Code Switch Goes To College A professor at the University of Texas San Antonio designed a college course based around episodes of the Code Switch podcast! In it, her students learned how to have tough conversations about race and identity, using Shereen and Gene as an example. But after an incident on campus involving the police made national news, their theoretical classroom discussions stopped being polite and started getting real.

Code Switch Goes To College

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What's good, y'all? This is Gene. And it's that time of the year again - the time of the year when you're thinking about giving. You know, getting something nice for your mom or your uncle or your little ones or for bae. Aw, aren't you so sweet? Well, since you're in that spirit right now of giving, consider this a little nudge to give to your local public radio station. If you rock with us at CODE SWITCH, you know how often we turn to the tweets you send us, and we turn them into whole segments. You know how often we respond directly to the emails that you send our way. The concerns you have, the questions you want answered, that's all the stuff we want to know, too. That's part of the mission of public radio. It's in the DNA of it - thoughtful, community-oriented journalism.

So when you support your local public radio member station, it goes a long, long way to making our podcasts and other podcasts like it possible. And those member stations can only do what they do because they are supported by listeners just like you. So keep showing your support for your local member stations. Go to and give. That's All right, y'all, on with the show.


Good morning.


MERAJI: Is it weird to see us in person?


MERAJI: Who am I? Anyone?


MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: No, I'm actually Shereen. That's (unintelligible).


DEMBY: Surprise.

MERAJI: How many people in this class talked about race before coming to this class? - by a show of hands. Everybody...

DEMBY: Yeah.

MERAJI: Everybody's raising their hands. OK, so you already talked about race in your own lives.

DEMBY: I mean, a lot of families have been having this conversation for, literally, hundreds of years. But I think more and more people are having these conversations in spaces where these conversations don't really happen, so we want to talk to y'all.


MERAJI: You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

MERAJI: And I'm Gene Demby.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: And this is Race And Identity Through Pop Culture.

DEMBY: Come on.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Y'all got to catch the beat. It's like...

MERAJI: Yes, exactly.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: I'm like lowkey fangirling over here.



MERAJI: In case you haven't quite figured it out yet, that's us...

DEMBY: That's us.

MERAJI: ...Visiting a college class called Race And Identity Through Pop Culture.

DEMBY: This past semester at the University of Texas San Antonio, they met three times a week - Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 9 a.m.

MERAJI: All right. Well, we are on the University of Texas San Antonio campus, right in front of the Main Building.

DEMBY: It's literally called the Main Building.

MERAJI: Yes, Main.

DEMBY: Maybe, like, the Main family donated money...

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: ...To name this building after themselves.

MERAJI: I don't think that's the case (laughter). Here we go.

What are we doing here?

DEMBY: That is a good-ass...

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: ...Question, Shereen. In order to answer that, we entered the Main Building (laughter). We went straight to the office of Martina McGhee. She's the woman who teaches this course.

MERAJI: So you are standing up in front of an audience, basically, three times a week.

MARTINA MCGHEE: It's just a class.


DEMBY: Yeah, that's all right.

MCGHEE: My background is in education, so, like, I'm a teacher teacher.


MCGHEE: I taught elementary school for eight years.


MCGHEE: So I only have 23 in the class, and they're fun. It's a great group of students this semester. So...

DEMBY: As you can probably tell, Martina's warm. She's goofy. She laughs a lot. But at the start of this year, she reached out to us with a very (laughter) - a very formal-sounding email.


MCGHEE: Good evening. My name is Martina McGhee. And I'm currently a doctoral fellow at the University of Texas at San Antonio. I'm a little more than halfway through my doctoral study into interdisciplinary learning and teaching with a focus in curriculum instruction, and I'm a major fan of your podcast. During summer 2017...

MERAJI: Martina told us she started listening to CODE SWITCH from the very first episode back in May of 2016 and that the podcast sparked so many conversations in her life.

MCGHEE: And I'm talking to my friends about this. We're like, oh, did you catch the last episode on X, Y and Z? And we talk about it. I'm talking to my two sisters about it. I'm talking to my stepdad about it. We're having conversations based on what you guys are talking about on a weekly basis. And I was like, I want this to happen in a classroom. What would this look like?

