CORVALLIS - The new Department of Ethnic Studies at Oregon State University has officially opened its doors to students this fall, making the transition from the drawing board to reality after years of planning.

When the evolution of the department is complete, OSU students should be able to earn majors - and minors - in ethnic studies, and immerse themselves in curriculum focusing on African American studies, Native American studies, Asian American studies, and Chicano-Latino studies.

Half of the department's four faculty - all new - have been hired, and the search will continue this year for scholars in African American studies and Chicano-Latino studies. One of those persons will be a senior scholar who will chair the department, OSU officials say.

"We hope to be a full strength by the fall of 1997," said Linc Kesler, an associate professor of English who has helped plan and organize the new department. "An ethnic studies major has been approved, it's just not yet in place."

The creation of the new department is timely, according to Kurt Peters, an assistant professor of ethnic studies and acting chair of the department.

"There has been a groundswell of change in ethnic demographics, both in the Pacific Northwest and nationally," Peters said. "A number of these groups have been here for a long time, which many people don't realize. For example, Filipinos came to the United States in the 1600s.

"The commonality is that, for the most part, they have all been marginalized in the past," Peters added. "Ethnic studies is largely about reconstructing their story. Traditionally, conquerors write the history and subdued people have not. Until now."

OSU's newest department will offer a pair of courses this fall. Peters will teach a class called "Survey of American Indian and Alaskan Native Studies: America's Original Inhabitants."

The department's other new faculty member, assistant professor Patti Sakurai, will teach "Survey of Asian American Studies: The Asian American Movement, 1968-1980."

Peters, who has a Ph.D. in ethnic studies from the University of California-Berkeley, said he anticipates the new program will draw a variety of students. Some students, he said, may enroll to learn more about their own histories, while others may seek to learn more about a variety of cultures.

"There also is a third group of people attracted to ethnic studies," Peters said. "A number of persons who work for government agencies, environmental groups and international businesses find themselves interacting with people from different backgrounds and they tend to seek out ethnic studies programs to learn more about those cultures."

The interaction of groups of people from all backgrounds is the key to making ethnic studies click, Peters said.

"Historically, the viewpoint usually has focused on the interaction between Euro Americans and American Indians, or Euro Americans and African Americans. But many of these non-European groups have dealt with each other for centuries," Peters said, citing Indians and Chicanos-Latinos as an example.

"And it certainly is relevant in contemporary society as well," Peters added.

In fact, students pursuing their bachelor's degree in the program will have to take a one-year sequence concentrating on a culture different from their own, Kesler pointed out.

The ethnic studies department is housed in OSU's College of Liberal Arts, though it is designed to attract students from all of the university's disciplines. There also is an off-campus role for its faculty, Peters said.

"It is important for all of us to maintain ties to our respective communities," said Peters, who has been active in many American Indian education and drug prevention efforts. "For many of these groups, there has not been an external academic setting for the gaining of knowledge. Learning was an internal experience, a community experience.

"For us to ignore this background, and these people as valuable resources would be unacceptable."

Information on OSU's Department of Ethnic Studies is available by calling 541-737-0709.

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Kurt Peters, 541-737-0709