October 01, 2014
By Victoria Kidd
In the early 1980s, there were few interracial, bilingual students on the campus of Susquehanna University. Being a singular figure on a campus primarily consisting of “sameness” was difficult for a young girl from a small island in the Caribbean.
“At the time I had no language for naming my experiences at the university,” says Gertrude James González de Allen ’85. “There was no space for me to be black and Latina. My ethnic identity was completely erased. No one saw me as a Puerto Rican; my bilingual identity did not exist there.”
Because there was no real attention given to her unique identity, González de Allen experienced existential anxiety (a sense of worry, dread or panic that can arise from contemplation of questions such as “Who am I?” or “Why am I here?”) and “lots of questions.” In addition to not always being able to name or interpret her problematic experiences, González de Allen says, Susquehanna “did not provide an intellectual ground for learning about, understanding and discussing differences beyond the surface.”
At that point in Susquehanna’s evolution, there were no courses offering meaningful exploration of topics such as race, class, gender, sexuality and colonialism. “There was no space to discuss white privilege, racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism and imperialism,” González de Allen says. “On the surface, so much was wonderful. However, power structures were clearly operating all the time.
“It was students like me, in the margins constantly picking up the pieces and struggling through difficult moments. That’s what power does; it shifts the explanatory burden to the oppressed.”
González de Allen speaks with such authority not only because it was her lived experience, but because that lived experience shaped her professional pursuits. After graduating from Susquehanna, she studied these cultural phenomena in graduate school, eventually earning a doctorate degree in philosophy and joining the faculty of Atlanta’s Spelman College, an international leader in the education of women of African descent. She has since returned to Susquehanna to share her insights and expertise on diversity issues with students, faculty and administrative leaders.
However, her efforts to improve the cultural diversity and inclusiveness of campus are nothing new. As a student, González de Allen says she combatted her feelings of alienation by getting involved in every conversation she could that hinted at a systematic investigation of these issues. She also joined the International Club, ultimately becoming its president and helping to organize its first International Week on campus. The organization was the most culturally diverse student group González de Allen could find when she first came to Susquehanna. Its travel opportunities taught her a lot about the U.S. mainland and helped her better understand how other students saw the world, but it couldn’t answer her most burning questions.
“Although the International Club was awesome,” González de Allen explains, “there was no space to really discuss and understand structural oppression.”
So, like any good agent of change, González de Allen read all she could to educate herself on the topic and helped found the Student Association for Cultural Awareness (SACA), which creates opportunities for students to discuss and raise awareness about the difficulties this nuanced form of oppression creates. She also served on a diversity task force convened by former university President Joel Cunningham during her undergraduate years at Susquehanna.
Today, González de Allen is more positive about Susquehanna’s progress than she was as a student. She applauds the university’s work to increase the overall percentage of minority students on campus; create “safe spaces for diverse communities to flourish”; and make intercultural exchange a central component of the curriculum. Her words are even encouraging to current and prospective Susquehanna students from similar backgrounds as hers. To them, she says, “Hang in there! Take advantage of all the opportunities you’re given. It’s worth it!”