MERAJI: So Martina started planning, and she dreamed up an entire college course based on this podcast.

DEMBY: That's bananas.

MERAJI: I know, right? I love that. It was a project for one of her doctoral classes.

MCGHEE: I got a grade. I got an A on it (laughter).

MERAJI: Of course she did (laughter).

DEMBY: You welcome, you welcome.

MERAJI: Not only did she get an A, she actually got to teach the class this semester. Each class period was designed around a different issue.

DEMBY: Right, like immigration, criminal justice, media representation, the outdoors.

MERAJI: And CODE SWITCH was the textbook. Martina designed the course so that students didn't have any formal research papers. Instead, they had hands-on digital projects that involved getting out and talking to people who were different from them.

DEMBY: Like, one project, the students had to interview someone at least 20 years older than them about some aspect of their identity that was different from their own. For another, they had to create their own podcast episode. I'm that was not the...

MERAJI: I want to hear those, by the way.

DEMBY: Me, too.

MERAJI: I didn't get to hear those yet.

DEMBY: But that podcast episode had to be about racial and ethnic identity and how that might play a role in the profession that they plan to go into.

MERAJI: And every week, students would have to find something in the news or pop culture that related to that week's topic and have a Twitter chat.

MCGHEE: And whether they engage in the conversation themselves in class, they listen to y'alls voices have a conversation, right? And so some of them may have not been as open on a week-to-week basis, but I got to read what they were writing or the questions they were asking, the things that they were saying on Twitter. And so I could see that they were being forced to think things in a different way that they had not because we're going to have to deal with other people who are not like us or engage with people who are not like us, that are not from where we're from, that don't look like us.

MERAJI: Martina says this is all about broadening students' ideas about race and identity and about what learning should look like. So back in August, Martina put her plan into action. She started teaching the first-ever iteration of race and identity through pop culture aka CODE SWITCH the college course. It's classified as an African-American studies course at UTSA.

DEMBY: So there are about 23 students in Martina's class. Most of them are black, but a few of them are Latinx. A couple of them identified as white, and that is unusual at UTSA. The school is an HSI, that's a Hispanic-serving institution. According to UTSA's website, the student body this semester was a little over half Latinx, about a quarter white, 6 percent Asian and 9 percent black.

MERAJI: Knowing that this class was made up of mostly black students really shaped how Martina thought about teaching the course. She wanted to make sure it was centered on black experiences.

MCGHEE: Who teaches the class and who takes the class really frames these conversations, right? And like, as a black woman teaching this class, it's going to look a certain way versus if Shereen were to teach the class.

DEMBY: Certainly.

MCGHEE: Right? Even with the same content, the same topics, it would look different - right? - because as teachers, we bring our identity into the classroom. And I just really was open to letting my students' experience enter the conversations.

DEMBY: Black students' perspectives and experiences being the center of classroom conversations is not something that I imagine happens very often in a school that's only, you know, 9 percent black.

MERAJI: And they're using our podcast to help facilitate these discussions.

DEMBY: That's so wild.

MERAJI: So, of course, we had to visit, right?


MERAJI: After the break, we're going back to college.

DEMBY: Shereen, I can't take out no more loans, man, I just can't. I refuse.

MERAJI: Stay with us.


DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.



DEMBY: All right. It's Monday, December 3, 9 a.m. And this is the last day of instruction for race and identity through pop culture before finals. It's early. And so, you know, if you went to college, you understand there are a few stragglers.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Everybody's on their way.


UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: They running. Someone's over there. Someone's at the bus stop.

MCGHEE: Has anyone talked to Luke (ph) today?

DEMBY: But once everyone is settled in...

Where are the rest of y'all from?

MERAJI: You're late.


DEMBY: You just blew up her spot.

MERAJI: We opened things up by asking the students to tell us a little bit about the city they live in, more specifically, something they've noticed about race in San Antonio. It was still early, and folks were being shy.

MCGHEE: Y'all, don't act shy. Like, I know...


MCGHEE: Like, y'all talk. Don't act brand new.

