Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
January 24, 2021

Disaggregate Hopkins demands better representation of student diversity

By LAURA WADSTEN | April 16, 2020

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COURTESY OF ANANYA KALAHASTI

Students formed Disaggregate Hopkins to bring awareness to underrepresented minority communities. 

Earlier this month, the student-led movement Disaggregate Hopkins launched its campaign to collect and report more detailed information about students’ nationalities and ethnicities. 

Currently, Hopkins only reports the ethnic makeup of the student body under the categories of: nonresident alien (international students), white, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, Hispanic/Latino, black or African American, Asian, American Indian or Alaska Native, two or more races and race/ethnicity unknown. 

Junior Ananya Kalahasti, a leader of the Disaggregate Hopkins campaign, observed that conversations about minority communities on college campuses tend to center around affirmative action during the admissions process. 

Kalahasti, who launched the movement alongside juniors Alisha Chen, Sam Chun and Charlie Nguyen, explained in an interview with The News-Letter that this can lead to a neglect of students from underrepresented communities once they are on campus. 

“Our goal is to... run a survey that tries to get a better sense of what diversity is on campus — not just knowing those top-level categories of Asian or Hispanic, but also smaller categories like ‘I’m a South Asian’ or ‘I’m also an Indian American,’” Kalahasti said.

In an email to The News-Letter, Karen Lancaster, assistant vice president of external relations for the Office of Communications, clarified the data that Hopkins collects.

“Like our peers at most all institutions of higher learning in the United States, Johns Hopkins collects and submits certain student demographic data as required by the U.S. Department of Education,” she wrote. “We do not collect additional demographic data for students who are U.S. Citizens or permanent residents. Country of citizenship is necessary for international student visas; that data is not otherwise collected or used.”

Arab Student Union member Layla Yousef described the limitations of these categories.

“As an Egyptian, am I considered an African American, or am I considered white? Part of Egypt is in Asia; am I considered Asian?” Yousef said. “It’s very weird, and I know it’s very difficult for a lot of North Africans, not just Egyptians but Algerians and Tunisians and Moroccans as well, where we don’t know if we are considered white or African because I don’t feel like I fall into either category. I feel like I’m North African or Arab, and sometimes there isn't that option.”

Black Student Union (BSU) member Adelle Thompson, former chair of the Student Government Association’s (SGA’s) black caucus, agreed that the categories Hopkins uses fail to account for the diversity that exists within racial and ethnic communities. 

“My idea of identity and being black is different than somebody who is a first-generation student from Nigeria. Their black identity is different than my black identity... We’re both black, but we’re not the same black,” she said. “It’s about time Hopkins gets told that just because you can do rocket science, doesn’t mean you understand people.” 

By launching Disaggregate Hopkins, Kalahasti, Chen, Chun and Nguyen aim to better reflect and promote diversity on campus. The team noted that the University of California school system began disaggregating data in response to the advocacy of the Asian Pacific American Coalition at the University of California at Los Angeles, and these efforts are now being replicated at Brown University, Stanford University and other institutions nationwide.

The student leaders cited the trivialization of their identities by University staff as one reason they started the movement. 

Nguyen recalled that while working with peers to establish a cultural group for Southeast Asian students, he reached out to the Office of Student Leadership and Involvement (SLI) to ask whether prospective student groups could table and recruit at the Student Involvement Fair. 

He was surprised when he received an email that stated that this group had similar qualities to South Asian Students at Hopkins (SASH). 

“‘Thank you for the follow-up,’” Nguyen read from the email. “‘My first inclination is to learn more about your ideas, as without context it seems as if your goal is similar, if not the same as SASH.’”

Nguyen expressed the disappointment and frustration he felt while reading this email. The staff member who sent it, he noted, has since left SLI.

“It was shocking to me, just because Southeast and South [Asia] are literally different places on the map. Not only that, but there are experiences that each of those identities entails and there are different struggles and different lived experience — I feel like that was violated,” he said. “I was really angry.”

Chun decided to help launch Disaggregate Hopkins after learning about student interactions with SLI. 

“I’ve heard a lot of friends in [the Inter-Asian Council] (IAC) and the Vietnamese Student Association express complaints to me that they don’t feel equally represented and supported. That’s something that’s bothered me for a long time,” she said. “My snapping point was when I saw that email that Charlie had received about the Southeast Asian Students Association, where he was asked to prove that they are different from SASH.”

SLI Director Calvin L. Smith, Jr. discussed the former staff member’s response in an email to The News-Letter.

“I want to first acknowledge, miscommunication or not, that a student was harmed by an interaction they had with a previous staff member in the SLI office. I do not believe the intent of the interaction was to cause harm, but unfortunately it did,” Smith wrote. “For that, I take full responsibility as the leader of Student Leadership and Involvement.” 

When asked whether SLI would support the formation of a group for Southeast Asian students, Smith explained that the role of his office is not to judge the value of student organizations, but rather to advise them on the official recognition process. 

“It is not up to SLI staff to determine if there is a need for a particular student organization. Any student can apply to start a new organization for any reason they choose,” Smith wrote. “We advise students about the process and discuss what it will take to gain possible recognition... With respect to the potential new Southeast Asian student organization, SLI would welcome their application and work to help them through the recognition process.”

The student leaders behind Disaggregate Hopkins believe that expanded data could further help support the efforts of cultural groups on campus. 

President of the Eritrean and Ethiopian Student Association (EESA) Emnet Atlabachew endorsed the movement in an interview with The News-Letter. Atlabachew noted that when EESA first formed, people questioned the necessity of an organization for these students, given the existence of the African Student Association (ASA).

“EESA started here at Hopkins and other institutions because our East African culture and traditions are very different. A lot of ASA was representative of West African identities, which we still support... but we also realized it’d be important to have our culture represented in a different community and in our own organization,“ Atlabachew said.

EESA Treasurer Maraake Taddese believes that publishing disaggregated data on student identities would help clubs representing smaller campus communities with recruitment.

“For smaller affinity groups like EESA, where we kind of struggle to find members... it would be really useful to know if there’s a few students that just aren’t aware of the organization existing, so we can know how to better reach out to students and retain students in our group,” Taddese said. 

Membership and Retention Chair of EESA Rahwa Yehdego, who is also a member of BSU, argued that the membership-size minimum imposed on student groups by SLI and SGA is unfair to students from underrepresented backgrounds. This fall’s audits enforced this requirements.

“I understand [not wanting] to overwhelm and have too many groups,” Yehdego said. “But when it comes to cultural groups, that’s something where it’s a different case.”

Alisha Chen, president of the IAC and member of the Disaggregate Hopkins team, believes the Asian community at Hopkins is largely homogenous, and that the University must act to combat this. 

“I've really started to see a lack of diversity especially within the [Asian Pacific Islander Desi American] (APIDA) community. It’s really important for people within our community to step up and call it as they see it,” she said. “Otherwise that... silence speaks a lot.”

Kalahasti explained how this erasure of smaller identity categories can hurt Asian college students.

“A lot of universities look at the Asian community and say [that], in general, Korean, Japanese, Chinese and Indian communities are doing really well... so we just brush off the entire Asian community,” Kalahasti said. “But the reality is that every big, broad racial community has so many niches. We're not monoliths.”

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