Welcome to HECUA’s Alumni Profile series. Each month we’ll catch up with a HECUA alumni, and see how their time in a HECUA classroom influenced their career goals, their life in the community, and their pursuit of continued education. If you or a friend would like to participate in this series, please email email@example.com. This month we’re delighted to feature Tenzin Kunsal, currently the Programs and Outreach Strategist at local nonprofit Pollen. Tenzin is a graduate of St. Olaf College, and completed HECUA’s Race in America program in 2010.
Six years ago in the early spring of 2010, Tenzin Kunsal had just begun the second semester of her freshman year at St. Olaf College, a well-regarded private college in Northfield, MN. Tenzin moved to Northfield from Minneapolis in the fall of 2009, drawn by St. Olaf’s competitive aid package and strong academic reputation.
When she arrived on campus, she found herself surprised by the lack of diversity. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into in terms of culture shock,” she says.
One incident in particular stood out to Tenzin. “That spring semester of my freshman year we had a big issue on campus,” she remembers. In one of St. Olaf’s central halls, there are several large white boards, where students, staff, and faculty write questions, offer feedback, and promote events. It’s a community space, meant to foster discussion. In the first weeks of the spring semester, a student committee at St. Olaf published a report on diversity in the school. To spark conversation around the report, a St. Olaf staff member took to the white board, asking students, “What does diversity mean to you?”
Tenzin shakes her head as she remembers some of the responses. “People wrote: ‘Diversity brings violence to campus.’ ‘Diversity lowers our standards.’ ‘Students of color are only here because of affirmative action.’ I remember thinking, why are people writing this? I had experienced some discrimination in my life, but this seemed really overboard.” Tenzin began to feel more isolated on campus. Immediately following this experience, she felt the need for something that would give her context for what she’d observed. She researched off-campus summer programs that addressed racism and inequity in America, and found HECUA’s Civil Rights Movement summer program (now called Race in America). She enrolled right away.
Race in America students arrive in Selma.
Looking back now, she says, “That program was one of the most formative experiences of my life. I learned so much about the United States, about the history of the civil rights movement. It was my first time really studying the systematic construction of power and identity in America, and interlocking systems of oppression.”
Tenzin was no stranger to political action. To the contrary, as a high school student she had been deeply involved in grassroots advocacy, primarily through Tibetan human rights organizations. At the tender age of 16, she’d attended a camp in Wisconsin where she’d learned the best way to be arrested in the course of political protest. The Civil Rights Movement program politicized her in a different way.
Students traveled throughout the South, meeting organizers and visiting official and unofficial monuments.
In addition to offering a strong grounding in US political history, Tenzin says that the program helped her embrace her own identity as a first generation Tibetan-American. “I was confused about my identity,” she says, “I grew up here, but I’m used to being told I’m not an American–because I am not of white European descent. When I learned about the US and how this nation was founded, created, and developed, it made me more accepting of my complex identity. I felt like: yes. I do belong here.”
Tenzin returned to campus with a new resolve. Her deepened knowledge of systemic oppression and the power of organized opposition increased her drive to confront institutional racism in higher education and the larger community. “If I faced someone who was going to say something disparaging, I could place it in a larger context. It made me stronger; more capable.” She became more engaged in the social sciences departments on campus, and continued to build her knowledge of systematic inequalities and the theories that explain the how and the why behind the injustice.
In her sophomore year Tenzin worked hard to organize events that would tackle discrimination and bias on campus head on. She collaborated with faculty in the political science and sociology/anthropology departments, forging strong relationships with other students and professors. These new allies supported Tenzin in her activism on campus. Among Tenzin’s triumphs: a presentation and discussion during St. Olaf’s Asia Weeks Celebration that unpacked Asian stereotypes in pop culture.
A poster from Tenzin’s Asia Weeks presentation.
After graduation Tenzin joined College Possible as an Americorps volunteer, working with low-income and first generation students on their journey towards becoming college graduates. When that service year ended, she moved on to a fellowship with the nonprofit talent booster New Sector Alliance, spending a year as a RISE fellow with local start-up nonprofit Pollen. She was hired by Pollen at the end of her term there as their Programs and Outreach Strategist, a job she describes as making her feel a bit like an octopus, with her arms in multiple pots, balancing, stirring, interpolating.
Tenzin is always thinking about how to create change, but her time at Pollen has increased her focus on building networks. She’s been thinking a lot about the stories we tell ourselves, and how individual identity shapes organizational geographies just as much as it shapes personal narratives.
“I realized in college that I am in this weird gray zone because of how my background and my networks overlap,” she says, “I am part of multiple circles, that don’t often seem to touch. I have so many networks.” On the one hand, she says, are the people she grew up with – blue collar, working class folks, some of whom haven’t completed GEDs. On the other are these expanding networks of college educated professionals.
“There are layers,” she observes, “and I’m conscious of how I’m unique in this context. I’m showing up with all my layers in mind. It’s important to encourage people with my background to be in positions of leadership.” What does this mean in practice? It’s important to hire people who can see the whole story. “If you’re not learning the kind of critical thinking that I learned in that HECUA program,” she continues, “you’re not creating real change. From that program I carried forward these complex ideas of how race works in America. Who is an American. How I am an American. I’ll carry that wherever I go.”
What’s next for Tenzin? She’s accepted a new position as Bay Area program manager for the New Sector Alliance. She’ll be moving to California in a month to focus on strengthening the social sector by enriching its talent pipeline through the organization’s fellowship programs. We’ll leave you with her reflection on the importance of context, choice, and the impact of networks. “Being able to have access to spaces where you fit in and are welcomed is powerful. In opposite situations, you need to be equipped with the skills and the strength to tackle tough settings. In this process, it’s important to not only ask help from your community members, but also reach out and open doors for others as well. We can’t do it all alone.”
We couldn’t agree more. Good luck, Tenzin!
To learn more about HECUA’s Race in America program, click here.