Author: Ariel Mota Alves

St. Olaf’s culture pushes good grades, not learning

When I helped first year students during their move-in in the beginning of this year, I would always let out a small giggle every time I helped carry a student’s TV. I think they are too innocent and they are yet to discover the academic workload that St. Olaf has to offer. Good luck with even having time to watch TV.

St. Olaf, as stated by its mission, is a place to “cultivate breadth and depth in the skills, knowledge, and capacities that help students flourish in whatever future emerges.” Put it simply, it is a rigorous academic environment. 

The term “academic rigor” can have various definitions, depending on who defines it. For the school and the professors, it means to challenge students to think critically, perform and grow. For students, it can mean a higher standard of learning expectations and more school workload, more than their ability to discern the information and reach the learning outcomes they are accustomed to reaching. 

Does St. Olaf’s rigorous academic environment prompt students to want to actually learn, or just get good grades? As I was writing this, I spoke with my roommate and asked what his thoughts were on this matter. He was reading a book called “Stranger in Their Own Land” for his Political Science class, and the book is about the political divide in the United States. He told me how interesting the book is. But then he also told me he wishes he had time to spend and delve more into the subjects in the book, and understand the political climate in the country better.

 “Right now, I have to do a skim reading, because I have other commitments that I have to worry about,” he said. The point is, many courses at St. Olaf are reading-intensive, especially the humanities and social sciences and readings before the class are important for students to be able to participate in the classroom discussions. But most of the times, the readings can be overwhelming. 

With this enormous amount of reading, students (at least talking from my personal experience) opt for the speed-reading or skimming style in order to balance with other homework for other classes. Now, skimming is useful when it comes to reading newspapers and magazines, but not when you have to read about Keynesian economic theories or a book about globalization in India. Studies have shown that skimming doesn’t help you to generate sufficient insights from the pieces of information of the readings, and very little is being comprehended. 

This brings me to my second point, which is about balance. Can one maintain a good academic standing, while at the same time have enough time to spare between socializing, sleeping, exercising and studying in a highly competitive environment like St. Olaf? I would argue that often times homework is disproportionate to students’ ability not only to finish it, but to actually achieve the intended learning outcome from those assignments. Nevertheless, I would say that during my year and a half at St. Olaf, a lot of people I share classes with are very proactive in response to the pressure, such as finishing their assignments on time, meeting deadlines or getting grades that are no less than “B’s.”

As a trade-off, there are always people in the class who just look fatigued, sleep in class and are just exhausted after pulling an all-nighter the previous night. 

Funny thing is, I feel like professors generally are aware of this, but it seems like having academics stress and anxiety is a casual thing to happen, and it has been normalized.

On the other hand, an academically rigorous environment hinders participation in co-curricular activities. While rigor in academics is not only a phenomenon at St. Olaf, the overload of schoolwork can prevent students from participating in extracurricular activities, despite the fact that St. Olaf has over 200 co-curricular programs. 

Some students show up to the co-curricular meetings in the beginning of the year but gradually realized that they have no time to allocate to learn the things that they are passionate about. 

Thirdly, the liberal arts nature of St. Olaf challenges students through general education requirements, which allows students to take classes outside of their major, including two religion classes, science and lab, quantitative studies, multicultural global and domestic studies, to name a few. I have to admit that I really like this concept, as it prepares me to be an intellectually equipped person with broader knowledge outside of my expertise. But it is also not a secret that St. Olaf students take classes with the mindset “only to fulfill the GEs.” 

A lot of students compete to take classes that fulfill up to two GEs at the same time, without necessarily pay consideration to the content of the course. Also, some courses, especially from the language department, offer out-of-class language-related activities where students can earn extra credit for the class. However, this leads to students only going to the event for the credit. for example, most of the students who go to the language department movie nights only to get their name down, but spend the whole time on their phone, or leave before the movie finishes. 

St. Olaf, while it has outstanding academics, prompts good grades, not an actual learning environment.

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Proposed SGA Constitution changes put to the vote

DiversityEdu is only a short term solution

“You are taking this course because your institution is committed to diversity and inclusion,” said the male narrator at the beginning of the DiversityEdu online training, making what the course has to offer sound very intriguing. 

St. Olaf is one of the institutions that pays for training from DiversityEdu, a for-profit company that creates an online module to teach diversity and acceptance to students. The College made it mandatory for St. Olaf students to the take the course prior to their Interim and Spring semester registrations. Like St. Olaf, more and more universities across the country are making this type of course mandatory for their students. 

