Why minority students are suffering the most: A statement on the quality of education at the University of California

My name is Troy Andreas Araiza Kokinis. I am a graduate student in the History Department and third year Teacher Assistant at the University of California, San Diego. I recognize the potential for academic institutions to serve as empowering instruments for those who come from oppressed minority communities, but I am ashamed to say that I feel that the University of California has failed to serve this purpose.

This statement is less about me, but it is more about the experiences and feelings of those that grew up around me – most of whom will never even go to college never mind be represented by a graduate student-worker union. I feel obligated to speak on their behalf as someone who straddles between both worlds, being that the lack of accessibility of public education does not allow them to speak for themselves here today. Moreover, those that have gained access to the university bubble feel completely out of placed and often struggle to perform at the same level as their peers due to the limitations that are a result of their race and class backgrounds. I wish to include some stories from the minority students that I encounter in the classroom as well.

The current ethnic breakdown of students at the UC San Diego campus consists of only 15.9% Chican@s/Latin@s and 1.9% African Americans. This number is abysmally poor compared to the population distribution of California, which is 38.1% Chican@/Latin@ and 6.6% African American. UC San Diego fails to represent the two most historically oppressed ethnic minority communities in the state.

My friends back home can’t help but notice the impossibility of attending college, and every time I return I am forced to reconcile my privileged position of education, which should be a right granted to all rather than a privilege enjoyed by a few. It pains me to hear the hopelessness often expressed by my friends and family whenever the topic of education is introduced. For example, when introducing my close childhood friend from Nicaragua to three friends from UCSD, all of whom are white, he responded, “Great! It looks like I am the stupidest one here again.” When we were alone later in the evening, he asked me, “Honestly, am I your stupidest friend?” Coming from El Monte, California, college never entered his radar, and it still seems like an impossible goal considering he struggles to stay enrolled and finance part-time in community college with a full-time job.

Those minorities who attend college have their own struggles. Personally, I have always felt completely out of place as a graduate student due to my background as a mixed race Chicano from interior Los Angeles. I notice similar feelings amongst students of mine on campus, as many are often exposed to a whole new world of whiteness as a result of leaving their home communities. Many minority students who are from Los Angeles or the Inland Empire will return home every weekend, presumably because the social environment at UCSD is too much of a culture shock. I know I take any opportunity I can get to return back home to evade the stuffiness and pretentiousness of academia.

Some students openly recognize their positions as minorities in the campus make up, and vocalize these concerns in the classroom. This is especially interesting to hear from freshmen who have just begun the college journey. For example, one former student, a Latina from Inglewood, California majoring in Engineering, would often complain to me about the lack of representation of minority women in her field. She also tended to write about issues of diversity on campus. She conducted a research project for the course that consisted of investigating campus diversity, and complained that she could “only find like 3 Mexicans on the whole campus.” Similarly, another former student, a half African-American and half Indian male, was participating in a classroom discussion about hegemony, and the topic of race came up. Some fellow students claimed that they did not notice any problems in the racial composition of the UCSD campus. He responded, “Come on man, look at me. You cannot miss me. I stick out like a sore thumb here.”

I truly sympathize with these students, as I endured a similar shock during my undergraduate experience and I still seem to suffer from that feeling more often than not. However, I have the privilege of presenting white features most likely due to the other half of my racial background, which is Greek. I can hardly imagine the struggle of minority students who present themselves as black or brown.

The confusion held by many ethnic minority first year students as a result of their new foreign environment often comes out in the quality of their course work. Many minority students come from low income communities that do not offer high caliber education as a result of lack of resources due to public education budget cuts by the state. This background requires special attention to be given to many students of minority background who have a different starting line than many of their peers. Personally, I feel especially responsible for helping these students as a TA who has endured many of the same hardships.

However, the UC continues to accept more and more students each year, which increases the classroom sizes. According to an article by Karen Kuchner in the San Diego Union Tribune, UC San Diego has admitted a record number of freshmen for fall of 2013 – an increase of 8.1% from the 2012 admission numbers (UC-wide admissions are up 3.2% from 2012). I have taught sections with as many as 35 students before. Considering the lecture size is approximately 200 students, I find it impossible for both professors and TAs to properly execute our jobs, especially in just 10 weeks. Why do we keep accepting so many more students!?

I do not wish to be faced with this dilemma of spending extra time with certain students who truly need the help while surpassing my weekly hour responsibilities. Often times, I just have to tell students that I cannot help them after a certain point.  Sadly, I feel that minority students suffer most from this dynamic, as I already mentioned that many come into the university with weaker academic backgrounds. I find it absurd that the UC continues to expand when it has not succeeded in providing the highest quality of education to the numbers it currently has enrolled.

I demand smaller class sizes. I demand that the university put an end to functioning as a factory, which sucks as much money possible out of those who provide the demand (students) and the most labor possible out of those who provide the supply (educators). This is public education. Please stop operating under a for-profit model.

Troy Andreas Araiza Kokinis

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