Growing up Sikh in Hindu-majority India, Harpreet Panesar experienced religious hatred and violence first-hand, and still has vivid memories of crowds laying siege to her childhood home in the 1980s. “I remember my father telling me he would kill us rather than let us fall into the hands of rapists and the mob,” said Panesar.
Now leading the safe life of a Virginia community college professor in her adopted homeland, Panesar says she was naturally inclined to be sympathetic to America’s minority communities. But she says her experience earlier this month in Washington, D.C. was truly an eye-opener that will have lasting effects.
Panesar, a biology professor at Blue Ridge Community College, was among the 40 community college faculty and staff members who made an overnight trek to D.C. under the auspices of VCCS Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer Carla Kimbrough.
The schedule was busy. On the first night, a Georgetown University professor spoke and facilitated a discussion for the group. The trip wrapped up with a tour and faculty panel at the historic Howard University. They engaged in self-guided tours at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of the American Indian, both affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution. Visitors to the museums come face-to-face with some of the worst parts of America’s complicated history.
“It was an amazing experience,” said Panesar. “Like my colleagues, I knew from books about the struggles of Native Americans and Black Americans but seeing evidence and artifacts up close at the museums was a powerful encounter with a painful part of the American experience.”
“It will make me a better educator, and I will look at my students, especially my Black students, differently, with more empathy for the experiences they face,” Panesar added.
“I had a couple of goals for the trip to Washington,” said Kimbrough. “I wanted our faculty to be able to expand their understanding of our history and gain an appreciation for people who have persevered in the face of unimaginable atrocities that still reverberate today. The second goal is to build upon that experience and inspire faculty and other staff members to think about adopting new practices, whether that be a new assignment or new resource or a fresh perspective about some of our students.”
“I’m thankful. My only complaint is that trip was too short,” said Vy Calhoun, history and political science instructor at Tidewater Community College. “You can read about something in history books, but when you see the documentation, your heart cracks. As a father and grandfather, I had to sit down and take a moment. The museum exhibits brought those stories of slavery’s loss and separation to life.”
“Absolutely it will make me a better teacher after coming face to face with objects and hard evidence of our history,” Calhoun added.
“Some of our history is jarring and unsettling, but it’s important to face that and understand it,” said Nelson Ayala, Chemistry professor at Central Virginia Community College. “After being in Lynchburg for 21 years, the tendency is to view the world from that perspective. The trip to Washington was valuable because it prompted me to think beyond my local circumstances, and to encourage my students to think beyond their everyday lives.”
“Sadness and tragedy are part of our American story,” Ayala added. “We should not take things for granted.”
“In terms of professional development, it was a great experience,” said Kerrigan Sullivan, Theater instructor at John Tyler – becoming Brightpoint – Community College. “In addition to the opportunity to immerse ourselves in different cultures and viewpoints, we had a chance to share time together, and with faculty from other schools. And learning about the contributions of Black Americans in all sectors of society and the arts was inspiring.”
Kerrigan said Georgetown’s Jasmine Tyler, associate professor of the practice of racial and social justice, was particularly insightful. “She is accustomed to dealing with difficult topics, and she gave us new tools to talk about challenging subjects, which I know will be very helpful.”
Kimbrough’s budget covered many of the costs, including the chartered bus, which picked up participants at Virginia Western in Roanoke, Reynolds in Richmond, and NOVA’s Woodbridge campus. Colleges agreed to support other expenses, including hotel. Kimbrough is still evaluating whether to organize additional trips in the future. “I’m hopeful that we’ll see evidence that the experience was worthwhile,” said Kimbrough.
Learn more about the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Learn more about the National Museum of the American Indian.