Diversity at Reed

Profiles Project

For over a hundred years Reed College has believed in the intrinsic value of intellectual pursuit and in the highest standards of scholarly practice, critical thought, and creativity. As members of this vibrant community, who we are—in our myriad identities, experiences, and ways of being—informs and shapes not only what, how, and why we learn, but what we bring to the conference table, where the plurality of our ideas and experiences deepens the conversation. The goal of Beyond What You See is to explore what makes Reed a tremendous intellectual and academic environment—a place full of complex and compassionate people who love learning and who deeply and fundamentally value each other.

Diversity is Beyond What You See

Sarah Schaack

Sarah Schaack

assistant professor of biology

Interview—February 2012

What is your area of research?
As a professor in the biology department, I do evolutionary genetics and genomics. For the last hundred years or so we’ve taken a gene-centric view of genetics—typically thinking about a single gene and the single trait that it codes for. At this point, we are able to easily sequence all the genes in the genome at once. In animals, which is the system I work on, sequencing the whole genome has revealed that while genes play a role, they comprise a small part of the genome. That’s the crux of my work—looking at things other than genes in the genome and how they influence what we see.

What does the work tell us about diversity?
A lot of the advances in DNA sequencing technology have deepened our understanding of diversity at the genetic level. In a recent study, for example, biologists found that populations with starchy diets have more copies of a gene that codes for an enzyme that breaks down starch. I don’t study humans, but one of my main research questions is to understand the rate and spectrum of mutation and how that leads to variation among individuals.

What’s it like to be a woman in the field of science?
That’s a hard question. I’ve only had a few women role models and the ones that I think do the most for getting rid of imbalance in the sciences are often the ones who don’t talk about it that much and instead lead by example. That’s my goal, although I certainly take note of things that I can do to improve the way women scientists can contribute or be perceived in their contribution. I think the best thing that I can do is say what I want to say carefully and support my statements with data, and hope that if people just look at the evidence, they won’t be sidetracked by my gender.

What else links you to diversity?
I’m a first generation college graduate—although after I graduated from college, my mom decided to go back to college (in her fifties) and my sister is currently in college. My parents valued learning through experience, though, and they instilled that in me at a young age. I think I was also influenced by a variety of cultures growing up—I was born in Canada during the Vietnam War, my father came to the US in his twenties from Europe, my mother was Jewish and my father Catholic, we lived in neighborhoods where English wasn’t always the main language, and I have moved all over the country in the last 20 years.

When you were a student, were you aware of being first-gen?
I remember not knowing how to apply to college. It is a good thing my best friend was going to visit colleges, because her parents took me to see those colleges too.

I also remember being asked about whether or not I wanted to go to graduate school when I was still in my freshman year. I had just gotten to college and I didn’t know how I had gotten there. I think that graduate school is a very real part of life after Reed for many of our students, but I think for those students who are first generation there may not be an innate comfort level with what that looks like or how that works, so hopefully I can provide those who want it with a little backdoor to some information.

Does being first-gen affect how you teach?
I am quite certain it influences the way I explain things, but it probably matters more in my outside-the-classroom interactions with students because I remember so acutely not having a model or not knowing what the options were and not knowing how things were done. I have connected with a lot other first-gen people in my time in academics and we joke about how your tendency, when you don’t know how things are done, is to be more formal or more nervous than you have to be because you don’t have that confidence that comes with knowing the ropes. I think I try to model for my students that it’s good to relax, but that it is also okay to be nervous. Nervousness can have really great consequences if you can harness the energy and excitement that comes along with doing something for the first time.

