written by: Meena Pannirselvam, Stephanie Bondi & Yi Xuen Tay
In this article, we (the authors) wrote from the perspectives of one faculty member and two graduate students who collaborated on campus-wide social justice efforts. In our experiences, collaborating and working with each other proved to be more sustainable and provided multiple perspectives that helped enhance our work. Our collaboration continued to motivate one another, provided allyship, and strengthened our community while we faced push back and challenges. To accurately capture our conversations, we decided to interview each other for this piece and present our work in an interview style. We hope others may become inspired to collaborate with their communities to advance social justice causes.
Who We Are
Meena: Let us start by explaining who we are and our relationship; my name is Meena, and I use she/ they pronouns. I am the coordinator for the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion at Mississippi State. I am from Malaysia and am a recent master’s graduate in Higher Education focusing on Student Affairs from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I am passionate about improving international students’ college experience, where I can continue to dismantle barriers, challenge laws and policies, and engage in community building and continue to build support for the student group. I met Yi Xuen during our master’s program and quickly established a relationship due to shared passion, and Dr. Bondi was both the program coordinator and our professor.
Yi Xuen: My name is Yi Xuen Tay and I use she/her pronouns. I am a Resident Director at the University of Nevada, Reno. I recently graduated from the student affairs program at UNL, just like Meena. Through our master’s program, we connected with Dr. Bondi and began co-conspiring with each other to advance justice and decolonization for international students. My thesis research focused on storying employment discrimination faced by international students through critical narratives. As a Malaysian Chinese, I have lived as a minority all my life. I have continued to find community and the courage to empower myself and my identities in small but significant ways.
Stephanie: I use she/they pronouns and am an associate professor of practice and coordinator of MA with a specialization in student affairs. I’m white and since taking my master’s courses, I have been learning about myself as a mostly privileged person. I’m learning about being in an institution where oppression operates and influences my actions and others around me. I teach several courses in the University of Nebraska—Lincoln student affairs program and coordinate a diversity education and advocacy group in our college.
How and Why Did We Start Working Together?
Meena: Figuring out when and how we started working together required much reflection and going back to previous emails to cross-check information; it was a nice trip down memory lane. In response to the anti-Asian Atlanta shooting in 2021, Tamayo Zhou, a graduate student, and I decided to create and host a space for our community to come together, talk, and be in solidarity. The responsive program was well received by community members, and we wanted to continue the energy, so we hosted a “Stop Asian Hate Vigil.” This vigil was a space for our community to remember the victims, offer hope to those who experienced hate, and support the Asian community during these difficult times. After the first event, Dr. Bondi emailed us, saying, “Thank you so much for the incredible event tonight. And the action guide. The effort, knowledge, and care you’ve shared are wonderful.” This affirmation we received was meaningful, even though it was via email. So, for the following program, I reached out to Dr. Bondi, the chair of an advocacy group on campus, to coordinate a virtual breakout room for folks interested in organizing and doing advocacy work. This program was meaningful because we were engaged in active allyship. Through the program, we built community and had a concrete plan for the next steps.
As a student at the time, I felt very comfortable communicating with you because of our previous conversations in and outside classrooms. One of the biggest indicators that you were a safe person to talk to and ally to international students was your letter supporting international students. Dr. Bondi wrote about being against the DHS July 7 ruling, validating international students’ feelings and emphasizing that we would not be affected by this new policy as we started our first semester of the master’s program. You also conducted regular check-ins and made sure you had conversations with us after classes.
Attending graduate school during the midst of a pandemic and then during the “new normal” was a challenge; there were always racist behaviors, harmful incidents, or shootings happening daily. However, I remember our conversation about international students, policies, and regulations in place, in which you listened and asked relevant questions. But, the next day, you followed up with a check-in email, a news article from Chronicle, and some actionable steps the institution could take.
Yi Xuen: We could always go to you as a resource. When we were in the planning stages of creating the International Student Advisory Board (ISAB), we had a list of individuals whom we hoped to build allyship with. We also considered who these individuals are, their values, and how they would align with our vision for ISAB. You were listed in our notes as one of the people we wanted to reach out to. I remember talking with Meena about not only wanting to connect with allies who have shared interests to support international students, but also those who are able to take a critical look at international students’ experiences at the institution. We had some collaborators who did not agree with us and had a different approach to support international students. However, you had an approach of allyship that is not rooted in whiteness—something Meena and I truly appreciated when we worked with you, especially since you do not hold the international student identity as we do.
In your allyship, you not only took action, but you also built a community with us to take these actions. While corny, I do believe there are individuals who are “true allies” and those who are not. True allies are the ones who are allied because they truly care, they are also committed to constant self-reflection especially when they are called in, they have a desire to address systemic inequities, and they build relationships with those who advocate for others. I believe you were more than a collaborator; you were truly an ally to us.
Meena: That is right; your response made me think of this specific situation when I was seeking allyship. I had reached out to an international faculty member with whom I had worked with. However, they did not validate or appreciate the efforts I was engaging in. She questioned the benefits the advisory board would bring me, saying, “How does it benefit you? How will it look on your resume? What good does it do?” I have always had an assumption that folks with similar backgrounds and sometimes experiences would validate each other, but that is not always the case. Allyship and being allied can stem from various spaces and people.
Stephanie: I noticed your interest and our shared understanding of systems of oppression and their link to students’ experience and success in college. Once I realized you had specific ideas about what would meet the needs of Asian students and international students, I wanted to encourage and support you. I remember feeling like that’s my job –to support you if this is what you want to do. Like when Meena had the idea to design solidarity posters highlighting multiple issues to display around town, I quickly saw that as something we could partner on. The combination of your design skills, conceptual ideas, and some of my connections and resources all brought the project to fruition.
