College campuses have long been complex social spaces for dialogue and exchange among those of different backgrounds. For some, their experience on campus marks the first time they encounter anyone who challenges their culture, religion, or beliefs. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that since the presidential election, colleges have emerged as one of the most intense sites for dialogue and debate about issues related to social justice.
This week I decided to explore these issues and more in an interview with my friend Sandra Looft. Sandra is a PhD in German and Comparative Literature who works at Iowa State University, a large midwestern public university. In her capacity as an advising coordinator and lecturer she works with students from all over the world. In her own research, she also works on issues tied to current events, including media studies, gender and sexuality, material culture, and immigration. Sandra herself is an immigrant who was born in Romania and has lived in Germany, Austria, Canada, and the US. Recently, Sandra has also given a talk on her campus about her immigrant experiences.
I knew that Ruxandra would be able to offer useful information about the energy and dynamics of student life at Iowa State University right now. But I’m excited to also share her broader insights about issues related to activism, dialogue, and immigration. I want to thank Ruxandra for not only discussing what’s been happening at Iowa State University, but for also opening up about her own immigration story.
Finally, we are thinking about doing a series on this topic. So if you would like to read more interviews like this from other college campuses, please let us know in the comments below!
Let’s start with the basics. What do you do at Iowa State University?
I am a lecturer in German and International Studies, faculty affiliate in Women’s and Gender Studies, and also the advising coordinator for the Department of World Languages and Cultures at Iowa State University. During the summer I co-direct a study abroad program to Berlin, Germany. I love that my role at ISU allows me to be involved in everything from pedagogy, administration, student affairs, and study abroad. It keeps things interesting, allows me to connect with students outside of the classroom, and has taught me a tremendous amount about the university as a whole beyond my language section and home department.
Can you share a little bit of information about how you ended up there, and in that position?
I came to Iowa State with ABD-status as I was finishing my dissertation for a PhD in German and Comparative Literature from Washington University in St. Louis. My partner was finishing his PhD in Microbiology at Iowa State and I followed him here thinking this would be a short layover on our paths to careers after graduation. I was fortunate to find a lecturer position in German available at that time (little did I know that I would settle in and remain in that position for many years to come). Life choices have kept us in Ames much longer than we had initially planned and I have grown to love this campus and university and so many of my friends and colleagues who make this an amazing place to work.
Broadly speaking, what are the demographics of Iowa State University? What about your department?
Iowa State University is a large state-funded R1 institution with enrollments as high as 36,000 students this year. It is a Science and Technology university with emphasis on STEM fields. We have a nationally renown Engineering College and are also known for our College of Design and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. My department – World Languages and Cultures – is part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. We are the university’s most diverse college with over twenty-two departments and majors spanning across the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Natural Sciences. My department is a small microcosm of that: also very diverse with a multitude of programs and majors including nine languages and several interdisciplinary programs such as Anthropology, Classical Studies, and World Film Studies.
The majority of our students take language and culture classes as their “fun” major and combine it with something more applied, like Engineering or Supply Chain Management (in the College of Business). What I really love about Iowa State is that it is highly interdisciplinary and I work with students from all fields and areas of study. I have learned so much about majors that were a mystery to be before and I love seeing how students creatively combine multiple areas of study for that unique curriculum that’s unique to them. It’s not uncommon, for instance, for an Engineering student to have a second major in German and to spend a semester studying abroad and completing an Engineering internship in Germany.
I want to talk a bit now about current events. What has campus culture been like since the election?
This is difficult to answer because our campus culture is so diverse. We have Agriculture students who come from an Iowa farming background and we have international students coming here from 122 different countries in the world. Different populations have expressed different reactions to the results and there hasn’t been one unifying response. In fact, that’s perhaps the unique thing I noticed here as compared to other campuses in the US: the many different reactions (from happy with the results to devastated) are perhaps more representative of Iowa and America at large. People of all political persuasions study and work at Iowa State and we have had to negotiate dialogues that allow all of these groups to feel respected and heard.
A lot of campuses have struggled with hate crimes or the dissemination of hate literature. Has this happened at all at Iowa State? If so, how has the campus responded?
We had a few incidents right before and after the election in late 2016 that were very upsetting to many on our campus. Posters that our administration termed “white heritage” fliers were found and quickly removed. Many have also called them “Nazi propaganda” fliers because of the clear and unmistaken parallels between propaganda posters created by the Nazi party in Germany in the 1930s and the ones that showed up on our campus. Rumors surfaced that the posters were actually placed on campus by a traveling group (and not ISU students) trying to instigate conflict on college campuses around the Midwest. Their origin was never quite confirmed but they did cause a lot of controversy and unrest.