In class, I also try to impart maybe not so much my first-gen-ness, but my international experience. I try to spend as much time as possible in East Africa—it’s kind of my go-to place. I speak Swahili and it’s hard to practice here. I keep my experiences from there very close to me on a daily basis. People in East Africa live very close to the land, and to the edge. There’s not a lot of buffer if it doesn’t rain. There’s not a lot of buffer if you get sick. It’s a sobering thing to realize, but also liberating. As much privilege and security as we think we’re enshrouded in, we’re actually all living very close to the land and we’re all living very close to the edge. I think a lot of our students have had the chance to travel, but not necessarily to less developed parts of the world. In class, I try to zoom-out to a global perspective in order to emphasize that we’re looking at a very narrow subset of what’s going on and to remind students that there’s a lot out there that you can keep in mind, even if you don’t study or see it directly.

Reed has long had a fair number of first-generation students.
Being first-gen is a kind of axis of diversity that I hadn’t really thought about much. You cannot see first-gen and it’s not an “identity” in the classic sense of the word. It’s a fresh, very grateful perspective that people can bring and I think that gratitude translates into generosity of spirit and a high level of interaction.

Education is this fantastic privilege. As a group, first-gen students can share their sense that we’re all really lucky to be here and wrestle with these texts and disagree with each other and we’re lucky to work hard and get criticism on our work. I think when you think about how few people worldwide get to do this, you want to embrace it and you want to transmit everything you’ve learned to someone else—that infectious attitude toward learning is an awesome contribution that first-gen students can make here.

What attracted you to Reed?
It was an intuitive draw for me. When the OPB documentary about Reed was on TV, my mom called me one minute after it was over and said, “No wonder you wanted a job at that place!” That was her first real view of Reed College and she saw that me coming to Reed was a marriage of personalities. There’s something about the uniqueness of Reed and its audacity to march to the beat of its own drum that speaks very deeply to me. I have a strong inner compass that has not always matched up with everybody else around me, which I feel is reflected in the honor principle. I love the self-motivated students, as I am very self-motivated. I feel at home here, knowing that everyone’s magnetic north doesn’t have to be the same.

What are your favorite things about Reed?
Reed Lake and the canyon, since I really like to be outside. When I need a break, I like to walk down to the salmon run and look east. On still days, I take photos of the trees reflected in the lake. Since I got here last fall, it’s something I’ve been doing to document the change of the seasons.

What is your hope for Reed?
I’m still learning the nooks and crannies of the place. What interests me about Reed isn’t the institutional part or it’s at least more dynamic than the word “institution” implies. I’d like to be a part of the connective tissue of this place—whatever it is that is tying things to each other, but stills lets them be mobile and dynamic. I want to be woven into that so I can help maintain it, diversify it, and hopefully strengthen it.

I hope not only to bring to Reed the trunkful of experience I’ve had elsewhere, but also to introduce students to experiences they’ll have outside of Reed. Most of the things I learned in college I didn’t learn inside the walls of the buildings. I want to get students ready by opening their minds to be more receptive to the things they’re going to see and do when they leave here.

What would people be surprised to learn about you?
I lived in a travel trailer for three years when I was doing my post-doctorate research. It was basically a quarter of the size of this office. I loved it. When I lived in Texas I was outside all the time, barbecuing and entertaining at night. When I moved to Portland I lived in it for a year, but because of the rain it’s much harder to live outside.

What did you love about it?
I was possession free. It’s low maintenance. I could attach my house to my car and go wherever. I loved the liberty of it and the fact that it took 15 minutes to clean my whole house on Saturday morning. It forced me to pare down to just the few things I needed and I loved being creative about solving problems with the space, because I am very analytical. It was a fun puzzle to optimize. Everything that you have has to have four purposes. So you choose wisely. But I had photos of my family, feather boas, and a guitar and banjo up in there. Those were my priorities. You see quickly who you are at your essence when you pare down.

What are your plans at Reed?
When I was a post-doc and wanting a lot of freedom of movement and low commitment, it was a very intense, rich learning time. But it was a time of flux as well. Right now, being in a cozy apartment that’s two minutes away from my office really suits the task at hand, which is to get my lab set up and strike out on my own research directions and bring students into the valley of science. Being a bit fluid in my approach and philosophy has served me well; I’m going to have to develop a strategy that’s long term, but not boring, that can have some resilience as things change, but provide me with a little bit more continuity than I have had in the past. It is an exciting time.

