Why I Majored in CSRE

by Holly Fetter, ‘13

IMG_4494Holly Fetter, a Senior graduating with a B.A. in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, was asked to give a speech at the 2013 CSRE Commencement. Here’s what she said.

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m White.

I may have DJed a quinceañera and I might be an outstanding dancer, but alas, I am a person of pallor.

And, I’m a Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity major.

Given this unusual pairing, I always get one of two reactions from fellow White people who seem to forget that we have races and ethnicities, too.

The first is the classic, “Oh! Wow! That’s so… interesting!” This usually comes from confused people who are too polite to ask clarifying questions.

But the second, more common, reaction is a little more honest: “Race and what? Why are you majoring in that?” Given the apparent paradox of a White person studying race, this is usually followed by awkward laughter.

And most of the time, I just laugh along with them. Sometimes I’ll respond with a vague, “Yeah, it’s a great major.”

But as I reflect on my experience (at the wise, old age of 22), I realize that I’ve never really explained to anyone why I chose to declare CSRE – not even to my family.

So let me take this chance to explain to y’all why I chose this major, and why I now know it’s undoubtedly the best one at Stanford.

All my life, I’ve lived in predominantly White neighborhoods and gone to predominantly White schools. While I was always a self-proclaimed liberal – putting an Obama sign on my locker was about as radical as it got in my Texas high school – I wasn’t exposed to any discussion about race or racism. I remember one time I went to my school’s oh-so-edgy “Diversity Club” and was turned away because I wasn’t “diverse” enough.

But everything changed when I got to Stanford. I was surrounded by more “diversity” than I had ever encountered in my entire life. It wasn’t about quotas and box-checking — Stanford is a genuine community of diverse stories. In those awkward first weeks of college, when the only conversation topics we had were our families, high schools, and test scores, I began to appreciate how race and ethnicity were fundamental to each of our experiences. I encountered the injustice of families divided by borders, the resilience of students who had to organize sit ins to get into AP classes, and the deep commitment to cultural practices even when they were not seen as “mainstream.” Race and ethnicity impact our stories, our perspectives, and our opportunities.

As I spent two years trying out every fuzzy major — from Film to Feminist Studies — I realized that race and ethnicity were also fundamental to each academic discipline at Stanford. You can’t study Economics, for example, without considering the way that wealth in the United States is distributed and divided along racial lines. You can’t be pre-med without understanding how access to healthcare is impacted by race. And you can’t study Public Policy without appreciating the blatant racism that underlies laws like New York’s Stop and Frisk, just as one random example.

I also chose CSRE because I knew it was a practical major. I know this might seem odd — given that many people, even many of you parents here today, would list CSRE right above “Studio Art” on the “practicality” scale — but I actually believe that it’s one of the most useful and relevant majors at Stanford, just like Studio Art. First, there’s the strengthening of critical thinking skills, which is both a blessing and a curse — I know my family and friends get tired of my unsolicited commentary on the problematic racial dynamics of the movies we see together. But this power of perception is how we move cultures and institutions forward, by pointing out specific ways that films or policies or people can be less problematic and more just.

These critical insights are also crucial to understanding who’s included and who’s not in the spaces we inhabit. You can guarantee that the first thing a CSRE major notices when they walk into a room is the racial breakdown of the place – “Why is there only one person of color here?” As this country becomes increasingly diverse, it’s CSRE majors who will have the tools to deal with the challenges created by difference. We are prepared to innovate new ways to design strong institutions and communities that celebrate difference without letting it divide us. In this culture of technology and apps and entrepreneurial spirit, we learn that the future is collaboration, something that CSRE majors know all about. We know how to look beyond diversity to see the histories that have impacted the experiences of people from different identities. We know how to see those disparities, and how to ensure that everyone around us can feel empowered and included. Basically, we’re the ones with those “21st century skills” that Obama keeps talking about. (Also, we do have “CS” in our name so that has to count for something, too…)

