When Alex Hintz came to UW-Eau Claire as a freshman, he wasn’t all that surprised to discover that he didn’t know a lot about people of other races and ethnicities.
After all, he had grown up in a small, upper-middle-class, predominately white Milwaukee suburb, with little opportunity to interact with people who were different from himself.
What did surprise him during his first months of college was the realization that for most of his life he had never really thought about race, hadn’t noticed the lack of diversity in his community, nor acknowledged how much he benefits from being white.
“I had no experience at all with people of color until I came to Eau Claire,” says Hintz, a native of East Troy who graduated from UW-Eau Claire in December 2019 with degrees in education and history. “When I got here, I was stunned when I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about Hmong people. I was blown away that I had gone all the way through high school not knowing an entire population exists even though I grew up 30 miles from Milwaukee, which has a large Hmong population.”
That realization was a turning point for him, says Hintz, who spent the next five years seeking out opportunities on and off campus to educate himself about people of color’s histories, experiences and challenges, as well as to better understand his white privilege.
His goal, he says, is to grow his knowledge and understanding so he can be a stronger ally for people of color and to ensure he can best meet the needs of his future students.
“Alex has worked tirelessly to understand his privilege and become a more culturally competent educator,” says Jodi Thesing-Ritter, director of Blugold Beginnings and executive director of equity, diversity and inclusion at UW-Eau Claire. “I wish all white male educators had the kind of college experience he had to really work on cultural competence before going into the classroom.”
Hintz still was in his first weeks of college when he saw a notice about Blugold Beginnings hiring mentors to work with youth in Eau Claire-area schools.
“I knew I wanted to be a teacher, so I emailed Jodi about a mentoring job without really knowing anything about Blugold Beginnings,” Hintz says. “She hired me, and next thing I knew I was a mentor working with kids at North High School.
“It’s been an amazing experience. I started out as a mentor and then got more and more involved, including serving in different leadership roles.”
Blugold Beginnings, a program that connects UW-Eau Claire student mentors with youth attending Eau Claire-area middle and high schools, helps prepare and inspire youth, especially underrepresented, low-income or first-generation students, to pursue higher education.
During his years on campus, Hintz held various positions within the program, working with youth at Eau Claire high schools and middle schools. He was a mentor, site coordinator, intern and camp counselor. After graduating in December, he continued to serve the program as an AmeriCorps member.
While he came to UW-Eau Claire knowing he wanted a career in education, it was through Blugold Beginnings that Hintz discovered his passion for teaching history at the middle and high school levels.
Civil Rights Pilgrimage
As a sophomore, Hintz he went on the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, a UW-Eau Claire immersion program that takes students to numerous sites and cities in the South that are significant to the civil rights movement.
The pilgrimage was a life-changing — though in some ways, unsettling — experience, Hintz says.
“It was my first experience of being one of just a few white people in a group that was primarily people of color,” Hintz says. “I was surprised to find myself sometimes feeling uncomfortable, and I felt a need to try to understand why I was feeling uncomfortable.
”I also recognized that while I had uncomfortable moments during the trip, people of color are constantly in situations every day where they feel uncomfortable and vulnerable.”
By the end of the pilgrimage, he was more determined than ever to learn more about history that goes beyond what was shared in the textbooks he grew up studying.
“During that trip, things really clicked for me,” Hintz says. “I knew as a future educator I had to step it up. How was I going to teach kids if I didn’t understand who they are and what they’ve experienced? I knew I needed to try to understand and learn more.
“The Civil Rights Pilgrimage really shaped my understanding of what it means to be an educator and how I want to teach.”
Once he was back on campus, Hintz sought out people, programs and classes that would help him better understand social and racial histories and issues. He filled his schedule with classes in history, political science and other disciplines that focus on the history and experiences of people of color.
“I knew I had a lot to learn,” Hintz says. “So, I took classes in African American history, Black American politics and courses that helped me learn about the Hmong and their experiences.”
Embracing high-impact practices
In addition to rethinking his classes, Hintz also looked for more real-world opportunities to grow his knowledge and understanding about diverse populations, especially their histories and how those events are shaping people’s experiences today.
“The history I learned in school whitewashes so much and limits the voices we hear,” Hintz says. “Even now, I need to keep educating myself using different sources so I will be ready to teach in a way that will give my students a more complete story.”
Current events are reinforcing his belief that it’s time to rethink how history is taught, Hintz says.
“For example, if students are to understand Black Lives Matter and the recent protests, they have to understand Black history,” Hintz says. “They need to know that the police were first used to catch slaves, so today’s police forces were built out of that structure.
“I know that because I did the research, not because I was taught it in school. There is so much that always has been there but is not talked about in schools. As teachers, we really need to dig in and help students understand how events from a long time ago shape what things look like today.”
Fortunately, he says, at UW-Eau Claire he found many opportunities to grow his understanding of how history shapes today’s world.
For example, one immersion, “Cultural Preservation through Tourism in Hawaii," connected him with native Hawaiians who talked about their history and their efforts to preserve their culture, as well as how tourists impact local communities.
“It was an amazing experience because we talked with people who shared a very different account of Hawaiian history than what I ever learned,” Hintz says. “While I was always taught that Hawaii became our 50th state, I never knew that we essentially stole it.”
Hintz also participated in an immersion that took him into a Milwaukee charter school with a large Hmong population. In addition, he helped lead a Blugold Beginnings program that brought area high school students to the Twin Cities to explore Hmong archives, restaurants and museums.
The Blugold experience
While he still has much work to do to understand the experiences of people of color and to understand his white privilege, Hintz says his experience at UW-Eau Claire has him on the right track.
“Once I got to campus, I decided to spread my net and see what opportunities I could capture while I was here,” Hintz says. “Turns out, there are a ton of opportunities. Every day I was learning new things, especially about different populations. Blugold Beginnings and immersions and other experiences really shaped my time here.
“UW-Eau Claire has been a phenomenal experience. It has truly been amazing.”
With his AmeriCorps service coming to an end, Hintz is looking for a teaching position in New Hampshire, where his wife will attend law school.
Any school will be fortunate to have him, Thesing-Ritter says.
Hintz’s willingness to embrace so many opportunities and his commitment to working to understand his own white privilege will help to make him an exceptional teacher and a strong ally for people of color, she says.
“He is such a beautiful human,” Thesing-Ritter says of Hintz. “We need more educators like him who are really willing to do the hard work to look at their own identity and the issues facing all of their students.”
Photo caption: Alex Hintz worked throughout his college years to become more culturally competent and to understand his white privilege. He’s eager to share what he’s learned with his future students.