MERAJI: But a few people offered up their observations.

DEMBY: What's your name?

MARCUS MCPHERSON: Marcus McPherson (ph). It was very different for me coming out here because - like, I'm from Killeen, and it's a lot of black people. And even if you're not black, you still have that black culture. When I came out here, it was just - as far as like the food, there's no Waffle House out here or no - you know, anything like that - no place you're going to get waffles or anything like that. You got to go get burritos. They got...

MERAJI: And you were saying Killeen has much more black culture.


MERAJI: What's the culture of San Antonio - from your observation?

MCPHERSON: It's a lot of, like - the majority of people here are Mexican people.

MATTHEW ELIZALDE: My name's Matthew Elizalde (ph). I'm from San Antonio. I lived in the Southside. Southside's full of Mexicans. My grandma lives on the Westside. It's full of Mexicans. I heard - I never really go to the Eastside that much because I don't have family over there. But I've been there once, and there's a lot of black people. And now I live on the Northside. There's a lot of white people. So I feel like San Antonio's kind of segregated in a way.

DEMBY: This right here is what college does or at least is what college is supposed to do. It puts folks like Marcus and Matthew on a campus together, in classes together, with...

AARON ROSE: My name's Aaron Rose (ph). I'm from Friendswood, Texas. For my whole life, I was, like, the only black kid in my class. Like, there's more black kids in this class than there were in my whole school - all of high school and all of junior high. So, like, when I first got here, it was like a little bit of a culture shock. I'd never seen so many black people before. But now it's, like, more comfortable because, like, before, I couldn't risk being black because I always had a target on my back from the kids at the school because they saw me as a threat or saw me as less than human. And it really tore me down over the course of high school and junior high.

MERAJI: So Aaron's black and grew up around mostly white folks. Marcus is black and grew up around mostly black folks. Matthew's Mexican-American and grew up around mostly Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. They're all from Texas, but they had such different experiences. I can imagine them in psych class sitting a few rows from each other, maybe saying, what's up? - maybe - but definitely not talking about race and segregation so candidly.

DEMBY: Right. Right. So here is Matthew Elizalde again talking directly to his black classmates.

ELIZALDE: I hear your guys' personal stories. I never really asked anybody that in a way. Like, I never understood, like, what you guys went through - racism and stereotypes and stuff like that - even though I know it exists. But I never got it from a primary source. Do you know what I'm saying?

MERAJI: Has this class challenged your assumptions about race or has it supported things that you already felt? And anybody can answer this question.

BOBBI SMITH: We all raised our hand and said we talked about race. But I feel like in this class, like, we would sit in circles. And actually, like, everyone had to speak. You have to say your opinion. And you know, like, someone's not going to agree with you or someone may think the same, but it challenged your views. And then, like, you have different perspectives from everyone in this room. Like, no one in this room's the same or had the same experience.

MERAJI: First name, last name.

B. SMITH: Bobbi Smith (ph).

DEMBY: Can you give us an example of, like, one of those conversations in which you were talking to somebody and y'all were like - you were like, I don't really...


DEMBY: Clearly...

All right, so we got to jump in here real quick. So you heard me ask for an example of a conversation that happened in class that was especially challenging for the students in Martina's class. That's not exactly how I phrased the question, but you know they knew what I meant.

MERAJI: (Laughter). And you heard their response. Something went down, and it hit close to home for these students.

DEMBY: Right. So there was an incident on the UTSA campus in a biology class. You may have heard about it. It happened a few weeks before we visited. Someone caught part of it with their phone. And that video that they caught with their phone became national news.

TIANA SHELTON: Tiana Shelton - the whole incident, it started on a Friday. So that Friday, the young lady had her feet up in between the seats, and the teacher told her to put her feet down. So Monday came, and when the young lady came to class, the teacher asked her to leave. She didn't leave. And that's when the teacher stepped out of the class and called the cops.

MERAJI: There's some important details that we're going to add to that story. So the student who got the cops called on her on Monday because she had her feet on the chair the Friday before and was told to take her feet off the chair - and she did, by the way, take her feet off the chair. Well, that student who got the cops called on her the following Monday, she's black. And the teacher is white.

