Vassar Today

How Many Hats Does Niki Wear?

By Lindsay Dawson ’05

“I think I do better when I’m busy than when I’m not,” said Niki Magtoto ’05, when asked how she manages to squeeze in a Vassar education between her roles as stand-up comedian, film director, student leader, and employee in two campus offices. Dismissing concerns about her overloaded schedule with a reassuring smile and a confession that she spends hours playing video games with housemates, she spoke in an almost self-effacing way about her ability to have a strong hand in molding Vassar’s cultural life and yet have a life herself.

“I feel as though I can graduate and things will be cool [here]. I don’t know if I’ve left my mark or not, but I hope the groups I’ve worked with have.”

As a member of the first graduating class of Leadership High, a San Francisco charter school, Magtoto has long been groomed for her current success. “We were supposed to be young, urban leaders,” she said. Magtoto’s leadership presence at Vassar has been palpable, especially in her work as co-founder and co-president of Hip Hop 101, an organization that spearheads entertainment and educational events for the Vassar community. Last semester, the group sponsored a campus-wide “Get Out the Vote” party, which featured performances by local rappers, DJs, poets, and vocalists, and encouraged students to register to vote and voice their opinions about the upcoming election.

Magtoto also serves as the co-president of Unbound, a political theater collective, and one of her current projects is performing with Vassar’s newest comedy troupe, Indecent Exposure. The ensemble formed in 2003, when Heather Trobe ’05 approached Magtoto and the Unbound board about using their audition pool to form, in Magtoto’s words, “a female comedy group that spoke about more than your standard potty humor.” Magtoto was so impressed with the idea that she auditioned herself and was chosen as one of the organization’s original members. Of her foray into the world of stand-up and sketch comedy, she commented, “When I came to Vassar, I had all the skills one would associate with a leader, but it wasn’t until Indecent Exposure that I was able to throw myself out there in a different way.” With an outspoken cast and an in-your-face message, the group seeks to provoke discussions of social issues through laughs, not lectures. As Magtoto said, “It’s important for us to look at serious subjects in a lighthearted way. Just look at the large impact that The Daily Show with Jon Stewart has had, for example. I can talk about diversity or the female body or generational conflict and not get booed off the stage or have tomatoes thrown at me. A story or an incident becomes a way to examine a larger problem.”

Magtoto’s ability to deconstruct cultural assumptions through fresh, unexpected vehicles found voice in her senior thesis. An American culture major, Magtoto, predictably, is not writing the standard research paper; instead, she is making a documentary film about what it means to be of mixed race in America. “My father’s Filipino, and my mother’s Mexican, Irish, Afro-Portuguese, and Filipina,” she said. “My thesis felt like the best place to culminate all the work I’ve done across departments, and all the reading that I’ve done, to address a larger question: can a biracial community in America exist? Do we need a reason to come together as a people who don’t fit into one box?” Her project involves interviewing Vassar students and friends from San Francisco regarding their feelings about race. Magtoto added, “When I came up with the idea, I felt like there was no writing on the topic. Hopefully I can do something that’s lasting, something that people can learn from. I wanted people to tell their own stories.”