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Friday, September 24, 2021

Companions and cultural identity: UC Davis’ various student associations

VRINDA GUPTA / COURTESY

Cultural organizations provide space for students to connect, make friends

There are hundreds of clubs for the thousands of students at UC Davis, but joining a club doesn’t have to be about academic interests or shared hobbies. Whatever one’s background, culture, ethnicity or religion, there is most likely an organization on campus that offers an open space to call home, a space to identify with others.

“I love my culture and my heritage and I’m very proud of being Indian, so seeing something like the Indian Student Association was something that I was very excited about, something I was very drawn to,” said Vrinda Gupta, a second-year international relations and Asian-American studies double major. “The main reason I joined is because I wanted to really find a community of people that I could relate to and find my own little chosen family.”

Gupta is the director of community affairs for the Indian Student Association (ISA). Although ISA is a social club that provides cultural events for the Indian diaspora on campus, Gupta said the organization has been focusing on social awareness and social justice over the past few years.

“Just recently we had a sexual violence awareness workshop, things like that to help our community stay educated and keep us more involved,” Gupta said. “Every year we also have a philanthropic aspect to our organization [where] we donate to a charity or some sort of philanthropic organization. We have a Culture Show every year, so this year it will be on May 21st,, and the proceeds of that show will go to [the organization] Visions Global Empowerment.”

The main mission of ISA is to educate others on and celebrate Gupta and her peers’ South Asian identity, but Gupta points out that it doesn’t matter where someone is from or what their ethnic or religious background is — anyone is welcome to be a part of the organization. This is the case for many other cultural groups on campus as well, including the Taiwanese-American Organization (TAO).

“Our members are really diverse, it’s not just limited to Taiwanese or Taiwanese-Americans,” said Michael Ng, a third-year international relations and history double major. “TAO is mostly a social and cultural club [and] is a really diverse club.”

As someone born and raised in Taiwan, Ng describes his journey to joining the club as one of obligation to the greater Taiwanese community, but his decision was also influenced by the goal of finding a comfortable space with people he can relate to.

“I think the reason I joined this club freshman year had a lot to do with identity issues,” Ng said. “I felt like I was trying to get this sense of belonging because I I felt like I was too Taiwanese for Americans but too American for Taiwanese. So that’s one reason, just to see what I could find in this club, to find companions and cultural identity, which I successfully did. It’s basically my family now.”

One organization that bridges the gaps between multiple identities but connects on a common ground is Aggies for Israel (AFI). Israel itself is a central symbol for the three faiths Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and AFI works with the intention of educating students about Israel from multiple perspectives.

Arielle Zoken, a first-year undeclared humanities major and the programming chair for AFI, has family that lives in Israel and spent last year there herself. Many of the organization’s members’ identities are connected to Israel for different reasons, but despite the differences, Zoken feels very connected to the other members.

“Aggies for Israel has really connected me to the pro-Israel community here,” Zoken said. “Also making new friends across the board and having a space where I can dialogue. Because of Aggies for Israel and the connections I’ve made, I was able to kind of connect with those who understood the pain that I went through last year and how difficult it was, and that’s because Aggies for Israel had connected me to those people.”  

Another group on campus that serves as a social space as well as promotes education about their cultural past is the Armenian Student Association (ASA).

“Probably the biggest event would be the mock wedding that we host,” said Gayane Malayan, a fourth-year biological sciences major and music minor. “A big part of Armenian culture is the wedding [… as] it’s a very big formal religious ceremony, which we don’t really follow in the mock wedding because the main purpose is to have fun. At least half [of the people who come] are not Armenian and are just friends who get invited, so it’s a way for us to show them how we like to have fun.”

But the ASA isn’t all social events. One of the organization’s most notable events of the year is on April 24th, when members stand on the Quad and hold signs and chant in protest of the United States’ lack of recognition of the Armenian Genocide, a tragedy of the early twentieth century that affected the lives of Armenian students’ ancestors.

“[I like] being able to protest and have the same cause as other Armenians,” Malayan said. “Standing here and yelling things out, I don’t feel embarrassed, I don’t feel scared or nervous. I feel like I have the support of other Armenians, because […] our history is very rich and it has a lot of tragic things, but it has a lot of very important things.”

Being able to connect with other Armenians in college was not something Malayan anticipated she would want when she moved away from home, where she had been surrounded by an Armenian community. However, since becoming a part of ASA, interacting with people who share her heritage and her culture has been extremely comforting.

“[I appreciate] being able connect with those people, like Armenians, it doesn’t matter if they know you or not, they are going to treat you like you’re close, like you’re family,” Malayan said.

This situation is similar to the experience of Sasha Safonova, a fourth-year linguistics major and officer for the Russian Cultural Association (RCA).

“I grew up in Sacramento, so that’s predominantly Russian, so for me […] I wanted to see if there were different types of Russians in Davis,” Safonova said. “I met all these Armenians, Russians, from all over and who aren’t necessarily that cookie-cutter mold from Sacramento. I’m from a super Russian area, and I wanted to be a part of that but also see what else is out there, and that’s exactly what I’ve found here.”

Kristina Harmonson, a fourth-year Russian and sociology double major and the president of RCA, chose UC Davis partly because it offers the Russian major. Harmonson found the RCA as the perfect outlet to find people to connect with and expand her knowledge of Russian culture.

“I love the language, the culture, the people, the food, the everything,” Harmonson said. “I couldn’t be without it, and from the moment I met this club I felt like I was in a family setting. I felt so included, and that’s where most of my friends come from.”

Although it’s a fairly new club, like many other cultural organizations on campus, the RCA is predominantly social, but sometimes offers members lectures and other educational opportunities about history and politics. Some of the most popular events the RCA hosts are its cooking nights, where new faces even Safonova and Harmonson have never seen before tend to show up.

Harmonson said the best part of being in a cultural organization like RCA is the leadership experience and friendships.

“Although you could identify with a lot of people, just meeting people who come from similar cultural values [is nice],” Safonova said. “I’ve met a lot of Russians who are from all sorts of different religions, but just knowing that you have a lot of cultural similarities and that you can understand […] why people act the way they do, […] we can all identify with that. [RCA] is small enough where you can actually build lasting friendships.”

 

Written by Marlys Jeane — features@theaggie.org

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