Congratulations Rasna Ekra!
For just about everyone in this year’s graduating class, adjusting to college in the fall of 2016 was a surreal experience. For Rasna Ekra, who attended school in the heart of Conservative America, Donald Trump’s election to presidency became the formative event of her college career.
Rasna never expected she would end up at a small liberal arts college in rural Pennsylvania, but when she first visited Lafayette College she says, “something just clicked.” From an early age Rasna had her heart set on becoming the first in her family to attend college, but she could not imagine that she would attend a school like Lafayette. Immigrating from Bangladesh in the fourth grade, Rasna had a few false assumptions about college: she thought she could never afford a small private school, she wanted a big university, and she wouldn’t be able to live out of state. Then, she had her summer with Freedom & Citizenship. That summer changed a lot of her preconceptions about college: it taught her the value of a small seminar class, grew her interest in the humanities and social sciences, and proved that she could indeed live on her own. In the following months, she sought the help of her counselors at the Opportunity Network and Double Discovery Center, who encouraged her to visit schools she would never have considered before.
I saw groups I wanted to join, and I wanted to be in that community and that space, so it felt like Lafayette was it for me
When she was still trying to make her decision, Lafayette brought her to campus to attend its fly-in program, called Our Beloved Community. The weekend centered on a social justice symposium for prospective students. Surrounded by other low-income students from diverse backgrounds and discussing issues of social justice, she recounts, “it was shocking to me, because I did not expect a predominantly white institution to organize something like that for its students. But I saw groups I wanted to join, and I wanted to be in that community and that space, so it felt like Lafayette was it for me.”
But, when Rasna arrived in the Fall she found her “beloved community” was not all that she had expected. In her previous visits to Lafayette, its multicultural clubs and multiracial communities were prominently featured, but in her 50-person lecture hall for Economics she saw only one other student of color. More than once her peers and even professors asked her to speak about issues they assumed pertained to her based on her ethnicity. Once a professor turned to her when a question arose about the economics of the garment industry in Bangladesh. With the eyes of the whole class upon her Rasna did not quite know what to say, though she wanted to shout, “I came here when I was nine! I don’t know anything, I need you to teach me!”
After Donald Trump’s election, issues of race, citizenship, and religion became even more pronounced on campus as the school grappled with the demands of its politically diverse student body. Rasna became active in her community, joining marches, sit-ins, and discussions on campus. Though most of her peers supported her actions, she remembered one student who shouted from his dorm window: “Make America Great Again!” to silent protesters below. The greatest disturbance, however, came from a group of conservative alumni who began a lecture series to “bring in the conservative voice to campus,” she recalls. Suddenly Lafayette was playing host to a young conservative YouTuber and the British politician Nigel Farage, and Rasna found herself involved in organizing walkouts and protests of the events. Thinking back to her first visit to Lafayette she was stunned by what her campus had become.
To make a change you have to understand where a person’s coming from, which means you have to really listen and respect them. You challenge the idea, not the person, and you’re able to learn from each other without being disrespectful.
Throughout that stressful time Rasna also remembers good parts of her community. Yes, there had been some odd moments in class, but she stresses, “there were also so many professors and administrators who were super supportive and I could talk to them about anything.” She asserts it was the friends she made in student groups that really saved her during that first tumultuous year. She joined and later led the Muslim Student Association, the Asian Cultural Association, and Kaleidescope, a group that leads social justice workshops for Lafayette students. In Kaleidoscope, she facilitated conversations during orientation between students of different ideologies as they debated hot political issues such as free speech versus hate speech. In those workshops she saw firsthand the diversity of viewpoints at Lafayette, and she learned how people could rise above them to have productive conversations. She came away from that experience with profound lessons for our divided country, as she teaches, “to make a change you have to understand where a person’s coming from, which means you have to really listen and respect them. You challenge the idea, not the person, and you’re able to learn from each other without being disrespectful.”
Although she found on-campus politics to be intense, Rasna found balance with academic interests that were global in scale. She came to Lafayette hoping to major in International Affairs, but a memorable class in Gender and Development led to a second major in Women and Gender Studies. Rasna vividly remembers the professor in that class explaining how development is usually measured in terms of technological and economic advancement before asking, “what does development mean to you?” She found herself thinking about the kind of lives people want to live, and challenging current methods of development. The way development is imposed now, she explains, “it just makes the rich people richer and the poorer people poorer so that the countries’ economies are developing but the quality of life for the people at the bottom is not improving at all.”
Outside of the classroom and even off campus, Rasna has pursued her global and social justice interests as well through studying abroad. Her first trip was a winter interim program hosted by the Opportunity Network in Prague and Vienna, where she was able to study social entrepreneurship, human rights, and the refugee crisis at the United Nations there. She loved the experience so much that she decided to go abroad again her junior year, travelling to Florence. While there, Rasna learned some Italian, toured around Europe, and studied the politics of immigration and human rights. Even with all of her travels, Rasna always returned to New York in the summer to explore more opportunities. In New York she served as an assistant literacy teacher for Mexican students at Masa as part of a PASE Summer Teaching Fellowship; she spent a summer as a social work intern with the violent crime response organization Safe Horizon; and she worked as a summer dean at the Sadie Nash Leadership Project’s Summer Institute.
If Rasna could do it all over again, she would still pick Lafayette. Even in the darkest moments, she never once thought about transferring. “People say you have to find your match and I guess Lafayette was just it for me,” she says. When Rasna reflects on her last four years, she admits, “there were negative things, but there were a lot of people who appreciated love. I had the support system of my friends and adults. We were all going through the same things so it made our community stronger.” Moreover, she believes the experience has made her a better person. “Before college, my ideas were kind of fixed and I was not open to hearing from people who had different ideas from me,” she recalls, adding, “that changed in college because I met so many people from so many different backgrounds. I became more open to hearing different ideas, creating new conversations, and learning from that exchange.”
I met so many people from so many different backgrounds. I became more open to hearing different ideas, creating new conversations, and learning from that exchange.
Rasna is still living out of the suitcase she packed to go home for spring break, with most of her possessions sitting in her dorm room at Lafayette. Northampton County has been particularly hard hit by COVID-19 and the college has just recently started letting a limited number of students return to campus to retrieve their belongings. After she finally moves out, Rasna can start thinking about her next steps. She may be graduating into an unstable world, but she undoubtedly has the experience, skill, and drive to help fix it. Congratulations Rasna Ekra, Lafayette College Class of 2020!