DEMBY: And that student cooperated with the police, and she left quietly when the cops came to escort her from the room. That's such a weird thing to say. So of course, this incident on campus - a white professor calling the cops on a black student - was the focus of Martina's next class. Here's Bobbi Smith again.

B. SMITH: That topic got really, like - it was a lot of tension in the room because everyone's like, no. Like, this is how I feel. You're not going to tell me, like, nothing else. And, like, I would say that's when, like, the main conversations...

MERAJI: From what Bobbi told us and from what other students in Martina's class told us, there was one person in class who kept insisting that the situation should have been handled quietly and not on social media, saying things like, look, I'm sorry - I know I'm not black, but that's just how I feel. And the black students who were there the day we visited said it made them really uncomfortable how many times she referenced not being black to defend her position.

DEMBY: Right. But I also kind of get why she would say that, right? Like, if the class was built around centering people's experiences then that's kind of what she was doing. Right? Like - so anyway, the conversation in Martina's class that day snowballed. It became a discussion about, quote, "respecting authority," and when to call the police, and the lack of black faculty at UTSA and whether putting the video on social media was the right thing to do. Things got heated. People got animated. They got defensive, which is to say that this became a conversation about race in America.

MERAJI: And as we know, it's really hard to talk about one thing without talking about all the things. The student who everyone seemed to be arguing with in class wasn't there the day we visited, but Brandon Stark (ph), another student in class that day, told us other people on campus had very similar things to say.

DEMBY: What was your conversation with other students like?

BRANDON STARK: They were like, the student was in the room the whole time. And they was basically trying to say, like, it's a classroom. She's the professor. You're the student. You supposed to obey the rules.

DEMBY: Were they black, white, Latinx?

STARK: Latinas and white.

MERAJI: And the black students in this class were, like, they just don't get it. Here's Bobbi Smith again, breaking down what would have gone through her head if she was in that situation.

B. SMITH: Everyone that has a lecture class knows, like, them desks is close. Like, you'd be trying to stretch out, like - you know? And so, like, it's never been a issue. And so it's like, you were that mad on Friday about my feet being up that since you saw my face on Monday, you thought the best thing to do was call the cops? As a black woman, I intimidate you that much that you had to call, like, police to do that? Like, I just feel like it was uncalled for.

DEMBY: You said that that made you really emotional just now?

KENNEDY SMITH: It could've been any of us. And I know me. I'm not the one to just to be like, OK, I'm going to just leave. I'm going to say a couple things before I leave. I know that if it was me in the situation, it probably would have been a lot worse.

DEMBY: Anybody else?

SHELTON: So I'm a parent. And I have other parents that I'm friends with, their kids are actually going to be coming here. Why I put it on my Facebook so, you know, let them know, you know, this is what's going on at this school. You know? You need to know what's going on before you start sending your babies here. 'Cause I know for a fact that there are at least two boys that are going here. And when she called the cops, that's, like, a death threat in this day and age. That's how I - at this point, that's how I feel. Like, if you call the cops or somebody black in 2018, that's a death threat.

MERAJI: That's Tiana Shelton (ph) again. And before that, you heard the voice of Kennedy Smith (ph).

DEMBY: Now, we reached out to UTSA for comment. They sent us a link to their official statement that came out two days after the incident went down.

MERAJI: It basically says an investigation was done by Equal Opportunity Services on campus to see if discrimination was involved, and that after conducting, quote, "in-depth interviews with both the faculty member and the student, as well as an examination of social media posts and information submitted by email, EOS's assessment, based primarily on the opinion of the student, is that racial bias was not a factor in the actions of the faculty member," unquote.

DEMBY: And this is a really interesting statement, Shereen. Like, they're basing that on the student's assessment of the situation. Like, never mind all of the calculations that she might be, like, weighing in her head, right, about whether or not she would characterize it as, you know, racially discriminatory. Maybe she doesn't want to deal with it. Who knows? Right?

MERAJI: Right.

DEMBY: Anyway, the official statement goes on to say that the instructor will undergo classroom management training and be monitored next semester.

