When you’re fascinated with ethnicity, race, and other cultural elements that make us human, the diverse campus of Governors State University seems like the perfect place to study.
“Our student body has a unique demographic. There are older and younger students, and it’s racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse,” said cultural anthropologist Jelena Radovic-Fanta, a 2018 American Association of University Women (AAUW) Fellow and assistant professor in the GSU anthropology and sociology program.
She’s also an affiliated faculty member with the university’s Gender and Sexuality Studies Program
“I joined an interdisciplinary research team last year that examines coming to college as a predominantly first-generation student body. We’re looking at what their experience of coming to college has been. Do they have support? What can best be provided by the university itself?
Since arriving at GSU in 2015 Radovic-Fanta says GSU provides both a rich environment for research and a fascinating classroom environment where examples from students’ everyday lives often turn up in the textbooks they study.
“There is so much material here,’’ she said.
Her own fascination with cultural anthropology has roots in her upbringing. The daughter of a Serbian father and a Chilean mother, Radovic-Fanta grew up in many different countries and was always trying to make sense of culture, diversity, and humans.
But it took a gender course requirement to open her eyes to it as a field of study. “I fell in love with the discipline, but it also gave me a sense of understanding my own life growing up.”
Radovic-Fanta thought she would work for the United Nations, or for a non-governmental agency. But while earning her Ph.D., she discovered an affinity for teaching. “I love seeing students make this connection between their own lives and what they’re learning in their book. And not only making connections but realizing they can produce knowledge and be part of the process to improve things,” she said.
“We learn about a lot of problems but also give them the tools to do something about it.”
GSU Newsroom: How do you introduce students to cultural anthropology?
Radovic-Fanta: First, I ask what they think anthropology is. Most people think of archeology and Indiana Jones. But cultural anthropology is the study of culture: race, ethnicity, values, food, dress, language, religion. How do you learn that? Are you born with it or not? We start by taking a step back and thinking, how do you know what you know about yourself and your identity?
GSU Newsroom: How do you talk about race in the classroom of such a diverse university?
Radovic-Fanta: We start with questions like, “What is race and what is it not?” Biologically, there is no such thing. Does this mean race doesn’t exist? No, it exists socially. We’ve had laws based on it. We start unpacking these ideas. It’s not easy, and it’s not always comfortable for everyone. I think the way it’s presented is important. This is part of the system we live in. What do you observe? What is in the news? And what does research show that helps talk about these issues?
My prior institutions had less diversity and students had to learn that racism exists, and that there are issues in the criminal justice system, and that there’s institutional racism and that white privilege exists. Here many students are aware about it from everyday life experiences and can draw on different examples.
I also have students who are white and say, “I never thought about that,” or are silent. There’s a lot going on in the classroom. It’s important to set a tone of respect for others’ viewpoints.
GSU Newsroom: You were born in Chile. Have you done research there?
Radovic-Fanta: Yes. Chile is considered a really developed country that others in Latin American should emulate. It has low levels of corruption and poverty, but it’s also one of the most unequal countries in terms of income. I wanted to debunk that idea of Chile as a modern nation. In grad school, I zoned in on the fruit export industry, which was considered to be super successful. But in the shadows, you have these women who pick grapes during the summer who work in precarious and hazardous conditions. These women, and others like them, were the subject of a discussion I recently led on Jane Addams Day at the Hull House.
GSU Newsroom: Your first language is Spanish. How has that been useful in your research?
Radovic-Fanta: While I was an undergrad at Santa Clara University, I wanted to look at the other side. Who cooks for the students? Who cleans for the dorms? What’s their experience like? I interviewed janitors, landscapers, and cafeteria workers. Many were immigrants who spoke Spanish. I got invited to their homes and got to meet their family members. I was able to put stories to the faces I saw every day and it was a great way to get to know them better.
I was surprised at how much they loved the students and how much they valued their work as it related to an educational institution.
I also interviewed the students and found there was a disconnect: students viewed the employees only as the people who make the food, for instance.
GSU Newsroom: What inspires you about GSU students?
Radovic-Fanta: I really like their honesty. I like the stories they bring to the classroom. And I like the diversity. They’re working hard. They want to be here, need to be here and are going through a lot of challenges. I like it that I learn from them. They teach me, and we learn from each other.