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00000179-e1ff-d2b2-a3fb-ffffd7950001WNIJ's Friday Forum features in-depth interviews with state officials, community leaders, and others whose decisions influence your life. You can hear it every Friday during Morning Edition on 89.5 FM and WNIJ.org.

Through Our Eyes: Race, Culture, And Identity At NIU

Dana Vollmer
Northern Star Editor-in-Chief Angela Pagan, Laura Vivaldo Cholula, Jessie Schlacks, and Amauri Reeves participate in a moderated discussion at WNIJ

This semester, officials at Northern Illinois University contacted students about posters that had been hung around campus by a known hate group. This month, a DeKalb man was arrested and charged with a hate crime after accusations that he assaulted a Muslim woman in a popular grocery store frequented by NIU students. In this week's Friday Forum, WNIJ's Dana Vollmer reports on efforts to better understand the student perspective as it relates to experiences with race, culture, and identity.

NPR recently launched a series called, You, Me, And Them: Experiencing Discrimination in America. Those reports can be found here.

WNIJ joined a collaboration with the Northern Star and the Northern Television Center to facilitate a discussion with NIU students. The conversation was recorded in WNIJ's Studio A.

If you’re part of a cultural group on campus, what is the strength of your group's voice on campus?

Laura Vivaldo Cholula says the mission of her group, DREAM Action NIU, is to raise awareness about the situation undocumented students face, and work to create institutional change on campus -- and across Illinois and in national politics.

She says she has noticed a big change in how administrators have interacted with her group over the years.

"After the [first] meeting, no one came to say hello to the students," Vivaldo Cholula said. "Fast forward to 2017, when we testified in front of the Board of Trustees meeting again. Same campus, but different student leaders, a different board and a different president. They welcomed us. We gave our testimony and spoke about how the recent DACA cancellation impacts NIU students."

Vivaldo Cholula says everyone clapped afterwards.

"Everyone actually shook our hand, thanked us for being there, and said 'Yes, we’re going to work on these things.' To see that change over the course of seven years, because of consistent and sustained movement, just shows the power that we have on campus," she said. "We’ve actually gotten significant change to make this campus more inclusive to undocumented students."

Luis Flores says when it comes to working with cultural organizations, it’s very empowering to see them working together to make sure that the needs and wants of the community are met. 

Credit Dana Vollmer
Luis Flores

"Protests only last that day, but movements last forever as long there’s energy to fill them," Flores said.

After the university notified students that a white supremacist group put up posters around campus, Vivaldo Cholula said students gave testimony and asked for very specific changes.

"We asked for the campus to hire more faculty of color," Vivaldo Cholula said. "We asked that they do a climate campus survey and then we asked for more proactive action, and to not wait for when a tragedy happens."

Christine Wang says the struggles faced in the past couple of years with the Illinois budget affected how the state allocated MAP grants.

"We wanted to make sure that our students were represented fairly, so we headed down to Springfield," Wang said. "Our first generation college students, who lack the adequate access to resources that would allow them to succeed, is something that really needs to change. Without these first generation college students, without these students of color, without these students who add diversity to our work pool, we would not be the great state of Illinois that we are today."

Michael Herrera believes support to students through his organization is an important tool in society.

"Our power is exemplified by our graduates," Herrera explained. “It’s an empowerment group to help Latinos graduate. Latinos are the highest dropout rate, males. I dropped out three times in college. I finally graduated. I’m going for my third degree now. It’s an empowerment to ourselves. A lot of Latino males come into school very timid about speaking out.”

What barriers have prevented you from having the voice you would like to have on campus?

Wang says when she was first elected to student leadership, she encountered sexism.

"I’ve had to learn a lot about asserting myself," Wang said. "I have to work twice as hard to make my voice heard. It’s hard for women to get their voices heard."

Flores says he feels one barrier based on his appearance.

