Elizabeth Stassinos, Chair of the Department of Gender and Ethnic Studies, Discusses the Recent Formation and Importance of Westfield State’s Multicultural Disciplines

Sep 20, 2023
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Elizabeth Stassinos first graduated from the University of Virginia with her bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology before earning her doctorate there as well, in the same field of study. After moving to Massachusetts, she began looking for teaching positions, landing several in the Worcester area.

“I was first hired at the colleges in Worcester—Anna Maria College, Assumption University, and Worcester State,” she said. “I began teaching because of my dissertation on cross-cultural deviance. Then I started teaching ethnic and gender studies classes to police, firefighters, and nurses in the Catholic colleges in Worcester.”

After being hired at Worcester State, Stassinos’ reach soon extended to Westfield State University, as the criminal justice program at each institution overlapped. “John Jones, Kim Tobin, and some other folks were running the criminal justice program at several other state colleges as well,” she said. “When the position opened at Westfield State, I applied, although I didn’t really know where Westfield was.”

Stassinos said that she was hired full-time in 2004, making this her 20th year here. “It really worked out.” However, despite being the current chair of Ethnic and Gender Studies Department, Stassinos was originally hired as a professor teaching criminal justice. “I was hired in criminal justice here,” she said. “In terms of classes, I’d always taught anthropology and cross-cultural studies. Those classes transferred very well to Westfield State’s criminal justice program.”

What makes the ethnic and gender studies program at Westfield State so unique, Stassinos elaborated, is how few universities pair the two fields of study together. “It’s a new thing. There’re only a few programs in the country that do ethnic and gender studies,” she said. “We believe these things are deeply connected for empowerment, but also because of the history of oppression. What we like about our program is that we consider the complexity of a person’s identity.”

While many institutions regard them as their own disciplines, the professors of the Ethnic and Gender Studies Department know that this isn’t the whole truth. “The reality is that all of these things are integrated, and so the program should reflect people’s lives. I think the students really like that. I think they feel seen because we take the complexity of the social world as one thing.”

At the time, the program as it looks now, didn’t exist. That would soon take an extraordinary amount of work and coordination, which Stassinos largely credits to Margot Hennessey, Professor of Ethnic and Gender Studies. “Westfield State originally had ethnic studies and women’s studies separate,” Stassinos added. “Margot Hennessey had pulled those together. She really had a vision for the program. She and Ruth Ohayon pulled together world languages, women’s studies, and ethnic and gender studies, and then we became interdisciplinary. It used to be called MCES—Multicultural and Ethnic Studies. Our founding group, Margot Hennessy, Shoba Rajgopal, and Kamal Ali, came around that vision.”

Of course, lessons, even entire courses, are not exclusive to the department. Stassinos explained the state’s requirements for the core curriculum, which necessitates students to take classes in diversity-related studies. “Most students take classes in diversity. Every department teaches race, class, and gender content. They have great social science and humanities content, too. But, in the core, students are required to take these courses, so our classes fit if students want to major in them or if they’re just meeting requirements.”

Stassinos went on to discuss the benefits of taking classes offered by the department, as well as why every student should seek out education surrounding their robust roster of subjects. One of the biggest benefits, she listed, is the personal empowerment and richness of learning about a subject which speaks to your own cultural roots.

“If a person of color is coming into Westfield State, they can take classes about their own history, about their own experience,” Stassinos said. "An African American student who wants to learn more about their heritage can come in and learn that. To me, it’s about grounding students and creating a home at Westfield State that deals with the complex realities of many first-generation students. So many of our students’ parents didn’t get to go to college, and this is a new experience for them. They can take a class that speaks to their family’s history.”

Those who don’t know where to start are encouraged to enroll into courses which best grab their attention, especially since each topic relates to the others in the department. When Stassinos was a student, she majored in anthropology, although she now admits that she would probably have studied other subjects “since we didn’t have cultural studies then.” Still, to Stassinos, it’s worth exploring since the department deals with such human areas of life.

“What we’re trying to do is make academia catch up with the reality of kids’ lives making academia deal with the complexity of a young person’s life,” she said. “We want people to have that, because it helps a person to feel more at home in their culture. When you feel at home in your culture, you’re empowered and supported.” 

When asked about alumni who’ve come back to visit, Stassinos said that in nearly every case, she’s told how helpful the classes have been to graduates operating in the world. Particularly, their education has helped graduates to negotiate or mediate conflicts in various social settings.

“All my graduates were glad they took classes before they had to work in the reality of a complex society with a lot of people who need to learn to negotiate with each other who need to mediate social problems. These are social problems. These are social answers. In ethnic and gender studies, we think diversity is a superpower. It’s like X-Men. People have different powers, but they come together.”

To Stassinos, the dire need for more empathy and understanding in interpersonal relationships is what truly makes the department so meaningful to the campus body.

“An understanding of culture, power, class, and gender can help a person not feel alone and to also feel like they have power and choices. Educated students make better decisions. Humans need to find ways to work together. We’re a very hopeful department. There’s a term in justice studies, called “collective efficacy’, where people come together for the greater good in things. In this department, we believe it can happen. We believe in people.”