Interview Gizem Gerdan: Masterthesis over UvA eerste generatie studenten
Gizem heeft als internationale student in 2017 de master Sociology; Migration and Ethnic Studies aan de UvA afgerond. Voor haar masterthesis deed zij onderzoek naar de ervaringen van eerste generatie studenten met een niet-westerse achtergrond op de UvA.Ga naar de scriptie
Why did you choose this topic?
I took a class during my master studies in which we discussed intersections of race, class and gender. The lecturer did a great job at creating an atmosphere of open and honest discussion, where we could also be very personal in our reflections. We would oftentimes discuss our own entanglement and oppression along these axes. The syllabus for the class was very interesting for the most part, but there was one reading that was very hard to break down and understand. Although I hadn’t had problems with most required readings, this one caused self-doubt in my abilities. In the class discussion many other students expressed frustration with the reading and we started talking about accessibility of academia and language as a barrier. I mostly feel comfortable in educational settings and have felt comfortable in most of my university classes, but this particular day reminded me of the fact that academia wasn’t made for me, someone from an ethnic minority group and a working-class background. My lecturer in this class encouraged me to delve more into my feelings on this matter, which lead to me writing my final paper about this topic. At the end of the class she also offered to be my thesis supervisor and was again very supportive of me to elaborate on the topic of my final paper and conduct research on the experiences of other students of colour in Amsterdam. In the end my thesis came to be about the experiences of first-in-family students of colour in Amsterdam’s institutions of higher education.
“I mostly feel comfortable in educational settings and have felt comfortable in most of my university classes, but this particular day reminded me of the fact that academia wasn’t made for me, someone from an ethnic minority group and a working-class background.”
What is the most valuable thing you learned from your thesis?
My thesis showed me that students of colour develop strategies to cope with negative experiences. Many of my interviewees had feelings of disconnection from family, fellow students, and/or academia in general, but they developed strategies that helped them deal with these disconnections. It showed me how resilient my participants were, and how resilient and capable of adapting humans can be in general. The strategies my interviewees developed to deal with these disconnections also made me feel optimistic about the future. They are paving the way for generations that follow them, to soften the blow of negative experiences or prevent them from making these negative experiences altogether.
In what way did writing your thesis changed the way you look at the topic?
It changed my view because I had assumptions about other students’ experiences based on my own. And while there were many similarities, there were also very great differences, especially in the experiences with racism. Many of my interviewees either had no experiences of racism at university or didn’t want to label experiences as such. The pattern was that students of the humanities and social sciences would talk more about such experiences.
The first few interviews I conducted definitely confronted me with my own assumptions and also lead me to adjust the focus of my research from experiences of discrimination in academia to general experiences of academia and academic spaces.
What is the result of your thesis that is most interesting to you?
A very early selective education system, like in the Netherlands, pushes pupils into specific trajectories. In most cases this means that students from marginalized groups attend lower level secondary education schools (VMBO and HAVO). But through my research, I also saw that students who have a rather ‘traditional’ trajectory from a VWO to a research university seem to be able to adjust well to the demands and codes of research universities. In Bourdieu’s capitals theory students from lower classes, and with lower cultural capital, struggle more in the education system because they don’t acquire the needed information about academia from their families. An early selective education system, as we can find in the Netherlands, may compensate for this by grooming pupils of VWO for the demands of research universities. But since the scope of my research is not nearly wide enough to draw conclusions on this matter, I would be interested to see more research on this topic.
“I also saw that students who have a rather ‘traditional’ trajectory from a VWO to a research university seem to be able to adjust well to the demands and codes of research universities.”
What result disappointed you most, and why?
It was disappointing too see that educational and economic upwards mobility is still considered a mobility away from one’s culture. Some ethnicities are linked to a low socio-economic status so strongly, that members who move up are accused of “forgetting about their roots”. This act of connecting race/ethnicity to a particular class status is dangerous and indicative of a naturalization of a given societal structure. We need to let go of these assumptions in order to bring about societal change.
After finishing your thesis, what would be your number one advice for the field of diversity and inclusion in higher education?
Academic staff needs more awareness on racism and how different groups of people are affected differently. How racism is reproduced in the classroom, through syllabus and class discussion and how they contribute to reproduction of inequality through their own course designs. Marginalization is an active process, in which we participate by pushing certain voices into the margins. Instead we must include these voices in the heart of courses, they need to be accepted as canon, rather than criticism of canon.