By Adesholla Bishop and Lisa Jesudas
“You’re here! You’re actually here!” An unfamiliar first-year student approached Lauren* with these exuberant words when Lauren was a third-year Social Science major. The younger girl had seen a picture of Lauren’s beaming profile on the AUC website, and was thrilled to recognise her in-person.
Lauren, who still recalls this interaction vividly despite having graduated in July 2022, felt conflicted by the encounter. On the one hand, her familiar face amidst AUC’s predominantly white student body appeared to offer the newcomer a sense of comfort and welcome. On the other hand, it reinforced a persistent discomfort underlying Lauren’s time at AUC: the feeling of being tokenized as a black student and recipient of the AUC Scholarship Fund (ASF).
Scholarship students have been photographed since the ASF was founded in 2009, but the official portraits were only introduced in 2019. Benjamin Garstka, a web editor within AUC’s Communications Team, explains the purpose of these photoshoots: “The idea is that they also become active ambassadors for AUC and the ASF,” he says.
Gerylaine Campos, AUC’s Alumni and External Relations Officer, explains: “We select the ASF scholars based on need and merit, primarily to support their academic success and partially to act as representatives of AUC.” To ensure the continuity of the ASF, she adds that “It’s very important that scholars take an active role in sharing their stories so we can highlight their experiences and illustrate the impact of the scholarship.”
The AUC website was redesigned in 2020, and Garstka says that this redesign made it possible to use more images on the site. The opportunity arose to feature portraits in the ‘hero banners’ – the content area behind each of the main menus – to add aesthetic uniformity “while also showing the individuals in our community rather than emphasizing generic facilities like buildings and study spaces.” Scholarship students currently feature in all of these hero banners, helping to “express the diversity of the AUC community.”
The hero banners certainly present a picture of diversity, as several feature students of colour – but many ASF recipients criticise the website for this very reason. “It creates this artificial sense of diversity,” says third-year Humanities major Alexandra*. “Maybe it is representative of the students that receive the scholarship, but it is not really representative of the AUC students as a whole.”
Alexandra’s ASF portrait was taken in her first semester at AUC; now in her last semester, she says that it has not been used for any promotional materials. She remarks that her being white and having Eurocentric features may be a factor: “What was weird is that I saw the pictures of other people being used, so it feels like they’re choosing people that represent diversity in some way.”
For third-year Science major Philip Ngare – a black student – the experience was different: less than three months into his first semester at AUC, his beaming ASF portrait featured prominently in a hero banner. “It’s just another white institution taking advantage of people of colour for their own ends,” he says.
Other ASF recipients make similar declarations. Yakima Schönbeck, a second-year Science major, was recently featured on promotional banners for AUC. She is half-Dutch, but explains that she “looks just not-Dutch enough” for her image to have been used as evidence of AUC’s diversity. “It irks me a little bit that as soon as they notice your features are non-Eurocentric, they will take a picture of you and post you,” she says.
Prior to having their portraits taken – which Campos emphasises are “absolutely optional” – ASF recipients are asked to sign a consent form. Garstka outlines the terms stipulated in this form: “The images can be used in marketing materials both internally and externally, and for the purpose of promoting the AUC programme.” The Communications Department aims to change the photos approximately every year, but can use student portraits for up to five years in line with the EU General Data Protection Regulation and the privacy regulations of the University of Amsterdam.
Yet, students express surprise that there is no mention of these portraits in the ASF contract. Campos explains that ASF recipients “aren’t informed [about these portraits] beforehand because [they are] a very minor part of the student experience, compared to the large volume of important information students receive before joining AUC,” referring to information such as housing and immigration processes.
Lauren explains that advance notice would have alleviated some of the discomfort she felt with having her portrait taken: “I definitely think there needs to be a clause somewhere letting students know that if you are part of the scholarship, you’re going to be used for promotional purposes of the university.”
Garstka says that students can request to have their photographs removed from the website or other promotional materials at any time. Still, students describe a power dynamic that makes this – let alone declining the photoshoot invitation – difficult. “You feel like you can’t say no because they’re giving you money,” Lauren says. “The consent boundaries are very, very fuzzy,” she continues, adding that “because there’s money involved, this buys your compliance and your silence.”
Despite a general feeling that the portraits were difficult to decline, some ASF recipients note the positive aspects of the situation. For second-year Science major Dhruv Gulati, the opportunity to have a professional portrait taken was “quite an exciting moment to be a scholarship student.” He recounts interactions where other students exclaimed, “Oh, you’re the website guy!”
From a representation perspective, Ngare notes the double-edged sword of diversity in the hero banners. “When I look at the website and I see other people with similar features, it makes me feel like I can go there and belong and have no problems with it.” He appreciates this because it “gives more opportunities to more black people and more people of colour who don’t have these opportunities.” However, he simultaneously does not want prospective students to be misled into “thinking they’re going to have a magical experience.”
Reflecting Ngare’s sentiments, Schönbeck recognizes the role that the advertised diversity played in her decision to attend AUC. Still, she cannot help but feel conflicted about the use of ASF recipient portraits, and evaluates the tricky balance of how to highlight AUC’s diversity without being “catfished.” She ponders, “Where do you draw the line?”
For Alexandra, it is understandable that “there needs to be some negotiation” between AUC and the ASF recipients, but she dislikes how AUC is “using the face and not the person.” She urges greater mindfulness of the stories behind the faces, as is accomplished under the testimonials section of the ASF information page. Although the faces in the hero banners allow prospective students to visualise AUC’s missions and values, “it also feels like you’re a puppet,” Alexandra says.
When asked how AUC could more accurately represent the diversity of the student body, the ASF recipients had several ideas. Alexandra suggests holding a contest where students could volunteer to be photographed, and Lauren says that taking photos of students around the AB would “capture people in their natural states, not staged in any way.” Ngare, meanwhile, emphasises that with such options, “you would instantly end up with ten pictures of white people, and then diversity is out the window.” Still, there is a common sentiment that students would appreciate more communication and transparency regarding the use of their photos.
The AUC student newsletter of March 9 may offer a solution: “On Wednesday 15 March, AUC will be organising a photo shoot to create new images for the website and marketing materials,” the newsletter states, and includes a call for student volunteers. Garstka explains that the shoot – led by Vere Maagdenberg, AUC’s interim Online Marketeer and Content Marketing Manager – aims to “increase the diversity and variation of images used on the website [and in] content blocks, and to refresh images that have been online for longer than a couple of years.”
Until the website and other promotional materials are updated with new images, the ASF recipients will have to accept their statuses as the primary faces of AUC. Some, like Ngare, have come to terms with this: “I really came out here for my own ends and means,” he says. “We’ll take advantage of each other in nice ways, I guess – me and AUC.”
* Editor’s note: Two ASF recipients interviewed for this article requested to remain anonymous for privacy reasons. For reading clarity, The Herring gave them the pseudonyms Lauren and Alexandra, respectively. No other information has been altered.