Notes from the Mountain: a Summer Series (#2)

Each summer, Middlebury’s mountain campus in Ripton—home to the Bread Loaf School of English—becomes a hive of activity from late June to mid-August. From readings and performances to pick-up softball and study groups in the Barn, there’s a lot to notice and learn.

This summer, Middmag welcomes Bread Loaf student Diana Ling as a guest reporter for our “Notes from the Mountain” series of stories about the Bread Loaf School of English. Thanks to Diana, we’ll get a closer look into the daily happenings up on the mountain.

In this second installment, she explores the issues on campus for students of color.

Check back next week for more!

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When the Bread Loaf seniors gathered for our first class meeting, I took a moment to look at all 57 of us. In such a large group—the largest graduating class in more than 20 years—I could find only two identifiable students of color, and I was one of them.

These demographics reflect a larger lack of ethnic and racial diversity that a small—but determined—group has been working to address here in Vermont and on our other campuses as well. Last summer, with the support of Director Emily Bartels, Associate Director Django Paris and his wife, Rae, along with student leader Calista Kelly, formed Bread Loaf Students of Color (BLSOC).

The organization’s goals are to “create an official space for students of color to support each other, and to offer guidance to Bread Loaf on issues of equity and diversity,” says Paris. His motivation to form the group came from discussions with students during the summers of 2010 and 2011, including Kelly, who also recognized a growing need on campus.

Another student he spoke with was Jineyda Tapia. “I had a rough time in Vermont two years ago and swore I’d never come back,” she says. Tapia is a third-year student of Dominican descent and native of Lawrence, Mass., where the majority of the population identifies as Latino or Hispanic. She heard about BLSOC through Paris and Bartels, who convinced her to “give Vermont a second chance.”

Senior Stanley Lau, who is Chinese-American, empathizes. “Without support, it can be very lonely here [as a student of color]. This is not just a Bread Loaf issue, but a Middlebury, and Vermont issue, too.” Ninety-five percent of the state’s population is white, making Vermont the whitest state in the country, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

It can be uncomfortable, even painful, to bring up issues of race in this context. Tapia recalls how, in one class her first summer, “Toni Morrison, the only woman of color on the reading list, was also the only writer whose legitimacy was questioned by several of [her] classmates.” Some members of BLSOC say they’ve felt alienated and invisible in classes where they are the only student of color. “There is this idea of what ‘standard’ means,” Tapia says, “and people don’t like to acknowledge race as a factor.”

Last summer, the BLSOC members articulated ideas for a mentoring group, speakers’ series, and curricular changes. This summer they have focused on realizing those visions.

From left to right: Stanley Lau, Jineyda Tapia, and Rae and Django Paris

The mentoring groups, which meet informally once a week, are designed to support first-year students of color. Those more familiar with life on the mountain give advice on everything from how to deal with coursework, to where, if possible, to find foods from home. “It’s one thing to bring students of color here,” says Lau. “It’s another to bring them here and offer support.”

On Tuesday nights, the BLSOC meet to discuss their experiences as a whole group. Bread Loaf faculty of color serve as occasional guest speakers. On July 3, professors David Kirkland and Damian Baca spoke of their identity struggles as English students, teachers, and academics—fields that were, and still are, overwhelmingly white. Lau appreciates this guidance as he researches Ph.D. programs in English. “To be able to find mentors [of color] is really important,” he says.

BLSOC has also made efforts to reach out to the entire campus. On July 14, the group sponsored a graffiti-themed barn dance. Attendees scribbled colorful tags on each other’s white tees with fluorescent marker as they shimmied to a mix of salsa, merengue, bhangra, and pop.

After the barn dance, Tapia says, “People started coming up to me to tell me how much they enjoyed the music.” She says they began opening up to her about their own experiences with race, too.

“Bread Loaf has really helped me feel more confident not only as a student and teacher of English, but as an Asian American,” adds Lau. “This place has helped me come to terms with who I am, and [BLSOC] helps reaffirm that.”

Django and Rae Paris feel the ground shifting, too. “Our work with BLSOC has bolstered our belief that Bread Loaf will continue to lead in making graduate studies in English about the deep literary study of all of our pasts, presents, and futures.”

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