Alina Wong, the new director of Swarthmore’s Intercultural Center (ICC) and dean of the Sophomore Class, joins Swarthmore this semester from Macalester College, where she worked in the Department of Multicultural Life.
As a social justice educator and activist, Wong has constantly sought to better understand the formation of racial identities in college students. Before working at Macalester, Wong worked at Amherst, the University of Michigan, and the University of New Mexico. I sat down with her to discuss her visions for the ICC and for multiculturalism in the Swarthmore community.
Varun Prasad: How have you been interacting with students since you got here? Do students approach you with ideas and suggestions to broaden the reach of the ICC?
Alina Wong: All of the above actually! I was on campus in April for an interview, and I met and talked to several students during my stay. I’ve been really busy keeping in touch with a lot of student organizations – I’ve been able to hear about not only individual ideas, but also organized campaigns that students are working on. I’ve also been able to hear about students groups, in terms of the communities that they’re building and the events that they’re planning.
[The ICC is] actually an open space that people can reserve on campus, and many of our activities and events are open to everyone. I want more students to see the ICC as a space for them. Our mission is to be a space on campus for people to get to engage with each other, build relationships, get to know each other and bring their identities, backgrounds and experiences not only to the ICC but into Swarthmore.
VP: What activities that the ICC is involved with do you think every student on campus should take advantage of?
AW: There are going to be several events such as Latino Heritage Month, Coming Out Week, APIA Month [among others]. Even the closed student groups plan events that are open to the entire community.
For example, there’s a lecture by Frances Aparicio, chair of Latino Studies at Northwestern University, on the Origins of Latinidad, on September 19. We’re working on a Carnival with Coming Out Week as well.
We do these events because we want to these groups both to claim space on campus, and also engage with the larger Swarthmore Community. I call these spaces “collective spaces,” and to me they’re incredibly important for students to share experiences and concerns.
VP: What challenges did you face in the beginning? Were they the same as those you believed you would face when you first began?
AW: I believed that my challenges would come not from individual people, but broader social norms outside of the individual college campus. Unfortunately, racism, sexism, and homophobia exist and they do permeate into college settings. My initial goal was to recognize this, but not allow it to impede my work or the lives of students.
I always ask myself, “how I could create spaces to help students organize themselves into communities, explore their identities and learn more about themselves?” I also try to shield students from these norms to some extent, but encourage students to understand how these social systems impact them and how what they learn in the classroom and what they learn about themselves on campus will help them address these systems.
VP: Your research deals with the construction of racial identities among Asian-American college students. Do you believe the Intercultural Center (ICC) should be an influential factor in the construction of racial identities, in college students of all ethnicities?
AW: I believe my work is social justice education. My objective is creating spaces for marginalized communities so they can be visible, claiming agencies and challenging systems of injustice. Racial identity construction comes from the students. I wouldn’t want the ICC to dictate to students who they should or shouldn’t be, or who they can or cannot be. What I find liberating is for students to have a place to claim and explore and express their own identities in a way that’s most meaningful to them.
The ICC can provide a physical and metaphorical space for [identity creation]. I’ve heard people at Swat say that you have “permission to be messy”- your identities are not fixed, they’re always changing. What Swarthmore, and colleges and universities in general, should provide are resources in terms of lots of different ways to learn about who you are and who you want to be, through classes, student groups, events, or even just going to a party. All of these things inform who we are and who we want to be, and they won’t all come from the ICC.
VP: You’re also the dean of the sophomore class. How do these two roles feed into each other, if at all?
AW: They feed into each other very well. One of the things I love about my job is the direct contact with students. As a dean of the college, my role is to advocate for students. In that aspect there is great overlap with the ICC. The approach that the class deans have is that everything that you’ve experienced in life impacts what you experience in the classroom and that everything that you experience in the classroom impacts everything that you experience in life.
VP: As a new member of the Swarthmore community, and also as the successor of a popular director, what is your vision for the ICC in the future? What role do you want the ICC to play at Swarthmore in the years to come?
AW: Thinking ten, fifteen years down the road, I’d want the ICC to be broader and bigger, in terms of more concrete things and more short-term things. I’d like the ICC to be more visible on campus and for more people to find a home at the ICC, and even if they don’t, to respect the work that the ICC does and find ways and entry points to engage themselves with the ICC. So in the long run, I would like the ICC to be Swarthmore, in a metaphorical sense.