Santi Alston

Santi Alston

assistant dean for inclusion, engagement, and success

Interview—February 2012

How would you describe your work at Reed?
I’m basically the director of multicultural affairs—I’m here to help build connections and make this a more inclusive, welcoming community.

In your profession, how do you define diversity?
When I was a student, I thought about diversity in terms of a community of students of color, which was a narrow way of defining it. Diversity is much more expansive. It is the intersection of different identities. We tend, in the United States and on our campus, to start a conversation about diversity with race and ethnicity: what I can see versus what I can’t I see. But, actually, this isn’t so cut and dry—I’m thinking of biracial, multiracial people. People ask me all the time, now and when I was growing up, “What are you?” That’s where they want to start figuring out who I am and where I fit in. Here at Reed, we have traditionally approached diversity in regard to diversity of thought, but we also consider cultural heritage, ethnicity and race, sexual orientation, class, and ability.

What’s the difference between a homogenous society and a diverse, inclusive society?
The way we talk about diversity and multiculturalism is often on the surface. For example, we may appreciate another culture’s food or dress. We may say we’re inclusive and accepting because we’ve borrowed these things from a culture that is unlike ours. But authentic conversations aren’t necessarily happening and the way power is distributed remains largely unchanged. I found it surprising that I got personal congratulations when Obama was elected president, as if we’ve made it and this is the end of the struggle. There’s a black president so now everything is fixed? A lot of people have that attitude. Things like nondiscrimination statements lay out protections for specific groups—that’s a change with a positive impact. But even as we think of ourselves as accepting, open, and interested in folks who aren’t like us, we don’t know much about them, and we don’t take advantage of opportunities to really find out about someone who’s not like us because we’re unwilling to be uncomfortable. Being nice to someone who’s different is great, but it’s not the same as engaging in a meaningful way. 

What does Reed have to learn about diversity?
Critical mass is important. In our current situation, students of color are often asked to speak for the entire group to which they belong. Even if no one asks them directly, when certain topics are discussed all heads turn in their direction. That was my experience as a student in the early 90s, and it was embarrassing. I remember my face getting hot. It was unwanted attention. Students here talk about the same thing happening again and again.

But it’s also a matter of having conversations about privilege. This is perhaps especially true at Reed. It is important to identify the ways we have privilege, benefit from it, and accept responsibility for it. Think about the ways you might live your life differently because of that privilege. For example, why is it that in a lot of conferences it’s men or the male-identified students who are talking and taking up all the oxygen? Female-identified students are not having their voices heard as often. What can you do about someone else’s behavior? It depends. Think about the ways that you benefit from your privilege and consider adjusting your behavior—if you’re a man, that might be thinking more and talking less.

What are your hopes for Reed?
I want Reed to say it’s committed to diversity and inclusion and follow through on that commitment with action. I’m interested in increasing the number of underrepresented students here and the number of faculty of color. I want this to be a more inclusive community and part of the way you do that is to reach some sort of critical mass of underrepresented students, staff, and faculty. I don’t think we’re there yet. I can pretty much count the African-American staff here on one hand.

What experiences of diversity or identity do you bring to this work?
I have my own particular take on the world, including my own sense of what’s right and wrong. And my cultural, ethnic, and racial heritages may be different from others on campus, including the way I think about spirituality. Then there are the privileges I benefit from, in accordance with the groups I belong to—male privilege and heterosexual privilege. I’m part of some groups that are dominant and other groups that are subordinate.

We talk about the challenges of belonging to a subordinate group. Are there treasures, too?
As an undergraduate student I attended a predominately white campus and felt a sense of community among and between students of color, which I experienced as a real benefit. From the beginning, without us knowing each other well, there was a sort of implicit trust and support between the different groups that were on campus. I was a member and an officer in the black student union, for example, and we felt an affinity with the Native American student union and the Asian student union.

