With Penn’s emphasis on education and endless opportunities for everyone, it can be easy for some to forget that Penn is a predominantly white institution (PWI). However, for students and faculty of color, daily existence is a sharp reminder of this honest truth, as they continue to be pushed to the shadows and treated differently from their white peers.
In order to combat this reality, Spice Collective—a discussion group about identity, race, and gender for Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) women and non–binary people—is working to amplify the voices of students of color at Penn.
Spice was founded in 2016. Current Spice leaders Leah Wang (E '22), Sam Pancoe (C '22), and Mira Shetty (C '21), who is also a former multimedia staffer at The Daily Pennsylvanian, have continued to foster an inclusive space through biweekly discussions with APIDA Penn students over Zoom.
Arriving at Penn can be unsettling, especially for students experiencing independence for the first time. The transition from Penn being a distant dream school to one's home for four years is undeniably drastic, and it introduces many unknowns, especially for students of color.
“When I was coming to Penn, I didn't really realize what the culture was going to be like. I didn't really think about the fact that it was a predominantly white institution, and what that would mean for my experience," Mira says. "I think it can be a little alienating to realize that this institution that you work so hard to get into, or felt like you were really excited for—realizing that maybe they're not always acting in your best interest is hard to deal with. And so I think spaces like [Spice] are really beneficial to build that solidarity, and realize that so many other people are experiencing this too, and working to change it.”
Although many clubs at Penn are notorious for their competitive nature and grueling application processes, Spice offers a different type of community. Instead of narrowly fixating on prestige and resume boosters, Spice gives students a chance to exist outside Penn culture and instead enter a welcoming environment.
“I like having a discussion space where it's not with my friends, where it's completely unstructured and super casual," Leah explains. "I can learn a lot from lots of different people, but I can also feel okay sharing things."
Spice is all about rising to the call of activism and illuminating the shared and complex issues that come with being Asian women or non–binary people in society. Without the added pressure of perfection, students engage in Spice to feel heard and learn more about their identities through safe yet candid conversations about the intersection of race and gender. Past topics include neocolonialism and body image, gender dynamics in the family, and racial fetishization.
On top of biweekly discussions, the group hosts guest speakers, holds social events, and collaborates with groups like Sangam and South Asian Women’s Space (SAWS). Over the summer, Spice raised thousands of dollars for the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit focused on education, racial justice, and criminal justice reform.
“I think a barrier for entry for a lot of people can be like, ‘I haven't talked about this before. I'm not super well versed in these things. I feel like I need to have a better handle on this before I talk to other people about it.’ But that certainly wasn't true of me when I entered Spice, and I think it's not true of a lot of people," Sam says. "Spice is really here for you, whoever you are, wherever you are in processing your life and your existence.”
Although life at a PWI is often isolating for students of color, Spice gives students the chance to relate to peers with common experiences in order to better understand their identities.
“I obviously always knew I was Asian, but I never really thought too much about it," Leah says. "I think being in Spice and thinking about how all these different issues affect that identity, that's definitely something that I think more about since I started joining it.”
Mira says that Spice has also helped her come to her own realizations. “I think for me, joining Spice helped me see that there were intentional spaces to kind of combat the broader culture of this being a PWI," she explains. "I definitely knew that they were out there. But I think actively participating in one made me see how many people are also struggling with it being this kind of environment. [It's] reassuring and nice to feel like you're also actively participating in making [Penn] a better space for everyone."
Although life can be difficult for students of color at Penn for many reasons—such as microaggressions and cultural centers' lack of visibility on campus—Spice is a safe space.
“Spice, in a small way, at least, makes me feel like, even though we might not be prioritized all the time by broader Penn, there's still some space and some place to just exist," Sam says.