On a different note, we have had numerous rallies and peaceful protests organized on campus (some as recent as this past week) opposing the recent immigration ban and standing in solidarity with members of our community from all backgrounds, identities, and faiths. The Iowa State student government recently proposed making ISU a “sanctuary campus” and our university president, Steven Leath, published a letter in the Iowa State Daily writing “Let me be clear: every one of you is important and valued. The Cyclone Family comes from all 99 counties, all 50 states, and 121 countries, and every one of you contributes something unique and special to our university. Your success, safety and well-being matter to me.”
Numerous student groups, such as the Arab Student Association and the Black Student Association, have been active and vocal in organizing
events that highlight the intersectionality of identities of those targeted by the immigration ban. On February 9th, the two groups co-hosted a #HoodiesandHijabs march on campus and the turnout (despite it being 10 degrees out!) was inspiring. Our campus also participated in the #AcademicsUnited movement that same day, showing solidarity with all in our community regardless of race or country of origin.
This spring semester I am participating on panel made of individuals (both students and faculty) sharing their immigration narratives at the Iowa State Conference on Race and Ethnicity (ISCORE). Meeting with this group and seeing how our stories differ yet share so much in common has been a meaningful experience for me this semester. It’s affirmed the fact that we all seek belonging, community, and respect and that we can find common ground across our different backgrounds, orientations, identities, and beliefs if we’re just willing to engage in thoughtful dialogue.
As this brief overview shows, our community strives to be inclusive and welcoming of its diverse and multicultural students, faculty, and staff. But as noted, there are many opinions and demographics represented on our campus and not everyone shares this perspective.
One of the biggest issues affecting campuses right now is the executive order temporarily banning entry from Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Iraq (which was halted last week in the Appeals Court ruling). I was wondering if you speak to the impact of this Executive Order at Iowa State University’s Campus.
This executive order impacts many in our community. Three individuals in particular were out of the country and affected by this travel ban. During the recent #HoodiesandHijabs march on campus, students from those seven impacted countries spoke and shared their experiences and reasons for having chosen to study at Iowa State. Their words were met with cheers and applause. Our university president, in his recent letter posted in the Daily, noted that two of the impacted individuals resolved their case and were safely back in the US. One has chosen not to travel here. The general consensus is that we value our diverse and multicultural campus community and we want to be a welcoming place for everyone. I’m sure that there are members of our campus community who may not share these feelings but those who disagree have not been vocal about it (to my knowledge).
Finally, you are a refugee from Romania. I was wondering if you’d be willing to share a little bit more about your background, and your personal thoughts on Trump’s attempt to ban refugees from Syria.
I’ve received many questions recently from well-meaning acquaintances about my immigration journey as a way to better understand what’s going on in the US today. My story is unique to my experience and I feel conflicted about even using the term “refugee” since I never fled a war-torn country although there was certainly the element of threat to
our safety and well-being living under a communist dictatorship. My family left Romania in 1990, a few months after the Romanian revolution of December 1989, during which our dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was killed. I remember watching his execution on TV as a seven-year old and knowing very well when we left that it was permanent. I knew when we packed our lives into one suitcase that this was the end of my childhood. We didn’t tell anyone other than my grandparents that we were leaving and our journey to finding a permanent home in another country took many years and several immigrations (all legal, all painstakingly drawn-out, all requiring “extreme vetting” and no shortage of documentation, anxiety, and fear).
One thing I’ve tried to highlight to those who ask about my experiences is that most people do not choose to immigrate unless that’s their last option for a better life. The many refugees seeking asylum across Europe and in North America are not simply looking for a cushier life somewhere, they are leaving their entire existence behind for a great unknown and doing so because that risk of packing an entire life into a suitcase and taking one’s children into a world that is entirely foreign is still better than what’s being left behind. Turning these families and individuals away at the border and sending them “home” is sending them to their peril.
The other part of this that is so difficult for me to watch in the news is the deportation of individuals who have spent their entire lives in the US. A person who was brought here as a child and has been raised in this culture is overwhelmingly “American.” Sending that person to a country that is their “home” only in name on a birth certificate is a cruel and unfair punishment. Imagine living your entire life somewhere except for those early childhood years and then being sent to another country and told that this is your home now. Talk about culture shock and identity loss. And how do we justify punishing children for the acts of their parents?
Ruxandra Looft received her PhD in German and Comparative Literature in 2012 from Washington University in St. Louis with a dissertation titled “Mobile Ideas and (Im)mobile Subjects: Women Writers and Women’s Fashion Magazines in Nineteenth-Century Germany and Austria.” Her research focuses on media studies, gender and sexuality, material culture, and immigration. She was born in Romania and has lived in Germany, Austria, Canada, and the US.