Cal State Bakersfield opened in 1970, just one year after the first School of Ethnic Studies was created at San Francisco State. When the university held its first classes, it offered minors in African American, Mexican American, Asian and Latin American studies.
The university would continue to offer courses in the interdisciplinary academic tradition of ethnic studies throughout its 51-year history, but it wasn't until this month that CSUB officially created a home for those courses with a Department of Ethnic Studies.
The Department of Ethnic Studies will focus on the contributions of Latinos, African Americans, Asian American and Indigenous people, the university recently announced.
"This has been a long time coming," said Jorge Moraga, an assistant professor of the interdisciplinary studies program who specializes in Latinx/Chicanx studies.
Moraga said the future is promising for a department now housed within the School of Social Sciences and Education. It now has the institutional support to grow and take steps like offering a bachelor's degree.
"It’s a really big deal actually for the Central Valley," said Tracey Salisbury, an assistant professor who specializes in Black studies.
Salisbury looks forward to a department that will connect students, as well as the broader community, to the legacy of places like the Allensworth colony and labor activist Dolores Huerta. Salisbury said that she looks forward to the department becoming an "academic crown jewel" in the Central Valley.
Ethnic studies will offer students a chance to learn about the rich history of diversity in Kern County, according to Debra Jackson, the associate vice president for academic programs. Learning about different perspective is "critical to their education and their future success and careers."
But she said the university has also been thinking about what it means to be officially designated a Hispanic-serving institution.
"Does it mean we happen to enroll Hispanic students or does it mean something more?" Jackson said. "Our conclusion is that it needs to mean something more."
History usually gets interpreted through a European American lens, Moraga said. When people who are Black, Chicanx, Asian American or Pacific Islander learn about their own history, it can spark a sense of civic duty.
"It's a ripple effect," he said.
Jonathan Vega, a student at CSUB who identifies as nonbinary, said that taking an ethnic studies course dramatically changed the trajectory of their life and career path.
Vega never learned about Chicanx history while attending school in Bakersfield and struggled. Enrolling in an Introduction to Latina/o Studies course allowed Vega to learn the history of their own community, and it changed their whole outlook.
"I have goals, I love myself, I found myself a part of a community that loves me," they said. "I found a place, I found a purpose."
The call for ethnic studies has come outside the community, too. The CSUB African American Advisory Council called for the university to consider how an ethnic studies curriculum can support the achievement of Black students. In a letter to CSUB's Academic Senate, it proposed more courses that discuss stories of triumph in the Black community.
"Every day in Kern County and around the nation, Black students, parents, faith leaders, business professionals, and community advocates overcome adversity to achieve success in America," the letter stated. "To combat the lingering effects of systemic inequities across multiple social sectors — those stories must be told in university classrooms."
There is some frustration that it took so long to create a department among those who have championed it.
"I say I've waited seven years because that’s how long I’ve waited, but some people have waited 50 years," said Liora Gubkin, associate dean of the School of Arts and Humanities.
In 2014, CSUB's then-President Horace Mitchell chaired a statewide task force on the advancement of ethnic studies. Within CSUB, that led to the hiring of Salisbury and Moraga in 2017 with an eye toward creating the department. Moraga credits history professor Alicia Rodriguez for her work as director of interdisciplinary studies in getting the department closer to its goal.
But there is also pride that when the department crossed the finish line, there was broad agreement that the department was necessary throughout the university. The Academic Senate voted for the proposal with unanimous support. Discussion among faculty was not about whether the department should exist but whether it had enough institutional support, according to minutes.
Supporters inside and outside CSUB gave a long list of reasons for supporting the department, but there is one very urgent one. AB 1460 went into effect this year, requiring CSUs to offer an introduction to ethnic studies course and for 2024-25 graduates to take an ethnic studies course.
Ahead of its passage, Associated Students Inc. wrote a letter of support for the new department. The letter sounded a note of concern that two faculty members would not be enough to teach the number of ethnic courses being demanded — or required for students to graduate on time.
Vega thinks about how many lives will change because they have taken a course in an ethnic studies or because they will have the chance to major in it.
"That gives me goosebumps; that makes my heart full," they said.
In fact, Vega switched their major from nursing to history after taking a course in ethnic studies. Vega hopes to continue the tradition and teach history. It's a drastic change for the student who said they had little motivation in school and applied to CSUB at the last-minute. Vega believes history is important to the unity of the community.
"There’s nothing radical about a person who isn’t European learning their history," they said.