Students Work to Add New Flags to Hirst Lounge

Univ. Communications – Hirst Lounge has been a central part of campus life since Wilson Commons was built in 1976. In the early 90s, the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid made the decision to grow the international student population, specifically among undergraduates. An integral component of this initiative was the expansion of the flags hanging in Hirst Lounge, which was seen as an aesthetically pleasing way to showcase the diversity of the student body. The University quickly realized it was much more complex. Moments of controversy over flag placement helped the University become more cognizant of international politics, national rivalries, and religious differences.

Recently, five new flags have been added to Hirst Lounge. The flags were hung as the result of an initiative spearheaded by two students, Carlie Fishgold ’12 and Chris Bethmann ’13. Through their efforts, flags representing the Haudenosaunee, Diné (Navajo), Cherokee, Dakota- Sioux, and Muscogee Indigenous peoples are now hanging in the lounge. The addition of these flags is another step in the complex process of accurately portraying the diversity of the student body. Fishgold thinks that hanging the Native American flags, “sets an example by participating in the process of decolonization.” And as Bethmann points out, “Not many colleges recognize the sovereignty of Native American nations.”

The initial impetus for the project was provided by Bethmann. Working as a summer Meridian in the Admissions Office, he told tour groups that the flags were representative of the University’s entire student body. At some point he began asking why there were no flags representing the Native American students. Eventually he vocalized his question and was led to the International Student’s Office, where he was told that only students born outside the United States were represented in Hirst. Bethmann persisted, and after a series of emails, phone calls, and meetings, he was told that the flags would be hung and the policy amended to recognize Native students. When summer ended and Bethmann began a semester abroad in Spain, Fishgold, an Art History major, became involved and saw the project through in his absence.

“Many people don’t realize there are reservations nearby, let alone the living conditions and lifestyles on them,” says Naomi Lee, a Native American 5th year doctoral degree candidate in chemistry. “They’ve often forgot that we were the original inhabitants but much of our culture has been lost due to assimilation so … honoring us by exhibiting our flag is very important to me.”

The last major update to the flags occurred about a decade ago. Jennifer Behnke ’00, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music with an arts administration certificate from Eastman, was the president of the International Living Community, and recognized that Hirst needed updating when a student living on the floor was not represented. When Behnke contacted the International Student’s Office hoping to resolve the issue, she instead discovered the problem was far larger than she imagined. The ISO had received other complaints from students about flags that weren’t included in Hirst, but there was neither a process nor a budget available and so the problem went unresolved.

“A student from the newly independent Slovenia was very upset that his country’s flag had not been hung,” Behnke’s recalls. “He was especially angry because he had lost family and friends in the wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

Thus began a truly epic project. Behnke’s goal was to ensure that the University of Rochester recognized every student’s country of origin with a flag in Hirst Lounge. She spent two months pouring over a 500-page record of every international student at the University, compiled by the International Students Office. By cross-referencing each student’s home country against a list of countries whose flags were represented in Hirst, Behnke created her own list of flags that needed to be added. Behnke brought her list to the International Student’s Office, but again, funding threatened to stop her project’s completion. Behnke approached one of her professors, Dean Paul Burgett, who at that time, also served as Dean of Students. Burgett’s office agreed to supply the funding to cover both the cost of the flags and the installation.

In updating the flags in Hirst Lounge, Fishgold, Bethmann, and Behnke have given significantly to the campus community. Seeing their flags hanging in Hirst Lounge is vital, for varying reasons, to international students, who now make up 18 percent of the student population.

“Imagine going to another country and then seeing the American flag being raised or even flying after not having seen it for a while,” Bethmann says of the flags. “You feel a sense of pride for your heritage and country. In that way, those flags evoke the same feelings for Native students.”

Article written by Joshua Morse, a sophomore at the University of Rochester majoring in mechanical engineering. Photo courtesy of Joshua Morse.