Approximately 24,000 students study a variety of majors at Boise State University. Some majors are popular; for example, over 1,100 students are currently studying nursing. Then, there’s ethnic studies under the sociology program, which according to the most recent student census, has less than five students.
During introductions on the first day of their foundations classes, students meet people from many different academic pathways. There is a high likelihood that almost every student encounters a nursing major, while almost nobody meets an ethnic studies major.
“It’s partially a visibility issue and partially a misunderstanding,” said Dr. Dora Ramirez, director of ethnic studies. “Not many people seem to know ethnic studies is an option, and it’s also seen as just critical race theory, and that isn’t what we are at all.”
Ethnic studies is sometimes misinterpreted to be a liberal program on campuses in the United States trying to push an agenda, or is used as an option for an easy A. Far-right commentators such as Ben Shapiro are very vocal about this reputation, even saying that it’s just “a way to meet girls.”
This reputation appears to be unfair and inaccurate for the Boise State program.
María Escobedo is a Spanish major at Boise State with an ethnic studies minor and a Latin American studies minor.
“There is a misconception of what we really are,” Escobedo said. “We don’t just look at stereotypical and superficial topics about different races. We talk about deep and long-term and generational issues within the communities.”
According to Ramirez, although the ethnic studies major is small, the minor is quite popular because of how well it syncs up with many other majors, such as history, Spanish, communication and many others.
Another reason the major has so few people in it, according to Ramirez, is the idea that a major should be useful in the sense that it allows you to obtain a higher income, while ethnic studies is useful because it provides a better connection with the world. Ethnic studies majors go into “people work,” such as non-profit organizations, human resources or public relations.
“Ethnic studies is useful for understanding your surroundings and helps you to better comprehend what others are going through and empathize with them regardless of how much you may have contributed to that or not,” Escobedo said.
Marielena Lopez is a sociology major with a minor in Chicano studies who plans to work in the ethnic studies program next semester.
“For me it is also about representation. It is status quo for a middle-class white person to go to college and it can cause people of color to feel like they have impostor syndrome,” Lopez said. “Knowing that there is a whole department dedicated to us is reassuring and gives us a safe place.”
There is quantitative data to suggest that Lopez is correct and that participating in these courses helps students of color better engage with schooling. According to researcher Christine E. Sleeter with the National Education Association, learning about people and topics related to the students’ ethnic backgrounds improved engagement in school, further improving skills such as literacy as well as their overall academic achievement.
Ethnic studies poses a means for students to develop a better worldly understanding of the other people around them and apply that knowledge to whatever career they plan on pursuing after school, or even in their day-to-day lives.
“This is not just a degree for people of color,” Lopez said. “Anybody who wants to learn about the people around them, or is going into a position where relationships with other people are important can benefit from ethnic studies, and we hope more people realize that as we grow.”