Intercultural Center marking 20 years of campus diversity

Many student organizations gather under this umbrella

Photos/Charles A. Radin

Members of the theater class "Playing for Change," front row from left, Ilana Sidonsky, Rebecca Bachman and Aliza Sebert; back row, Adbul-Aziz Sohail, instructor Jen Cleary, Sriya Srikrishnan, Erica Shaps, Beth Green, Deepti Kanneganti and Rebecca Erenrich.

Monique Pillow Gnanaratnam, center director

It’s 3:30 on a typical weekday afternoon and Brandeis’ Intercultural Center is moving into high gear. A group of students chattering excitedly with their theater instructor bustle out of a meeting room, making way for a crowd of faculty and students headed into a Sociology Department colloquium on museums and immigrants.

In the lounge, all manner of concerns are under informal discussion. The adjacent computer room is also abuzz, and the joyousness level is about to rise exponentially as some 25 Waltham elementary school students arrive for their four-day-a-week  after-school program, run  by public-service volunteers from the university’s Waltham Group.

Today there’s an additional background hum: The Intercultural Center (ICC)  – an umbrella organization for 18 student groups that focus on issues of culture, ethnicity and social justice – is preparing to celebrate its 20th anniversary on Saturday and Sunday.

“The center has really grown and changed a lot over the years,” says director Monique Pillow Gnanaratnam, showing a visitor programs and fliers from the 1992 inauguration of the ICC. “It has truly expanded its collaboration with other offices on campus, numerous classes meet here. We host more than 600 programs, meetings and events a year – a little over half ICC groups and organizations, the rest from all over campus.

“It’s a lively place, a fun place for me to come and work,” Gnanaratnam says. “Students come for a quiet study area, use the computers, meet in study groups.”

Elaine Wong, senior associate dean of arts and sciences for undergraduate education, says that the center “is a very important part of the community and environment for many, many students. It is both their spiritual and social home.

“The nice thing about the ICC,” says Wong, who has been an active supporter of the center throughout its existence, “is that it is a completely welcoming and inclusive environment. All members of the community are welcome.”

Though the center is the home of groups like Triskelion, the Korean and Chinese student associations, the black students association and many others that focus on specific identities, “it becomes very important for many other students who come to it to widen their horizons and expand their comfort zones.” Wong says. In addition to welcoming all students, she adds, the center encourages members of its component groups to attend each others’ events.

In recognition of her longtime support and enthusiasm for the Intercultural Center, Wong will be honored this weekend with the center’s Inspiring and Creating Change Award.

The 20th anniversary celebration kicks off with a reception for alumni Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m. in the center, which will be followed by the opening ceremony for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in Levin Ballroom and a lantern celebration on Chapels Field. The 40-year-old Brandeis Asian America Student Association was a founding organization of the center.

The main anniversary celebration, featuring alumni speakers telling “Stories of Change,” performances and the award to Wong will be in Sherman Conference Center beginning at 11:30 Sunday morning. [Detailed program]

Edward Kaplan, the Kevy and Hortense Kaiserman Professor in the Humanities, chaired the first of two committees created in the early 1990s in an effort to recognize, and attempt to ease, the strains experienced by minorities on campus. “There was an extremely interesting and difficult process of self-definition within the committee. At the end of a year, we recommended that an intercultural center be established.”

For reasons Kaplan does not know, this recommendation was denied by the administration and a second committee was established, chaired by Mick Watson, the George and Frances Levin Professor of Psychology. It made the same recommendation, and this time the administration agreed.

The main concern of those who questioned the wisdom of creating the center, Kaplan recalls, is that it might become a vehicle for segregating some groups of students from the mainstream of the campus.  “It has worked out very well,” Kaplan says.  “It is not isolated at all.”

Jen Cleary, a senior instructor in the Theater Department, teaches “Playing for Change: Community Building and Social Change on Stage” twice a week at the ICC. Thursday afternoon, as she walked through the center with her students – themselves a vivid illustration of the diversity of the student body -- Cleary acknowledged that her original purpose for choosing the ICC was that the class needed a versatile, open space.

“But now I see it makes perfect sense for this class to be here,” she says. “I didn’t know where the ICC was before. Now I feel I’ve been opened up. It’s a great space, with a great energy.”

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