The first experience a prospective student has with the University of Oregon is with a UO Ambassador. The ambassadors play an important role in representing our university and give insight on what it’s like to be a student. They talk about the school and the history of the buildings while tying in their personal experiences. Their main priority is to convince potential students that this could be them too. However, that is not always the case when you’re an ambassador of color.
I became aware of casual discrimination against UO ambassadors of color during my third year at UO, when a student in one of my classes spoke up in a discussion about microagressions and stereotypes. She explained how she was treated in comparison to White ambassadors when giving tours: Prospective students didn’t ask her about her college experience;rather, they asked her how she was able to afford the university. Her tours were almost always filled with questions about financial aid or athletic and academic scholarships. Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence among ambassadors of color.
UO Ambassadors of color constantly deal with microaggressions and stereotypes when giving tours, and this doesn’t just happen at UO. A 2014 City University of New York study found that Black and Latinx students at primarily White institutions were often treated as intellectually inferior or it was assumed that they were from race-class subjugated communities. The study also showed that students of color were automatically criminalized or exoticised solely based on their skin color and features. This impacts a student’s self-esteem, self-worth, mental health and academics. Their college experiences are already assumed before they even get to speak because of microaggressions and stereotypes.
Former UO Ambassador Laureli Singsank is a half-Asian American student from Hawai’i who had never faced many microaggressions or stereotypes until she had arrived at UO.
During her time as a UO Ambassador, Singsank had many instances where she wanted to speak up for herself or the university during a tour, but felt unable to. She feared that,if she did, the family of the prospective student would become disinterested and choose another school. She felt she was always in a position where UO put the family’s comfort before hers.
“You’re trying to make the families feel as comfortable and as at home as possible. It’s just what’s going to come with the job,” Singsank said to the Emerald.
In one instance, she gave a tour to a family that had donated to UO. The grandfather complained about students protesting for the removal of the Pioneer statue, because he felt it was a part of the school’s history. Singsank wanted to explain to him why students felt it was important to remove the statue but remained silent because he was a donor.
“There were a lot of comments where I felt like I had no power to say anything and push back,” Singsank said.
Other ambassadors of color Singsank worked with also had bad experiences with some of their tours. One of her coworkers was constantly asked about athletics and athletic scholarships when giving tours instead of her academics because she was Black, Singsank said. Unlike some of her coworkers, Singsank was comfortable when asked about her race but knew that the students hadn’t considered her comfort before asking.
“[They’re] not asking that because [they] know I'm okay with it,” she said.
Singsank also felt like her bosses placed her with Black and Latinx families solely because she was a Person of Color. To Singsank, it wasn’t a problem to give the tour, but she felt the families would have been better served by a Black or Latinx ambassador who could better relate to their experiences.
“The fact that I’m half-Asian doesn’t mean anything if I’m talking to lower income African American students or first-generation Latinx students,” Singsank said.
Singsank said that the program does allow for student ambassadors to bring up issues that happened on the tour and sometimes even address the parent or prospective student about their inappropriate behavior. However, this isn’t enough.
Students need to be able to speak up for themselves in the moment rather than wait until the tour is over. It’s also not okay to assign an ambassador of color to a tour group if they cannot share their same experiences. You cannot assign an Asian student to a group of Latinx students where their experiences with race are completely different.
By creating an environment where student ambassadors feel unable to combat casual racism, the UO Ambassadors program sets the tone for prospective students to bring their biases onto our campus. The program should listen to ambassadors of colors’ complaints and develop ways the ambassadors can approach microaggressions and stereotypes when they occur. The program also needs to ensure ambassadors of color feel empowered to take immediate action, even if they’re speaking to a donor. Ambassadors of color’s college experiences need to be shared instead of being controlled by stereotyping and microaggressive comments.