"My haircut is associated with me being a gangbanger," Flores said. "When I walk into a room of my colleagues in my program, I have to make sure that I speak a certain way and speak in a professional manner just to prove to them ‘Hey, just because I have this hair and just because I’m Latino doesn’t mean -- especially with the high crime rate that’s been going on in our community -- that I don’t fit that profile.'"

Do you ever feel boxed in or defined by a label based on your race or culture?

Wang says, as an Asian American, she encounters a lot of what people call "positive stereotypes." She says people will make jokes based on assumptions that she is good at math or music.

"Minorities feel like you have to shut up, sit down and do what you’re told," Wang said. "That doesn’t just come from other people outside of your culture or your race, it comes from people inside your culture or your race, because that’s what’s been ingrained."

Flores says higher education helped him break free from some stereotypes.

"It took my mother a lot of energy to convince me to come to NIU," Flores said. "I gave it shot, and it turns out that NIU is what helped me break that box a little bit, just because of the opportunities it presented me, and I was doing way better here than in high school.”

Amauri Reeves says he doesn’t feel like he encounters discrimination on a daily basis.

"Despite being an African American, I never felt like I was put underneath a label or like I was ever boxed in," Reeves said. "We’re all human inside."

Vivaldo Cholula counters that it is not easy to try and live in a colorblind society.

"Once we leave this room," she said, "we can’t deny that if you’re black and you drive, you’re more likely to be pulled over and racially profiled by a cop. Black and Latino men are more likely to be incarcerated for nonviolent offenses. We can’t just deny that once we leave this room, we won’t be treated equally."

Wang says it’s a fine line.

"Yes, I would love to walk around and have people look at me not for my yellow skin and for my almond eyes, but at the same time though it’s something that I also embrace," Wang said. "It’s something that’s part of me and something that I’m very proud of. In fact, I’m my parents' American Dream. I’m a product of their hard work and also a product of their culture."

How specifically have you been treated differently because of your race, and how did you respond?

Wang says she has been called racial slurs.

"I’ve been told to go back to 'f-ing China,'" Wang shared. "I’m not even from China, I’m from here. My parents are from Taiwan, so I’m not even, again, from that country."

Flores says people assume he speaks Spanish.

"That’s just not the case for a lot of people," Flores said. "I get treated differently because of it. People think it’s weird or people think I’m assimilating."

Credit Dana Vollmer

Reeves said that sometimes the comments aren’t outright offensive, but leave him unable to answer. He described a conversation he had with a couple while visiting another state university.

"The conversation ended, and he asked me if I was African or African American," Reeves said. "He asked what part of Africa I’m from and I was like, 'I don’t know.'"

In response to the recent arrest of a DeKalb man charged with a hate crime involving an altercation with a Muslim woman, Wang says she found the community’s response encouraging.

"They denounced this guy and had a lot of support for this lady," she said. "At the same time, the fact that we know that this exists even in our community -- at the very Walmart I literally just shopped at the day that that incident happened -- that terrifies me as a woman of color."

Vivaldo Cholula fears it wasn’t an isolated incident.

"I just think it’s something that actually got caught," Vivaldo Cholula said.

What are your suggestions to make the community more inclusive?

Herrera cautions that people who experienced discrimination should not discriminate against others.

"If we keep repeating behaviors that we’re doing, nothing’s going to get fixed," he said.

Wang said the biggest thing she believes one can do is to educate themselves on these issues, and pass that education along to others.

"I have a lot of growing to do still," Wang said. "I think we all do. But if we just stop and kind of stay in our own bubbles and talk to only people of our own culture, of our own race, of our own background, we’re not going to learn anything and it’s not going to do anything for our personal development."


Luis Flores - Student Association, Director of Cultural Affairs

Michael Herrera - Graduate student, Public Administration

Amauri Reeves - Communication Major

Laura Vivaldo Cholula - DREAM Action NIU

Christine Wang - Student Association Speaker


Angela Pagan, Editor-In-Chief, Northern Star

Khobi Pryce, Reporter, Northern Star, National Association of Black Journalists – NIU Chapter

Jessie Schlacks, Reporter, Northern Television Center and Northern Public Radio