The University of Wisconsin’s First Wave program, run by the Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives, is set to enter its tenth year of operation as the 2017-18 school year commences.
But after a decade of bringing talented students to campus, First Wave has also confirmed that it will not be forming a twelfth cohort as no applications will be accepted for the 2018-19 academic year.
First Wave is the first university program in the nation centered on urban arts, spoken word and hip hop culture, and the only program at a Big Ten university to offer full tuition scholarships for hip-hop to 15 students who practice any of these art forms.
The decision to suspend the program for the 2018-19 academic year follows the abrupt departure of executive director Willie Ney, a co-founder of First Wave who retired earlier this summer.
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First Wave, in addition to other diversity-based programs, has been under an internal review by the university’s Division of Diversity, Equity and Educational Achievement in an attempt to determine how to improve these programs and make them more cost efficient for both the students and the university.
While the decision to hit pause on accepting applications for the 2018-19 academic year has been described as a chance for the First Wave staff to “catch their breath,” it comes at a time when universities such as Wisconsin should be funneling money into programs that celebrate diversity instead of reevaluating their worth.
As an incoming freshman at SOAR, I remember sitting through almost an hour long performance by First Wave members that touched on issues such as sexual assault, racism on campus and white privilege. Looking around the room, I could see there were other people who felt as uncomfortable as I did, but they were also learning as much as I was about the struggles minorities, women and LGBTQ+ students face on campus.
For me and many other students, this was a valuable learning experience that stuck with us as we became part of the UW community. Hitting the pause button on First Wave, even for a year, means that incoming students will not be exposed to the issues that continue to plague campus and the larger community around us — issues they may not be aware of, but definitely should be.
Non-STEM majors, especially those with an artistic focus, such as hip-hop, are often looked down upon by adults or peers as being impractical or less difficult than, for example, an engineering degree. However, First Wave alumni have gone on to win awards such as the Lambda Literary Award and become recognized rappers and music artists. This program is not only unprecedented nationwide, but is proving to churn out students who have mastered their craft.
Furthermore, at a university where only 25 percent of students are minorities, programs such as First Wave that strive to cultivate diversity are imperative to forming spaces where everyone is accepted and valued regardless of their race, sexuality or gender. First Wave is a platform where students are encouraged to express their emotions, ideas and opinions in a safe, constructive space surrounded by peers and faculty using a medium that differs from a traditional essay or speech.
First Wave also provides full-tuition scholarships to the students accepted into the program, allowing students who otherwise could not afford to attend UW the opportunity to receive a world class education.
First Wave continues to be a voice at UW that raises awareness about important social issues that the university and we as students should be cognizant of and should work to fix within our community, and it is crucial this voice is given the funding to continue speaking up for minorities on campus.
Aly Niehans ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in international studies and intending to major in journalism.