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A Degree in Changing the World

When Diego Hernandez was a kid, he dreamed of becoming a prosecutor – a good way to work for social justice, he figured.

The career path for Hernandez (pictured) didn’t lead to a courtroom, but his focus on social justice was straight and true: Today he is co-executive director of Portland-based Momentum Alliance, which inspires youth – many of them from marginalized communities – to become future social justice leaders.

Hernandez is part of a group of dedicated young professionals who have graduated with a degree in ethnic studies from the University of Oregon. Their ranks include community organizers, caseworkers, educators and others who use that degree toward a common goal: changing the world through jobs in public service, education and more.

The ethnic studies program analyzes social, political, economic, cultural and intellectual manifestations of power and inequality as they relate to whiteness and white privilege. It examines the ways that race, as a system of domination, is intimately tied to issues of gender, class and sexuality. The program recently introduced a minor in Native American studies.

The goal, according to faculty members from a wide array of disciplines, is teaching students to look at issues from multiple perspectives – a skill that translates to any occupation.

“Trying to connect one community with another isn’t easy,” said graduate Jessica Rojas. “But after what I’ve learned from ethnic studies classes and my experiences with student groups, I’ve learned what it means to be a bridge between communities.”

From its origins in the late 1960s, ethnic studies scholars across the nation have been committed to issues of social justice and highlighting the histories, experiences and movements of people of color within and outside the United States.

Here at the UO, a panel of ethnic studies alumni recently discussed how they’re putting the principles of the program into practice in social justice organizations, government and education. The panel included organizers, educators, trainers, researchers and advocates who shared advice with current students about pursuing opportunities in this emerging field.

Iton Udosenata, for example, is principal for Cottage Grove High School. He credits the program for inspiring him to work with underprivileged youth in Los Angeles and low-income communities in Oregon.

Udosenata said he works extensively to promote equity, social justice and college-and-career readiness among all high school students.

“Ethnic studies elevated my level of social consciousness,” Udosenata said. “It helped me to develop a thorough understanding of how institutional constructs impact the quality of life for disenfranchised communities.”

Disenfranchised communities was also the topic for a recent TEDxUOregon presentation by Alaí (Irmary) Reyes-Santos, an assistant professor and academic adviser in the ethnic studies program.

Reyes-Santos said it’s not enough to celebrate the differences of diverse communities – society must work, she added, “to create equal communities, where everybody’s perspective is heard the same way.”

The professor said that at the outset of classroom discussions, she has occasionally struggled to get students to open up, noting there is a lot of “fear and anxiety” about issues such as race. But the more she encourages students to describe their feelings about these difficult topics, the more progress her students make.

“My students opened up so beautifully,” Reyes-Santos said. “They began to feel like a community creating a new world, a different world. If we don’t have these conversations, that’s never going to happen.”

— By Matt Cooper

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