February 14, 2007
Gina Lopez is an ordinary woman with a superhero fetish. On this day, the 22-year-old sits at a table in a cafe at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California wearing a black and silver superman T-shirt. Gina comes from a family of collectors and owns at least half a dozen similar T-shirts, her favorites being the ones where the Superman insignia is altered slightly to be Superwoman. “I guess I’ve always been a proud feminist,” she jokes.
Gina just starting the second semester of a master’s program in Applied Women’s Studies and, judging from the piles of scholarly articles, books and planners spread out on the table before her, she’s certainly had better days. Her soft brown eyes look worried, but her smile remains reassured.
Today’s nemesis is a course in Feminist and Queer Theory. The battle involves taking abstract theoretical concepts and turning them into practical, real-life applications.
“I wanted to combine theory and practice,” she says. But, right now, the budding professor is caught in a seemingly endless cycle of theory without action.
It’s a familiar challenge, one she’s confronted often over the years. It centers around the paradox posed by many (especially private) institutions of higher learning, where students of color from working class backgrounds are working on solutions to race, class and gender equality. On the one hand, these students are told that their mere presence is a sign of social equality. On the other hand, they are made to face the very tangible effects of what is still a very white, upper-middle class system.
And, while many of the faculty and students at colleges and universities around the nation may seem to be getting progressively liberal, recent attacks on affirmative action and federal loan programs have created a climate for working class students of color that is increasingly tense.
For many students of color already on college campuses–like Gina–frustration and isolation play a significant role in their college experiences. In many cases, the real challenge lies in negotiating the space between their privileged college lives and the communities from which they came.
A family matter
Family has always been at the center of Gina’s life, so when it came time to decide on a college, the Pacoima, Calif., native decided to stay close to home and attend Occidental College, just a 20-minute drive from home. She has already broken tradition and dodged expectations with her family. As the youngest daughter of five children, she chose to live on campus and not to stay at home with her parents as they entered old age.