MERAJI: And that creating a more inclusive campus environment is one of the school's top priorities.


DEMBY: Martina McGhee's class was created to find productive ways to talk about stuff just like this incident that went down on campus. So we pulled a few of her students aside after class to probe a little deeper.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: Man. That was definitely - as you can tell - the most heated conversation we had.


UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #6: That was, like, the most intense part of this course.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #7: Nothing ever reached - like, nothing ever got to that level.

MICHAELA MCCLENDON: Because we're all very respectful of each other in our opinions. We understand that everybody comes from a different background, has different experiences under their belt. So I was just surprised that something like this incident that was so small that we were able to talk about got so, like, taken out of hand.


MCCLENDON: And we're like - we had a whole - we talked about religion for a whole week and that didn't go anywhere...

HANNAH SULLIVAN: It wasn't even on the syllabus.



MCCLENDON: We were like - we were chilling about that, too, and - yeah. This which it just

MERAJI: That's Michaela McClendon. You also heard from Hannah Sullivan (ph) and Zach Truesdale. So it's obvious they're still processing why that particular class discussion didn't go as well as the others. And when we asked them what they could have done differently, they weren't sure. Michaela told us she definitely tried to help chill things out in the moment.

MCCLENDON: I feel like my personality - I'm very - like, I need to diffuse high-tension situations. So immediately, when people started to get a little rowdy, I was like, OK, let me ask a question, like, bring my tone of voice down and maybe everybody else will, like, calm down a little bit.

DEMBY: But in order for the class to get to the point where Michaela could try to do something like that, I mean, that took weeks of, you know, developing trust, listening, learning conversation skills. And these are college students. They're wrestling with some of these issues for the first time in a classroom setting around people they just met a couple weeks ago. Here's Zach Truesdale again.

TRUESDALE: Each week, we did some type of, like, group assignment, and that's how we, like, slowly became cool with everybody. Like, I like to think our like - we have, like, low-key a mini family.

SULLIVAN: It's really cute, yeah.


MERAJI: But unlike most families, these students actually worked on developing strategies for having these tough conversations about race. Michaela says, first off, try not to get defensive.

MCCLENDON: Because a lot of times when people are defensive, they're not, OK, well, let me hear what this person has to say. It's very, well, I'm close-minded. This is what I believe, and this is what it's going to be.

DEMBY: And Hannah said another important facet was figuring out when to participate, when to hold back. Hannah is one of the only white students in Martina's class, and she said that took some getting used to.

SULLIVAN: I think, like, I had a sense of this before, but maybe I just didn't really understand that, like, you can walk into a space and that space might not be made for you and that's OK. Like, this class wasn't - I mean, in a sense it was. Non-people of color should feel like it's made for them, but, like, the conversations that we're having aren't conversations that I maybe am going to be able to relate to my own life, and that's OK. Like, not every conversation, not every class maybe that's necessary (laughter). Yeah, so I've stopped talking a little bit more, which is probably a good thing (laughter).

MERAJI: Like we said before, UTSA is a school where black people are a hyper minority the vast majority of the time, so lots of the conversations going down in classes on campus probably aren't relating to their lives. Michaela told us she's almost never had a class where students talked openly about race. She says in her psychology class, her professor barely touched on the topic.

MCCLENDON: And you could just tell when he, like, switched the slide and the, like, title of the slide said racism, you could tell people got intense. But all we're doing is taking down a definition. You don't understand what it's like to have to live in situations where your race is the only thing that people see, but - yeah (laughter).

MERAJI: Yeah. That's disorienting to have so many things in your life connected in some way to race, your race, but then the topic hardly ever comes up at this educational institution where you spend most of your time. That could really make you doubt yourself and your experiences. I could imagine feeling very isolated.

DEMBY: Right. And, Shereen, like, Martina's course might be the only chance in their whole four years at UTSA where the students like Michaela can feel like they're not trippin' - right? - where the messed up things that they think are happening to them are validated as actually happening and not only to them. It's clear that this course is serving all these functions that go way beyond just simple passing and failing.

