Aurora McKenzie ’21 is getting a Caribbean studies minor — even though it doesn’t exist at Cornell yet.
Instead, she’s piecing together a curriculum by drawing on classes from Africana, Latin American and Latina/o studies, trying to prove that the program is intellectually cohesive and possible at Cornell. McKenzie — who is the president and co-founder of the Caribbean Students Association — lamented the work she’s had to put in to study her culture and history.
This semester, there are just five courses that relate to Caribbean studies; only three of those reference the Caribbean in their course titles. This doesn’t just harm the students looking for those classes, but it also means that non-Caribbean students have fewer opportunities to learn about the region and its culture, according to CSA Director of External Affairs Matthew Arthur ’21.
“This is just such a clear problem because we’re Caribbean students and we’re actively searching for [those classes],” Arthur said. “There are also going to be students that aren’t of Caribbean descent who don’t necessarily have this in their minds — that are not gonna look for the classes and they don’t pop up when they’re searching.”
Representing 40 countries and a dynamic culture, Caribbean students on campus are demanding better for their community, even though the University’s lack of demographic data about Caribbean students challenges their ability to organize.
In February 2019, McKenzie and four other Caribbean students founded CSA, determined to forge their own community and promote education and Caribbean voices.
“The Caribbean community is important to us: It’s a big deal for our heritage and our culture and not seeing that at Cornell did upset every single one of us,” McKenzie said. “So we decided to make it our job to educate on, embrace and share the Caribbean culture with the Cornell community as a whole, especially connecting the Caribbean community together.”
This semester, the group is expanding their efforts with a petition to compel the University to uphold its commitment to “any study.”
The petition opens with demands about this academic oversight — a creation of a Caribbean studies minor, the hiring of academic and advising staff members who are Caribbeanists in their primary research, increased funding opportunities for Caribbean studies research and a curriculum review.
Someday, CSA hopes to have a fully-fledged Caribbean studies program and a space of their own, but right now, they are asking for academic support and incorporation of Caribbean history into the new Anti-Racism Center.
But CSA’s demands are two-fold: Beyond academic inclusion, the students are asking for recognition and inclusion of their full identities.
The first step is recognizing June as National Caribbean-American Heritage Month and adding it to the official University calendar.
“That would be support from the University as a whole,” McKenzie said. “That would be great, especially for alumni, like looking back and going, ‘Wow, now Cornell is actually seeing that this is my people. It is important to them, too, because they don’t just put anything on their calendar.’”
They also want to include “Caribbean” and more country-specific options for ethnicity self-identification during applications to Cornell — to both represent their cultural heritage and as a practical solution.
Because Caribbean students are of all races, there is no way for CSA to get an accurate count on the number of students with Caribbean heritage at Cornell.
“We would like to know how many students on this campus are actually identifying with being Caribbean, because it’s important to us,” McKenzie said. “When [Caribbean] students come on this campus … the hardest thing is that you have to find each other.”
They find that this lack of a concrete number also hurts their efforts to enact change because it’s hard to gauge interest and representation. But they know there are Caribbean students, because the CSA’s numbers are increasing, including alumni who never had a Caribbean community while at Cornell and found the group after graduating.
Finally, CSA wants to see an agreement between Cornell and the Caribbean Examination Council — a body that administers standardized testing across the region — that will allow students to submit those exams for credit.
“We’re asking basically for them to recognize it’s equivalent to the IB and the AP, because it’s on the same level as those examinations, and they were based off of the GSCEs [General Certificate of Secondary Education] that are accepted by many different schools from Europe,” said CSA Treasurer Leone Farquharson ’22, who grew up and went to high school in Jamaica. “I had to do those examinations plus the SAT, plus the SAT subject [test], so it’s like I have to double up on what my education system required plus what the U.S. required.”
Some peer institutions, like New York University, already accept the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination, according to Farquharson.
Since launching their petition, CSA focused on meeting with as many department heads and Cornell administration as possible to get their voices heard widely.
According to Arthur, Cornell’s CSA has already received support from various Caribbean interest groups across the country and various faculty members at Cornell, who have acknowledged their demands as “fully legit.”
CSA has big dreams of more courses, visibility, a major, a dedicated building and long-term change, but “the likelihood of this happening is much stronger with students behind it,” Arthur explained.
“The Caribbean is very decentralized on campus,” McKenzie said. “We’re trying to centralize it again, have a space for it, instead of just being away from each other.”
This is the first story from The Sun’s new BIPOC/Related section.
As a newspaper that serves as a fountain of information for the Cornell community –– which champions “any person, any study”–– it is our responsibility to honor the stories of all Cornellians and their communities. The Sun’s BIPOC/Related section is an initiative to improve the consistency of our coverage of the BIPOC community in all of its forms. Publishing at least three times a week, this section is a space to amplify student experiences and dig deeper into the nuances of identity at Cornell.