Where to draw the line: Cultural groups on campus create an atmosphere of exclusion

October 9, 2014

On a campus commended for attracting students from all corners of the world, it comes as no surprise that Georgetown sustains an assortment of cultural clubs. 

At the beginning of every semester, undergraduates flock to the Student Activities Fair to find cultural clubs that will allow them to form connections with other students from their home countries, practice a new language, or simply participate in the many events hosted on campus.

Daniel Kim (COL ‘17), a Korean-American Maryland native, arrived at a general body meeting of the Korean Student Association his freshmen year hoping to connect with other Korean students. He quickly realized, however, that the KSA primarily exists as an organization for international Korean students, and lost his desire to be involved after attending just one general body meeting.

“When I went to the general body meeting, I wasn’t really talked to or engaged at all,” he said. “I don’t want to say [I felt] rejected, because it’s not like I applied to something and felt rejected, but I want to emphasize that it was very unwelcoming. The environment was one where I didn’t want to initiate further contact.”

The impenetrable bubble of international students

Prior to the beginning of each school year, the KSA reaches out to potential members in South Korea. “They have a big welcome party for incoming freshmen in Korea over the summer, “Maryland-born Sophia Yang (SFS ‘17) said. According to Yang, no similar outreach initiatives exist for Korean-American students, and this disparity makes it harder for Korean-Americans to form relationships with KSA members once the semester begins.

Yang said that the KSA tries to emulate the hierarchical sunbae-hoobaei relationship between elders and younger people in Korean society. “When you enter KSA, naturally you’re a hoobaei. The upperclassmen, the sunbae, expect you to be respectful toward them,” Yang said. 

As a Korean-American, Yang felt alienated by this practice. “I don’t want to feel like I have to be super-Korean to be friends with them. I’d rather them be my friends because we’re all students at Georgetown. We’re all the same,” she said.

The KSA’s constitution states that the club aims to promote Korean culture to the larger Georgetown community. However, Yang believes that, in practice, spreading Korean culture does not top the list of the organization’s priorities.

“When they make events, who are they expecting to come? Who do they invite to the events? Who actually comes to the events? It’s primarily Koreans,” she said. “I appreciate KSA for what it does … but I knew from the beginning I wasn’t going to be very involved.”

Part of the reason that American-born Koreans, known as gyopo in Korea, feel alienated is that the KSA’s international members shows an affinity for Korean speakers.

“On campus, Koreans are always with other Koreans. Especially KSA people … I feel like they’re more enthusiastic or they come out more when they’re with other Koreans,” said Joone Wang (COL ‘17), who moved to the United States when he was three. Wang said their attitude discouraged him from associating with the KSA.

Kim believes that collectivist thinking in Korean culture further exacerbates the divide in the KSA between American-born Koreans and those members born in Korea. “There’s ingroups and outgroups. So if you’re in, you’re in for life. You’ll have excellent networks. If you’re out, you’re never going to get in,” she said.

Shaquille James (COL ‘16), an African-American student whose Korean professor encouraged him to join the KSA, made a strong effort in establishing rapport with Korean students and their wider social circle. He thinks that Korea’s homogeneity as a country contributes to the difficulty of making such connections.

James believes that the KSA can serve as a cultural refuge for Korean students who feel overwhelmed by American culture. 

“To find somebody else who speaks Korean, you know, that’s a big thing,” he said. “That’s somebody else who you can communicate with in your mother language.”

Current KSA Co-President Ted Oh (MSB ‘15) counters that the perception of the KSA as exclusive is unfair. 

The public, according to Oh, generally misunderstands the nature of the KSA. “There’s always cliques. That’s how everything works in life … Sometimes, when people talk in other languages, they might look at you, or you might not necessarily feel welcome to sit at a certain table where they are,” he said. “It can give off that wrong impression.”

Oh went on to say he does not know why the perception of the KSA as an exclusionary group is so prevalent on campus, “I can’t say how we got this label. I really don’t like it,” he said.

Oh, who himself is from Montreal, said that he made many connections with Korean students in the KSA. “I myself am a gyopo and I don’t understand where they might be coming from. I felt like I had a really smooth transition getting to know international Koreans,” he said.

Oh said that whenever KSA sends communications in Korean, an English translation always follows. “I think it’s a good way to promote our culture, or language, just to show that there’s a Korean description available,” he said. “I can’t speak for prior years … but as far as this year’s GBM [general body meetings], they’ve been in English.”

Oh joined the KSA last year with the intention of clearing up its image and gaining support from a more diverse group of people. He could not, however, disclose what events the KSA is planning this semester because the KSA currently is in restoration status with the Student Activities Commission for not filing a budget. 

“Hopefully, through this article, people will start to be more aware that maybe that’s not the case, the impressions that they had, and maybe come and approach us a little more,” Oh said.

