History is contested because what we learn about the past often reflects who we are in the present and who we aspire to be in the future. SI's Ethnic Studies social science program, composed of semester-long courses for frosh and an elective class for older students, embraces this tension. Students are challenged to examine history as an ongoing, contested narrative and to frame their individual identity, their family history, and their community history through the lenses of race, ethnicity, gender performance, nationality, and culture.
Ethnic Studies is now part of California state standards for high school, but SI began developing these classes almost a decade ago, before that change. Eric Castro, who is the faculty level leader, credited former Principal Patrick Ruff, former Assistant Principal for Academics Carole Nickolai, and other leaders for supporting the program at its start, before it became a California state standard.
"As a school, we thought about what we are doing actively to counter this national trend toward racism and extremist views in a minority of the population," he said. "Were the courses we were offering preparing students for the world that they will inhabit and work in? When we think about what the world will be like in 10, 20, or 30 years, it will be more multi-ethnic and more multiracial. That necessitates an understanding of race and related issues, but we also want our students to be anti-racists. It's not enough to simply be not-racist. We're St. Ignatius, grounded in the tradition of the Jesuits. We want our students going above and beyond that."
Dr. Tasia Davis, SI's dean of students who also teaches Ethnic Studies, talked about how she sees the classes as a key part of SI's mission to develop moral young persons.
She said, "The entire Ethnic Studies group makes sure to express to students: The things you are witnessing and learning are not your fault. These things are not presented to shame you. But, do you recognize what has taken place? And now that you know better, will you do better? When you go out into the community and the world, will you make better decisions?"
Students interviewed for this piece expressed gratitude for Ethnic Studies classes and said they especially appreciated learning history from perspectives that, otherwise, they suspect they might not have heard in a classroom. Ryan Steinberg ’22 took Ethnic Studies as a frosh, and later took the elective headed by Yolanda Medina Zevas.
"I remember in Ms. MZ's class, we talked a lot about how history is taught and considered different ways of approaching those stories. For example, from a European perspective, Christopher Columbus is an explorer, whereas from the indigenous perspective, he's an invader. Thinking that way is an instant paradigm shift and can affect how you see every part of American history," Steinberg said.
Students also spoke about how personal the class material could be. Kate Quach ’25 described a new feeling of connectedness to the past.
She said, "I was riding MUNI one day, and we had just learned about the Chinese Exclusion Act and how Chinese immigrants helped build the transcontinental railroad. I had this feeling of gratitude for being here right now, a feeling of pride in my identity and all my ancestors' hard work, and a feeling of appreciation for those who drove for justice and their community, all of which has built up to where I am today."
Rami Safa ’25 also said the classes were intensely personal, but that at the same time, he felt there was room for conversation and learning not just from teachers, but from classmates.
He said, "Our teachers aren't trying to fluff up history. They want to get to what is real, what really happened, and what happens currently in the world. As a person of color, I experience a lot of the racism that my teacher talked about in class, so what I bring may be very different from what some of my classmates bring. But everyone is able to freely speak their mind in discussions without being judged because it is a space where we know we are learning — it is a safe space for people to talk about how they feel and what they think."
That blending of academic and personal is fully intentional, and students aren't the only ones who benefit. Like many other educational institutions, SI, itself, has its own history with which community members contend. Just as with the larger society, there are multiple ways of looking at our school's past and present, and understanding those multiple ways enables us to build a better future.
Ethnic Studies teacher Yosup Joo shared that the personal nature of the classes allows him to bring his whole self to his work, in full acknowledgment of what SI was and is, and makes it particularly fulfilling when he sees students affirming their own identities.
"I am a Korean-American immigrant," he said. "It is an amazing experience to be able to share my autoethnography in an academic class setting in which it matters. That is so refreshing. In other settings at this historically predominantly white institution, I almost have to stamp down my own identity and history — there is an assimilated version, an academic version. I have appreciated the opportunity to unabashedly share my immigrant story, or of trying to assimilate, or having people yucking on my yum, and then read students' own autoethnographies, where they share their own reflections about their identities and have a chance to dismantle some of the internalized oppression that can occur in our society. It is endearing, and it makes me love them more."
Looking forward, SI will continue these Ethnic Studies classes for every first-year student because it is an essential element of our Ignatian commitment to confronting the problems of our time. It is part of our ongoing project to help our entire community develop their tools for thinking about how race functions in our lives, and, more importantly, use that understanding to act in ways that build a more just world.