I consider myself to be biracial, multiracial. Having a foot in multiple worlds has been a blessing for me. I am proud of the cultural heritage that comes from my black family and the cultural heritage that comes from my white family. I draw strength from being able to navigate between those worlds.

What do you like about Reed?
I like its size and how that helps to build relationships between staff, faculty, and students. I can pick up the phone, ask anyone anything, and they will help me out. I like that its location gives students the advantage of being in the middle of a city. I like the way Reed challenges students. They’re told up front, “You’re going to be challenged. You’re going to work hard. And that’s what you’re signing up for.” I like that there are high expectations academically.

What’s your favorite spot on campus?
The short, diagonal path that winds through the trees between the psychology building and the east parking lot. When I arrived at Reed for the first time I parked my car in that lot and walked to Eliot Hall. The trees were waving in the breeze and it was very peaceful. Just three steps out of the parking lot, I felt a sense of calm. I wondered whether there is more oxygen on this campus because I felt different the moment I entered.

Where do you feel valued at Reed?
I feel valued pretty much everywhere I am. I feel support from supervisors, colleagues, and students. I feel welcome here and have since I started. It’s been a great experience for me.

What would people be surprised to discover about you?
Students are sometimes surprised to learn I’m a father. People are also surprised to find out that I’m a vegetarian. I’ve never had a hamburger or a hot dog.

What are some challenges you’ve faced?
I overcame depression when I was an undergraduate student. For me that was a huge hurdle. I had this plan when I started college and depression knocked me completely off my path. I had to rebuild where I wanted to go next and where I wanted to end up because I wasn’t planning on depression and didn’t realize it was going to affect me so deeply. Among students, the numbers for depression are off the charts, but they can’t always name it and they don’t always receive support. They either don’t know where to go or don’t realize that counseling or medication can really help them manage and overcome depression. In my various educational experiences I remember only one faculty member talking about how students deal with depression.

Being raised in a single-parent household was another obstacle I overcame. There’s a special challenge to being raised by a single parent—having parents who are divorced or don’t stay together, or having lost one of your parents.

What is your super power?
Remaining calm in intense situations. I definitely get stressed, but it’s an internal sort of thing for me rather than an external thing. When we have a student situation come up, I’m able to keep breathing and stay relaxed. I believe I was born with this capacity—my name means “peace” in Sanskrit and maybe it has something to do with that. I do think there is a connection with the name you were given and your personality. Sometimes the connection is strong and sometimes not.

Do you have a guiding philosophy, as in “this I know to be true?”
The one that came to me in my thirties that I didn’t understand when I was younger was “Leave things better than how you found them.”

Joy Contreras, '12

Joy Contreras, '12

political science major from Long Beach, California

Interview—February 2012

Why Reed?
I considered Occidental College and some of the larger universities in California, but wanted to attend a smaller liberal arts school even though my mom would have preferred me to attend UCLA like my brother. I wanted to be close enough to home but not too close. Coming to Reed was one of the most selfish things I’ve done.

Who were you when you first came to Reed?
Looking back I was really naïve and scared. I had no idea what I was getting into. A lot people feel like they don’t belong at the beginning. I felt like I hadn’t read enough of the same books my peers had read prior to college. Sometimes I felt like I should have opted to go to college in my comfort zone, but I’m really glad I didn’t.

Do your parents place a lot of importance on education?
My mom does. She believes that education is something you can control. My siblings and I are first generation college students.

Did being first generation affect your college experience?
Other parents read books to their kids, but my mom always focused more on meeting our basic needs, like meals before bedtime to ensure we didn’t go to sleep hungry, living expenses, and making sure we all walked out the door to school on time. I’m proud of being first generation, and although it has its pressures—sometimes it feels like a race, trying to catch up—it’s an opportunity to show that I can really do well.

