The Caribbean Students’ Association has achieved first steps in claiming an institutional place for Caribbean studies at Cornell through the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, which recently renamed its Latin American studies program the Latin American and Caribbean studies program.
The change, which was set in place in early September, moves toward Cornell’s Caribbean Students’ Association’s goals: establishing a Caribbean Studies minor, having Cornell accept Caribbean examinations as credit toward coursework and introducing Caribbean as an ethnicity to identify with on Cornell admissions and enrollment applications.
According to CSA’s co-founder and former president Aurora McKenzie ’21, the CSA made a list of demands in August 2020 that she and other Caribbean students on campus felt were necessary to increase Caribbean reach and visibility at Cornell, seeing the importance of the Caribbean region in the world.
“I had to explain what the Caribbean was to a lot of people, staff and students,” McKenzie said. “It was frustrating as a Caribbean student.”
McKenzie said the process of having their demands heard was at first nerve-wracking, in part because one of the first responses to their petition was a refusal to engage from the Africana Studies department –– where CSA initially hoped to house a Caribbean Studies minor. The department argued that the Caribbean Studies minor was not necessary because of a sufficient existing curriculum, a statement McKenzie said she strongly disagreed with.
According to co-founder of CSA Matthew Arthur ’21, while Cornell offers semester-long introductory courses like Africana studies 2122: Caribbean Worlds, there are few upper-level courses in Caribbean studies.
“We felt that the intellectual contributions of Caribbean scholars, as well as the role that the region played in developing modern society was not correctly addressed in the course offerings, nor was any emphasis placed on its importance through other mediums,” Arthur said.
According to Mckenzie and Arthur, CSA’s adviser Prof. Carole Boyce Davies, literatures in English, an expert on the Caribbean, has been a major source of support for the minor. According to Justin Lowe ’23, vice president of CSA, Boyce Davies wrote the Africana department an open letter criticizing their lack of support for the minor. The organization has since sought support from other departments.
Lowe said he thinks the naming of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies program is historic, but still hopes to see a Caribbean studies minor become a part of Cornell’s curriculum. The Einaudi Center, which CSA regards as its primary support, has offered to house the Caribbean Studies minor as well.
Still, the process of developing a new minor can be a long –– and tedious –– one, according to Prof. Ernesto Bassi, history, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies program.
“It is a process,” Bassi said. “It’s not going to be there this semester or the one after.”
Bassi is deciding whether the minor should be registered as Latin American and Caribbean studies, or Caribbean studies by itself –– but he said he wants to see more courses developed before launching a minor, as well as possible international collaborations. He has worked with colleagues to apply for a grant from Cornell Migrations to develop the Caribbean curriculum.
According to Bassi, the department is exploring partnership possibilities with the University of West Indies, which has campuses in Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago. These partnerships could include faculty collaborations, student exchanges –– between undergraduate, graduate and Ph.D. students –– as well as experiential and engaged courses that include opportunities for students to visit the Caribbean.
Bassi emphasized the student need for Cornell to hire more Caribbean faculty and broaden the disciplinary background of faculty. Seeing that the difficulties in trying to build the directory is testament to the need, Bassi said he would welcome the idea of creating a database or search engine that would help find colleagues at a “decentralized” Caribbean community at Cornell.
“There are great Carribeanists out there doing work on themes that are central to the work [those departments], and it would be great to have Caribbean colleagues,” Bassi said.
CSA is also demanding that Cornell recognize Caribbean as an ethnicity to identify with on applications. Other CSA demands include recognizing June as an official Caribbean American heritage month on Cornell’s calendar, as well as accepting Caribbean Examinations Council’s work as credit toward coursework, as is practiced by Cornell’s peer institutions like NYU, a number of which also offer Caribbean studies programs and minors.
“We have students from the Caribbean who’ve done the exact same coursework as those with IB and AP credits, who have to retake all the intro courses, take placements, or do a completely different set of classes to receive credit for what they already did,” Lowe said.
McKenzie, who had to pursue a Caribbean studies minor through an independent study, is hopeful that student demands will be effective in growing Caribbean studies at Cornell. McKenzie said she believes student feedback shows the Cornell administration and faculty that more resources are needed for this field of study.
“It is impossible to have a University like Cornell that says ‘Any person, any study’ — a University that claims to offer that egalitarian spirit — not offer a specific path of academia that focuses on the Caribbean,” Lowe said.