We are the World

We are the World

When current events touch campus, St. Kate’s makes it a teachable moment.
By Andy Steiner

For many people, college can feel like a refuge, a rare opportunity to step away from the real world and focus on learning. But there are times when that academic idyll is interrupted, when current events affect members of a campus community, and students, staff
and faculty feel compelled to respond.

That’s especially been the case in the last few years at St. Kate’s, as local and national events made their way through the campus gates, impacting the lives of community members, especially students, on many levels. The University responded to these situations in a number of ways, and the community came alive, doing what Katies do best: debating, discussing and advocating for change.

In classrooms, many faculty members worked these events into their curriculum, highlighting the stories of the day. This approach — of connecting coursework to the larger world — is characteristic of St. Catherine. The same thing happened in the student affairs office and across campus organizations: student leaders and staff stepped forward to help students dissect the human impact of national and world events.

Those dynamic connections are “what I really like about St. Kate’s,” said Melaka Smith ’18, a social work major who sits on the College for Adults Student Advisory Board. “The things we talk about in class have really changed the way I look at the world. Before I came to college, I never really received any education on black history or the true story of Christopher Columbus. St. Kate’s expands my perspective, and I’m grateful for that.”

St. Kate’s has the highest racial diversity index among all four-year public and private not-for-profit institutions in Minnesota, according to U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Colleges” 2017 and 2018 rankings. Plus, 18 percent of its staff and 11 percent of the faculty are multicultural. 

Student diversity is one thing Daniel Williams, assistant professor of sociology and co-director of Critical Studies of Race and Ethnicity, loves about St. Kate’s. “Our College for Women alone is home to nearly 40 percent students of color and students of international background,” he notes. “This makes the school a richer, more interesting place.”

Williams says that very diversity means that recent political events and a shifting cultural climate have particular impact on his students. “There is fear when new immigration policies, such as a travel ban, are announced,” he says, “because people don’t know if they, or someone they love, are potential targets of these policies.”

For Williams, a scholar of the African Diaspora and of identities and inequalities from a comparative and intersectional perspective, such uncertainty among his students offers the perfect opportunity to make connections between history and the present.

“I’m teaching a ‘Race and Ethnicity’ class in which we discuss the history of U.S. immigration policy,” he says. “I spend class time talking about ways that our country has historically been racially discriminatory in its immigration policy. We look at the statistics on deportation, about who’s being deported now and who was deported years ago. I explain that recent issues surrounding immigration aren’t new; that this isn’t the first time we’ve placed restrictions on who can come to this country.”

Williams also teaches a course called “The Immigration Experience,” where he devotes time to the sanctuary movement. That topic, he says, lends itself to good classroom debate and analysis. Plus, it allows him to incorporate a discussion of St. Catherine’s founding Sisters.

“We look at the issue of deportation through our religious values,” he explains. “It’s a great liberal arts experience — an opportunity to put the news into perspective.”

In Susan Bosher’s English classes, students are also given the chance to address or react to current affairs. “I teach students whose native language is not English,” Bosher says. “Each semester in one of my classes, the students are all immigrants or international students, and many are refugees. It has been a really challenging time for them.”

To help her students put world events into perspective, and to give them an opportunity to make their voices heard, Bosher developed a new, semester-long project. “I’ve always had students give a presentation about some aspect of their cultural group’s immigration history in the U.S.,” she explains. “But I thought it was important for students to have the opportunity to get personal, to talk about their own story of immigration to this country.”

Students were required to create a “digital story,” or short movie, combining their narration with family photos or public domain images.

So compelling was each finished product that Bosher couldn’t keep them to herself. With her students’ permission, she had a viewing for friends and family, and later hosted a special screening for a group of campus leaders.

The response was enthusiastic.

“From an ideological and pedagogical perspective, projects like these are important,” Bosher says. “The United States is a country of immigrants, and it is important not to lose the immigrant perspective.”

Student leader and senior Melaka Smith says that all of her professors have made a point to bring current events into the academic discussion. This environment is something she appreciates, and not something she expected when she first enrolled at a Catholic college.

“I thought it would be much more restrictive,” she says. “But the majority of my classes are open discussion. I would say my professors have all created a safe space for both sides to talk about tough issues, which makes for
some really interesting conversations.”

Interesting conversations turn into deeper learning, Williams believes, so he’s heartened by his fellow faculty’s commitment to a style of teaching that doesn’t ignore what’s going on in the world.

“As a group, faculty at St. Kate’s talk with each other quite a bit about these issues, and we absolutely bring them into the courses we teach,” he says. “We make connections and draw lines between issues for our students. The conversations these discussions provoke are key to building a greater understanding of contemporary issues and of ways we can help improve the state of our world.”

Sometimes, those classroom conversations aren’t easy. So, how does Williams make room for both sides of a public policy issue?

“I always welcome students’ perspectives and opinions in class,” he replies, “with the expectation that they have to reconcile those with the facts of any issue, as well as some recognition of the history of misrepresenting those facts on controversial issues.”

St. Catherine students don’t just discuss current events in the classroom. At the monthly Cornbread and Chili Night discussion series sponsored by the Office of Multicultural and International Programs and Services (MIPS), organizers invite guest speakers prepared to address hot topics of the day.
Donna Hauer, MIPS director, says these evenings, along with other campus events, help build the learning environment at St. Kate’s.

“Last spring, we asked an immigration lawyer to come to Cornbread and Chili Night to talk about the impact of travel bans and to educate students on immigration law,” Hauer says. “The attorney also met individually with students who are concerned about themselves or family members.”

This sort of active support is a hallmark of a St. Kate’s education, Hauer notes. “The fact that we are a liberal arts, Catholic women’s college means that we look at things through various lenses,” she explains. So, it makes sense that real-world discussions get
blended into just about everything on campus.“

Just like our founding Sisters who historically worked to meet the needs of their time,” she adds, “staff and faculty at St. Kate’s have always shifted to meet the needs of our time.” One such need came when the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects eligible immigrant youth from deportation, made headlines.

While the national controversy stirred up both proponents and opponents last fall, on campus, there was a tone of solidarity on the issue. A small number of Katies are protected under DACA — and, on October 5, a group of faculty, staff, students and sisters appeared on the steps of The O’Shaughnessy to rally for them and “to live out the values of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet: ‘love of God and neighbor without distinction,’” explains Hauer.

Students were energized by this event, recalls Williams, one of the invited speakers. “It was another way they could take their concerns about current events and turn them into real-world action and activism.”

Tenzin Nordon MAOL’19, a member of the Graduate Student Advisory Board, said rallies like these help to make St. Kate’s feel like a place that welcomes everyone and encourages healthy debate. “It’s important for all universities and colleges to think about how they can create an inclusive environment, so no one feels like they are by themselves.”

At MIPS, Hauer and her staff strive daily to build this inclusivity.

“Many students have told me that events happening in this country and around the world feel threatening,” says Hauer. “We want our office to be a home away from home, a place where students can bring their whole selves and fully share how they’re feeling, a shelter from the storm.”

Daniel Williams incorporates his interest in the interrelationship of race, ethnicity and national to deepen discussion of immigration. Photo by Rebecca Slater '10, by Rebecca Studios.

Daniel Williams incorporates his interest in the interrelationship of race, ethnicity and national to deepen discussion of immigration. Photo by Rebecca Slater '10, by Rebecca Studios.

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