Students in Service and Leadership at Harvard

A Path Forward and A Time of Transition

Northeastern Center for Intercultural Engagement, an Ethnography 

The Northeastern University Center for Intercultural Engagement (CIE) stands at the heart of campus, tucked away in the corner of the student center. I walk into the building, immediately looking around, taking in the two-lounge space, smelling the smells of a catered Qdoba dinner, listening to the murmurs of other languages floating through the air. This is a place whose existence is multicultural. A Bollywood music video plays on the screen in the corner as I invite myself into the space. I am here to attend an event on Female Reproductive Health.
After helping myself to a burrito bowl, I take a seat and begin a conversation with Helen, a sophomore who is attending an event at the CIE for the first time. We exchange pleasantries before finding out we have a mutual friend. Looking around the room, I realize quickly that over half the students appear to be white, or are, at least, white passing. Then, the presentation begins. While we talk about international development and healthcare, we hear also about race and gender. This conversation is intersectional.
I slip away before the end of the 2 hour long event to introduce myself to two girls who seem comfortable in the other room— Cristina and Lydia. Without giving away too much of their identity, these girls represent two very different cultures and between them share many identities; they know a lot about diversity at Northeastern and are, in a lot of ways, experts on the CIE. We get chatting and I learn how much the administration has done for students of color on campus— in addition to the CIE, there are university offices dedicated to Asian, Black, and LatinX students. The CIE fills a particular niche in helping connect these resources with one another, facilitating conversation and collaboration between groups representing communities that have similar problems.
In talking about the CIE specifically, they explain that the space is “very open”—“lots of people come in and hang out; it’s very relaxed.” Functionally, the CIE offers space to student groups that lack access to resources. They explain, “[many student groups] don’t have a space to meet… and now they can book a space here. That’s how they get to know each other.” But that’s not all—“[CIE] supports with space, but also with funding via catering.” They add that if you look, there are a lot of resources on campus.
It’s important to note, though, that all is not perfect. The CIE advertises because they are new and need to define themselves and their niche on campus. Additionally, the CIE serves as home for students of color but also as an educational resource for students that want to learn more—“this is a learning space where you’re not judged for asking questions.” Balancing these functions as home and classroom, however, is a struggle that employees are happy to take on.
Structurally, the CIE has student programming fellows, much like the Harvard Foundation has student interns. These students have committed themselves to diversity work, and from what I can gather, it seems to be a highly coveted position. It is important, here, to draw a parallel between the Harvard Foundation’s student intern program and the CIE’s programming fellow position.
The CIE could be great, but for now it is just good—it is a step in the right direction, a center with sufficient resources, and a space that is undergoing the process of definition. All of this is to say that the CIE and the Harvard Foundation have complementary characteristics. One is new and moldable, the other old and mired in tradition. One is in search of purpose, the other struggling to live up to its own. One has space, the other history. But in the end, neither is sufficient on its own. In this way, structurally and practically, the Harvard Foundation has a lot to learn from the Center for Intercultural Engagement.
Though it's not perfect, as Cristina and Lydia explain, “creating a space like this moves you forward in every other aspect.”

An Action Plan 

A multicultural center has been on the minds of students for years, and only now are we hearing movement from administration. This conversation is one that is charged, by the strength of student voices and the silence of college leadership. It is important to note, however, how far the conversation has evolved, from administrative refusal to reluctance to silence to finally, cautious understanding.
After my visit to the Center for Intercultural Engagement, I am surer than ever that the Harvard community would benefit from a multicultural center.
The Harvard Foundation has historically worked to bring together groups of people that care about similar issues-- we give grants to student groups who plan programming that is explicitly multicultural in its focus. However, the only times in which leaders of student groups are engaged with the Harvard Foundation are during the monthly SAC meetings, meetings that often feel more like a lecture than a conversation. These meetings are important because they act as a point of information transfer from administration to students, but they do little to actually bring together different communities on campus and almost nothing to allow for the adequate exchange of ideas. Creating a multicultural center, where students can gather for meetings or just to do work, would allow for an informal flow of ideas and make easier the process of collaboration across racial and cultural lines.

‚ÄčEven beyond the practical reasons that a multicultural center is important, this would be a big and important step that the university administration can take to prove that it cares about students of color. Walking around campus, it feels as though there are so many spaces for white students, but none that are explicitly designed for students of color. Symbolically, a multicultural center would go a long way.
Finally, students of color on campus need a place to just be. Diversity is often parroted as important in improving educational outcomes (and it is), but often times, this diversity puts the experiences of students of color on display for the learning of white students. This is not fair. A multicultural center would allow a space where students can gather and be with other students that understand their experience, without being asked to explain themselves. Of course, it is a space that would be open to white allies and those with a sincere interest in learning more (the Northeaster CIE is an example of how white students can feel welcome in a multicultural center). There is no doubt that finding a balance between teaching students and creating a safe haven for students of color would be a challenge, but it is a challenge that students (the interns of the Harvard Foundation, for example) would be happy to take on.

The creation of a multicultural center, however, raises numerous questions about the relation that such a space would have with existing diversity offices on campus. This conversation is one that is hard, especially given complicated histories and tumultuous relationships between some of the diversity offices. I would suggest that the student interns of the Harvard Foundation staff the multicultural center—this is because the Foundation is the single diversity group that is explicitly intercultural in its focus. Additionally, a multicultural center would fall in line with the Harvard Foundation’s mission of promoting the “common good” of Harvard College students. Thus, we see that the establishment of a multicultural space need not come with the administrative hassle of opening up a completely new and different office. Of course, this conversation is one that would be in constant evolution—perhaps it makes sense to move the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion into the multicultural center as well. It is important that we be thoughtful about these decisions as we envision what a potential space may look like.
Aside from the integration with the possible multicultural center, I propose two recommendations for the Harvard Foundation. First, I would recommend that the Foundation focus on strengthening its relationships with race and culture related groups on campus. The establishment of a system in which student interns meet with group leaders and attend group events could help groups feel closer to the Foundation and vice versa. Second, the Harvard Foundation ought to refocus its programming to be frequent and topical. By hosting conversations that are easily accessible to students (that use language that most students are familiar with), it can draw in students that would otherwise be disinclined to go to Foundation events.
This is an opportunity to affect change in a big and significant way, a way that will effect generations of students to come. Maybe, one day, when there is a big building with a fancy name on it designated for students of color, students like me will finally feel like Harvard is ours.


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