How do you identify?
I identify as Hispanic or Chicano. But what’s most interesting is how people talk about nationality. Once, someone asked me “What’s your nationality?” And I said, “Mexican,” because my parents see themselves as being Mexican and even though I was born here, I think of myself as Mexican, too. But the other person said that I wasn’t Mexican, that I was American because I was born in America. I see what this person was getting at, but I disagree.

Did you experience culture shock when you stepped onto campus?
Definitely. I took for granted the diversity of my high school. There were a lot of Filipinos, Hispanics, and Samoans. I didn’t know how white Portland actually was until I got here—I participated in Reed’s fly-in program for students from underrepresented ethnic groups, but I wasn’t familiar with the city.

Do your professors address issues of race, ethnicity, and class?
Not really. In one class we talked about the intersectionality of identities—gender and class—but we did not discuss race. I think other students noticed, too, and it came out in the class evaluations.

How do your peers feel about diversity?
Sometimes it seems like my classmates are too comfortable.

What is your hope for Reed?
That Reed grows to have more role models and support for students like me. I’m glad that the office for institutional diversity exists because it makes sense—having an office that has the capacity to facilitate the understanding of cultural pluralism will provide the tools to students of color to play in the academic field. Sometimes I feel as though I’m wearing a badge of inferiority.

Why a badge of inferiority?
Sometimes in class I feel like I don’t know the answer to something even though I did the reading and took notes. It’s a feeling like I can’t keep up sometimes. And I think, well, I read it, but did I read it wrong? Did I read the wrong pages? So I’m constantly questioning myself: do I belong in this class? Do I belong in this school? Why did they choose me when I feel dumb? Did I get in because of my race? But I don’t feel like I’m the only one who feels this way.

What is your invisible identity?
In the sense that only a few people know? I struggle with money. Struggling with money is an invisible identity. I’m really good at being thrifty. I like to think about ways to be creative with how I spend my money. I have work-study to help pay for many of my college expenses. But my brother has some medical bills because he doesn’t have insurance and our family pulls together to cover them. My sister goes to a UC school and the tuition increases have added extra expenses that she cannot cover, so I help out because I’ve gotten good at saving money. There is additional stress from having to help provide for my family at the same time that I’m saving for my future. Sometimes I want to go out and be like a typical college student—people have told me that I have to be selfish. But I can’t do that. I’m not going to tell my mother, “no,” or my sister, “no,” and turn my back on them when I can help.

I used to see my family’s socioeconomic status as an obstacle but now I’m so resilient that I don’t see it as an obstacle. Now it’s a way of life.

What else would people be surprised to learn about you?
I was, and still am, a runner. I’m preparing for my second marathon in Long Beach. The longest marathon I’ve done is 26.2 miles.

Other interests?
I love to bake and do arts and crafts. And, of course I love to read. I have 200 books on my reading list.

Do you have a superpower?
I have the ability to put things into perspective. I’m a realist. I tell people what they don’t like to hear and people don’t like to hear that they’re privileged.

I think if I could have any superpower it would be to give a good hug. I want to make people feel better and to have some sort of restorative power over them.

You’re a graduating senior—do you have plans for after graduation?
I got accepted into an AmeriCorps Program called City Year—I’ll be working with inner-city schools, making sure those students go to school, every day. The program is for one year in Los Angeles. After that I will probably go to graduate school for policy studies.

Let’s say you have a magic wand and you can make one policy change, what would it be?
I’ve been thinking about welfare a lot lately. So definitely having the state allocate enough funding for welfare because the amount of money currently allocated for a family is just too little and not livable, I think. And to raise awareness that people do not inherently want to be on welfare and it’s not just for “lazy poor people.”

Do you have a guiding philosophy?
I have personal ones and ones that apply to my family and ones that apply to my friends. For myself it’s to have no regrets. For my family it’s to keep going, keep your head up. For my friends it’s “do more”—for the community and for others. Just do it. Like the Nike run motto!