CSRE also emphasizes putting academic theories into practice. It’s not enough to learn all the fancy theories and jargon, it’s what you do those ideas that matters. In the techie world, you have “applied sciences,” which focus on the practical application of scientific knowledge. To me, CSRE is like “applied humanities.” For example, my favorite class at Stanford was a service-learning course taught by Kathleen Coll, where we studied the California Domestic Workers’ Rights Coalition and their efforts to pass a Bill of Rights that would allow legal protections for domestic workers and caregivers in California. (This is an effort that is ongoing, by the way, and I encourage you to check out their campaign). In the classroom, we discussed ethnographies, policy briefs, and critical theory. But we were also invited to be part of the campaign, attending meetings in the Mission and lobbying Senators in Sacramento.

This union of theory and practice is foundational to this program. When my friends and I from the ASSU Community Action Board decided to teach a student-initiated course about diversity, CSRE was the obvious choice for the sponsoring program. We saw a need to provide our peers with tools to deal with the diverse communities that we live and study in at Stanford, so we designed and taught a course about allyship, or how to engage with people of different backgrounds. (I’ll give you the brief synopsis of what students learned – the key is listening). Even though we aren’t tenured, we were trusted to teach. Our backgrounds in CSRE allowed the other student instructors and me to share our academic and personal knowledge of identity. CSRE is all about owning your education, and using it make an impact.

I also chose CSRE because I sought a program through which my studies could complement and support my activism and advocacy. The Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity is rooted in student activism, and this history has led to the development of academically rigorous programs that are centered around students. I have appreciated the freedom and responsibility I’ve been given by CSRE, especially as other majors on campus become increasingly restrictive. I’ve also been grateful for the opportunity to seamlessly blend my academic and extracurricular activities, strengthening my commitment to social justice both in and outside the classroom.

Of course, the most powerful part of being a CSRE major is learning from the faculty, staff, and students affiliated with the program. I am so proud and honored to be in this community of educators, creators, activists, and leaders.  Because CSRE invites students to bring our identities and experiences into the classroom, I’ve had the chance to appreciate the depth and dimension of my friends’ stories. If you have the chance this afternoon, try to get to know the students sitting in the front rows. Ask them about their motivations for studying CSRE, Native American, Asian American, or Chicana/Latina Studies.

So there you have it – the long answer to the question of “Why are you majoring in that?” Thank you to the faculty and staff that have created such an incredible academic experience, thank you to my classmates for teaching me more than books and journal articles ever could, and thank you to my family for always supporting my choice of study, even if it took them 4 years to get the acronym in the right order. Thank you.


Holly was once a senior majoring in CSRE, and is now a graduate student in Stanford’s Department of Sociology, stu
dying people’s pathways to activism.

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4 thoughts on “Why I Majored in CSRE

  1. Alissa Picker says:

    No wonder my daughter is eager to major in CSRE when she gets to Stanford! What a wonderful and insightful speech, Holly. I chuckled twice…”person of pallor” and “applied humanities” are idioms worth keeping. CSRE majors will have far more to offer the world than I did with my Stanford Humanities/Comparative Literature degree in 1984.

  2. Anonymous says:

    “Ask them about their motivations for studying CSRE, Native American, Asian American, or Chicana/Latina Studies”. I guess Black people don’t matter at Stanford. And here lies the problem with her and her major. She thinks she made a difference.

    • Department says:

      The reason why she doesn’t mention “Black people” is because African/African-American Studies is a separate program entirely from the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. While they work in collaboration, AAAS is not a part of CCSRE, which encompasses CSRE, Native American, Asian American, and Chicana/Latina Studies.” This post was purely about CCSRE.

    • Amanda says:

      “And here lies the problem with her and her major.” And here lies the crux of what’s wrong with people today – so quick to jump down the throat of an amazing girl who wrote an incredible speech. She DID make a difference at Stanford and she will do far more with her life than a narrow-minded person like you ever will. Do your research before you write irrelevant commentary.

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