College’s network of Multicultural Centers work for access and student success
Students of color often face barriers, both at school and in the wider community.
For some, the challenges have only grown since the election last November of a new administration and United States president. PCC’s Multicultural Centers play an important role in nurturing these students and helping the college fulfill its mission to provide access in a culture of equity and inclusion. Offering a safe and supportive space for students is primary for the centers at all four of PCC’s campuses. But while they sometimes collaborate on programming, they also strive to tailor their offerings to serve the unique needs of each campus.
At Rock Creek, the PCC campus with the highest percentage of Latino students, one of the largest programs is Oregon Leadership Institute, a collaboration between the college and the Oregon Council for Hispanic Advancement. The full-year program helps PCC students develop leadership skills and earn college credit while they mentor Latino high school students.
Another Rock Creek offering is the Equity Ambassadors Program, in which multicultural students organize workshops, retreats and volunteer opportunities that promote greater understanding of social justice issues. They also work with college administrators and faculty by serving on campus committees and advocating for student rights.
Assistant coordinator Eder Mondragón Quiroz said that when the U.S. government began deporting undocumented residents, the Multicultural Center offered a space where students could share their concerns and frustrations. Out of this grew Rock Creek’s “Student Movement,” which Quiroz said was influential in PCC’s decision to declare the college a sanctuary for undocumented students.
“Our vision is that we can be a catalyst for students to become more engaged in their communities, to become leaders and change things for the better,” he said.
But at Rock Creek, the center is also a place where students can just relax and socialize.
”The Multicultural Center is a space where minority students don’t feel like they always have to be ‘on.’ They can just be themselves and hang out,” he said.
George Gituri, a second-year computer student, said he eats his lunch every day in Rock Creek’s center.
“This is the first place I started hanging out after moving from Kenya to the U.S.,” he said. “I’m able to interact with everyone, and I feel welcome and at ease.”
The Cascade Campus is situated in what historically has been considered the heart of Portland’s black community. The campus’ African American Men’s Scholar Project provides academic guidance and leadership training to students who meet GPA and credit requirements. These scholars also receive mentoring from African-American male professionals in the PCC and Portland community. In turn, each scholar mentors three first-year African-American students.
Multicultural Center Coordinator Luke Givens noted, however, that Cascade’s Equity and Empowerment Mentorship Program serves all men of color. The program works to build a sustainable pipeline of men from Roosevelt High School to higher education through mentoring relationships, workshops and other activities.
“Our goal is really to address outcomes and provide holistic support – academic, leadership and professional – for students of color,” said Givens. “Most importantly, we’re doing that through institutional change. We’re really trying to change the structure of the campus climate so we can make sure the students have a better experience here.”
Two initiatives unique to Cascade are the center’s “Edutainment” videos and “Colonized Minds” podcasts, both accessed on YouTube. The former are weekly short videos that discuss educational topics and issues, such as food insecurity, in an entertaining way. Colonized Minds podcasts are uploaded twice-monthly and explore a wide range of issues surrounding equity and education.
At the Sylvania Campus, Multicultural Center Coordinator Miguel Arellano Sanchez said that “nationally and at PCC, the retention of men of color is low.” Programs like Sylvania’s Men of Color Leadership Program are important “because there’s very few men of color on campus. It can be very hard for these students to feel connected and build friendships on campus.” This program combines credit courses with resources such as individualized academic advising, peer tutoring, internships and college tours.
Another offering at Sylvania, the Student Leadership Program, hires eight to 10 students to be educators, advocates and resources for their peers. Sanchez said that in addition to staffing the center, the students hold three to four events during the academic year.
“Those events vary by topic, but it’s usually around engaging students in conversation and dialogue across differences, and discussing current social issues and pressing issues in our community so they can raise people’s consciences,” he said. “What we ultimately want to prepare them for is to engage in making it a better world.”
Fiona Cacdac, who is studying business at Sylvania with the goal of completing a bachelor’s degree in accounting at Portland State, has been involved with the program for two years and said it has helped her develop her leadership, professional and interpersonal skills.
“It has also opened my mind to the history and issues of social justice that I was never taught before,” she said. “The Multicultural Center is important because it is a place where people can gather to find community that not only creates personal relationships, but also helps us find solutions to disrupt the oppression we have long been fighting against.”
Rut Martinez-Alicea, coordinator for the Southeast Campus Multicultural Center, said that it serves the poorest area in Portland and is the first campus to have 51 percent students of color. One of its new programs, Brother to Brother, is for students of color who identify as men and are struggling academically. A cohort of four to eight students goes through a curriculum over spring term, meeting weekly as a group and one-on-one with an advisor. Among the skills they focus on are time management, goal setting, and how to access counseling, health and housing services.
Martinez-Alicea said PCC is part of the National Consortium on College Men of Color, which is looking at promising educational practices for these students.
“We’re using some of the resources that are being promoted, but we’re also contributing to the knowledge of that group,” she said.
Programs for women at PCC are mostly run by the Women’s Resource Centers. However, Southeast’s Multicultural Center is partnering with the campus women’s center and counseling services to offer Sisters in Strength, a program Martinez-Alicea originally developed at Sylvania. The program is a support group for students who identify as women and have survived trauma, whether it’s from emotional or sexual abuse, violence, stalking, an accident or war. The women meet weekly for six weeks and learn how to manage the long-term effects of trauma using a variety of skills such as mindfulness, meditation, simple yoga poses, play, exercise and dance.
In addition to supporting students, PCC’s Multicultural Centers are a resource for faculty, staff and administrators for developing cultural awareness, and creating culturally responsive curriculum and teaching pedagogy.
This work has become even more vital since the presidential election. Martinez-Alicea reported that in recent months more instructors have asked Southeast’s center for guidance in addressing students’ fears or concerns of racial bias, deportation or the prospect of a travel ban.
She said, “I remember the day after the election a student emailed the instructor saying, ‘I’m sorry I can’t come to class. And I don’t know when I’ll be able to come. Last night my uncle was assaulted, and today my neighbors are yelling outside our house saying that we need to pay for what Mexicans have done to this country.’ ”
There’s also been an increase in the number of students reporting incidents of racism, she said.
“They are in pain,” she commented. “They are getting harassed. People feel so free now to indulge in their worst selves at the expense of our students.”
The result, she said, is diminished student retention and success. Martinez-Alicea added, however, that she is encouraged by the support the multicultural centers have received from PCC President Mark Mitsui.
“We know we have in him a great supporter and champion of programs that are specifically designed to address the academic achievement gap,” Martinez-Alicea said. ““Always, the center is the space where students most impacted by education inequity and social injustices have a place. They have a place where even if bad things happen, someone will speak up and it’ll be interrupted. It’ll be addressed. We’ll get to learn together. So that’s always the center’s main goal.”