Staff Spotlight: Jane Kungu
Jane Kungu is the new assistant director of the Multicultural Resource Center (MRC). In this interview, Kungu reflects on the strengths of the MRC, her plans to deepen its community presence, and her own educational journey.
Q: How long have you been with Amherst College, and what responsibilities have you taken on at the college?
A: I’ve been at Amherst College since December 2021, so I’m coming up on a year next month. I started [working at the college] part-time as a program coordinator for the Office of Identity and Cultural Resources [OICR]. At the time, I was still a grad student at UMass and also working as a graduate assistant in diversity education at UMass. In my role as a program coordinator, I’ve worked with all of the resource centers, but [especially] with the MRC, supporting the programming that students were putting on and planning. One highlight from that [time was] being able to help bring Ibi Zoboi to campus for Black History Month. She’s an author and the mother of one of our students, Abadai [Zoboi ’24]. It was really cool for us to be able to bring her to campus for an intimate talk and writing workshop. In my new role, I think the main difference is that I’m working full-time and taking on more responsibilities. I’ll be taking the lead on managing the [MRC] as a whole and really ensuring that we are upholding the vision and the mission [of the center] to support students of color on campus.
Q: How did you move into this role? What was the transition from one office to another office like for you?
A: It actually all started with the decision to restructure the Office of Student Affairs, which included OICR. Prior to me starting [in] this role, I was able to work really closely with the previous director of the Multicultural Resource Center, Eboni Rafus-Brenning. I was able to get to know the center, the students, and build relationships with the people to interact with the center as well as campus partners who we work in collaboration with. The role that I’m in now is brand new. It has never existed, which is both really exciting, and a new experience for me. Coming into a role that has no history and no guidebook or roadmap will allow me to be able to have a little bit more flexibility and explore what it could look like to support students in this role. I would say so far, the transition has been going really well.
Q: What are the new responsibilities that come with your position?
A: The main thing is that I’m in charge of managing all of the aspects of the MRC and the space itself, making sure that it’s well taken care of — that we have enough snacks for students, that students know what resources we have available in the center, and that they could use the center as a space to hang out more casually or host an event or program in. Another newer responsibility is that I am primarily responsible for supporting and supervising the students that work in the MRC. It’s been an organic transition because I already know the students who work in the MRC, this new role is just an additional layer to that support I was already giving students. Something else that I’ve taken on is supporting registered student organizations that are affinity-based, and align with the MRC’s mission to support students of color on campus.
Q: What kinds of challenges did you encounter during your first days at Amherst?
A: When I first started [at] Amherst last year, I was working part time, which made it a little bit harder to feel like I was truly part of the Amherst community … I was also juggling grad school and a graduate assistantship. I was being pulled in multiple different directions between being a student, and trying to continue to establish myself as a professional. I would spend the first half of my day at UMass, and then I would come either here to campus in the evening, or I would go to class, depending on the day. At the time, it felt like I wasn’t really able to give 100% to all of those things at the same time. It felt like I was really limited in my capacities to be able to do that.
Q: How did you overcome these barriers and use your strengths in your position?
A: I think initially, I had to just adapt and make it work in the moment, which was okay for a while, but then I realized that I had to let something go to create more space to be more intentional and thoughtful about what I really wanted to dedicate my time to. For me, overcoming those barriers meant that I had to take a step back from graduate school and re-evaluate what was important to me and what I really wanted to do. This was really hard initially, and I’m sure that a lot of students can relate to this. When you take time off or take a step back, there is sometimes some shame and guilt attached to that for a variety of different reasons. For me, I’ve had to really remind myself that learning doesn’t just happen in a classroom. A graduate degree doesn’t necessarily dictate how much I know or don’t know. I’m not any less valuable without that degree or with taking time off.
