Cultivating Agents of Change

By Hania Mariën

Perplexed, I surveyed the children’s books in front of me. I was sitting in an elementary school in which nearly half of the students were non-white. Yet, in this array of books, all but one of the characters were white.

Let’s rewind for a moment.

During my first two years at Willamette University, I examined diverse works by authors including Gloria Anzaldúa, Anne Fadiman, Elva Trevino Hart, Adam Hochschild, and Vandana Shiva; and I considered how their backgrounds influenced their life experiences and writing.

Outside of class hours, I began working in a local bilingual elementary school with a diverse student body—diverse in terms of ethnicity, immigration, and socioeconomic status. In the after school program, I saw a sizable number of children struggle with reading. As I helped design curricula for the after school program, I strived to select books as diverse as those in my academic courses. I searched for books featuring characters, authors, and/or illustrators from varied backgrounds. What I found was a scarcity of books about children growing up bi-culturally or multi-culturally, despite the diversifying school district. I soon learned that this elementary school was by no means unique; in fact, this literary resource gap was, and remains, a national problem. I wanted to learn more.

Enter a dedicated faculty mentor with community connections—and the community becomes the classroom.

I am indebted to Anthropology Professor Joyce Millen, who introduced me to applied anthropology [the use of anthropological method and theory to address practical problems] and encouraged me to apply what I had learned in the local Salem community. Inspired by my work in the elementary school, Millen’s support, and this research opportunity, I was eager to explore ways to increase the use of multicultural literature in the local school district.

Over the course of the summer, I gained valuable experience in conducting ethnographic fieldwork, conducting interviews, and formulating a final report, which described barriers to the use of multicultural literature in the school district and provided a potential pathway to increasing its use. This report was graciously accepted by the district and is guiding their steps to diversifying the district’s library holdings.

Often, the classroom and the world remain separate. However, many liberal arts colleges are now extending the boundaries of the classroom to include the local community. Civic engagement through practical and/or research experiences enable students not only to connect their academic work, but also to give back to the local community.

Anya Rogala, a senior at Willamette, found her passion for social work through the guidance of dedicated faculty and two internships. Now says Rogala, “If I notice issues where I can help, I can’t stand idly by. I have to get involved.”

Likewise, when junior Maya Kaup saw food going to waste in the dining hall, she knew she had to take action. Though a self-proclaimed introvert, she says taking initiative to distribute usable food to local community was worth it: “It showed me what I’m capable of.” She also learned she doesn’t have to tackle the big issues on her own. “I can collaborate with others who care to make a difference,” she says. “There’s a lot of support on campus, and that makes it easier to make a project a success.”

This independent, but supported, engagement cultivates more than intellectual growth. It empowers students to be agents of change. “Anyone can be a leader if they set their mind to it,” Kaup says. “If we’re capable of making a positive change in the world, we should do it. We have no excuse.”

My courses at Willamette have covered decades of history, international relations, and the fourth dimension, but they have also encouraged me to question and explore such topics independently. On the first day of one of my sophomore classes, Anthropology 232: Peoples and Cultures of Africa, Professor Millen announced that she wasn’t there to teach us about Africa; she was there to help us learn how to learn about Africa. Though a mere five seconds of a course introduction, this idea has come to embody my appreciation of what Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University, deemed a “successful liberal arts education”—one which actively “prepares graduates to transform knowledge into action and lead lives of achievement, contribution, and meaning. 

Hania Mariën is a junior at Willamette University majoring in anthropology and Spanish. Willamette University is home to the Delta of Oregon Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.