Zerreen Kazi: Leading the MCC and Diversity in Tech
Zerreen Kazi is a Spanish major and Computer Science minor, and serves as the Director of the Multicultural Center (MCC) at Santa Clara. In this conversation, we talk about her experience growing up in a Muslim family in the Bay Area and how she ended up at Santa Clara. We discuss finding how she first found a community, then helped build communities as a Community Facilitator (CF) and through leadership in the MCC.
Selected Interview Highlights:
Gavin Cosgrave: Was there a moment in your childhood where you first got interested in multicultural or social justice topics?
Zerreen Kazi: I was always kind of rambunctious and I would talk back to my parents in what I saw to be moments of injustice. I was raised in a Muslim household and there were different expectations for like what I could wear versus my older brother. There would be times during the summer when I would have to cover up completely but my brother could wear whatever he wanted.
Seeing unfairness happen to me and other people is something that really bothered me from an early age and I was never afraid to speak out about it.
GC: Did your Muslim upbringing ever create challenges?
ZK: Because of my own experiences and beliefs, I rejected it from a pretty young age, so it wasn’t something I associate with myself as much as it was a family thing. The only instances it really affected me was when I was fasting for Ramadan and couldn’t eat or drink any water from sunrise to sunset. We were running a mile in PE but my teachers wouldn’t excuse me and made me do it anyways. I went to a predominantly Asian high school and so I think more of my community members understood than maybe if I had gone to a predominantly white institution.
GC: Was it difficult to transition into college?
ZK: The first year was a big transition. I felt like people didn’t understand me as much. I had never seen myself as a person of color before I came to college, I just saw myself as a person. There was an incident where I was taking Chem 11. I had never taking chemistry before and I was super scared because I the time I wanted to go to med school. Every day for the first month I was studying for this midterm and I got a 99 on the test. There was a dude who lived on my floor who saw me studying consistently.
After the test, he asked how I did, and I said that it had gone really well. He said, “Oh, well it’s probably because you’re Indian.” I don’t know if he really meant it but to have someone doubt my abilities when I was just getting adjusted to the university was tough. Fortunately I was able to confront it, but it was little things like that made me feel different. Even thought it was challenging, it forced me to seek out true relationships.
GC: Did your med school plans change?
I was always a little iffy on the med school thing, I just wanted to help people and be a doctor. I thought I was into bio. That was not right. I got less and less passionate about my classes and more passionate about technology. I got destroyed by organic chemistry and decided it wasn’t for me. I started taking computer science classes and found I really liked those. I recently changed my major again, so now I’m a Spanish major and computer science minor.
GC: What were your goals coming in as director of the MCC?
ZK: I was a CF for two years, and that taught me how to build community and unite people. My big vision was to have individual members of the MCC feel valued and feel like they could do the work of justice so that it wouldn’t always fall to the leaders. Also advocating for folks of color and marginalized communities on campus. That’s our tagline, but it needs to always be at the forefront of our goals.
GC: Have there been any especially memorable moments with the MCC in the past year?
ZK: The first thing that came to my mind was after the “my borders, my choice” posters. That was a really hard thing for our community because it was such a blatant attack on people who experience attacks all the time. The community really came together to support the undocumented community. We had an-all community meeting and had various opportunities to show support. It was really beautiful and allowed me to feel connected to the community as a place of support.
In terms of every day interactions, I’m a commuter so I spend a lot of time in the MCC offices. I eat most of my meals there. It’s nice to look up and see people I know and say hi, or see people helping each other with homework. Little things like that propel the community.
GC: What would your dream job be?
ZK: My dream job at the moment would be doing diversity work at a tech company. That really bridges all the things I’ve been involved in and that I’m passionate about. Especially being from the Bay Area, I’ve seen the impact tech companies have on building up communities. Not just in the sense of wealth and beauty, but thinking about the communities that get left behind. Thinking about homelessness and the wealth divide. Tech companies have so much resources and money that they can benefit everybody. If we help the most marginalized in our community, that just helps everybody.
I am thinking about graduate school in the future. I think that critical race and ethnic studies is something that people think isn’t necessary to study, but it is important. Anything in the world involves issues of injustice in racism, and you can carry that into any field.
GC: Are there any gadgets that you especially love?
ZK: The one thing that I’m willing to shell out a little money for is good headphones. I’m super into music and you can’t pay me to use Apple headphones.
GC: If you could send a message to everyone in the United States, what would you say?
What I would say is, think about your life and the challenges that you’ve faced. Remember that every person you see has their own unique challenges. They are carrying those with them and they want to be treated with the same level of patience and compassion that you do when you’re having your worst day.
GC: What does your ideal Saturday look like?
ZK: I like to wake up early and start my day out going to the gym. Then I like to have a nice lunch because I’m super hungry. I like going to farmer’s markets and spending time at coffee shops, so that would be the afternoon. Then, my favorite thing to do is watch the sunset on hills.