Hamilton College, with a college population of less than 3000, is bound to resort to a formation of a tight-knit community — also known as a “Hamily.” Although the focus of the college is the undergraduate experience, Hamitlon employees from all functions keep the community alive alongside the students who come from all over the globe. Because of Hamilton’s intimate community, the close relationships individuals form with one another on campus make the college special. Despite the community, like the students who come and go on the hill, employees of the college who have stayed or have gone away, have their own perspectives of Hamilton College’s social atmosphere as an Asian-identifying individual.
Change Through Time
Employees who have been at Hamilton College since the early 2000s have noticed changes from when they first started working on campus to present- day. Various employees mentioned that they have seen a drastic improvement in numerical representation amongst the student and faculty population. According to Employee 2, as more employees retire or pursue other endeavors, it seems as if the college has made a conscious effort to hire greater numbers of diverse employees for all functions of the college. Now, Asian employees note an improvement in gender distributions, Asians, and, in general, more people of color working at the college and living nearby. Employees 3 and 9 attribute the demographic shift in employee hires and student recruitment to the college’s awareness of racial issues and the improvement of curriculum and population make up as a result.
Life in Upstate New York
Unlike students, who leave campus for the holidays or breaks, college employees live in the area. Asian-identifying employees living in the area mentioned challenges in Upstate New York. Although there is an Asian community in Utica, employees have noted feeling an obvious dichotomy between their values or lifestyle compared to the local community. For instance, Employee 3 has found living in Upstate New York challenging because of the local Asian American community’s different politics and family-oriented lifestyle. Employee 3 identified themself as a very liberal person but is aware that the Asian people in the area are not as liberal, stating that “just because we look the same, doesn’t mean we have the same politics.” Employee 3 noted that the political beliefs of the Asian Americans in the area tend to run more conservative, making it difficult to bond with others. Both Employees 4 and 13 observed changes in the atmosphere at Hamilton College during the Trump administration and, currently, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, living within the liberal bubble of Hamilton amongst the predominantly white, rural, and conservative region of Central/Upstate New York can foster feelings of isolation. Perhaps Oneida County feels safe to a white man, woman, or child, but Employee 13 pointed out that it is not necessarily the same case for those who do not look like the rest of the community.
Employee 9 recalls being in Clinton and noticing the white kids gazing at them as if they were “aliens” because they looked and spoke a different language. They remember leaving Upstate New York and realizing that they could be regarded as just another person, rather than being a person of a certain race.
In addition to social experience, cultural aspects of one’s life are equally important. Although Hamilton College is an American institution, most employees expressed missing hearing different languages and seeing cultural and racial diversity on a regular basis. Employees expressed feeling different. For instance, Employee 2 felt uncomfortable speaking a certain language with other colleagues, fearing that they may be perceived as a foreigner or that strangers may assume that their English is not fluent or proficient based on appearance alone. As aforementioned, politics and lifestyles don’t always align, and when one is unable to fit in with the local Asian community, as well as the general population, it serves as a reminder that they are different.
Religion is often a source of moral support and a link to the community. However, this can often be a struggle for many due to the lack of religious diversity in Upstate New York, as pointed out by employee 10. Although one can practice aspects of their religion at home, there still is a desire for community engagement as one’s religion can be an integral part of who they are. “This past year has been a moment of reckoning where a lot of people were thinking about their identities, and this is a real feature of this historical moment,” Employee 13 reflected.
Food is one of the few ways someone can feel indelibly connected to their culture. Both employees and students noted that the lack of culturally rich food contributes to feelings of isolation and homesickness on campus. According to Employee 2, food serves as a reminder of home and family. Additionally, Employee 7 also mentions how they, at this stage in life, have the financial and emotional resources to recreate a sense of culture for their family yet still long for a larger community to engage in celebrations of culture.
The harsh reality is that it is difficult to change an environment that has been historically white. Employee 2 noted that restaurants around the area are quite limited, and it takes some time to get used to the few offerings. Even after becoming accustomed to the limited food options, it never truly hits home. Employee 7 goes on to say how the availability of some types of Asian food serve as a reminder of the vagueness of the term “Asian,” a catch-all label that glosses over the nuances present within the entire Asian community. Similar to how students dislike dining-hall food, cooking becomes an essential skill to feel at home or to feel connected to one’s culture.
These are just some of the layers to consider when thinking about the well-being and inclusion of people who are not part of the majority.
Employee 9 recalls a comment made by a colleague about the diverse demographics of students that interact with them. Employee 9 then contemplated if that was a positive comment or not. Often Asians — students and employees — hear comments that they are puzzled by and don’t know how to react to. This was one such example. Additionally, an employee mentions contemplating the reasons they were praised or given recognition. They said “Is it because I am good or because I am Asian?”
Interaction with Students
In an environment that stresses academics, some students find it difficult to approach other students and employees with issues pertaining to challenging social and cultural experiences. When these difficult experiences appear fairly isolated, they are limited to whom individuals can turn to. Employee 2 recalls that, over the last few years, Asian students would approach them with either one of two purposes: to talk about academics or to transfer. This is Hamilton, it has been this way for 200 years. I can’t do anything, make changes, so maybe it’s better for me to get up and walk away,” Employee 2 recalled overhearing. Employee 11 and 9 presumed that Asian students were more open to someone like themselves due to relatability. In addition, subtle cues made by an employee while interacting with students in a time of distress can put the student at ease, knowing that the employee understands the intricacies of the situation.
