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New Zealand boasts one of the highest permanent immigration rates in the world and is known for its progressive approach to race relations.
With the help of a Fulbright grant, Elli Nagai-Rothe ’03 is heading to Auckland in December to see if the image holds true – and if the United States can learn any lessons from New Zealand’s efforts to address racial inequity.
Originally hailing from urban San Francisco, Nagai-Rothe ’03 began to explore race relations in depth as an undergraduate at Connecticut College. Motivated in part by her own mixed racial background, she put herself at the forefront of various campus organizations that emphasized social justice and racial equality.
After a series of racist incidents shook the College in 2003, she helped organize campus conversations about the incidents, worked to promote diversity and equity among students and within the larger campus community, and collaborated with fellow students and faculty to advocate for institutional change around issues of diversity.
Frances Hoffmann, former professor and dean of the faculty, still remembers the indelible mark Nagai-Rothe left on the campus.
“She was both unfailingly respectful and relentless in her pursuit of social justice and equity issues. And, though she clearly was one of the most active and dependable campus leaders, she never claimed the spotlight,” Hoffmann said.
Nagai-Rothe’s undergraduate work led her to a village in rural India, where she helped develop – and was principal of – a school that sought to address caste-based inequity. The school brought students from diverse caste and faith backgrounds together to create a holistic learning environment that emphasized equality and collaborative learning.
Nagai-Rothe couldn’t have accomplished this task without Connecticut College. “When I was thinking about how to build a school that embodies these qualities, I was frequently drawing upon my experiences at Connecticut College, working with students and administration to create a safe and equitable environment,” she said.
With a newly minted master’s degree in international peace and conflict resolution from American University, she will set out for to New Zealand to study the successes and challenges of the Human Rights Commissioner on Race Relations in working to improve the lived experience of racial inequity among New Zealand’s communities of color.
Nagai-Rothe will work as a research associate in the office of the Commissioner of Race Relations and will conduct interviews with diversity practitioners and local racial minority community organizations. In the end, she hopes to offer policy recommendations that will enhance the office’s approach and share her findings with Parliament.
When she returns home to the United States, Nagai-Rothe plans to apply some of the more successful strategies and approaches from New Zealand to address race relations in America.
Recalling her time at Connecticut College, Nagai-Rothe is quick to attribute the clarity of her career path and current success to lessons learned at her alma mater.
“Connecticut College provided me with an environment to explore issues of social justice and racial equity at a personal level and academic level, and the ability to become involved with institutional change work at the College level,” she said. “If I had gone to a place where everyone looked like me, I wouldn’t have explored issues of racial difference at the depth that I did, and wouldn’t be doing what I am today.”
Joanna Gillia '07