Big Ten student governments unanimously pass ME/NA resolution

Saturday, January 13, 2018 - 3:40pm

This past Saturday, the student governments of all Big Ten universities met for the annual Association of Big Ten Students winter conference at Michigan State University. The body unanimously passed a resolution to include a Middle Eastern/North African checkbox on all university documentation, including applications and registrations. Currently, students of Middle Eastern and North African descent are given ethnicity options on University of Michigan documents that do not directly identify with their ethnic backgrounds.

The resolution will send a letter of support to the administrations of the student governments represented at the conference.

Central Student Government Vice President Nadine Jawad, a Public Policy senior, was one of the University student government representatives at the conference. Jawad has been advocating for an ME/NA checkbox for over a year. This weekend she posted on Facebook she was proud to be at the conference working with change makers across the Big Ten. 

“The lack of institutional memory, documentation, and recognition regarding the historical presence of the ME/NA community on campus (and in the country) is problematic for a number of issues, such as allocation of academic resources (i.e. allocation of funding, official ceremonies), impact on bias incident reporting, and the inability to track graduation, retention, mental health trends, etc. for our community,” Jaward wrote on Facebook. “While this policy was implemented for the purpose of naturalization in the early 20th century, such outdated policies continue to marginalize and neglect ME/NA identifying individuals. While there is movement for this information on national census data, universities serve as leaders to push and advocate for such changes.”

The resolution came shortly after the launch of the #WeExist campaign, which coordinated between student groups and faculty to petition the University for the inclusion of the checkbox. An online petition which ran throughout November accumulated over 700 signatures.

“For the University, the ability to ascertain who identifies with the ME/NA community is a necessary step in developing programs and interventions to address any disparities and to achieve Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) goals,” the petition read.

Engineering junior Bassel Salka, one of the co-presidents of the Arab Student Association, said negative stereotypes and media representation of the Arab community have brought new causes to the forefront, such as #WeExist.

“The experience of Middle Eastern and North African students are very different than those of white students, especially in a post 9/11 world,” Salka said. “We feel like our experiences aren’t represented by the white check box.”

According to the Arab American Institute, which has been spearheading a similar initiative regarding the national census, including an ME/NA category would provide more accurate data and would have positive effects on issues of health, education and more.

Such data would make it easier for students in the ME/NA community to look at academic disparities, dropout rates and faculty representation according to LSA senior Jad Elharake, who has worked with the #WeExist since February of last year. Elharake presented on the ME/NA checkbox initiative at the December Board of Regents meeting.

“Given that we live in a state with the largest concentration of ME/NA individuals outside of the Middle East/North Africa, we have a unique regional responsibility to implement the ME/NA identity category,” Elharake said at the meeting.

Now that the University’s student government has brought the issue to a unanimous agreement among Big Ten student governments, Elharake, in an interview, said this proves the importance of the University’s role on this issue. Adding, the resolution’s passage at all other Big Ten schools proves the issue’s national importance for the ME/NA community.

“The significance is that we realize that this isn’t just an issue on our campus but it’s an issue in many other universities, and with the Big Ten schools unanimously passing speaks a lot about that,” Elharake said.

Elharake and Salka brought up the increasing incidence of hate speech on campus in the past year as a factor in the need for more representation.

Salka said this is a positive step in the direction of creating a safer, more inclusive campus for underrepresented groups.

“We’re slowly getting to a point where we feel like we’re getting a voice on campus,” Salka said. “Some say in the way in the way things are running, and that’s what this box is about.”