A need for cultural education

The University of Texas was home to four of the best years of my life. I went through a lot, to say the least, but my journey on the 40 Acres would have never been the same without the cultural education I received.

Let me explain.

Coming from one of the poorest, least educated and most struggling cities in Texas, I thought I knew everything about issues of race and diversity. I felt like everyone around me came from some sort of privilege — money, success, you name it — and I was at the University of Texas because of the Top 8% rule — a technicality — and that was it.

For 18 years, being Mexican-American hadn’t made any difference in my life. Living 10 minutes away from the U.S.-Mexico border made traveling to another country nothing special. I grew up speaking Spanish, and cumbias, Quinceneras — and there were more taco stands than Starbucks in my hometown — were things that were always normal.  I was used to feeling marginalized, but that’s because that was the only thing that was ever taught to me.

This feeling only continued after my first weekend in Austin where walking down the street I was harassed by three guys yelling, “Mexican, go back home.” “What are you doing here?” “You don’t belong!” It was a quick drive by. And, before I could even come to terms with what had happened, that car had already driven away.

I wasn’t angry — which is the sad part. But it did show me that I really didn’t know what being Mexican-American (or Latina) actually meant.

This was what drove me to take a course in Mexican American Studies at UT. I became infatuated with this area of study because in some ways, I was just being introduced to myself. These courses were the rated-R version of my history with a microscopic lens in between.

Everything began to click. And, as stupid as it sounds, I began to learn why the incident that led me to enroll in this course was something bad in the first place.

This doesn’t go to say that everyone will or has had the same experience as a person of color at the University of Texas at Austin. But learning about these issues and how to handle them is where the problem truly stands.

The University of Texas is responsible for being the parent of more than 50,000 students during their three, four, five or more years away from home. Championed by the idea that “what starts here changes the world,” it is the responsibility of the University to make sure that its students are well-educated in more areas than just one.

“The same could be said for all universities.” That is true.

And in some aspects, the University has already taken a lead in this initiative.  The Division of Diversity and Community Engagement and the Multicultural Engagement Center are both leaders in the mission to create a safe campus.

That doesn’t mean that everyone has the same moment where everything just clicks. If a culture flag wasn’t a requirement for students, I’m sure that some of the smaller ethnic studies programs on campus wouldn’t survive. It was only in this past semester alone that we saw the Mexican American Studies program actually become a department.

I am not saying that the University needs to make students take more classes in ethnic studies, but rather that it needs to strengthen the cultural education opportunities it offers its students.

Therefore, I offer these three options for the University and hope that at least one is taken into consideration:

1. Strengthen the cultural diversity flag.

2. Create an orientation program dedicated to racial or diversity issues.

3. House a 360 Connection under the Multicultural Engagement Center.

Ingrid Vasquez graduated in May 2015 with degrees in journalism and Mexican American studies. She is a contributor to Cosmopolitan.com and writes op-eds for Fox News Latino.