As an Armenian student who has been at Occidental for almost three years now, I am still looking for a recognized Middle Eastern community here. When I first came to Occidental, the Armenian Students Association (ASA) was inactive, so my best friend Lara Minassians (junior) and I reactivated the club. However, there are only approximately 10–12 Armenians on campus. ASA is my pride and joy at Oxy, and I am grateful to be able to create this community for myself and my peers.
However, keeping this community active is not enough — nor is it solely my job. This lack of inclusion is not just a problem for me as an Armenian, but for others who identify with a specific group within a wider umbrella of Middle Eastern identifying students. Middle Eastern identifying students include Armenians, Egyptians, Afghans, Iranians, Lebanese, Syrians, Arabs, Turks and so many more. We must be more accurately represented in our course content and offerings, and we need to ensure that Middle Eastern students are a core identity group at Occidental.
I wish that it could be as simple as having core spaces for groups that generally fall within the Middle Eastern community. But the term “Middle Eastern” is complicated itself — it’s the way I have to identify myself because it’s easiest for people to understand. Blanket terms like this describe so many diverse groups within the larger Middle Eastern community.
A few weeks ago, we, as ASA leadership, received an email from the Intercultural Community Center (ICC) about the five mixers (Latinx, first-generation, Pan-Asian, LGBTQ+ and black) occurring soon. However, there was no identity mixer I felt I could participate in, so it felt useless to send the mixer options to ASA members. I sent an email to Christopher Arguedas, the director of the ICC, explaining my feelings about not being able to identify with a group. At Oxy, it’s difficult for Middle Eastern students to feel included. Arguedas was very responsive and organized a time for us to meet. He wanted to address my concerns with a larger event.
The first way we can ensure more institutional support is through academics. There are, problematically, few professors who specialize in the Middle East. Los Angeles is home to the largest community of Armenians outside Armenia, due in part to the Armenian genocide when Armenians had to flee and create new communities in various places. Los Angeles also has large Persian, Egyptian and Lebanese populations. Highlighting Armenian and other Middle Eastern experiences is especially important at Oxy, considering our location.
Yet we don’t have adequate classes or professors to teach about our minorities. I have had discussions with my peers in Diplomacy & World Affairs, history and religious studies classes who tell me that they never learn about Middle Eastern minorities like Armenians. In classes where we talk about the Middle East, we tend to only talk about the majority Middle East; for example, when we did units on the Middle East and feminism in some of my feminist studies courses, we only studied Arab women. Discussions often focus too much on violence or diagnosing how “backward” Middle Eastern societies might be — but there is more to learn about these cultures, like history or activism. We need to focus on those qualities more.
It should not be only the ASA’s responsibility to have Armenian genocide education at Oxy. After we reactivated ASA, we made it our mission to educate the campus about the Armenian Genocide — and who Armenians even were. This is not an issue specific to Armenians, either, as my friends from other Middle Eastern identities feel the same struggle with getting their history, people and presence known.
Occidental should also recognize Middle Eastern identifying students as one of the core identity groups — we should have our own mixer and cultural graduation like other groups on campus. Some may say that we have clubs that provide spaces for identity, but it is not fair for students to be each other’s only support. I wonder and worry about what will happen to ASA when I and my e-board members graduate. If ASA has been only student-run and student-supported, who will care about whether or not there is a space for students to learn about the Armenian culture? Institutional support looks like Middle Eastern identifying students have spaces at the college outside of student clubs. We make up such a huge portion of the city’s culture, yet at Oxy, we don’t have the same centered recognition.
It is time that we bring this issue to light. It is not too late to start. Please come to the ICC for a discussion after spring break to engage in an open discussion with faculty, staff and students about how we can work together as an institution to better include Middle Eastern identifying groups on campus. You can share what this identity means to you and what you hope to do with it during your time at Oxy. My identity is one of the core aspects of my life — and I want the college to value it.
Serena Pelenghian is a junior Critical Theory & Social Justice (CTSJ) major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.