Campus Cultural Centers Turn 10

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It was the spring of 1998, and Penn’s Latino community was getting impatient. While they considered the Albert M. Greenfield Intercultural Center a valuable resource for minorities on campus, they’d been lobbying for a space of their own. They wanted a new hub to foster ethno-specific community and increase the number of Latinos on campus. They wanted La Casa Latina.

The Latino Student Coalition, Latino Faculty and Staff Association, and Latino Alumni Society joined forces to send a proposal to then-President Judith Rodin CW’66 Hon’04 on October 30, 1998. Just under a year later, on September 21, 1999, Rodin inaugurated the University of Pennsylvania Center for Hispanic Excellence, or as it is now known, La Casa Latina. It was the first culturally specific center on campus, and according to William Gipson, associate vice provost for equity and access, “no one was surprised when Asian-American and black students felt that centers for their constituent groups were also important to have”—nor were administrators surprised when those groups began asking for their own spaces.

Encouraged by the Latino students’ success, Asian-American students held a rally on College Green in the fall of 2000, spurring what alumna Hoa Duong C’01 describes as “a sometimes-contentious public dialogue in TheDaily Pennsylvanian,” and also resulting in a segment on Fox Evening News and, perhaps most importantly, a meeting with Rodin to galvanize the creation of PAACH—the Pan-Asian American Community House.

Ask Director Karlene Burrell-McRae GEd’96 SW’00 GrEd’09 about the history of Makuu Black Cultural Center, and she’ll tell you that “ours is not the crazy story—our experience is not as dramatic.” During the student campaigns for La Casa and PAACH, black student leaders “did anything they were asked to do,” she says, including writing letters and talking to Rodin about the minority-student experience. “Once they had done all that, they realized, ‘Well, if they have spaces, why shouldn’t there be a space for us, too?’ They didn’t have to go through as much of a fight for it, though, because the other centers had really set the stage for that already.”

La Casa celebrated its 10th anniversary last fall, and PAACH and Makuu turn 10 this year. All are marking the occasion with galas and reunions—and according to Gipson, there is plenty to celebrate. “I think these centers add so much to the richness of Penn,” he says. “Having these centers really makes a statement about Penn’s commitment to diversity. They send the message that diversity is one of our highest values, without a doubt.”

Of course, the centers serve plenty of other functions, too; just ask their directors. “I think the value for students is a safe space that offers culturally sensitive advising,” says June Chu, PAACH’s director for the last six years. Burrell-McRae adds, “We’re here to be a resource for students and help them become better and more effective leaders.” And America Espinal, associate director of La Casa, says that “a lot of students say that this is a home away from home. When they want to speak their language or see people who look like them, they come here.”

Indeed, home is precisely the word numerous PAACH students use to describe the center in a recent video created for the Penn Spectrum conference [“Gazetteer,” Sept|Oct 2010]. “For me personally, PAACH is home for a couple years,” one student says. “It’s our own home during the day,” adds another. “We don’t want to go back to our rooms; we want to come to PAACH.” Says a third, “It’s really like a family that lives in this house. The H in PAACH is so perfect, because it is a home.”

Students say much of that homey feeling stems from their connection to the center staff, who treat their culturally sensitive advising work as more than a nine-to-five endeavor. “This isn’t just a job for them,” says Sherice Perry C’03, a former student leader who frequently visited Makuu during her time at Penn. “Students become [their] family; they celebrate when we succeed and go above and beyond to provide support when times are tough.”

As a trusted adviser to hundreds of students—about half of black students drop into Makuu at some point—Burrell-McRae says she never knows what to expect on a given day. “We’re big problem-solvers in these [centers],” she adds, noting that students come in to discuss struggles with difficult classes, feelings of isolation, roommate clashes, and even trouble with financial aid. Students can drop in any time the centers are open to talk to an adviser, work on homework, or simply chat and snack in the lounge with friends. 

The cultural centers also offer students specialized leadership and mentoring opportunities. PAACH’s Asian Pacific American Leadership Initiative (APALI) is designed to help Asian-American students obtain the tools they’ll need to become student leaders on campus. Selected students participate in a semester-long program of six sessions, focusing on issues such as affirmative action, the “bamboo ceiling” in the workplace, gender, and even mental health. “If you look across campus at Asian-American student leaders, many of them went through APALI,” Chu says. 

All three centers also have mentorship programs aimed at younger students. PAACH pairs incoming freshmen with upperclassman mentors in a program aimed at helping them adjust to college life. Activities include a retreat, informal meetings, and a community service project. Makuu’s Paul Robeson Mentoring and Leadership Program connects freshmen and sophomores with local alumni and members of the senior honor society Onyx. Similarly, La Casa’s Mentorship Pathways Program matches freshmen and sophomores with juniors and seniors, all of whom participate in social, leadership, and career-oriented events. 

While designed specifically for the cultural community each center serves, these mentoring and peer leadership programs were created with the larger University in mind, according to directors. “Our goal isn’t to keep students in our spaces,” Chu says. “Our goal is to give students the tools they need to go off and do great things across campus.” Adds Burrell-McRae: “If students spend all their time at Makuu, we have done them a disservice. We want them to be part of TheDaily Pennsylvanian. We want them to be calling alums [with The Penn Fund]. We want them to participate in athletics.”

The directors also pride their centers on serving more than just their cultural constituents. La Casa, for instance, offers not-for-credit Spanish conversation classes for beginning and intermediate/advanced speakers. Espinal says that very few native speakers attend these gatherings—rather, she sees students from Russia, China, Poland, and Iraq, among others. That inclusiveness extends to inter-center connectedness, too, according to Gipson. “Students who are identified with a particular center have this comfort level in going to activities sponsored by students from other centers,” he says. “They support each other and they encourage each other, because they know that each center is enriched by the others.”

Over the last decade, all three centers have evolved. Chu says PAACH now reaches more students and offers them broader advising. The center experienced one of its biggest moments last year, she says, when Penn hosted ECAASU—an annual conference for Asian-American college students. According to Chu, more than 1,500 people came to campus, and the traveling event’s Penn iteration was its most well-attended one yet.

Much of Makuu’s development has stemmed from forming deep relationships with other centers on campus, Burrell-McRae says. Makuu now works closely with Career Services, the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships, and Counseling and Psychological Services to “make sure our students know about them and really utilize them,” she adds. Makuu has also helped other organizations bring a variety of speakers and performers to campus over the years, including musician Harry Belafonte, actor Boris Kodjoe, and politician Andrew Young.

Looking forward, the centers’ goals are strikingly similar: increase alumni participation and awareness; engage more faculty members and high school students; and, with any luck, see their shared building renovated. Since 2001, PAACH, La Casa, and Makuu have been housed in the ARCH building at 3601 Locust Walk. Students have been lobbying for ARCH to be renovated, and according to Gipson, they’ve already spoken to the University architect, the vice provost of university life, and others about what the remodeled building might look like. “We’re excited about that possibility,” Burrell-McRae says. “It would open up new opportunities for us, and we’d have more space for activities and events.”

But even if that renovation happens later rather than sooner, these student populations still each have a place to call home. “When PAACH started, there was a sense of deficit—of something missing,” Chu says. “Now, it’s about adding our voice to discussions across campus.” Adds Perry, “There is no doubt in my mind that Makuu enhanced my experience at Penn. When I think back to my fondest memories of Penn, I think of the time I spent there.”

Molly Petrilla C’06

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