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Affinity graduations continue during the pandemic

Commencement is an important milestone for many college graduates to commemorate their accomplishment of completing their degree. In Spring 2020, the pandemic resulted in several colleges canceling in-person graduation plans, including Mills, which postponed its 132nd commencement ceremony. 

Affinity groups at Mills have a history of organizing additional graduation events to celebrate student accomplishments and focus on students of color. This year, the Black Student Collective (BSC), KAPWA and the Asian Pacific Islander Student Alliance (APISA) have organized virtual graduation events to hold space for their communities and continue the tradition during the pandemic.

The Asian and Asian Americans Together graduation, organized by APISA leader Victoria Lam and the APISA team, took place virtually on Monday, May 10. The event welcomed South Asian, Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, East Asian and Southeast Asian identifying students to celebrate their time at Mills with keynote speakers Vida Kuang, Ashlyn So and Interim Associate Provost Dr. Christie Chung.

Kuang is a local community artist and educator in the Bay Area and has been a resource for other APISA events. For their Vegan Dumpling Workshop with Kristine Cho to raise money for the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC), APISA created zines for attendees where Kuang shared art that was submitted to Love Letters to Chinatown, a project based on collecting art, poems, letters and other creative work inspired by and dedicated to Chinatown during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ashlyn So is a 13-year-old fashion designer and community activist. She advocates for the Asian American community and has organized rallies in support of the Stop Asian Hate movement.

“For Vida, we’ve just been really inspired by how she’s worked with the community for so many years since she grew up in Chinatown and she’s still working with the community. I think that was really cool … For Ashlyn, just being amazed at all she’s done, all that she’s really accomplished, being 13. And just her determination,” Lam said. “And then Dr. Chung, she’s been a really great support for [APISA] this past year.”

The APISA team was new to planning graduations and had to adapt to a virtual setting where typical aspects of a graduation were not possible. Even though students and families could not be together in person, Lam feels that affinity graduations are an important tradition to continue.

APISA has found great support from the Mills community during the several virtual events they’ve held this year and they look forward to continuing to build their community next semester.

KAPWA will be holding a virtual affinity graduation, organized by founder and President Danica Ola and club members, on Tuesday, May 11. To commemorate graduating Filipinx students, KAPWA Graduation will feature speeches from graduating seniors sharing their accomplishments and work done throughout the year with a “Thanks to” page dedicated to people in their lives whom they want to thank. Ola, Taylor Belmonte, Melika Sebihi, Jacqueline Tianero and Melissa Rivas are set to speak.

“We can just showcase like what we’ve done, and be an inspiration to each other, and sort of like hold that space for one another,” Ola said.“It gives each graduate the opportunity to really brag about themselves in a way and really highlight what they’ve done … I would much rather prefer that for our members, than for them listening to someone that they don’t know, that they rather listen to their peers and their community members that they’ve spent four years with one last time.”

Due to the onset of the pandemic last year, KAPWA did not hold an affinity graduation in 2020, and Ola had many considerations in mind when planning one for this year. She was mindful of students’ capacities for planning while also wondering how best to bring her community together, as KAPWA will not be continuing in the fall. 

“It came down to me sort of realizing that this is probably going to be our last time coming together as an organized group so I’d much rather spend it … just with us, and like our families and friends. And KAPWA has always kind of been like that, we’ve always been very like, what we know we can bring out to the community,” Ola said.

As Mills College transitions to an institute, many students will be making plans towards transferring to another institution to complete their degree. Ola considered the major changes ahead for students that may affect their time commitment when deciding that KAPWA will not continue. KAPWA is also a part of the SAMEAPI committee, which includes APISA and the Muslim Student Alliance (MSA).

“I didn’t want the students to be stressing about one, managing school, and then also managing a club and … knowing the fact that your school is going to be shutting down soon. And you have to, like figure out an accelerated way to graduate or even transfer. It’s a lot of stress that goes into it,” Ola said. “I was thinking … if there’s one thing that I can like, sort of help take off their plate, then I might as well do that.”

Even though the club will not continue, KAPWA is planning to create a Google Drive folder that will serve as an archive of the research done by each member.

The organization was founded by Ola in 2019, as she saw there had been conversations on campus about forming an organization for Filipinx students and wanted to create a space that focused on strengthening community.

“We have this joke in the community where it’s like Filipinos always know who’s Filipino. So when we got to campus, we naturally found the other Filipino students. And then so it always became a conversation between us, we’re like ‘We should start an organization,’” she said. “The institution recognizes us as a Filipino student organization … but I wanted to make sure that students felt like they were welcome in this space, regardless of what the name of the club was, or regardless of what you’re recognized as. So, I was like googling … And then I found KAPWA and basically it’s like the understanding of community. So understanding yourself through a shared sense of community with others, and like, consistently learning from that community.”

In April, Ola was featured in The Center for Student Life’s Student Voices Series, where she discussed the importance of affinity groups on college campuses. Affinity groups at Mills create a supportive community for students and according to Ola, their presence attempts to shift narratives and challenge norms about dominant white culture at institutions. She believes that affinity graduations are a really important experience for students and give space for marginalized communities to celebrate and be recognized.

“Even with an in-person situation, affinity grads are a huge deal at Mills. And I think, mainly because, you know, institutions weren’t made for Black, Indigenous students of color … They weren’t made for low-income students. They’re made for like rich white students … So affinity grads are literally just like that one moment … It’s the culmination of your whole entire experience at this school and that one moment where you’re literally recognized for what you’ve done without any sort of … pushback,” Ola said. It’s an amazing experience, being with your community members, you know, graduating [and] understanding that you’re graduating with your community members that have the same identity as you that have like, being in this community with you. It’s a huge opportunity.”

To register for KAPWA graduation celebration, please visit the student forum.

The Black Graduation will take place on Wednesday, May 12, organized by graduating senior and President Tsion McYates and members of BSC. While BSC was able to hold a successful virtual graduation with seniors and their families last year, planning a celebration during the pandemic felt different this year.

“Planning Black Grad during the pandemic was interesting. It was a mixed bag of feelings because on one hand, it wasn’t much since all we really had to do was set up a zoom meeting. There was not the usual build up of excitement that we feel when we are planning in person,” McYates said.

Black Graduation will open with music and feature Mills alum, Deborah Vaughan, as the keynote speaker. Vaughn is the artistic director of Dimensions Dance Theater, a Black dance company based in Oakland. 

“[Dimensions Dance Theater] is a cornerstone of the dance community. We are happy it worked out to have her come this year since she couldn’t make it last year,” McYates said.

As a graduating senior and President of BSC, planning the Black Graduation Celebration was a meaningful and fulfilling experience for McYates. Since the announcement that Mills plans to no longer grant degrees, she decided to change her plans of taking time off from school and continue her education at Mills in their Public Policy Masters program.

To register for Black Graduation Celebration 2021, please visit the student forum.