Education

Ethnic sashes are dropped from college graduation. Some students want them back

Fresno Pacific University announced plans to end its tradition of allowing minority students to wear ethnic sashes, such as these from the unversity’s 2009 graduation ceremony. Some students are urging that the tradition be restored.
Fresno Pacific University announced plans to end its tradition of allowing minority students to wear ethnic sashes, such as these from the unversity’s 2009 graduation ceremony. Some students are urging that the tradition be restored. JUAN ESPARZA LOERA/Vida

Fresno Pacific University’s tradition of allowing certain students to wear ethnic sashes along with their robes at graduation was canceled earlier this month, but students are fighting to get the tradition back.

The Christian school announced the change in an email to students and staff on Oct. 12, saying that the 20-year policy of celebrating “underrepresented ethnic minority communities” with cultural stoles will no longer be allowed. Instead it will be replaced with a display of international flags at commencement representing “every tribe and nation.”

According to a petition being circulated to keep the sashes, complaints had been made by students who did not receive them, and the policy change may be a solution to their “cry out for recognition” as non-minorities.

“Why must the discontinuance of ethnic sashes have to be the price to pay in exchange for equality in recognition?” the petition, started by student Karen Vargas, said. “Those coming from minority groups, or labeling themselves as anything else aside from white, should get to proudly represent their roots when they receive their college degree. We overcome so many obstacles, both financial and cultural, to get to that stage on graduation day, and with our presence and sash make the statement that we are, one by one, making a difference in our communities and cultures.”

Those coming from minority groups, or labeling themselves as anything else aside from white, should get to proudly represent their roots when they receive their college degree.

Fresno Pacific student Karen Vargas

Vargas declined to comment, saying she has met with Fresno Pacific administration and is optimistic a solution will be provided as soon as this week. The petition had more than 11,600 signatures as of Friday afternoon.

Student complaints about the ethnic sashes are acknowledged in a blog post on Fresno Pacific’s website from 2013.

“The questions are usually something like this: ‘Why would you single out specific groups for honor or sashes?; if a few ethnic groups get specific recognition, why shouldn’t all groups?; and commencement is a time for everyone to come together, doesn’t singling out groups for recognition go against that common celebration?’” the post, written by professor Steve Varvis, said.

In a video posted Oct. 5, the university’s pastor, Angulus Wilson, said the sash policy was made at a time when few minorities attended the school and those students “had no family or people supporting them” at commencement.

Now, more than 70 different nations are represented at the school, Wilson said.

No longer just a sash, but commencement itself will become multi-ethnic, multi-cultural.

Fresno Pacific pastor Angulus Wilson.

“As of today, tremendous things have happened in our university. We have turned a corner, so that the majority of our graduates are multi-cultural, multi-ethnic Sunbirds (the school mascot),” he said. “Your country, your ethnicity and your people group will now be represented on stage. No longer just a sash, but commencement itself will become multi-ethnic, multi-cultural.”

According to the university’s demographics, 39 percent of students at Fresno Pacific are white; 36 percent are Latino; 4 percent are black; 3 percent are Asian; 2 percent are two or more races and 10 percent are “race-ethnicity unknown.”

Fresno Pacific professor Larry Dunn has spoken out against the cancellation, and said it reflects a “surprising degree of racial, ethnic and cultural blindness” that is making students feel slighted.

“One can legitimately question whether it is ‘fair’ to allow this for some students and not others, but we do well to remind ourselves that fairness and equality are not the same  ” Dunn said. “This change implies that 20 years of celebrating underrepresented ethnic minority communities is long enough.”

A Fresno Pacific spokesman said Friday that university President Joseph Jones has met with students, and that no final decision had been made.

Jones “is continuing the conversation with members of the university Diversity Committee to work through possible options that will benefit all students and graduates of FPU,” the statement said. “Communications will be forthcoming in the weeks ahead.”

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays

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