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MMC’s Intercultural Center Emerges as a Safe Space and Key Resource for Students

As a first-generation college student, Zach Biron ’24 had lots of questions and anxieties as he entered his freshman year—and he kept them all to himself.

“I graduated from a large public high school that didn’t have resources for first-gen students about to go to college and started MMC during the pandemic while it was virtual,” said Biron, a Psychology and Theatre Arts major. “There were so many things I was confused about, but I struggled with imposter syndrome, thinking everybody else knew more than me and was sure of what they wanted, so I kept quiet. I didn’t know how to serve myself.”

That changed, however, with help from a new resource at MMC that Biron would help launch as a student worker: the College’s Intercultural Center (IC). Though it just marked its first anniversary in September, it has already had a powerful impact on those who rely on its services, including first-gen students.

Within the last year, the IC has debuted several new initiatives to improve first-gen outcomes, like the First Generation Cohort Program, which guides students in building community and provides emotional, financial, and academic support. This month, it led a week’s worth of events in honor of National First-Gen Student Day, doling out self-care goodie bags, holding a lunch and town hall, and creating a photo wall filled with pictures and posts from first-gen students documenting their journeys.

“We’ve taken the time to be intentional with not just growing the cohort program, which is a small sample of students, but in thinking about the larger first-generation experience and how we can celebrate first-generation students,” said Monique Atherley, the IC’s director.

Thanks to such efforts, MMC was selected as a First-gen Forward institution by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) Center for First-generation Student Success. The designation recognizes colleges that have demonstrated a commitment to improving experiences and advancing outcomes of first-generation college students.

Still, the IC’s first-gen programming is just one of the signature offerings that bring people to the center’s doors. Led by Atherley, the IC supports students who may have one or more marginalized identities with a raft of programs throughout the year. That includes affinity spaces held on alternating Wednesdays for various populations, such as students of color, students with disabilities, and LGBTQIA students; events celebrating heritage and recognition months; and a Social Justice Ambassador program where students explore social justice issues.

“Students don’t just come with one level of identity—they come to the College with multiple identities that they want to be able to grow in,” Atherley said. “Our job is to ask how we can support them in their exploration of self so that they can leave here as their full selves.”

Housed in Carson Hall, in the space formerly occupied by the College’s chapel—the center has retained its stained-glass windows—the IC is also a quiet space for students to decompress.

“It’s the one place you can go and just chill out if you need a moment and have a safe space to be yourself,” said Jasmine Ramos, a senior BFA acting major and vice president of the Black and Latinx Student Association (BLSA). “It’s where I and a lot of other students feel we can just release everything from the day and authentically be ourselves without having to put on a front.”

Students don’t just come with one level of identity—they come to the College with multiple identities that they want to be able to grow in.”
 —Monique Atherley

The center was established amid a national conversation about social justice, equity, and systemic racism in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, said Dean of Students Dayne Hutchinson, Ph.D., who was part of the IC’s founding committee.

“We wanted to create a space where students could feel seen and safe and that would focus on the things they were asking for, which was more programming around diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice,” he said.

Students have also put the IC’s skill-building lessons to use well beyond 71st Street. Take sophomore Business and Finance major Christina Newland. She describes herself as naturally shy, someone who used to hesitate to get involved and share her ideas. But after bumping into Atherley, who often stands outside the center chatting with students, Newland joined the BLSA, becoming its treasurer, and Social Justice Ambassador program.

“I was able to learn a lot of new things not only about my community but also about what’s happening around me,” she said. “Monique and Kelsey [Oliveira, the IC’s Assistant Director] helped me discover my true potential.”

Using the tools she picked up at the IC, Newland started an organization in her Crown Heights neighborhood to help its Caribbean and Hasidic residents learn more about each other and build community. Since launching this semester, it already has 25 members—and has given way to dozens of helpful conversations.

Looking ahead, Atherley said that within five years, the IC’s team hopes to be a pillar of the MMC student experience, with expanded resources and programming and “partnerships that continue to support the realities of marginalized people and marginalized experiences at MMC.”

Hutchinson said he’s eager to see that continued growth as well and is proud of the center’s gains so far.

“Not every college can say that NASPA recognized their institution, and within the center’s first year, we were able to earn that designation for the intentional work Monique and her team have done,” he said. “I’d like to see us continue building on that foundation and move forward so that we can really change our community one student at a time.”

Published: November 20, 2022