MERAJI: And Martina says that's one of the reasons why she created the class. And to help make her point, she shared a story about when she taught elementary school in San Antonio.

MCGHEE: One year, I had a student who would on free-dress Fridays - 'cause they wear uniforms - she'd be like, Ms. McGhee, what are you going to wear, so we can be twins - right? - my one black student. And she was like, well, can you make my hair look like yours? And so she'd come to class early. And I'd like - if I was wearing an updo, I would do her hair, right? And I knew for my one or two black students, I got to be that one black teacher that they may have their entire 13 years in K-12, right?

DEMBY: Yeah.

MCGHEE: I knew how powerful that was because me being a student in very non-black spaces, I wish I had that in school, right? And so now this semester teaching black students, I think it was day one Michaela - I said something about my hair, and she was like, yes, honey. And I just like - this is a wrap. Like, this is going to be a great semester, right? Class is held in this room where we have to get out immediately after class 'cause there's another class scheduled in there at 10 o'clock. We would spend maybe sometimes 20, 30, an hour talking in the hallway (laughter). But we got to have these, like, really black conversations just about life. And I got to pour into them and they got to pour into me in ways that I just hadn't experienced before.

MERAJI: If you were in the room with us, you could see how hard Martina was trying to stop herself from crying while she was telling us all this.

DEMBY: But it was too late for Michaela, who was sitting right next to her listening.

MCCLENDON: I don't mean to be dramatic or anything, but I needed this. I just needed this class. I got more out of it than I thought I was going to going in, so - yeah.


DEMBY: All right, y'all, that's our show. But the students at UTSA wouldn't let us go without a song giving them life.

MERAJI: Actually, it was a couple of songs. The first one is from Zach Truesdale.

TRUESDALE: The song that gives me life, I'm going to throw it back - "Ball Of Confusion" by The Temptations. That's a good song. (Laughter) And they like - it definitely still resonates for today.


TRUESDALE: (Singing) People movin' out, people movin' in. Why? Because of the color of the skin. Run. Run. Run. But you still can't hide.


THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, vote for me and I'll set you free. Rap on, brother, rap on.

MERAJI: So we've got a throwback from Zach, and something new is giving Michaela McClendon life.


GUNNA: (Rapping) Ice on my neck, flawless baguettes, hop off the jet, barely get rest, cash through the month, I get a check, Yves Saint Laurent on my pants and my chest.

MCCLENDON: Travis Scott, "Yosemite" - oh, my gosh, that's it. Oh.

TRUESDALE: UTSA - shout out.


DEMBY: You're listening to UTSA alum Travis Scott - also Kylie Jenner baby father. The song is "Yosemite" from his album "Astroworld."

MERAJI: Learning new things every day.

DEMBY: That's what college is for.


TRAVIS SCOTT: (Rapping) Know the coupe fast when it ends with an S, now that I'm home, back off the road.

DEMBY: And follow us on Twitter. We're @NPRCodeSwitch. We want to hear from you. Our email is You can always send your burning questions about race with the subject line Ask CODE SWITCH.

MERAJI: Sign up for our newsletter at and subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever fine podcasts can be found or streamed.

DEMBY: This episode was produced by Leah Donnella and Mayowa Aina. It was edited by Steve Drummond and Shereen.

MERAJI: And a shout out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH team - Karen Grigsby Bates, Walter Ray Watson, Adrian Florido, Sami Yenigun, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Kumari Devarajan and Andrea Henderson.

DEMBY: And a huge thank you to Martina McGhee and the students in race and identity in pop culture.

MERAJI: Y'all gave us life. What a wonderful way to end the year. Thank you.

DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: I didn't want to speak the whole class, but we also want to thank y'all for making this podcast what it is and how far y'all have come in making it easier for people to talk on discussions like this.

MERAJI: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #5: If weren't busy tonight, we have...


MERAJI: As you just heard, the work we're doing here on the CODE SWITCH podcast is making an impact. Thoughtful, community-oriented journalism is what public radio does best. And when you support your local member station, that actually goes a long way to making our podcast possible. So consider this a friendly reminder to show your support for the journalism you love by going to Once again, that's Thank you

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