On the surface level, DiversityEdu does provide essential tools and skills for students in order to create a more inclusive and safe environment for all. The course material is comprehensive: it acknowledges existing issues related to diversity and offers ways to respond to them. In a nutshell, DiversityEdu helps to smooth out conversations and social interactions between diverse groups of students and faculty at a typical American college. 

While these tools are helpful, they are very technical. DiversityEdu is more like “Do’s and Don’ts” when facing diversity: what to say, how to act around people, what not to do, what not to assume, skills for senders and recipients of microaggressions, etc. 

The course said things such as “to get the conversation going, we need to use accurate and current terminology,” or “educating yourself means being alert and responsive to change,” which are effective in the short term, but they do not necessarily respond to why people need to use accurate terminology, or why they need to be responsive to change. 

Here’s why: when talking about race, the convenient one-hour DiversityEdu training doesn’t include the bigger picture of the racial dynamic of the United States, such as the historical context of 200-year old racial problems in the United States. It doesn’t tell you about the fact that some people are born with an unearned access to social power based on membership in a dominant group (read: privilege) and what it means to have it. It also doesn’t tell you the fact that racism has been institutionalized in the United States, evidenced by things like segregated neighborhoods, mass incarceration and the police shooting of black people and income disparity between white and black households, to name a few. 

The second problem with DiversityEdu is that it could be misinterpreted. The course is too “politically correct” and too generic. At some point during the section about microaggression, it says that “recipients of microaggressions are not always members of a minority identity group.” Some students from the majority group (read: white people) may get a false notion on whether they could receive a microaggression because of their skin color. Now, this is a little problematic, because the majority of the recipients of microaggressions are students of color and members of other minority groups like the LGBTQ community. This is because “white culture” is perceived as the norm, and everyone else is standardized based on how close they are to “white culture.” 

For instance, telling an Asian-American how good their English is and that they don’t have an accent or saying things like “you’re pretty for a black girl” reinforces the idea that “white culture” is the norm because it directly compares people to how well they match or uphold that norm. 

Now, let’s rewind, and try to look at it from a St. Olaf context. DiversityEdu was introduced in response to the campus protest last semester after several students of color received various racist notes. Let’s be honest, DiversityEdu is designed more to suit the majority of the student body than to students of color. The racial climate at St. Olaf gained national attention, but media outlets narrowly reported only on the racist notes, even though the protest was trying to address a larger problem than that: the fact that racism is institutionalized.

Ranging from the things like whitewashed curriculum and staff hiring to campus attitude, racism has long been embedded at St. Olaf, and it cannot be answered only with a one-hour diversity training. 

DiversityEdu was implemented this year, following the protests, and it is a first step. But a need to reform curriculum in the General Education requirement as demanded by The Collective, and to integrate race and ethnic studies and women’s and gender studies courses into General Education (GE) requirements, would have a long-term impact to dismantle institutional racism at St. Olaf. 

Having a semester-long course to talk about racial complexities in the US would expose students to a vast understanding and awareness of their racial identity, and why they do what they are being told to do, such as taking this course.

In conclusion, DiversityEdu helps students to be more cautious about what they say to students of color and minority group of students, and it’s effective in the short term. But understanding the larger and more complex problem is better than just holding one’s tongue. 

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Proposed SGA Constitution changes put to the vote

Students challenge excessive waste

I was sitting next to a friend of mine in Stav Hall and I noticed that he only used a single napkin throughout the entire meal. At the end of the meal he put the used napkin in a green bag.

“I want to produce the least amount of waste today,” he said while carrying the green bag around with him.

When it comes to sustainability, St. Olaf is a pioneer. As of November 2016, the college is powered entirely by wind. Recently, the Environmental Coalition and Environmental House hosted a competition with Carleton College to see which school could produce the least waste through something called the No Waste Challenge. For this challenge, students who registered had to collect all the waste they produce throughout the week in reusable plastic bags, periodically attending weigh-ins to measure their trash. The average weight of trash produced per person for each college was calculated and the winning school received a repurposed trophy.

