What The Review gets wrong about ethnic theme dorms

May 2, 2017, 12:14 a.m.

My freshman year, I was unexpectedly assigned housing in Casa Zapata. I had no idea what to expect, and I was a bit nervous about whether or not I’d be accepted into the community at this official-sounding “Chicano/Latino Ethnic Theme Dorm”–especially because I am not Hispanic, Chicana, or Latina. My freshman year residential experience turned out to be more stimulating and supportive than I could have ever imagined. After just a short time living in Casa Zapata, I knew without a doubt that there was nowhere else I would rather have spent my freshman year.

Last week, the Stanford Review editorial board published an article titled “Stanford’s Housing Bubble? An Investigation of Ethnic Theme Dorms.” The Review’s editorial board expressed concerns about the dangers of segregation and isolation within ethnic themed housing on campus —apparent petri dishes for activism, echo chambers and non-engagement with the broader student body. The article contains several serious misconceptions about ethnic theme housing at Stanford, and I’d like to present my own perspective from having lived in ethnic theme housing for a year and a half.

Of the primary sources that the Review used in their article, six were students from colleges without ethnic theme dorms, such as Harvard, Brown and Yale. I am personally flummoxed why people who have never been even tangentially exposed to ethnic theme housing on their own campuses were deemed by the Review to be the most important and insightful sources in an article on ethnic theme housing at Stanford. Only two Stanford students were interviewed, one of whom later said that the Review had strongly cherry-picked and misrepresented her perspective (the Review article has since been edited from its original version).

In its article, the Review’s editorial board asserts or implies multiple times that ethnic theme dorms allow students to remain cocooned in their comfort zones, stymying intellectual and personal growth by isolating themselves within a homogenous community. They then assert that the role of a liberal arts college is to challenge students and that “a trade off exists between living in the comfort of a familiar environment and expanding one’s horizons.”

The charge that freshmen who live in ethnic theme dorms are deprived of an opportunity for personal and intellectual growth is laughable. For one, ethnic theme dorms are not homogenous. It is entirely untrue that “students are surrounded by upperclassmen of one particular ethnicity” in ethnic theme dorms. Even among the people living within an ethnic theme dorm who pertain to that dorm’s ethnic theme (which is about fifty percent), there is a diversity of languages, races, socio-economic backgrounds, cultural backgrounds, religions, ideas and identities.

For example, it is absurd to imagine that a student from an upper class Haitian family, another from inner city Detroit and another from an LA suburb would be in an entirely familiar and unchallenged environment living together. In the Review’s simplistic argument, these students would be doing a disservice to their liberal arts education by living together in Ujamaa, even though every other aspect of their life at Stanford includes interactions with the whole student body. Some students who did not grow up in communities of their same ethnicity will gravitate towards an ethnic theme dorm for the exact opposite reason that the Review’s article suggests: not because they want to be comfortable surrounded by people just like them, but because they have never been around others of their own ethnicity in their home community or high school.  

Furthermore, ethnic theme dorms put a tremendous amount of effort into engaging their residents with critical thinking and difficult conversations, hallmarks of the kind of liberal arts education that the Review claims ethnic theme dorms, by their nature, cannot provide. Living in Zapata, I was constantly challenged, stimulated and encouraged to learn. There were theme presentations, charlitas (casual talks hosted by the ethnic theme associates) and a quarter-long theater production, all of which provoked thoughtful discussion and engagement within the house.

In the Review’s narrative, the famously close-knit communities of the ethnic theme dorms were portrayed as much more sinister and exclusive. They quoted an anonymous freshman who said that her ethnic theme dorm could feel “isolating and segregating” both from within the community and to people outside of it. There will always be people who don’t enjoy living in an ethnic theme community. But the same can be said for the many students who don’t feel as if they belong in their all-freshman dorm communities. Stating that one person doesn’t like the environment in their ethnic theme dorm is sad and should be addressed for that individual but is hardly a basis for a sweeping argument that ethnic theme dorms are isolated or unwelcoming as a whole.

I am a white person who had a phenomenal, challenging and loving freshman experience in an ethnic theme dorm, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I wrote this op-ed mostly in response to the Stanford Review’s article, but also to put to bed the larger idea that ethnic theme dorms are only valuable for a narrow subset of people and only for a narrow set of reasons. I found tremendous personal value in living in Casa Zapata as a freshman, but my own positive experience is by no means what makes Casa Zapata or other ethnic theme dorms so important, and indeed so necessary, at Stanford. People have found challenges, support, strength and home within ethnic theme dorms for dozens of reasons, many of which neither I nor the Review touched on. I urge anybody reading this to seek out other perspectives from people who live or have lived in an ethnic theme dorm on campus (i.e., this article). You will find a wealth of diverse reasons why ethnic theme dorms matter so dearly to many of your peers here at Stanford.

– Sierra Garcia ’18


Contact Sierra Garcia at sgarcia3 ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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