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Paths to Self-discovery

October 16, 2007

Students enroll in BMCC’s Ethnic Studies courses to learn about other cultures – and about themselves

From Segundo Pantoja’s perspective, an exposure to different cultures and ethnic groups is a basic component of a well-rounded education. “But it has particular relevance in New York City – and in the times in which we live,” he says.

A sociologist by training, Pantoja is the director of BMCC’s Center for Ethnic Studies, which offers courses in Latino, African-American and Asian areas of interest. He is quick to note that, while most of the approximately 600 students enrolled in the Center’s course offerings each semester are liberal arts majors, the classes are open to all students.

Universal relevance

“The value and appeal of these courses are universal,” Pantoja says. “One could argue that they do not have immediate practical application, but they fulfill an important aspect of life. They enable students to achieve an understanding of what goes on in other places beyond their own sphere.”

The scope and richness of the offerings are reflected in course titles such as Chinese Culture and Heritage, Contemporary Black Writers, The Puerto Rican Family, and the Economics of Urban Communities. “This is a true interdisciplinary effort, involving multiple academic areas, including English, modern languages, sociology, and history,” says Pantoja.

Instruction is delivered through a variety of modalities, both inside and beyond the classroom.  “We have incredible resources at our disposal – knowledgeable professors, a great library, the Internet, outside speakers – and we try to use them to the fullest,” Pantoja says. “New York is place where many different cultures converge, and the opportunity to make neighborhood visits allows students to connect the theoretical knowledge they acquire in class with everyday reality.” A number of students have been motivated to continue their studies abroad, he says.

Intangible benefits

It isn’t altogether surprising that students drawn to ethnic studies tend to choose courses focused on their own ethnicities. To be sure, “some of the best students in each track come from outside that particular ethnic group,” Pantoja says. “But generally, Latino subjects tend to attract Latino students, Asian subjects Asian students and African-American subjects African-American students.”  Is that ethnic alignment a concern?

“It’s probably inevitable,” says Pantoja.  “But there is a significant upside to it, since it underscores one of the critical objectives of ethnic studies – helping students learn something about themselves as members of specific ethnic groups.” This process of self-discovery “is one of the great intangible benefits of ethnic studies,” he says. “It enables students to reflect in a new way on who they are and where they come from. It can be very empowering.”

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