Although various employees are aware of some of the difficulties Asian and Asian American students face at Hamilton College, their perception of student life is but a fraction of the many elements key to student experiences. Students are not explicitly informing employees or the college of their experiences. Thus, a lot of student life as perceived by employees is observational. As mentioned in the Days-Massolo Center write- up, Asian and Asian American experiences are not homogenous. An employee assumed, from a purely observational standpoint, that international Asian students are in that academic mentality of focusing on studying, getting good grades, and going home. From an outsider’s point of view, it is assumed that they do not seem too bothered by feelings of marginalization, unlike Asian American students who feel uncomfortable being at the college. This could be an unfair assumption, not based on direct conversations with international students.
An employee brought up the differences in their interactions with students who identify as Asian international students and ones who identify as Asian American, who were born and grew up in the United States. While their interactions with Asian international students are more pop-culture based, their interactions with Asian American students mostly focus on growing up as Asian in the United States. The range of experiences varies. For example, experiences of an Asian American student who grew up in a predominantly Asian neighborhood and retained various aspects of their culture may be extremely different from an Asian American student who grew up in a predominantly non-Asian neighborhood.
Employee 13 noted that they sometimes observed cohorts of Asian students who support each other. Yet, for the majority of the time, they recognized “a divide between Asian students from abroad and Asian American students.” Every so often, Asian American students seem to find a group of friends made up of predominantly students of color. This was also evident in our student and alumni interviews, where many interviewees acknowledged that their social circles were predominantly made up of people of color. Employee 4 also mentioned that there seem to be divides between ethnic groups within the Asian American student population. “It doesn’t feel like a single community, and that may not be a bad thing because as we know Asians and Asian Americans are both terms where lots of people fall under as a category and identify with those terms in different way, but I’m just very aware of that.”
Employee 13 went on to say that sometimes students “don’t really know where they fit.” Numerous variables can influence not fitting in, such as wealth disparities, country of origin, hometown, language fluency, etc. Lacking a sense of belonging can affect anyone. The way the majority perceives outsiders can be unfair, ignorant, and exclusionary. People who are not international students lack awareness of how harrowing this past year has been during the pandemic. Time zone differences when contacting loved ones back home, not being able to return home, not being able to return to the U.S. after returning home, and visa challenges are just a few of the many hardships students from abroad face.
An employee specifically pointed out the lack of support that people of color in general receive from the college. They continued to say that this is especially the case for students from high schools that offer limited opportunities. In support of student testimonies about facing a harsh adjustment period, the employee also noticed that some students had a steeper adjustment period, despite being just as talented as any other student. They explained how the college’s focus on HEOP and other opportunity programs is through the lens of how the programs are able to bring good PR while ignoring the quality of support provided to the students. Additionally, the employee mentioned how those running the HEOP program have “meager salaries” and that “the college needs to put their money where their mouth is.” They further elaborated that the college should focus on the effect and efficiency of such programs on the students. However, this does not mean the opportunity programs, such as HEOP, are not helpful. In fact, student testimonies give us overwhelmingly positive comments about the HEOP program, whether it came from the continuous support or the opportunities they received. The employee emphasized that there is so much more that can be done if the college increased their support much like other changes that need to happen.
As for goals that can be achieved to make the Asian and Asian American experience better on campus, employees acknowledge that it will require an effort from students, employees, and the college to make substantial change. Multiple employees suggested having events featuring a diverse set of speakers with a variety of Asian backgrounds. An employee also mentioned the importance of celebrating festivals that also educate the larger campus community about the nuances of what being an Asian or Asian American means. They mentioned how just having one big event that celebrates all festivals would fall flat and be one-dimensional. At the same time, if students were to have multiple events that featured all the nuances, that would be overwhelming. Another employee noted that when events are held, students would approach employees and ask them for help in using college resources or obtaining permission for such events. Unfortunately, it leans more into giving employees an observational role, rather than a balanced hands-on role. It is then upon us, as students, to collaborate with the employees as resources to organize such events in order to educate everyone. In Employee 7’s opinion, most importantly, we need to deconstruct what we mean by the term Asian.
It is important to remember that “Asia” is an all encompassing term coined by Westerners. Therefore, not all people who live in Asia identify themselves as Asian. Asia is a continent with a variety of cultures, languages, histories, and people. When people use “Asian(s),” they are most often referring to East, Southeast, and South Asians. Employee 11 believes that there is an opportunity to educate people on this fact. In addition, having a center for international students and employees would make the transition easier for those who are far away from home. Students from the U.S. could also take advantage of an international center to meet people they wouldn’t normally cross paths with. Employee 4 reminded us that resources do not always refer to money but could also be a safe space or community that encourages discourse and rhetoric. The ways in which people talk or don’t talk about Asian-related matters depends on the environment surrounding them. Also, as mentioned in the Days-Massolo Center write-up, it’s difficult to gauge what is needed by the Asian and Asian American community if no one is speaking up or making needs known.
Employee 9 pointed out something the college had already done to improve the lives of international faculty at Hamilton. During previous years, an international faculty employed by Hamilton would have to pay their immigration and legal fees themselves, which can stack up to tens of thousands of dollars for a good law firm. Due to faculty efforts, the college has now taken the responsibility of paying and hiring immigration lawyers for these international faculty who are in need of those services. According to Employee 9, this is a very beneficial step for tenure-track faculty and, even though the impact may be limited, “it is a nice gesture.”
Hamilton College is still predominantly white. Although the college has experienced a demographic shift, better than it was two decades ago, the institution is still “operating as an institution built to serve white elites.” Thus, students and employees of color are “working against a historical legacy to try to turn a big shift,” according to Employee 3.