Last fall, when senior Bao Vue was asked what change she’d like to make on campus, she told Carter and Flores she’d like to help her fellow Asian students get organized and more involved in the university community. Vue, who was born in Thailand and raised in Northern California, says many Asians she knows avoid getting involved in community organizations and tend not to participate in civic activities.
“We’re more reserved by nature,” she says. “Culturally, we don’t step forward. We have that fear [of getting involved].”
Vue says she understands that fear personally because she is shy and uncomfortable speaking to a crowd. She says the center helped her overcome her fears and promote Asian empowerment by encouraging her to co-organize, with fellow paraprofessional Ted Aquino, the Asian American Excellence Conference at the Shady Creek Conference Facility in Nevada City this spring. There, Vue gave what Carter described as an impassioned opening address to about 60 in attendance, and stayed involved in the entire weekend-long conference.
Vue says the experience, from getting the conference organized to being an integral part of its success, changed her dramatically. “I’ve conquered my fear of others, of worrying about ‘what are they going to think about me?’ ” she says.
Vue now knows she can not only address a large crowd, but also move them. Student, faculty, and staff attendees were invigorated, she says, and by the end of the event, had begun planning ways to link up with one another to help make the campus more enriching for students of Asian cultural heritage. It was just the effect she was working for, and she exudes confidence when she describes her experience.
“I do have the power. I can do it,” she says.
That is precisely what Carter and Flores hope students will gain, that sense of internal confidence and collective power, a belief that they can individually rise to challenges they set for themselves, and that they can work together to effect broader changes.
“The JFR Leadership program was about students empowering students,” says Carter. “That work continues in the CCLC.”
Speaking of Vue’s performance at the conference, Carter says: “Her heart and soul went into that conference, and she went beyond her emotional limitations to see that come about. I’m almost in tears still, just talking about it. That’s why I do what I do.”
The idea of creating a new cultural center and moving it from a small space in the University Center to a suite of offices in Meriam Library was a collaboration involving Drew Calandrella, vice president for Student Affairs, and last year’s Associated Students president, Courtney Cox. This year’s AS president, Jesse Eller, was an intern at the center last year and remains a strong supporter.
Calandrella says moving the center to a prominent location on campus reflects the importance of CCLC to the University. Its location is very intentional in terms of having cross-cultural resources and space across from the Bell Memorial Union and Student Services Center, in the library, and adjacent to the area most used by student clubs and organizations, he says. “Being central to the campus core and, therefore, very accessible sends the important message to both prospective and current students that diversity matters on this campus, and more importantly, the students, faculty, and staff—individually and collectively—matter in terms of their cultural contexts,” he says.
Calandrella is impressed by the center’s rapid development since the move. “The CCLC, in a very short period of time, has established itself as a dynamic center for students to meet, organize activities, plan leadership retreats, and share each other’s cultural contexts and stories,” he says.
Since its formation in September 2007, the center has initiated an array of programs and services. At noon on Mondays through much of the academic year, the CEO Speaker Series brings successful businesspeople to campus to share their personal stories, their secrets to success, and the ways they overcame life’s obstacles. On Friday afternoons, the CCLC shows films with significant cultural representation, such as Selena, The Laramie Project, Malcolm X, and I Am Sam.
Representatives from a variety of on-campus student services, including the Career Center, Student Learning Center, and Financial Aid, are provided work spaces to meet with students. The center also provides informal space to students and faculty who need a workstation or a place to meet.
“There exists the need to have a place on campus where different cultural experiences and contexts can be safely expressed,” says Calandrella. “The free exchange of ideas and information occurs in order for the entire campus community to reach a deeper understanding of each person’s ‘story’ from the context of culture and their life experience.”
Many such stories and experiences are shared at the center’s empowerment and organizational retreats, conferences, and forums for cultural groups, women, and others. These events, organized and often initiated by students, are open to everyone. For example, this winter, CCLC paraprofessional Cecily Nelson-Alford organized a forum for high school girls to be mentored by CSU, Chico women through workshops covering topics including self-image, relationships, applying to college, and self-commitment. The CCLC and the National Society of Leadership and Success put together a conference to provide an intensive leadership experience for CSU, Chico student organization leaders. In March, the third Spirit of a Woman Conference was held (see sidebar). In April, Pride/Safe Zone and the CCLC presented the first LGBT Leadership Conference, aimed at opening discussions to start an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) center on campus.
The first year the focus of the CCLC, says Flores, was on building an inclusive community and encouraging involvement with the CCLC. In the coming year, particular communities will be encouraged to build relationships with each other, and the CCLC will focus on developing events that bring various groups together.
Every day, Flores and Carter meet with students new to the center, who often hear about it from other students or are inspired to visit after one of the CCLC’s events. One of their current goals is to develop a more formalized infrastructure for getting involved. To that end, Flores is working on putting together a CCLC student organization, which will benefit from enrichment training such as public-speaking skills and leadership philosophy and styles.
