A Graduate Student’s Response to the Occupy Westlands Sit-In

Sarah Lawrence students occupy Westlands in 1989

 

By Katherine Swartwood

Katie is a second year graduate student in the Women’s History program at Sarah Lawrence College


Disclaimer: While this post provides some critiques of the Occupy Westlands protest, it in no means serves as statement of opposition. The author supports Sarah Lawrence College’s students of color and their mission to increase diversity and inclusion on campus.

The protest occurring in Westlands is indeed a noble endeavor to end discrimination on Sarah Lawrence’s campus, increase opportunities for minority students, provide a diverse faculty, and more. However, it is important to highlight those students who the Diaspora Coalition overlooked – graduate students. When Re/Visionist editors interviewed protestors and organizers, they expressed their desire to include graduate students at Sarah Lawrence, but found it difficult to get in contact with us. One organizer explained, “When it came to graduate students, we felt like we hit a wall” when attempting to reach out to graduate students of color. It was proposed by some Coalition organizers that the organizers may have feared graduate students working in administrative offices would have spoiled the protest by telling their bosses. I disagree with both reasonings for this exclusion.

Firstly, graduate students share several spaces with undergraduate students: The Pub, Bates, the Library, classes, campus committees, some graduate students even work directly with undergraduates in their campus positions. Therefore, there was opportunity to include graduate students of color, LGBTQIA+ graduate students, low income graduate students, and first generation graduate students. Secondly, I disagree with the assessment that graduate students working in administrative offices would reveal the plans, ruining the element of surprise and causing physical harm to protestors. While a fear of violence is not irrational, it may be unfair to assume graduate students would be the instigator of such violence by reporting the Coalition’s plans and allowing administrators to contact police and/or security. As graduate students we would never wish harm upon any member of the Sarah Lawrence community. As activists, we would never perpetuate the systemic and institutional racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, etc. of the ivory tower of academia. Could graduate students of color not be passionate enough about inequality on campus to join the occupation and not side with administration. Are we not social activists as well? Do we not reject institutional racism and discrimination? Would we not also risk our campus jobs along with the undergraduates in order to support such an important cause?

Precisely, it’s these graduate students working on campus and those serving in leadership roles with GSS or on campus committees who could have constituted an important resource to the Coalition. Without sharing confidential information, we could have provided a unique look into Administration operations, the conversations occurring in committees and Board of Trustee meetings, especially those regarding diversity, education, faculty, and health that undergraduates may not have been privy to through their previous efforts to engage with these governing bodies. Furthermore, graduate students could have provided insight into both the similar and special issues they face as minority students within the Masters’ programs.  

The Coalition has created a necessary set of demands, but almost none included the issues graduate students experience. Some can be interpreted to include graduate students of color, but clearly defining how these demands could include graduate students is important. We too have international students, students of color, low income students, first generation students, and LGBTQIA+ students who lack resources and programs that lack diversity. For instance, Sarah Lawrence offers no graduate on campus housing options (besides limited positions as Graduate Housing Directors.) Students can only work a maximum of 20 hours a week with pay as little as $12 an hour. Some jobs do not even provide the fully allotted 20 hours of work. How, then, does Sarah Lawrence assume low income, international students, students of color, etc. are meant to pay tuition, eat, and afford rent in one of the most expensive counties in the country? With some departments offering little funding, some students are forced to rely on the “Graduate Student Scholarship,” (which provides for some students $6000 or less before you petition, but not nearly enough to make tuition affordable), Graduate Loans, and the PLUS Loan, adding to their already massive undergraduate student loan debt, to simply survive. Other students, like Human Genetics, are forced to pay out of pocket for required clinical rotations, sometimes totaling thousands of dollars in the hope that the small Graduate Student Senate reimbursement grant reserve for thesis research, internship travel, conferences, etc., (funded by graduate student activity fees) can cover the entire cost (it can’t). These issues like those listed in the Coalition’s demands, result from intersections of race, gender, sexuality, class status, etc.

The Diaspora Coalition has now invited graduate students to speak at their Talk Back event on Wednesday 3/13, at 5:30 PM in the Miller Lecture Hall, which I encourage any and all graduate students to participate in. However, it does not negate the fact that they, along with administration, donors, and Trustees, have neglected to consider how these unequal practices have affected minority graduate students. Even when graduate students speak up in meetings, we are overlooked in favor of undergraduates. We do not doubt that their issues matter, but we simply ask to have graduate students’ treated with respect by the administration.

Therefore, while it is promising that the Diaspora Coalition asked us to participate, they should have considered us from the start and included us more directly and clearing within their demands. We can only hope the administration takes these demands seriously and incorporates graduate students within these changes moving forward.

Since this post has been written, undergraduate and graduate students have reached an agreement to collaborate on a list of demands that are inclusive of both groups. Further developments will be posted as the protest continues. Stay resilient. -Blog Staff

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