A home away from home

You can’t sit with us. File photo: Georgetown Voice

Having chosen to spend four years thousands of miles away from home, international students have to orient themselves to American life, laws, and customs—an extra burden in Georgetown’s fast-paced student culture. They, therefore, will want to congregate in cultural clubs to smooth their transition to college.

Randy Puno (COL ‘16), born and raised in Manila, Philippines, wanted to be a part of Club Filipino from the very moment he arrived on the Hilltop. 

“I was a homesick freshman in America for the first time. I had spent a week or so at all sorts of orientations… It overwhelmed me a bit,” he said. “Naturally you look for things that are familiar when you feel stressed out when you feel you’re somewhere you don’t belong,” he said.

Puno initially thought Club Filipino was “corny,” but he found a mentor who helped ease him into an American college environment.

“I knew that there was someone there who was in the exact same boat as I was and he was doing great,” he said. “That’s when I  felt that there’s really a group of people here that come from exactly the same place I come from and I can relate to in the same way that I relate people back home.”

Now president of Club Filipino, Puno believes that the club can both be a home for himself and a place to explore Filipino culture.

“Knowing that there will always be someone else new that will think something that you’re not used to about the little things we do—about the food, the way we talk, the way we hang out—it always make it interesting to come back to CF,” he said.

Cultural groups that provide a home away from home for international students and also reach out to students outside of the group help create positive experiences for all students, says Rachel Villanueva (SFS ‘16), who is Tsinoy-American and a secretary for the Taiwanese American Student Association.

After transferring from the University of Miami, which only has one Asian student organization, Villanueva joined TASA’s “sibling” program on a whim, but did not expect to gain much from the experience because she was not Taiwanese.

“I was really nervous because I’d met these people only once briefly,” she recalled of her first outing with her “siblings” to a Taiwanese restaurant in Maryland. 

A TASA upperclassman invited her to frozen yogurt immediately after the event, however, and she realized that the club’s members were interested in establishing meaningful connections and wanted to get to know her .

“The people I was paired up with were really engaging. They seemed to care about me beyond just getting me to come to their events,” she said. “To them, I felt that it didn’t really matter that I could just learn about their culture as I go.”

Not accepted for who you are

Individual concerns about cultural groups on campus have long been a concern for students. In April 2013, the Voice published an op-ed written by Indian-Nigerian student Sonia Okolie (COL ‘15), titled ‘Biracial student snubbed by Georgetown cultural society,’ sparking conversation about the South Asian Society (SAS) and the Hindu Student Association (HSA). [Full disclosure: Okolie is a former copy editor for the Voice.]

Born and raised Hindu, Okolie wanted to seek out a sense of community in these groups. “When I got here, I was really excited that I would be able to join these groups and have Indian friends, because growing up, I didn’t live in an area that had any Indian people,” she said.

Instead, she said, SAS members questioned the ownership of the Indian clothes she wore to a club formal. Additionally, Okolie said HSA members singled her out because they did not believe she practiced Hinduism.

“If you’re saying that you’re an open group on campus, I feel like you have an obligation to at least be polite and be courteous to everyone who comes to your event,” she said. 

The day after her article was published, the SAS held a spring formal, which she attended. “I had some people come up to me and they were nice,” she said. “You could tell they were obviously doing it after the article because they never had a conversation with me.”

Comments on the Voice website defended the inclusivity of the groups she had alluded to. “I am white. Period,” one commenter wrote.“I became good friends with many of the members of the South Asian Society over the next two years and consider many members to be some of my best friends. I was never not invited to a party, told I couldn’t bring a friend somewhere, or gossiped about in a negative way.”

Okolie said that these responses missed the point of her op-ed. She was upset, not because she couldn’t explore the South Asian community, but because she felt she should have been included in the South Asian community by virtue of her heritage in the first place.

“I don’t think that a standard for whether a group is accepting or not is whether they let white people attend their events,” she said. “If you’re a white person or a person who’s just not in that group or not from that place … it’s more of an exploration, or you’re just trying to see and learn things, and that’s different.”

Smiti Mohan (MSB ‘15), HSA president, denied that HSA members ever asked Okolie whether she was attending its weekly pujas for class. “None of the HSA board members ever ask this question to attendees during our services,” she wrote in an email to the Voice. “We usually find out because the attendees tell us that they are here for a class and then ask us questions about different aspects of our service.”

  Mariam Martin (COL ‘15), SAS president, said that she had trouble reconciling Okolie’s argument that Okolie was discriminated against because she didn’t fit a certain Indian student mold.

“There’s no such thing as a typical South Asian experience. None of us fit into any kind of mold … I’ve never experienced one mold of the perfect South Asian,” she said, citing the vastly different religious and ethnic backgrounds of past and present board members.

Even so, Martin expressed regret that Okolie had a negative experience with the HSA and commended her for sharing her experience. 

