OPINION

Grappling with Self-Segregation on Campus

By Jae Yun Ham '22 || Issue 148-2

After growing up in Hawaii, a state full of racial diversity, I found myself excited at the prospect of joining a campus well-known for its commitment to finding students from across the globe. In its admissions brochures, Amherst touts itself as a champion of inclusion, with 45 percent of its student body identifying as students of color. As a first year, I looked forward to experiencing new cultures, learning about far-away places and even making lifelong connections with people I would never have interacted with had I not gone to Amherst. In the span of a few weeks, however, it became clear that my vision of Amherst as a diverse haven was false.


At first, I found myself naturally gravitating towards the Asian population at Amherst. Regardless of where we had grown up, our shared cultural experiences and obstacles had overlapped considerably. We bonded over our love of bubble tea, K-pop and our cultural identity. It seemed as though I had found the core friend group that I was always looking for. These were the people that I wanted to engage with in college and beyond.


And then it hit me. I had specifically chosen Amherst because I had wanted something more than a mere repeat of high school. Unlike many of my Asian peers, I had come from a place where I was in the ethnic majority. Hawaii was a community where, as an Asian American, I naturally fit in. With a few notable exceptions, most of my friends back home identified as members of the Asian community. I had come to Amherst to break out of my comfort zone, to be proud of my heritage and to share it with my peers. How could I possibly do that when I was only interacting and connecting with other members of Amherst’s Asian community?


It quickly became clear that I was not alone in this dilemma. From casual glances in Frost or in first-year common rooms, I began to truly understand the problem of self-segregation at Amherst. Many first years, of all ethnic identities, have begun to self-segregate themselves into friend groups that shared their ethnicity. With student organizations like the Asian Students Association (ASA) and the Black Students Union (BSU), it is easy for students, especially those who identify as people of color, to spend a large amount of time with peers who share their ethnicity. Even for white students, who still constitute more than half of the student body, self-segregation is still an issue. No matter one’s race or ethnicity, the comfort of mingling with people who share the same cultural background is extremely tempting.


In the first few weeks, I was fortunate enough to interact with various students of different ethnic backgrounds from around the world. Most significantly, a conversation with a fellow first year, who came from America’s heartland, opened my eyes to the power of shared experiences. After talking for a few moments, I realized that even though she was white, our lives leading to our time at Amherst were marked by similar struggles. I easily found common ground with her despite the fact that we came from vastly different cultural backgrounds. In this moment I realized that experiences, unlike skin color or cultural identity, have the power to create bonds beyond the superficial. If a Korean-American male from Hawaii can make a meaningful connection and friendship with a white female from the Midwest, I am positive that everyone here on campus, regardless of their backgrounds, can do the same.


I am not saying that Amherst is at fault for the trend of self-segregation of its own student body. I am also not saying that student organizations, such as the BSU or ASA, are promoting the idea of self-segregation. With almost half the student body identifying as people of color, it is clear that the administration and student groups are working on their end to promote a culturally, ethnically, geographically and ideologically diverse campus. However, both Amherst’s administration and its diverse student body should make a more concerted effort to promote student interaction between students of different cultural identities. How can a diverse student body be of any use in the context of self-segregation?


Although it may seem difficult, there are ways to fix this issue on campus. With the increasingly successful push for diversity on college campuses, colleges like Amherst must make efforts to promote cross-cultural interaction so that students of all backgrounds have opportunities to make their voices and experiences heard. The administration should strive to host events where students, regardless of their ethnic background, can share their stories with one another. Multicultural student organizations should plan and host community wide events where they can share their cultural background with the general student body. If students had more opportunities to share their experiences with each other, the problem of self-segregation would surely not be as prevalent as it is today.