A place to belong: New cultural centers are gateways for campus inclusion
A frame with the words “Mahal Kita” hangs on the wall of 140 Squires Student Center. Jaclyn Marmol sees it most every day. The words, which mean “I love you” in Tagalog, a language spoken in the Philippines, and the room in which they hang have a special meaning to her.
“It’s a reminder of my culture and where I’m from,” said Marmol, a Virginia Tech senior whose family is Filipino. “This is really a home of my own.”
The framed words are a small example of the ways that Virginia Tech’s newest cultural center — the Asian Cultural Engagement Center — and several others that opened in the past two years are giving students like Marmol a place to belong.
The Asian Cultural Engagement Center opened in November, while in the fall of 2016, three new cultural centers debuted — the American Indian & Indigenous Community Center; El Centro, a Hispanic and Latino center; and the LGBTQ+ Resource Center. A space that previously was the Multicultural Center was renamed the Intercultural Engagement Center.
The newest centers join the successful Black Cultural Center, which opened in 1991, and is a model of inclusion for the others.
These centers consist of a room or several rooms, ranging from 564 to 1,400 square feet each, equipped with televisions, sofas, chairs, tables, and bookshelves.
But they are more than physical spaces for students to hang out, do homework, rest, and host club meetings, choir rehearsals, and other gatherings. They are judgment-free spaces where students say they can be themselves.
“I can just exist,” said Max Wright, who on a recent Friday afternoon sat at a table inside the LGBTQ+ Resource Center on the third floor of Squires, watching television news while eating lunch with two friends.
Since arriving at Virginia Tech, Wright joined an effort that began at least 10 years ago to create a space for students who are members of the LGBTQ community on campus.
“Why would I go anywhere else?” said Wright, a senior who also works as a student assistant with the center’s assistant director. “That’s why the cultural centers are so important.”
Several years ago, Virginia Tech launched InclusiveVT, which is an institutional and individual commitment to the university’s motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).
The advent of the newest cultural centers fits with this commitment. It’s also in keeping with an effort to enroll a diverse student body by matching scholarship gifts and enlisting alumni to recruit underrepresented students.
For years, students and faculty requested more cultural centers to serve various communities on campus. But finding room for these centers in Squires was a challenge.
In 2016, Virginia Tech’s Student Affairs division, led by Patty Perillo, vice president for student affairs, and the Office for Inclusion and Diversity, led by Menah Pratt-Clarke, vice president for strategic affairs and vice provost for inclusion and diversity, helped usher in the newest cultural centers. They provided funding to create operating budgets and resources to hire additional staff.
“As we thought about the meaning of InclusiveVT, we recognized the opportunity to celebrate and highlight different cultures here on campus through multiple cultural centers as a way of not only supporting the recruitment and retention of faculty, staff, and students, but also creating larger awareness at Virginia Tech of different cultural and community identities,” said Pratt-Clarke.
Ultimately, some rooms in Squires shifted to become available for the new centers. In a three-month period, center staff recarpeted the spaces and ordered new chairs, sofas, and tables.
A Native American group also donated artifacts from Virginia tribes to display in the American Indian & Indigenous Community Center.
The newest centers opened in time for the start of 2016 fall classes. All six operate within Virginia Tech’s Cultural and Community Centers.
“This is a space for students to really lean into their identities,” said Yolanda Avent, senior director of cultural and community centers at Virginia Tech, during the grand opening of the Asian Cultural Engagement Center in November. Later, she said it will take some time to build the foundation for the newest centers.
“Visibility of the centers is important to us,” she said, adding that plans for additional cultural centers will be part of a larger discussion involving the university’s master plan.
Currently, Avent, who began working at Virginia Tech in October, is assessing all of the centers and working on future programs for them. Each center has an assistant director whose office is located within each space.
Faculty fellows also work at the centers. They plan co-curricular programs and spend time with students there.
Avent, who graduated from Virginia Tech in 1998 with a history degree, experienced first-hand the impact of these kinds of spaces while she was a student.
Early on in her freshman year, she said, she considered transferring to another school because as a black woman, she felt alienated. But during her second semester, she discovered the Black Cultural Center. She made friends there and connected with faculty. It became her community.
“It was a big part of my ability to survive and thrive here,” Avent said.
Similarly, when Marmol came to Virginia Tech, there only were two cultural centers in Squires, the Multicultural Center and the Black Cultural Center. Marmol began to spend time at the Multicultural Center, where she did homework, made friends, and found her community.
“If I hadn’t found my space, I don’t think I would have stayed at Virginia Tech because I wanted to feel like I had a tie to this university and that who I am matters,” she said.
As president of the Asian American Student Union, Marmol was one of the forces behind the opening of the Asian Cultural Engagement Center, which along with chairs, tables and a PlayStation 3, houses a bookshelf that displays Asian literature.
As of fall 2017, Asians were the largest minority group of all Virginia Tech students.
Marmol said it’s nice to finally have a space for Asian students, but the room is not only for the Asian community.
“All are welcome, as long as you are respectful,” she said.
Pratt-Clarke often stops by the centers when she is in Squires, and she said she has been pleased with the diverse group of people who spend time in the spaces.
“It’s not that the spaces only serve one particular community group,” she said. “The spaces are well-used, and I think that’s really a tribute.”
Some of the centers have helped connect students with faculty, such as those who are members of a caucus for a specific ethnicity or culture. Once students meet faculty who are similar to them, they often begin to feel comfortable and to ask for advice, such as applying to graduate school, said Veronica Montes, assistant director of El Centro. Initially “they don’t know how to approach them [faculty],” Montes said.
She often organizes lunches at the center for students and professors who are Hispanic or whose research relates with Latin American culture.
“It’s important for each community to have a space that they recognize, to build community, to feel at home,” Montes said. She wants students to feel that they are welcome, “your whole being, your whole identity.”
This message was evident in November inside the cozy El Centro center, where a large paper sign posted on the wall states “#Istandwithimmigrants.” Surrounding the sign, there are messages scribbled on colored papers.
Among the messages are the words, “Because we belong here,” “Dear Dreamers, you make the world beautiful,” and “Being different is what makes us special.”