OP-EDS

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May 30, 2008

Award culture

This year's gross under-recognition of students in groups designated as "cultural" RSOs by the Office of the Reynolds Club and Student Activities (ORCSA) demands the administration to reassess its valuation of the work done by these students, which has a deep political relevance for our campus life.

The near absence of students of color from cultural Registered Student Organizations (RSOs) honored at last week's Student Leader Awards Ceremony was glaring and unacceptable. Every spring, the University recognizes students for their contributions to campus life through the Student Leader Awards, which entail monetary awards ranging from $200 to $2,500, as well as intangible rewards including sitting on the Dean's advisory board and networking with alumni. This year's gross under-recognition of students in groups designated as "cultural" RSOs by the Office of the Reynolds Club and Student Activities (ORCSA) demands the administration to reassess its valuation of the work done by these students, which has a deep political relevance for our campus life. Underlying this problem is the complete lack of transparency for the awards process: Who is informed about the awards? Who can nominate students? When can they be nominated? Who is on the final selection committee? Under what criteria are students selected for the awards? The answers to these questions are unclear.

At this year's awards, the majority of students recognized are engaged in direct co-operative or advocacy work with the administration—groups that include Student Government, the Student Government Finance Committee, the College Programming Office, as well as ORCSA-designated "social justice/political" RSOs. Students in these groups indeed make valuable contributions to campus life and no doubt deserve recognition. At the same time, their direct and frequent contact with the administration enables administrators on the awards committee to speak on their behalf during the selection process. Although the selection committees solicit personal statements and résumés from all nominated students, having an administrator advocate on behalf of a nominee makes a critical difference during the selection process. The majority of cultural RSOs, on the other hand, do not have such a direct line with the administration. Their work, focused mainly on building community, power, and identity within an ethnic or racial group through cultural shows, panels, and social events, usually does not engage directly with the administration. Though cultural RSOs' visibility with the administration is low, the depth of their impact on student life is profound. They express voices, histories, and experiences that are often not addressed in the classroom and ignored by other segments of the U of C community.

After the Organization of Latin American Students Cultural Show this spring, a graduate student told the student organizers that the show represented and affirmed her story growing up as a second-generation Puerto Rican American. The Organization of Black Students united University and South Side community members in Rockefeller Chapel for one of the biggest and best-attended events of the year: a talk with Angela Davis about building coalition and building power across communities. At the "Good Asian Drivers" concert organized by PanAsia Solidarity Coalition for their spring festival this year, a fourth-year student commented that for the first time since coming to the U of C, she felt her identity as an Asian American was acknowledged in a complex light. These cultural RSOs indeed engage in political and advocacy work even if they are not designated or recognized as such. These activities on campus empower and advocate for students, and they serve as pivotal forums of critique and dissent on this University's social and academic environment for students of color.

For the Student Leader Awards to remain true to their commitment of recognizing students who have made exceptional contributions to campus life, they need to look beyond students and RSOs that are most visible to the administration. They need to first make the nomination and selection process transparent to the student body. Second, they need to be self-aware of defining "student leader" and "contribution to campus life" and self-critical of the biases found within these definitions, which have historically excluded students of color involved with cultural RSOs. Third, they need to communicate with Office of Multicultural Students Affairs (OMSA) staff and ORCSA advisers for cultural RSOs about the awards and place them on the selection committees, so they can nominate students whose work they know well and can speak on their behalf. And if OMSA staff and ORCSA advisers were intimately involved with this year's process, they need to reevaluate and drastically improve their commitment to students of color. The answer must not be a separate awards process for students in cultural RSOs. We must challenge the current process and, in particular, how a student's contribution to campus life is valued and evaluated.

Rebecca Shi, a member of the Progressive Asian American Students' Coalition, is a fourth-year in the College majoring in history. Tsion Gurmu, a member of the African Caribbean Student Association and the Organization of Black Students, is a second-year in the College majoring in political science and history. Cristina Perez, a member of the Puerto Rican Students Association and the Organization for Latin American Students, is a third-year in the College majoring in public policy.