What is Ethnic Studies?
Ethnic Studies professor Dennis Green lectures in his African American Studies class.

What is Ethnic Studies?

February 21, 2023

The field of Ethnic Studies in academia emerged in the 1960s from social justice movements that aimed to empower people of color. Ethnic Studies is an area of study that is focused on critically examining the perspectives, cultures, and histories of minoritized people of color in the United States.  

This interdisciplinary field draws on the perspectives of history, sociology, political science, anthropology, and other fields to provide a more complete and nuanced understanding of the experiences of people who have been marginalized because of their race or ethnicity. The importance of Ethnic Studies can be seen in several ways, including its ability to encourage greater understanding, promote social justice, and confront dominant narratives. 

Ethnic Studies, in many ways is the heart of liberal arts education, particularly for a society like ours, which is multiracial and multicultural, with people who have come here from many different places.

—Rachel Harding, PhD, Department of Ethnic Studies Chair 

CU Denver recognizes the importance of this area of study and offers a BA major and minor in Ethnic Studies, along with certificates in African American Studies, American Indian Studies, Cultural Diversity Studies, Ethnic Studies (graduate level), and Latinx Studies. In addition, CU Denver is one of only a few universities in the country to provide a fully online Ethnic Studies major. 

Ethnic Studies courses are also included in the core curriculum at CU Denver. Students in any major or program are encouraged to take courses in African American Studies, American Indian history, Global Media, Latinx, and Chicano studies courses, along with Asian American and Pacific Islander experience classes.  

Harding emphasized the growing popularity of including Ethnic Studies as a minor alongside another area of study. She highlighted that regardless of what a student’s focus may be, Ethnic Studies provides an element of being able to understand, interact, and engage with an increasingly diverse population that students may not find otherwise—something that employers find highly valuable. 

What Can You Do with an Ethnic Studies Degree? 


The breadth and focus of Ethnic Studies courses provide students with a strong basis in a Liberal Arts education. This diverse knowledge base prepares them to take on varied professional and civic paths as local, national, and global citizens, and as leaders and change agents. 

One of the beautiful things about Ethnic Studies is that it offers a broad liberal arts perspective, helping students develop strong critical thinking, writing, and creative thinking skills, grounding them with a much deeper understanding of the fullness of our nation’s history, society, political institutions, and cultural production than they would get in almost any other single discipline.

—Rachel Harding, PhD, Department of Ethnic Studies Chair  

Ethnic Studies students develop cultural competencies that are highly valued in a variety of industries. Students find themselves in careers that span healthcare, education, law, journalism, business, community and union organizing, social work, counseling, publishing, tech, media, politics, policy, nonprofits, government agencies, libraries, and museums, among others. In short, the interdisciplinary nature of Ethnic Studies lends itself to a myriad of career choices. 

History of Ethnic Studies at CU Denver 


Ethnic Studies programs have existed at CU Denver since the late 1960s, beginning with Education Opportunity Program (EOP) directors and staff offering courses on Black American, Mexican American, Asian American, and American Indian studies.   

The Educational Opportunity Program started in 1969, which was a year after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and a period when there was just tremendous volatility in the country around justice issues, particularly racial and gender justice issues.

—Rachel Harding, PhD, Department of Ethnic Studies Chair 

In 1974, after a few years of deliberation, research, and concerted effort, Dr. Cecil Glenn became its founding director, and an official full-time faculty position was approved. At this point, Ethnic Studies programming emerged at CU Denver.  

Through the 1980s and 1990s, Ethnic Studies at the university struggled to find its footing, with a lack of university resources and faculty changes hampering progress. Then, in 2002 Donna Martinez, PhD, was hired as program director. Through her work, along with Professor Dennis Green, the 2002 CLAS five-year strategic plan included the establishment of a major in Ethnic Studies

Continuing through the 2000s, Faye Caronan, PhD, assisted in a final push; Ethnic Studies was finally granted departmental status in April 2022, as a part of CU Denver’s strategic plan goal of becoming an equity-serving institution by 2030. Harding, who has been with the Ethnic Studies program at CU Denver for 14 years, now looks to lead the department into the future. 

“Students are the reason that Ethnic Studies exists,” Harding said. “It was students (and the communities that they came from) across the nation who demanded Ethnic Studies at their various colleges and universities, and who brought these programs into being. So, I just want to thank all of the students, some of whom are now ancestors who brought Ethnic Studies CU Denver. I want to thank the students that I, and my colleagues, have taught over the years that we have existed here. I want to say that I look forward to having students of all majors and minors take some of our courses and look forward to teaching you and learning with you. As my mom would say, ‘We’re trying to figure out what kind of beautiful society we can create together,’ because I think Ethnic Studies is precisely the place that allows us to do that.”

Rachel Harding, PhD

Rachel Elizabeth Harding, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Indigenous Spiritual Traditions in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado Denver, a native of Georgia,  writer, historian, and poet. Harding is a specialist in religions of the Afro-Atlantic diaspora and studies the relationship between religion, creativity, and social justice activism in cross-cultural perspective. A Cave Canem Fellow, she holds an MFA in creative writing from Brown University and a PhD in history from the University of Colorado Boulder.

Learn more about CU Denver’s Ethnic Studies opportunities and how you can build your career in this high-demand industry today.   

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