By Alyssa Evans
Weeks have passed since President Bruce Shepard sent a mass email on Feb. 5, responding to a student petition demanding a multicultural center be created and funded by Western. With no clear answer of whether or not the building will be approved in the near future, students and administration have been working together to potentially make the proposed building a reality for Western.
How students and administration are working together
More than 60 members of Western’s community gathered at a forum to discuss plans for a proposed multicultural center on Tuesday, Feb. 24.
Abby Ramos, the Associated Students vice president for diversity, organized the event for students to talk to administration about concerns they have as students of color and to discuss how they want campus to change to be more welcoming and safe.
“As students of color who are involved with the Ethnic Student Center, we planned this forum to finally be able to directly tell administrators what our demands are from this university. Students of color on Western’s campus face microaggressions and violent acts consistently, but there aren’t resources provided by the university,” Ramos said, reading from a written student statement. “We are here to voice how important it is for a new multicultural center, not just for current students of color, but for future generations.”
Currently, the ESC includes 18 different AS clubs and supports “historically underrepresented ethnic students and allies,” according to its website.
Additional requests include full-time academic advising, additional computers, a library, a study area, a counselor who can identify with students of color and more effort from the university to improve retention rates of students of color and more staffing.
In fall 2015, 24.8 percent of Western students were students of color. Second-year retention rates for white students were three percentage-points higher than students who identify as Black, Hispanic or Native American in 2014, according to a study conducted by Western’s Office of Institutional Research.
Eight administrators attended the event to represent the university’s administration, answer student questions and discuss. Among the administrators included Dean of Students Ted Pratt and Eileen Coughlin, the senior vice president for enrollment and student services. President Shepard was not present.
ESC Coordinator Nate Panelo hopes that the forum is a start to increasing involvement and motivation of both students and administration for the project.
“We really hope that this is the time that we can be able to look back and say that we could be able to bridge some of those gaps between students and administrators,” Panelo said. “We know that there is a divide between the two and we’re hoping that we can be able to all be on the same team.”
Coughlin, along with other administrators that attended the forum, pledged to support students of color and to help find a better space for the ESC.
“I think we have a really rich opportunity to work together to get this solved and I’m dedicated to having that occur and I have been dedicated for a while,” Coughlin said. “You’re going to have nothing but an advocate in me.”
Why some students and administration say it’s more than a building
Meeting with students of color during the forum gave administrators a chance to reflect on how diversity has evolved over the past 25 years on campus.
Once a recruiter for students of color, Ted Pratt reflected on his past experiences and related his experience to the current actions of ESC users.
“I wasn’t just looking for any student, I was looking for leaders. I would say, ‘If you’re a leader, then this is the perfect place for you,’” Pratt said. “Leaders open up new turf and that’s what the folks of the Ethnic Student Center do.”
Associate Dean of Students Renée Collins also reflected on personal experiences with diversity on campus, with a focus on the start of the ESC.
“25 years ago, it was something that people wanted, just like we’re here today talking about what we need now. At that time, it was something that brought a space for students,” Collins said. “We were always supporting each other on campus, but we finally had a physical space where we could be. The beauty of a physical space – what we are missing now – is there is a cross-pollination of cultures.”
The forum gave students and administration a chance to discuss issues outside of the building. After Pratt called on students to put in more effort to make connections with administration, ESC Cultural Education Coordinator Patricia Pacheco put the pressure back on administration.
“It’s still that power dynamic and we need to feel like we’re on the same level. We need to build those relationships and it has to be intentional,” Pacheco said. “The admin have to be the ones reaching out to us; we can’t be the ones knocking on your door. It’s intimidating.”
While the ESC is designated to be a space for students, the area serves a larger crowd on campus.
“The ESC isn’t just for students. [For] people of color and people who aren’t of color as well, this was the space that drew us. There was no particular space for faculty and staff of color either, so guess where we went?” Collins said. “We went right to the ESC.”
Junior Gabriel Ibanez, a business major and the ESC internal coordinator, said he supports the proposed ESC expansion and multicultural center because it would give students of color a space of their own.
“I really think there should be a space for students of color on this campus because we’re a primarily white institution. It can take a toll being in a class and not seeing anyone that looks like you,” Ibanez said.
Junior Jennifer Khuu, a human services major who is the Khmer Student Association steering representative, finds the current ESC space to be important because it is a place where students of color can feel comfortable and safe.
“You can be there and feel at home. You’re there with people who have the same struggle as you,” Khuu said. “You might come from different backgrounds or have different experiences, but everyone still knows the feeling of being different.”
Ramos clarified that a new multicultural building would not just be an expanded ESC. She envisions a center that will appeal to all students, she said.
“In my [mind], it’s going to be a hub of resources for marginalized students,” she said. “That’s what we want to make clear to students – if a potential student fee were to come, it’s not going to be just for ESC students, it’s going to be for a variety of students.”
Where they’re facing challenges
One of the main issues regarding the proposed building is how to find the money to pay for it. Coughlin discussed ways that administration is working to find money. Currently, the only money that has been spent on the project has been for assessing suggested space for the building in the AS Bookstore and was from $500,000 that Coughlin set aside.
“What we need to do is find all the sources [of money], bring them together and see how much we can put together. Then ask the question, ‘where are the gaps?’ We’re still in that process and part of that is we would like to have students at the table with us,” Coughlin said.
A major issue in funding the proposed building is the lack of state funding available for a multicultural center. Due to prioritizing among all institutions within the state, Washington doesn’t have enough money to fully support academic facilities, let alone other facilities such as a multicultural center, according to Coughlin.
How long it could take to build
Coughlin said the university isn’t willing to give up on the idea of a multicultural center.
“We’re not ruling anything out, but we want to be realistic because we don’t want to wait another 20 years. We are not willing to wait. So, looking for some place that will take that long is a concern,” Coughlin said. “We want to work with you to find all the sources that aren’t going to make us wait 20 years. This is a legislative issue, not something the administration would have control over.”
Ramos doesn’t believe she’ll ever use the building as a student but that doesn’t discourage her and other members of the ESC from voicing their demands.
“This process is going to be a while, so us advocating isn’t even going to impact us. It’s going to impact future students. For us, this is a very selfless motivation,” she said. “This isn’t just because, ‘we want a building.’ It’s, ‘we want a building for future generations to be able to stay on this campus, to be able to thrive on this campus.’”
Where the building proposal process is going next
Ramos and others will continue to advocate for a new building through the creation of a student executive board, Ramos said. The board would serve as a way to include younger students in the process, as many of the students currently involved will be graduating soon, she said.
“We want to make sure that the underclassmen are able to follow through this work because this process isn’t going to happen in a year,” she said.
Additionally, 16 Western students will be attending the National Student Power Summit on March 18 through 21. Four of them plan to lobby specifically for a new building on behalf of the ESC.
The United States Student Association hosts a legislative conference and student lobby day every spring for students across the nation to participate in grassroots lobbying.
“As someone who has attended the USSA conference I can vouch that there is a necessary component of having students of color attend the conference,” Ramos wrote in her proposal, which was approved by the Board of Directors on Friday, Feb. 26. “Historically organizing around policy has always been exclusively white, this will help eliminate that by assuring that students of color are attending this opportunity.”
News editor Sarah Sharp also contributed to this report.