Building Ethnic Studies
Although she grew up in Arizona, where ethnicity and migration are hot political issues, Jessica Roman-Salazar ’12 came to Harvard unsure of how she wanted to incorporate issues of ethnicity and migration into her college coursework.
As she attempted to choose a concentration, Roman-Salazar knew that her interests lay in working to help underrepresented ethnic groups. Looking for classes and disciplines that interested her, Roman-Salazar tried out several possible concentrations, including the Latin American Studies track of Romance Languages and Literatures. However, she wasn’t satisfied. Roman-Salazar felt that while the requirements for Latin American Studies focused heavily on the politics and social dynamics within Latin America, she really wanted to study these groups after they had immigrated to the United States.
Roman-Salazar’s plans for the future include law school and possibly a career in government or advocacy. Either path she chooses will involve efforts to alleviate the ethnic tensions that exist between residents of Mexican descent and Mexican immigrants who have come to the country illegally.
“I want to work to meet the needs of these different communities,” says Roman-Salazar. “Although they seem similar, they have different ways of living and are really very different. There are lots of leaders in the community that have not understood the relationships between the different kinds of Mexican and immigrant communities in Arizona.”
While Roman-Salazar was able to identify a few courses centered on issues of migration or ethnicity within the United States, she felt that the College’s offerings did not quite fit with her interests.
“I was surprised by the lack of diversity,” she says.
These concerns would eventually lead her to become involved in the creation of a new Ethnic Studies Secondary Field, which allows students such as Roman-Salazar to focus on ethnic groups within this country and on a transnational level.
Around the time that Roman-Salazar was looking into classes that focused on the issues of Hispanic Americans, she became political chair of both Fuerza
Latina and RAZA. Along with these positions, Roman-Salazar inherited the responsibility of advocating for courses in Latino-American studies—a field of interest that would ultimately be encompassed by the ethnic studies secondary.
Previous members of both clubs had been part of study groups for a few years to gain support for such a field, but their progress picked up dramatically last spring. About a year ago, students such as Roman-Salazar began meeting to collaborate with professors in African-American Studies, History, and other disciplines and to discuss the prospect of an ethnic studies program at Harvard.
As part of this study group, Roman-Salazar helped draft a policy paper that was nearly 30 pages long, explaining what members hoped the program would look like. The five sections of the paper not only included an outline of what they envisioned down the road, but also compared Harvard’s current offerings in ethnicity and human rights to those of other Ivy League schools. But the group ultimately decided not to base its proposal off of any other school’s curriculum, citing the limited resources available for the creation of new programs.
“We looked at a lot of schools, but since we were limited in how far we could go with what we were looking for, it was better for us to start from smaller steps,” Roman-Salazar recalls.
The group worked with a realistic cost estimate in mind, honing in on an initial vision for a committee of professors in other departments who would be willing to teach classes applicable to ethnic studies. They presented their work to the Committee on Undergraduate Studies, which ultimately approved the new committee and the secondary Field, and with the help of a group of alumni donors, the Ethnic Studies Secondary Field was born in December 2009.
FIRST, ABOUT THE SECONDARY