In their own image

Slavic evangelical students hit the wall in their effort to remake the American River College Student Association

Anti-gay activist Yuriy George Popko, head of Students for Liberty, hopes to make American River College safe for Slavic evangelicals.

Anti-gay activist Yuriy George Popko, head of Students for Liberty, hopes to make American River College safe for Slavic evangelicals.

Photo By kel munger

It’s a community-college culture clash: Immigrants from the nations of the former Soviet Union, now students at American River College, gained a majority in the Student Association last fall. Since then, in a series of battles over issues from club funding to gay rights, the immigrants from eastern Europe have successfully enforced their version of conservative, evangelical Christian values on the rest of the student body—until now.

Last week, American River College students, concerned about the hard-right turn the student council had taken, voted most of the evangelical candidates out and installed candidates from ARC Students for Change in all but one of the executive positions and most of the representative seats.

The campuswide political battle first erupted last October. After gaining control of the Student Association, the conservative slate—called ARC Students for Liberty and headed by Yuriy George Popko, a well-known local anti-gay activist—swiftly remade the council in its own image. They supported Proposition 8 and opposed the Day of Silence, when students remain quiet to protest bullying and discrimination against GLBTQ students. A failed recall attempt made the conservative faction look unbeatable. The Slavic Christian group actually gained a few seats during the regular fall elections held a month later.

Since then, they’ve cut funds for the Inter-Club Council, which serves as a forum for all campus clubs, to half their previous level. They also refused funding to student groups for the campus celebration of Earth Day, the annual multicultural-night event and a punk-rock concert that was intended to raise money for a scholarship fund. At a meeting held over spring break, the conservative group attempted to pay $5,000 to Russian American Media for an off-campus Russian job fair. ARC administrators disallowed the expenditure because the school’s procedure for funding events was not followed.

Students such as Jeremy Palmer, a candidate for representative and party whip for ARC Students for Change, have had enough. They say the conservative faction is too interested in promoting conservative politics and Christian ideals while ignoring the day-to-day issues at California’s largest community college. Palmer’s slate has restored some semblance of balance to the Student Association after last week’s victory.

“This is the third time we’ve tried to get this bunch out of office,” Palmer said. “Now we’re more organized, and we’ve learned with each defeat.”

The slate of conservative Christian students is entirely made up of students with ties to the Slavic evangelical community. A number of other students—especially those involved with ARC Students for Change—told SN&R that they feel as if the group is forcing the rest of the college to adopt their cultural and religious beliefs.

According to an internal survey at the college, “ARC Institutional Self Study Report in Support of Reaffirmation of Accreditation,” of the more than 43,000 students enrolled at the college, 15,466 have reported Russian as their primary language over the past five years. An additional 5,722 identified themselves as primarily speakers of Ukrainian and 2,026 identified as Romanian speakers.

That’s a significant number from a very close-knit community that continues to feel pressured by modernity. For some, the on-campus acceptance of things such as GLBTQ people, the theory of evolution and the scientifically measured age of the Earth is considered nothing short of blasphemy. In fact, anti-gay activist Popko insists that his faction needs protection from such liberal values.

“We are advocating a student bill of rights,” Popko told SN&R. “It’s to protect students’ right to be free of political or religious indoctrination in the classroom.” Popko claims that “the majority of students” report a liberal bias in the classroom and say that “they are subject to political and religious indoctrination.” He also alleged that students risk failing classes if they hold to their conservative religious beliefs.

However, no official complaints or documentation support Popko’s claims of discrimination against students with conservative politics or religious beliefs. The adviser for the Student Association, Phil Sanders, says that he’s seen no evidence of such problems, and he’s confused by the conservative group’s focus on a student bill of rights. “ARC has a student bill of rights,” he said.

Cody Lathe, another student campaigning with the “Change” slate, seconded that perspective.

“Campaigning on a student bill of rights is like campaigning on oxygen. We’ve already got it. What we don’t have is funding for clubs or a solid book-rental program, which is what we’re campaigning on.”

But even after a decisive victory for the more secular-minded slate, the conflict isn’t over on ARC’s campus. Popko told a number of news sources—including a conservative Russian-language blog—that faculty and administrators interfered in the election. As of press time, the Slavic students had not conceded the election.