Student Activism on College Campuses: An Interview with Vassar Professor Maria Höhn

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Maria Höhn, Vassar College Professor on
the Marion Musser Lloyd '32 Chair of History

Solidarity with Refugees, a recent initiative started at Vassar College (VC), is described on its official webpage (http://refugeesolidarity.vassar.edu) as "members of the Vassar student body, faculty, staff, administrators, and alumnae/i communities" who are united by a common concern about the worldwide refugee crisis. The initiative is focusing on bringing refugee scholars and students to campus as well as developing an app that will allow one-on-one language tutoring for refugees hoping to live and work in Western countries. Last week, I sat down with Professor Maria Höhn, chair of Vassar's History Department and faculty advisor for VC Solidarity with Refugees. We talked about why she started Solidarity with Refugees, student involvement in the initiative, and the importance of social engagement.

Sophia Slater: What is your background?

Maria Höhn: I'm from Germany, and I came to the US in 1983. I was a non-traditional student, meaning I went to college to get my BA as a 32-year-old single parent and working full-time as a cleaning woman. I received my BA at 36, and went on to get my PhD at the University of Pennsylvania. Because I was so old already when I started, I promised myself I would be finished by the time I was 40, so I got a very fast PhD. Vassar was my first job, and I've been here since 1996.

Why did you start VC Solidarity with Refugees?

When I was in Germany last summer I encountered a number of refugees, and I was shocked coming back here and hearing our government say that this is not an American problem, and seeing the unwillingness to connect this larger worldwide crisis to our own geopolitics. I reached out to Vassar's President Hill and our Dean of the Faculty and said, "We need to activate our students. What can we do?" It just took off from there.

Was there immediate interest in the project from the student body?

I had my first teach-in about the refugee situation last October, and saw how much student interest there was and was inspired by the tremendous response. It became clear that I couldn't do this on my own and that I would need help from the students. This is why we have the Student Leadership Council now, and it's an absolutely crucial team. In the beginning, we were like blind people walking in the dark. But now we're getting a better sense of what we can actually do.

Not many professors have launched independent initiatives where they are working so closely with such a large number of students. Is it important for you to engage with the Vassar student body?

Yes, absolutely. I did an initiative that is somewhat similar to VC Solidarity, partnering with a colleague at Heidelberg University, concerning research on African-American GIs living in Germany after WWII. We did a lot of work with students who interviewed GIs, helped conduct research, and set up the online portal where we organized all of this information. I really enjoyed working with students to make information accessible in a digital format, and I followed a similar model when setting up VC Solidarity. Working with students expands the potential of any project.

What has been the biggest difficulty in running VC Solidarity with Refugees?

The hardest part, and most of us feel this, is that you want to help and you want to help now, but that's not always possible. It's very difficult to realize that it takes time to build structures, and networks that actually work. It is extremely frustrating to hear about horrific events happening with refugees abroad while you're still building a network of support at home. I thought everything would move faster--I'm not a patient person.

What is the importance of social engagement outside academic classes?

Our students hunger for social justice-related classes, but it's very important to get students to apply social justice theory to real historical and current events. I always try to get students to think about the past in order to guide them in their own future actions as well as their present life. Much activism is self-referential, meaning it's about identity politics, and we need to acknowledge that aspect of our lives, but we also need to see the larger issues that the world as a whole is facing. I always wonder: how can we use the concepts we are learning in class and make them not so abstract? VC Solidarity is a wonderful way to experientially do this, and apply what we learn in college to real-life situations.

With so many global problems, are you hopeful that this generation of students will have a positive impact in the years to come?

I have to say that right now I'm more discouraged than I have been in a long time. Collectively, we have pretended that this issue of refugees is so far away, but of course it's an issue even in our own country; just think of the desperate people fleeing violence in Central America. There is also the issue of violence against African-Americans perpetrated by our police forces, an issue that cannot be separated from other violence around the world, including the refugee crisis. As far as I'm concerned, it is a dark world right now, but I do believe we can bring light into that. While we cannot fix everything that is wrong right now, if we don't do anything the world will remain as dark as it is. Being socially engaged in initiatives such as VC Solidarity makes us more sensitive to a range of issues, and helps us to connect local issues with global ones. We can't fix everything "out there" right away, but there is always something we can do more locally, sand all of us working on this initiative are committed to that vision.