, Black, and LatinX Caucuses, with support from Events and Program Manager Ana Angeles and Assistant Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Karma Lowe. Other key organizers of the People of Color Graduation were Joelisse Galarza, Luz Espinosa Reyes, Mawusi Adutwum, and Dana Rand. Thanks are also owed to Associate Director of Development Gretchen Knudsen, who supported the students’ efforts in garnering donations from former donors, alumni, faculty, and staff.