“I applaud her for speaking up because I’m sure there are other people who have felt this insecurity or feeling of not being accepted. I hate that people have felt that. I genuinely do, because I’ve experienced it as well in other groups, and I hate to think that people experienced that in a group I’m involved in.”

What makes a diverse campus?

Students’ mixed experiences with cultural clubs bring into question the proper role of cultural groups on campus. 

According to Villanueva, simply sending newsletters and inviting members to events, which is the extent of many cultural organizations, is insufficient. Personal outreach and connections are what strengthen a cultural group’s community, especially because the University is still what she calls a “white-dominated space.”

“Many cultural clubs have the priority of being a safe platform for members of their community. Sometimes [that] gives off the impression that they’re unwelcoming and exclusive,” she said. “Diversity and unity aren’t mutually exclusive. By recognizing this we can create a stronger sense of community… sometimes that requires you to go beyond ethnic bounds.”

As president of Club Filipino, Puno strives to strike a balance between pride toward his own heritage and a willingness to share it with others.

“Never be satisfied with your membership. Always look to improve and increase what your club looks like, how many different perspectives exist. Just always be open, always be ready, always look for more opportunities to increase appreciation for what your culture has to offer and don’t be selfish with it,” he said.

Erika Cohen-Derr, Assistant Dean for student engagement, said the Center for Student Engagement has not received complaints about specific groups being overly exclusive.

“Given that it hasn’t merited students to file official complaints with us, I don’t know that I have any evidence that this is a generalized, persistent problem,” she said.

Cohen-Derr stressed that the CSE expects all clubs to adhere to the Student Organization Standards, which provides standards that membership must not be discriminatory and open to all students. “The mandatory training that CSE provides, called Blueprint, speaks to the principles of openness and inclusion that is an expectation of all groups,” she said.

Some of those who have tried to join the KSA hope that the club will eventually be more open and embracing. “I think there’s already enough exclusivity on our campus,” Yang said. “I would hope that KSA would be more embracing of other Koreans, of all Koreans, and people in general that are interested in Korean culture.”

For Wang, international students from Korea, ultimately, have no choice but to reach out to Americans on an American campus. “You’ve got to pop your bubble. You’re not going to get anywhere if you stay in your comfort zone your entire life,” he said. “You’re not going to die. You’re just talking to people. It’s worth it.”

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Being also of mixed race heritage, I’ve experienced a lot of what Miss Okolie has. You can try to deny it, but there is exclusivism on campus. I speak English and two other languages, and it is comforting being able to speak in the language you are most familiar with. I get that international students are scared of interacting with others. The old saying, birds of a feather flock together thing. But, you are in the United States. You are here to learn about a different country and people. If you say you are only here for education, it’s a faulty argument. Each country has their own top univerities just if not not more prestigious than Georgetown. You could have gone there, but you came HERE. From one human being to another, I want to know you. My hand is stretched out to you. It’s your decision if you want to take it.


I applaud the writer Kenneth Lee for spotlighting an issue that I have long felt was being treated like the ugly stepchild in the room. As a Georgetown alum and 2nd-generation Korean-American, I can say firsthand that KSA’s reputation for being an exclusive student organization was not unfounded based on my own experiences; it was common knowledge that the majority of Korean-American students felt extremely ostracized and disillusioned by KSA and many of us often connected over stories of feeling intimidated or looked down upon by (a good number) of the international students on-campus. The Korean language professors also occasionally demonstrated partiality towards native Korean speakers – I once registered for a Korean culture class that was listed on the student site as being taught in English but when the majority of students who showed up on the first day were international students, the professor promptly changed it to a Korean-only class and those who did not speak Korean fluently (myself included) were asked to drop the course. In short, there was no space for American/non-native Korean students of Korean descent to bond over our shared heritage on-campus; KSA should have been that place but it only served to perpetuate feelings of exclusion and for some of us who are Korean, anger and resentment.

While I never thought to raise this issue officially to the administration, I spoke with CSJ and several other student engagement centers during my senior year about the possibility of starting a separate student group for Korean-Americans called KASA (Korean-American Student Association). I was told that the university would most likely not approve of the proposal since it would be too similar to KSA; I later heard from other fellow classmates that groups like the Hong Kong Students Association were rejected because of it’s supposed similarity to CSA (Chinese Students Alliance). This to me demonstrated a certain narrow-mindedness and insensitivity on the college’s part to diversity and differences within ethnic groups but moreover my thoughts were if groups like CSA and KSA are supposed to be all-inclusive and representative of the culture, then the university should fulfill an obligation to enforce that those clubs are being so.

I hope a dialogue continues on this issue and KSA will deliver on its promise to be more inclusive. Korean-Americans/hyphenated-Americans/non-Koreans who are interested in learning more about Korean culture have every much a right to be included in a community that is meant to exist to promote knowledge of Korea and its culture on campus.