Conference 2014: Opening Ceremony Reflections

Yes, it took me more than a day to recover from the hecticness (but in the best way possible!) that was conference. As a "young professional" who hasn't been a student in a couple of years (besides the oh-so-cliched "student of life") I was excited that the themes and the workshops didn't just target college students, but addressed issues outside of the student realm as well. I loved the idea of "Mission: Ignition" and I think I came back from conference pretty ignited. I struggled to find ways to get involved in my community after college, having watched my regular network of friends and fellow activists disperse after graduation. But then there was conference! Where else could I have found nearly a thousand other activists, students and working professionals alike, all invested in the same issues of race and oppression and everything I've been struggling against? Though conference was only a couple of days, there were so many things that happened that I couldn't possibly list all of them.

But here are some highlights: The backstory of this photo is that I told my students that I was going to D.C. for a conference and they immediately asked me if I would be meeting anyone "cool." I shrugged and said that I didn't think they'd know any of the keynote speakers, but that I knew the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, would be the keynote speaker during Opening Ceremonies. I didn't expect my students to know who he was, but one boy nearly fell out of his seat as he raised his hand shouting, "Ooh ooh Miss I have something to share!" Now this boy is notorious for sharing very off-task and unrelated stories, and knowing that I would be missing school for conference I tried to gently dissuade him from sharing now and asked if he could share after class if there was time. But he was so vehement "THIS IS RELEVANT I PROMISE!" he nearly shouted that I relented, and he said, "I saw him [Duncan] on TV! He was in the celebrity basketball game! He scored 20 points!" I was surprised at this piece of information, but then figured that if anyone knew basketball, it was this student, who loved all things basketball.

I didn't know at this time whether or not I'd get a chance to speak to Secretary Duncan, but promised the student I'd pass on his regards and admiration if given the opportunity. Luckily, I was able to catch Secretary Duncan before his conversation in the ceremony, and below is me explaining the story to him. I'd like to think I did my student justice in demonstrating his excitement. Secretary Duncan listened obligingly to my story and gamely told me I could pass on a "Hey" to my student--who I'm sure will be thrilled to hear this.

I share my student's story (and apparently excitement) with Secretary Duncan.

Duncan's armchair conversation with Kiran Ahuja, Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders was an interesting one indeed.

The armchair discussion between Kiran Ahuja and Arne Duncan during the ECAASU 2014 Conference Opening Ceremony.

They discussed AANAPISIs (follow the hashtag on Twitter for more information!), the fact that the United States is currently ranked 12th in terms of college grades because of stagnation, and bringing the costs of college down for students. For the latter, Duncan acknowledged the particular difficulty first generation college students face, especially when needing to work. I looked around as he polled the audience, asking who had to work to support themselves in college--and I saw many hands up (my own included).

Ahuja brought up unique issues the APIA community faces, including the fact that 1/3 of APIA students are limited English proficient and that nearly 2/3 of APIA students face some type of cyber bullying but have the lowest rate of reporting such abuse. When contrasting this with the model minority myth, Duncan said that we should celebrate success and excellence but need to have honest conversations about broader communities.

Duncan's interest in education stems from growing up in Chicago and noticing inequalities in his neighborhood. When he said "Education can be the great equalizer...or exacerbate the situation between the haves and have nots," I remembered this sentiment--as it's the very one that brought me into education.

Another conversation of note was one on mental health. The statistics on mental health in APIAs are staggering, especially when it comes to young APIA women. Duncan discussed the need to reduce stigma and also dealing with cuts to school budgets and the number of counselors and social workers. He also discussed concern over gun violence and its intersection with mental illnesses as well.

However, the biggest moment for me was his observation that unfortunately, many colleges don't take sexual assault seriously and give merely lip service to handling it on campuses. As a UConn alumna who is deeply ashamed of the way the university failed several survivors of sexual assault, and one who was heavily involved in attempting to end sexual violence on campus, I was happy to hear Duncan say that the office has been doing more investigations and working with colleges in a proactive way. Of course, only time will tell if things change--certainly there are greater societal issues contributing to the atmosphere of violence in general.

The rest of the opening acts were fantastic, including hilarious commentary and song by Jen Kwok, lyrical music by Us, and my personal favorite: badass slam poetry by G. Yamazawa. All in all, an excellent start to conference.

As this post turned out more extensive than I originally planned, I'll follow up tomorrow with some more observations on the rest of Conference. If you'd like to share your conference story, email me at cynthia.luo@ecaasu.org or find me on Twitter @scluo!

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