Meena: How would you describe our relationship(s) or interactions?
Stephanie: For myself, I would say that I recognized my positionality of power and privilege. As a white, cisgender person, citizen, faculty member, I could use that power to amplify messages you were telling me were important. I also really feel it is important being in community with you and others during the work. It feels good and important to create those spaces like when we had the Amplifying APIDA Voices Panel. Being in a society with vocal and visible hate, we need affirming and safe communities.
Meena: There is often a lot of burden on educators to know everything, but instead of taking up space, you provided space for us to amplify our voices. A perfect example would be the international student support panel we worked on. You organized the discussion and invited international students and practitioners to share their thoughts. Instead of doing introductions yourself, again, you provided space for Trish, another international student, to serve as the moderator.
Stephanie: Actually, I believe the idea came from you, Meena. I don’t think that was my bright idea. I remember you said that international students should be the voices.
Meena: I do remember sharing our occasional frustrations when people or organizations take up space or take credit for student efforts. This is a common topic of conversation. Another example of giving or hosting space would be the “Restoring the Sacred” event we did to focus on Missing, Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirits and the history of violence against Native Women. We hosted a space for an elder to share knowledge and for the campus community to heal and learn. The collaboration was also great as we relied on each other’s strengths. You wrote a grant to receive funding for the elder, whereas I worked on marketing material materials and promoting the event.
Stephanie: I do try to be conscious of not taking over. I also recognize you are graduate students, and it is not your responsibility to teach others or improve the institution. I thought I could provide support for logistical things like scheduling meetings and planning. I tried to figure out what my role is. I try to do that through checking-in to find out what would you like me to do. I don’t want to make assumptions or try to control the process.
Meena: This is an example of how our relationship is different. The traditional power dynamic of professor-student was not present. We could openly discuss any topic; there was no judgment, and they were rooted in equity and decolonization. Our working relationship also reduced the burden on us because there were many things we wanted to do and change, but we only had two years as graduate students.
Yi Xuen: We wanted to see change. But like Meena said, as graduate students, we did not have enough time. We didn’t meet what we set out to do. Nothing changed. The people we talked to only offered band aids that didn’t really address the problems. But the experience with you was different, as you would look for ways that targets the root of the issue. While it was disappointing to me that I graduated with feelings of burnout and relief as I left the institution, I sometimes feel some magnitude of critical hope, knowing you will continue to mentor future graduate students while being allied to them.
Meena: I remember when Yi Xuen and I were interested in coordinating the international student advising training for faculty and staff members who work very closely with international students. Even though they did not review it (probably because of COVID disorganization), we were able to send a proposal and a request because of you. While we did not have experience applying for a grant, you took the initiative of writing it and sending it to us for feedback. We could only have gone that far because of your efforts.
What Informed Your Attitude Toward Graduate Students?
Stephanie: I did my doctoral study of higher education through social justice lens and studied whiteness. I talk about these things in class and over the years have created relationships with students in minoritized groups. People have shared their stories of systemic oppression and its impact. I really feel like somebody’s gotta do something. Given my positionality as a cisgender white woman professor I have privilege, power to advocate and be heard more than some other, and I feel like I need to do something.
I remember seeing what you were doing and taking so much initiative to work on these social justice efforts. It was easy for me to say I would support you and your efforts. I thought I could provide some encouragement, resources, and share with my networks.
It was also aligned with my scholarship focused on creating more equity in higher education and my role as a Professor of Practice; doing advocacy in higher education truly is doing my job.
Meena: How did you do it when many other professors don’t?
Stephanie: At some point in my career I realized that traditional academic expectations don’t reward spending time on this kind of advocacy, but I just made a commitment and decided I would spend time on these kinds of things because the work is necessary.
Is There Any Specific Recipe for Our Collaboration?
Meena: Two things stand out to me; finding shared goal(s) and building community. These were established through conversations, check-ins, and emails. Your allyship, especially when there was difficult news, you were there to talk.
This relationship aided another point in my development. I was much quieter in the beginning, but your ability to read my facial expressions, inviting me to share in classes and intentional questioning made me feel comfortable to voice my opinion. This is one of the reasons why I felt confident to advocate for myself and speak up against discrimination. Now, I present on topics such as allyship development and can talk with people about it and provide them with feedback and recommendations. For example, when I talk about how to move from allyship to being a co-conspirator, I use our relationship and talk about how to build community and work on efforts to organize.
We want our readers to think about the following reflection questions:
- What check-ins and outreach do you need as graduate students, or could you provide as staff and/or faculty?
- We are all affected by global events. How do those events impact graduate students, faculty, and staff in their work and lives? How might the potential impacts be unique to international graduate students, faculty, and staff?
- What role modeling is available to graduate students, staff, and faculty for what allyship and advocacy can look like (i.e., in person, via digital media, during supervision, included in coursework)?
Meena Pannirselvam (she/they)—Meena is a student affairs practitioner, international educator, and full-time advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion, social justice, and against sexual violence. She is an avid foodie, coffee drinker, and an artist on the weekends.
Stephanie Bondi (she/they)—Stephanie is a mom, scholar, and social justice journeyer. They teach master’s students and are active in the community.
Yi Xuen Tay (she/her)—Yi Xuen approaches her day-to-day in student affairs as a social justice learner/practitioner, advocate for students, and centered in trauma-informed and decolonization practices. She worships her cat, Nala.