By taking a step back from grad school, I’ve been able to really dedicate more of my time to working at Amherst College. I think that this has given me the ability to be able to notice in myself, and in others, when I’m doing too much, or holding too much. With the students on campus [who] tend to do a lot of things, [who] want to be involved in everything, and are high achieving — which are all great things — it can be really hard to navigate and hold [everything] all at once sometimes. I think that my own experience has allowed me to notice that and have compassion for that experience of feeling like you’re doing too much.
Q: Where did you obtain your educational foundation?
A: I went to Westfield State University, and I was an ethnic and gender studies major. I actually didn’t declare the major until the first semester of my junior year. I was taking classes, but I wasn’t actually in the program until later on in my college career. Through my major I was able to take a lot of different classes on the topics of race, gender, and sexuality studies.
I would say that my educational foundation is not only based on my academic experience and what I’ve learned in the classroom, but also my lived experiences as someone who is Black, queer and of immigrant experience, among other things. All of those things led me to want to learn more about myself and others as it relates to identity, and how that shapes us and how we experience the world. After undergraduate school, I took two gap years and then applied for the Social Justice Education program at UMass, which is really focused on dialogue across difference and facilitation. With the coursework that I was able to take, I’ve been able to gain skills in being a facilitator in intergroup dialogue, as well as developing content and curriculum around topics around identity.
Q: How has your major in Ethnic and Gender Studies helped you understand and address many issues our college students are facing?
A: Being an ethnic and gender studies major gave me a lot of language and words to better understand race and gender in the United States. I think that a lot of that academic lens has given me a better understanding of what it means to hold a social identity. I think that everyone’s experience is going to be different and there’s not necessarily one way that someone experiences the world or Amherst as it relates to identity. I think that I’ve also gained a lot of historical context for how race and gender worked in the United States and function, interact, and how that history shows up in different ways and in different dynamics in the present day. That is one way that I’ve really been able to use what I’ve learned — being able to understand. Something that the academic experience has also taught me is that it’s okay to not know everything and it’s okay to make mistakes. I may have learned a lot from my coursework but I also have so much more to learn and learning about identity is an ongoing learning process.
Q: What would you say are some of the MRC’s strengths and shortcomings?
A: The MRC is really well established and has a really rich history which is rooted in activism and students really demanding more for Amherst College… I also think that the center has a lot of really great programming that happens yearly. [For example] I’m thinking a lot about Black Art Matters, and that being a central event that started with students and became a collaboration with the MRC and the Mead Art Museum.
I also think about a lot of the programs that weren’t so present over the last couple years due to Covid that we’re trying to bring back, such as ‘A Seat at the Table’ where we invite staff members or faculty of color to come and talk about their academic journey, and their experiences navigating different spaces throughout their career. ‘Release,’ which we are also hoping to bring back, is a collaboration with the Center for Counseling and Mental Health. I think programming is a great strength that the MRC already has. You can see on the wall here in the center of all the different people that we’ve brought to campus over the years, which I think is a testament to how far we’ve come in terms of programming and how much we’ve been able to do since MRC was created.
In terms of shortcomings, I think the pandemic has really had a huge impact on engagement in the center. How the MRC has been used over the last two and a half years has looked very different from now. With Covid regulations changing and things becoming less and less strict, I am definitely seeing more students utilizing the center. There’s definitely still a population of students on campus who don’t know that the MRC exists or have never been to the MRC because they spent a year or two learning virtually due to Covid. I think that’s something that we’re still working on improving and making the MRC more accessible and known to students.
Q: What next step, in your opinion, does the MRC need to take to fulfill its mission of supporting people of color at Amherst College?
A: One step that I think is really important is to bring back more opportunities for students to have nuanced conversations and engage in dialogue, specifically around race and racism and how racial identity shapes all of our lived experiences both on and off campus. I think that students are definitely already having those conversations in more informal spaces, but it’s something that I want to see the MRC do more of. Another step is continuing to work with RSOs more. The MRC has historically supported RSOs with programming and funding, and I want to see us develop stronger relationships with student groups that become sustainable.
