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Multicultural Center creates welcoming space

Vanessa Delgado gathers multicultural students at EWU. Photo courtesy of Vanessa Delgado

By Marilyn Urness

Vanessa Delgado strives to create a safe place for the students of Eastern Washington University (EWU). She works closely with a student staff and attends EWU's community events to meet and talk to new students. She strives to be open and friendly to connect with students and create a welcoming environment in the Multicultural Center.

The Multicultural Center, known as the MCC, is part of the Division of Student Affairs. It was founded in 2017 to provide student support for diversity and inclusion at the university.

While EWU had individual programs, such as the Pride Center, Ethnic Studies and Women's Studies, there was no central program or space for students of color to gather in community. Students, advocating for an office to represent marginalized students, brought this concern to EWU's administration. The students felt that their voices as students of color were not being heard and considered by the university.

"EWU has a high first-generation population. Many are from underrepresented backgrounds." Vanessa explained.

In response, EWU established the Office of Diversity and Inclusion in 2016. It works with the Pride Center. In 2017, the office then established the MCC.

It was first located in a temporary space with an office and a lounge space. When renovation of the Pence Union Building (PUB) was completed in 2019, the MCC gained a location in PUB 329, with a full-size student lounge, kitchen, office space, meditation room and windows.

"Since student advocacy started the MCC, we really try to listen to student feedback," Vanessa said. "We do this by hiring students as equity educators. They reach out to the community via social media, the website and advertising events, and by attending EWU community events to engage with students."

It hosts workshops, events and discussions to broaden perspectives of students and faculty.

The MCC has two main functions.

One is to provide a welcoming environment for students of color and marginalized identities.

"Some EWU students have never experienced such a diverse population before coming to EWU, and this gives them the chance to explore and learn more about different cultures and people," Vanessa explained.

A secondary role is to invite white students to engage in learning about other cultures.

During COVID, the MCC moved some content online, doing virtual programming. Engagement was down compared to pre-COVID, she said.

"It's better this fall. At first, we spent time seeing what would be feasible and waiting for guidelines from the university and state," she said. "Now that we are into the quarter, student engagement and excitement are up. The sophomore class has not been on campus, so they are excited about events on campus.

"Our big event, Eagle Familiarize Affirm Matter (FAM), is an immersion experience to build community, empowerment and a sense of belonging for first year students of color. It drew 26 students. This pre-orientation event was a time to show new students the campus and resources and have them build relationships that can continue. It's also an opportunity for staff to motivate students and recognize that their identities, needs, aspirations and skills matter," Vanessa said.

The chance for students to ask questions to discover resources and for staff to sit down with other students could not be done during COVID. They were lost in the virtual environment, Vanessa said.

"We learned there's no substitute for what happens in space together as physical community, sharing triumphs and tribulations, and building trust," she said. We tried to do Eagle FAM last year, but couldn't duplicate it virtually.

"It's important for vulnerable populations who experience marginalization to build trust and community to set them up for success," she said.

Enrollment percentages remain consistent in 2021, with about 15 percent Latinx, 3 percent Black, 3 percent Asian, 1 percent Pacific Islander and 1 percent Native American and indigenous.

"In my experience, we have white students who love to hang out in the Multicultural Center and who join race-based student clubs and organizations. These students are typically interested in spreading awareness about racial inequity within their communities and are committed to practicing white ally-ship that upholds and centers the experiences of people of color," Vanessa said.

One program is the annual Tunnel of Oppression, a national immersion program on spreading understanding. It simulates situations and hurdles groups face every day. Topics covered include mental health, immigration detention, climate change, police brutality, transphobia, deaf culture and domestic violence.

"After each simulation, participants debrief and share their experiences. It raises what was learned and teaches ways to help solve issues." Vanessa said. "We want people to take action, learn more or just understand that as they are going through the tunnel, there is light at the end of it."

Growing up in El Paso, Texas, Vanessa didn't experience minoritization until the latter part of her life. Her mother was a translator and the population included people from both sides of the border. Mexico was on one side of the city and New Mexico was on the other.

"I grew up in brown America, not white America. I didn't experience being a minority until I moved to Arizona," she said.

Vanessa went to Texas A&M University to earn her bachelor's in psychology. Because students there were predominantly white and conservative, she experienced culture shock. Being a Latina coming out as a lesbian, Vanessa felt out of place and alone for the first time in her life.

 "I looked around and thought, 'Oh wow, this is what it's like to be a minority,'" she said.

Vanessa didn't feel out of place for long, because she found a home away from home when she became a student employee for the Women's and Gender Equity Resource Center. The center then became two offices: LGBT Resource Center and Women's Resource Center. In this space, she felt safe and accepted. Then she flourished in college, and helped other people find a sense of community and belonging.

"I was 17 and coming out. By all accounts, I should not have been happy at A&M, but I was because I had that safe place, a place of belonging," she said.

When Vanessa moved to Northern Arizona University, she was a part of the LGBTQIA Task Force responsible for needs of LGBTQIA students. The task force later founded the Office of LGBTQIA Resources and Support.

"I loved working with a community and helping impact a whole community all at once versus one person at a time," she explained. "In a way, psychology is helpful when trying to connect with multiple people versus just one."

One day Vanessa was talking to a friend about finding job opportunities. Her friend asked what she liked doing. Vanesa said she loved working with communities at colleges.

"I realized I wanted to work in higher education," she said.

Vanessa moved to the University of Kansas to manage the Center for Sexuality and Gender Diversity, working to provide a safe place for students to feel at home. She helped direct the program as it grew.

"I've often been part of the start of the programs, the ground zero," Vanessa explained. "It gives me the ability to be flexible and grow with the program."

When Vanessa was hired as director for the then new Multicultural Center at EWU, she and her wife found a welcoming place to settle down and start a family, she said.

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, December, 2021