This challenge was aimed primarily at addressing the issue of excessive human waste and raising environmental awareness among students. Is this an issue the student body should be concerned with? In our industrialized world, we produce more waste than ever before. The napkins we use in the Caf, the cups we drink our coffee out of, the plastic cutlery we use during meals and the paper we print our assignments on all add up.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average person in the United States generates 4.3 pounds of waste per day. Where does all this trash go? Approximately 55 percent of the 220 million tons of waste generated each year in the United States ends up in one of over 3,500 landfills. More specifically, Americans use 2.5 million plastic bottles per hour. According to Forbes, the United States leads the world in waste production.

Is this challenge really an effective way to reduce human waste? Realistically it isn’t, since it is not a holistic measure of how much waste we produce – excluding things like water used during your morning shower or the gasoline used driving your car to work – but it does encourage students to become more responsible individuals when it comes to using non-renewable resources.

Students who took part in this challenge will most likely waste less during their daily routines. If all students took part in this challenge, the impact would be huge. Not only would it reduce waste production regionally, but it would make students more conscientious of their planet’s limited natural resources. It would shape how they think about their daily consumption. Maybe after completing the challenge we would all make a greater effort to bring our own cups to the Cage for coffee or Italian sodas, avoid plastic cutlery or reuse items that are still useful instead of sending them to the landfill.

In the grand scheme of things I would say that St. Olaf students are a group of open-minded people who are still unnecessarily wasteful, like the general population of the United States. We waste in our day-to-day lives without realizing the true impact of our consumption. The No Waste Challenge helped students take into account the trash they produce. Let’s not just strive to get the trophy, but to live up to the underlying message behind the challenge.

Ariel Mota Alves ’20 ( is from East Timor. His major is undecided.

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Proposed SGA Constitution changes put to the vote

Boxing club provides physical, mental outlet

Club sports provide the unique opportunity for students to participate in athletics without prior experience, expanding the breadth of sports on campus and allowing not just the physical aspects of athletics to reach a greater audience, but also the mental benefits. Students can improve their personal health by participating, of course, but often they find sports to be a mental outlet to reduce stress and pursue a passion outside of academics. The St. Olaf boxing club, which meets every Tuesday and Thursday on campus, is a perfect example.

Professor Carlos Gallego, the head coach of the club, stresses that joining boxing not only helps people get in tremendous shape, as boxing training is considered among the toughest and most rewarding in sports, but also nurtures a strong sense of confidence as boxers learn to master their fears and instincts. Gallego also notes that boxing teaches the importance of fundamental skills and discipline, both of which can be applied to other important life activities, most notably academics.

Gallego began his training in his hometown of Tucson, Ariz. for five years as an amateur boxer before moving to Northfield. Over the past five years he has been working as a boxing trainer, helping athletes of all skill levels, including current state bantamweight champion Vicente Alfaro, to recognize and fulfill their latent fighting potential.

“Currently I am studying other related combat disciplines, like Muay Thai, which I am looking forward to integrating into the club curriculum,” Gallego said.

If students have no previous experience with boxing, Gallego starts them off with simple circular training while teaching them rudimentary techniques like jabbing before working up to the intricacies of the sport, such as footwork, parrying and combinations involving hooks and crosses.

Zachariah Tritz ’17, one of the student coaches, said that students involved in the club will also get training sessions from two student coaches based on their level of experience. Tritz joined the club during his freshman year after having no previous experience with the sport, and he hasn’t looked back since.

“Joining boxing is a good way to stay fit and get active,” Tritz said. “You get to challenge yourself, since this is more like a singular sport where you don’t have to worry about your team, but having your own dedication to work and see the result.”

Mikhail Lysiuk ’20 and Samantha Van Der Steen ’20 are two of the students who regularly participate in the club. For Lysiuk, many different martial arts have remained critical in his life over the course of eleven years. Boxing provides a great way to keep up his combat skills, and the low time commitment keeps his schedule flexible, ensuring that he can pursue his passion without falling behind in his studies.

Similarly, Van Der Steen has maintained an attraction to organized fighting since she was young. Her parents initially disapproved of this penchant, but boxing has provided her with a healthy outlet to express her interest while learning intricate techniques and honing her craft.

Both Lysiuk and Van Der Steen praise their coaches for their tremendous skill and knowledge, while also creating a comfortable atmosphere that promotes camaraderie among their fellow boxers. For Gallego it’s about learning an art and finding a productive outlet the way Lysiuk and Van Der Steen have.

“It’s not only about teaching people how to fight, but also preparing their body and mind,” Gallego said.

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Proposed SGA Constitution changes put to the vote