Pirates Speak Out on Identity and Representation
Southwestern’s Center for Career & Professional Development begins an “Identities in the Workplace” conversation as a resource for members of marginalized communities.
In Fall 2020 and Spring 2021, the Center for Career & Professional Development began hosting an Identities in the Workplace series, where alumni discussed with students topics such microaggressions, tokenism, and expressing yourself through what you wear in the workplace.
While working as student associates in the CCPD, I-CORPS Program Coordinator Emma Lopez ’21 and Chalyn White ’23 pioneered the Identities series, which seeks to provide resources around a multitude of identities to prospective students, current students, and recent graduates entering the workforce.
“This event series emerged out of conversations with my friends and coworkers, several of whom expressed that they were struggling to find career guidance from alumni and professionals who shared their specific identities,” Lopez states. “It is incredibly important for students of color, queer students, disabled students, etc. to have the opportunity to speak to people in their fields who share their experiences of the unique challenges of the workplace that come with these identities.”
After a very impactful start, the initiative is one the CCPD looks forward to continuing, and hopes more students and alumni will join the conversations.
Najmu Mohseen ’16 participated in one of the panels because she wanted to hear from the other panelists, whose experiences are vital to Southwestern’s history, but have not often been showcased in years past. “I can’t really remember a time that Southwestern had a conversation that had a focus on race, religion, gender, or sexuality,” Mohseen explains. “So I was just really happy that Southwestern was having these conversations, because I think that’s the first step in making things better.”
For panelist Kamna Parafina ’13, it’s all about validating marginalized students’ experiences and being open enough to talk about those tough topics. “First of all,” Parafina says, “I think Southwestern asked because I’ve always been an active advocate for diversity and inclusion. I’m just one of those people who are willing to have those kinds of conversations.” Being on the Alumni Council, she has also had the opportunity to provide a sense of realness for students who feel underrepresented. “I really struggled in my first year, feeling really isolated,” she explains, “but it’s why I say yes. It’s a model for students who might be having similar experiences一that there are people in the Alumni Council who look like [marginalized] students and who have gone through tough times.”
Jasmine “Jazz” Thomas ’12 shared that she participated because she felt that it was a safe place to do so. She noted that it’s important to trust who you’re engaging in conversations with, because there are times when it can feel burdening to minorities that have already given so much. “I’ve been in situations where it feels like they just want you to perform your ‘blackness,’ Thomas relays, “so looking into the folks who organized this made me feel safe enough to participate.” Furthermore, Thomas loves Southwestern and, as an engaged alum, this was a chance for her to return the favor. “I wanted to help the students of SU who felt like that opportunity [the panel] was going to help them feel a little bit more prepared as people of color, as minorities, as women, to leave into the workforce,” she concludes.
Paying it forward is what Roswill Mejía ’11 says motivated her to accept the invitation to speak on a panel. “I know that I very much benefited from people taking time out of their day to reach back and mentor me一offering support, guidance, and advice that I otherwise would not have had access to” she comments. “I feel very strongly about paying that forward.” Roswill is an attorney practicing law in Austin, Texas and the daughter of immigrants. Because of these lived experiences, she believes that when professionals share their stories, it helps make those career paths more accessible for underrepresented or marginalized communities. “It can feel isolating when you are in an environment where your culture and experiences are not often reflected in those around you,” Mejía explains. “I think it’s important to foster a sense of belonging amongst upcoming graduates from marginalized or underrepresented communities一to encourage them to show up and take up space because their unique perspectives and experiences bring value.”
One thing Mohseen noticed while hearing from her fellow Pirate alumni during the panel was that the microaggressions she experienced in the classroom and other marginalizing experiences were not isolated to her alone一though they were different experiences. Attending a school where the minority population is very small is what Mohseen believes made the panel so interesting and informative to her. “While it’s not okay and I wasn’t surprised by anything those ladies said,” Mohseen states, “I think [the previous lack of conversation about race] explains why I wasn’t even aware these things were even happening to others.” The frequency with which those micro aggressions occurred was not overtly noticeable even though Mohseen experienced them. Opening up about them is one of many ways to encourage others to feel less alone in these experiences.
Participating with the Coalition for Diversity and Social Justice while at SU, Parafina also experienced that the collective is stronger than the whole, so participating in this panel encouraged her to get back to speaking out for herself. “The panel was really helpful for me in knowing that the other [panelists] are experiencing [microaggressions] across all these different industries and levels that it’s real and an issue,” Parafina shares. “This lit the fire back under me to be more of an advocate for myself, along with others, to continue to educate and surround myself with people who’ve also experienced microaggressions, so I can learn from them and have these kinds of conversations.” After college, notes Parafina, it’s easy to minimize your own experiences and get complacent in advocating for yourself, so serving on the panel and hearing other alumni stories further fueled her drive to keep pushing for progress for marginalized communities.
Thomas also relates to the common theme that taking part in this type of conversation helps members of marginalized groups, women in particular, feel less alone while dealing with the work environment. “The first thing that came to my mind was that I wasn’t on an island,” she says. At the time of the panel, Thomas was just coming out of a tricky situation with her job. While she laments that her experiences might have seemed negative to the students listening, Thomas states that brutal honesty was needed. She found that listening to the other panelists gave her some silver linings she just wasn’t seeing at first. “It was really good that [they, students] could hear my part,” Thomas responds, “but the other folks on the panel could speak about how to be active and responsive – how to respond civilly and make sure that you’re heard.” If anything, attending the panel solidified her decision to leave that job and encouraged her in ways she didn’t even know she needed.
Finally, Mejía thinks that her biggest takeaway from the panel was seeing a common thread in the panelists’ experiences, despite their very different backgrounds, workplaces, and stages of professional development. “It signals that this … is a shared experience worth talking about,” Mejía relays. “It can be intimidating when you’re an undergraduate getting ready to go out into the world, but don’t necessarily have access to people you identify with who are doing what you want to do.” Coming together for this panel was an opportunity for building connection, for both the undergraduates listening and for the alumni. Visibility matters, and sharing your experiences can help someone else with their own professional journey, Mejía concludes.