Q: In your senior year, you published a paper titled “In Moonlight, Black Boys Are Themselves: Re-Imagining Black Male Sexuality and Media Representations of Black Men” at an undergraduate research forum. How did the experience expand your horizons on the matter of race and gender?
A: The opportunity actually came from the English Department at my undergraduate institution. I took a lot of literature classes, and I was almost a literature minor. I was already in community with a lot of the students who were English majors, as well as [English] professors. One of the professors who actually works here as well, [Visiting Professor of Black Studies] Carol Bailey, invited me to participate in the conference. That process consisted of me writing a paper based around the theme of the conference, which I believe was high art, low art, looking at different modes of art. I wrote my paper on the movie ‘Moonlight,’ which came out when I was an undergrad. For me, writing that paper felt really personal to me, in terms of, what the film meant to me as a Black queer person and having that nuanced representation. There were so many themes in the film around sexuality and identity and family, and things that I could relate to. They were multifaceted and layered, which for me felt like the first time I was seeing that level of representation of Blackness and queerness.
Q: What approaches and insights do you apply in your problem-solving and decision-making process as an assistant director?
A: I think one really huge part of how I approach problem solving and decision making is really holding on to my supervisor Lupita, who’s the director of the CARC and interim director of the MRC, as well as all the folks in the resource centers. As you know, me and Lupita spend a lot of time brainstorming together and thinking out loud with each other on different ideas or how to do a program or how to approach different things within the MRC. Having someone to be able to bounce ideas off of and check in with about things and bring ideas to has really helped in my decision making process. Because [if] I think I might have an idea about a program, or anything, being able to talk to someone about it and get their perspective on it has been really helpful and challenging me, as well as opening me up to different perspectives on what I’m working on.
Q: As an assistant director, what is your vision for MRC?
A: My vision is really to just build on what has already been created in the MRC. My hope is that the MRC will return to a place of having more dialogues, more conversations about identity, and more spaces like that where students can really reflect on their own identities and learn from each other at the same time. There’s always so much going on in the world and it has an impact on all of us, including students on campus and having space to process and talk about those things is really important and necessary for us to be doing.
Q: What projects are you currently working on at the MRC?
A: One project I am currently working on is developing a committee with the RSOs on campus that the MRC has historically supported. This was an idea that was brought to the MRC by students from a few groups on campus including the Asian Pacific American Action Committee, as well as La Causa. We are currently working on getting the RSOs together and figuring out what they want the committee to look like and how that MRC can support it.
Q: What are your favorite Mammoth memories?
A: A lot of my favorite memories are actually from this semester. I was part of supporting and helping with planning for Latinx Heritage Month, and we were able to bring author Gabby Rivera to campus. She’s a queer Puerto Rican author that has written some amazing books, so bringing her to campus was really a great experience. We were able to have dinner with her alongside students, faculty and staff. It was just a great space, I really felt like I was in a community. I know that’s how a lot of other folks felt as well. That’s one favorite memory.
Another favorite memory is from another event, Unapologetically International… which was planned and implemented by the Center for International Student Engagement in collaboration with the International Student Association on campus. I wasn’t able to go last year, so this was my first year going, and it was really great to be in community with everyone and the energy in the space was just amazing. I’m really grateful that I was able to be part of that.
Q: Looking back on your journey, what made you want to work at Amherst College?
A: I learned about the position from a listserv that I am a part of, and I did my research and went through the website, and I think I was really excited about the work that all the centers were doing. There were no centers like this when I was an undergrad. I thought it was really great that there were so several identity based resource centers that also worked together and looked at things through an intersectional lens. That made me really excited and it was something that I wanted to be a part of.
Q: Finish this thought: “I am proud of myself because….”
A: I’m proud of myself because I think that my inner child — the child version of myself — didn’t expect me to be where I am now, but I think that she would be proud of me. In a lot of ways, I think that’s what makes me proud — being able to grow and learn and really come into being my own person is something that I’m really proud of. Knowing that I still have so much to learn and grow in, I think I’m really proud of how far I’ve come.