“We’re working on making this a training ground for leaders, not just at CCLC but throughout the University,” says Flores. “We’d like to start with the students when they’re freshmen and take them with us throughout their time here.”
Carter believes that over time the center will also become an academic resource, providing a cultural context for disciplines such as marketing, communication, psychology, business, education, and social work.
An open door
The CCLC, staffed by Carter, Flores, eight paid student paraprofessionals, unpaid interns, and a dozen or more volunteers, has three separate computers labs, two conference rooms, and eight offices. It is open to all students, faculty, staff, and community members, ready to support those who want to stop by from time to time and those seeking deeper involvement.
Senior Walter Torrence, a Sacramento native who has been an intern at the center for two semesters and plans to continue until he graduates, says he loves the fellowship of the students, the sense of cohesion, and the mutual support.
“Everybody here is trying to help each other,” he says. “It feels like home to me.”
When Torrence first set foot in the CCLC, he was a finance major with an eye on working in the corporate world upon graduation. But since getting involved with the center, he discovered that he loves working with people, especially kids. “It struck a chord with me,” he says. He’s now changed his major to social work.
For Charlene Valere, who grew up in a predominately African American community in Orlando, Florida, the CCLC was a way to connect with students of other backgrounds. A senior in communication design and medical arts, Valere says that more than anything else, the center allows students to connect with and learn about people who are not like themselves.
“We all come from these small boxes, and this just gives you the exposure to other cultures,” she says.
Valere, who staffs the CCLC’s front desk, says most students who get involved with the center find the experience remarkable and tend to stay. “If you get connected to the center, it’s hard to let go,” she says.
Carter says he’s amazed at the dedication, energy, and creativity the students have brought to the CCLC. Flores and the students have been instrumental in the work and design of the new center, which celebrated its grand opening in fall 2008. They have helped with the interior design, even rearranging Carter’s furniture and choosing artwork to hang on his office walls. Flores contributed three large paintings of Anne Frank, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. With Carter as their guide, Flores and the students have made the center the warm and inviting space it is today.
“We’ve only been in the new offices since September, and I can say very proudly that what we are achieving is beyond my wildest dreams and expectations,” he says.
Asked about the center’s long-term future, Carter talks about a day when student cultural organizations are strong and linked together, when the student body has fully embraced people of all backgrounds, and when barriers to personal and collective achievement are removed.
“I think,” he says, “we work ourselves out of a job.”
About the author
Gordon Gregory lives with his wife, Linda, and daughter, Georgia, in Paradise. He is a former reporter for newspapers in Montana and Oregon, and is now a freelance writer.
Sharing the Spirit of Women
One of the annual events the CCLC sponsors is the Spirit of a Woman conference. Held on campus for the past three years, the conference has been a source of inspiration and support for hundreds of women. For the first time, this year the students took a more active role in organizing the conference, and they changed things up a bit, assigning seats to encourage conversation among strangers.
“Our goal was to make it not so much about the speakers, but more about the participants connecting with each other—to be touched by the people next to them at the table,” says CCLC leadership program coordinator Erica Flores.
Julie Braden, an administrative support assistant in Public Affairs and Publications at CSU, Chico, has attended the conference all three years, watching it grow and change along with many who have attended. “The first year I went, I was returning to college after a long absence,” says Braden (in photo right). “The conference helped break the ice for me—I talked with other women who were returning students as well as younger students.”
The women sit in small groups at round tables, talking among themselves between speakers and during group activities. As an icebreaker this year, student coordinators came to each table and handed participants a hypothetical scenario related to stereotyping, and asked them to discuss how it made them feel and whether they had experienced a similar situation and how they overcame it.
At Braden’s table were four older women (three of them Chico State students) and two younger students, one of whom had invited her mother, a real estate appraiser in the Bay Area, to attend the conference. The appraiser told her story of being stereotyped in a male-dominated field and how she’s handled that challenge.
Along with finding the networking with other women encouraging and useful, Braden is also inspired by the conference speakers. Hearing their stories of where they came from and where they are now—what they’ve achieved and challenges they’ve faced, has given Braden the feeling that she, too, can overcome life’s challenges.
Last year, Mill Valley attorney Francine Ward told her story of transformation from a teenage drug addict and a prostitute to a successful lawyer, author, and life coach. Braden was struck by Ward’s comment that an older woman who mentored her helped her turn her life around, something that Braden hopes resonated with the younger students.
“I think Francine Ward touched a lot of the young women,” says Braden. “She really connected with them, and I saw several go up to her and talk for quite a while. She was very warm yet strong.”
CCLC’s goal for this conference—to offer “pillars of support” that strengthen and inspire—seems to be working, certainly for Braden and probably for many others. “As busy as life has gotten for women, I think it is imperative that we all take a break to catch our breath, reconnect, and encourage one another to gain the strength to keep on,” adds Braden.