It’s been nearly 30 years since it became clear that students of color at the University of Wisconsin–Madison needed a space to call their own. Back then, in the late 1980s, it was Candace McDowell ’73 who got things started at what would eventually be called the Multicultural Student Center (MSC).
“The need for and desire for students of color to gather and build community and organize around their identities and experiences reached a new level,” says Gabe Javier, current MSC director. “Before that there had been iterations of black cultural centers and other minority student services, but the Multicultural Student Center as an organizing centralized force didn't exist until then. What has sprouted from that is the structure we have today, which still has its roots in what Candace and her team were doing back then. Still supporting student organizations, still providing advocacy and educational support to students of color, still providing place for students of color to gather in community and a place to be.”
Alumni who visit the MSC in the Red Gym this year might notice (and be jealous of) many new initiatives, not the least of which is the fully functioning and well-outfitted Black Cultural Center (BCC), which opened on the first floor with a lot of fanfare last year.
“I think our first year for the Black Cultural Center went great. It was amazing,” says Karla Foster, MSC’s assistant director for cultural programming. “There were constant students in the space, utilizing the space, utilizing the resources in the space. Outside of students, there were also faculty and staff around campus that would come in and just have their lunch and want to be [in] a community with people who look like them.”
And in 2018 MSC will open two new “startup centers” — The Latinx Cultural Center and APIDA (Asian Pacific Islander Desi American) Cultural Center — in the Red Gym’s North Mezzanine and work toward grand openings in the spring of 2019.
Javier says the new centers will follow the model of the BCC, taking the time to organize communities and learn what students really need — getting student input on big-picture decisions like programming priorities as well as details such as the fabrics for the decor.
“[The BCC] gave a definite road map in terms of benchmarking,” he says. “It’s been really great because students have been in coalition with each other to establish these other cultural centers. I think that the process of establishing a cultural center in and of itself has been such an important identity development and community-building experience for the students.”
And some of the students who have laid the groundwork have become the part-time staff of those centers, which Javier says is the MSC’s way of “honoring their labor.”
The future of those centers — how quickly they grow, and if and when they find new, larger spaces — is largely up to the communities they serve, Javier says.
Today the MSC, as a whole, serves about 17,000 visitors annually through events and programming, or just by providing a quiet place to study. But in reality, the center’s impact is broader than that.
“In some ways, in many ways, we serve every student,” Javier says. “We know that diversity is an added value to education. So we are part of that diversity in the very general sense. When we talk about campus climate, we’re talking about the climate inside and outside of the classroom. We talk about the institution’s campus climate, we’re not talking just about students of color. We know that things like racism and sexism affect all people.”
But there’s also an undeniable need for specialized services for students of color, Javier notes.
“It’s proven that students of color have different needs that are specific to their experiences on campus at a predominantly white institution,” he says. “Different interventions will be relevant to students of color that may not be as relevant to the majority of white students.”
Plus, life is always easier when you don’t feel alone — a common experience for students of color in some of UW’s lecture halls and classrooms.
“They might not be the only one in that class, but they might feel like they are,” Javier says. “So I think that’s really what the crux is. Being the only one and feeling like the only one can be distinct. So hopefully the Multicultural Student Center shows that you’re not the only one and feels like you’re not alone.”
In addition to serving and providing welcoming spaces for students on campus, the MSC is connecting students with alumni.
“We took a group of students to Chicago to check out the DuSable Museum of African American History. And then we had a networking lunch with alumni at a Badger-owned restaurant,” Foster says. “When I took a group of students to Washington, DC, for the grand opening of the [National Museum of African American History and Culture] at the Smithsonian, we did a partnership with the Wisconsin Alumni Association, and we had an intentional dinner with the DC chapter of alumni, and they were able to connect with current students on campus, too.”
Those intergenerational connections are meaningful, Foster says.
“Current students are able to sit down with alumni and ask them questions like, ‘How did [you] deal with the campus as a student of color when [you] were here?’” she says. “‘What were those differences, what were those changes?’ ‘How do I work the system, or get what I need from this campus in order to graduate and be successful like you?’ I think, at the same time, alumni are given the opportunity to give back to these communities that they were a part of while they were here. I think it's definitely a give and take.”