Home Away from Home: Supportive spaces help diverse students thrive
THE MULTICULTURAL ENGAGEMENT CENTER
On any given day, the colorfully decorated Multicultural Engagement Center within the Student Activity Center is buzzing with activities—from student advocacy meetings to diversity training sessions to informal gatherings with friends in between classes.
Established in 1988, the center encourages all students to stop by, check out the lending library and explore various opportunities to connect with like-minded peers. Whether they’re stopping by for a specific purpose, or if they just need to unwind in a comfortable space, the doors to the MEC are wide open, says Brandelyn Franks, director of the MEC.
“The MEC is a place where students can feel welcome and comfortable,” says Franks, a UT Austin alumna (B.A. History, ’07/M.Ed. Higher Education, ’13) who frequented the center as a student. “We want our students to break out of their shells, listen to other people’s viewpoints and learn from them.”
Home to six student agencies that serve historically marginalized groups, the MEC offers a number of support services to student leaders. Adit Bior, a philosophy and government senior, is a regular at the MEC. Currently she is working with several student organizations on a campus-wide Black Lives Matter movement.
“It’s hard to feel welcome on campus when only three percent of the population looks like you,” says Bior, who serves as administrative director of UT’s Student Government. “I’m not the only one on campus who faces that struggle, so I encourage students to find a place where they can connect with a community that supports them no matter what.”
Bior is among many student leaders who have honed their leadership skills at the MEC. One important lesson they learn, Franks notes, is that there’s more than one way to advocate.
“People have ideas of what participation in a movement should look like and believe that others who don’t share those ideas aren’t as invigorated or passionate,” Franks says. “That’s
not true at all, and our job is to get them to understand there are many methods of advocacy.”
Though the MEC is a major hub for campus advocacy work, the center works to connect students with opportunities in various other academic departments and units across the campus.
“We tell our students the entire campus is theirs, and that there are many other places where they can feel included and welcome,” Franks says. “If there’s something we can’t provide, we’ll make sure they’re connected to someone who can help.”
Whether they become regulars at the MEC or go elsewhere to find a place of belonging, Franks just wants her fellow Longhorns to feel welcome and safe on campus.
“Over the years, students have dealt with some hurtful situations on and off campus,” Franks says. “We’re here to help them report an incident and also to process those negative experiences. If they’re told they don’t belong on campus, they start to feel that way. So we’re here to have conversations about that.”
The MEC isn’t just a place for students to lay down their burdens, Franks adds. There’s a lot of fun to be had—especially at graduation time when several student agencies throw their own commencement ceremonies. Impromptu parties also tend to break out when social justice victories—large or small—make national news.
“This is a fun-loving place,” Franks says. “There are so many opportunities for celebrations, like recognizing our students for graduating or forgetting into grad school. A lot of times, when
you’re doing this type of work you forget about the victories, such as the SCOTUS decision in favor of UT’s affirmative action in admissions. Even when more bad news comes your way, you
must acknowledge the victories you’ve made.”
THE GENDER AND SEXUALITY CENTER
Just upstairs from the MEC is the Gender and Sexuality Center (GSC), a space on campus that’s dedicated to women and the LGBTQA+ communities. Upon entering the center, newcomers and regulars alike are greeted with smiles from staff and students.
“There are more than 50,000 people on this campus,” says Liz Elsen, interim director of the GSC. “It can be exhausting navigating that, so we make sure to give a warm welcome to everyone who walks into this space.”
Visitors are encouraged to peruse the free Ana Sisnett Library and grab a colorful button from the front desk that exclaims “Cats not Catcalls!” or “Call Me by My Correct Pronouns!.” They’ll also find retooled body scales that display positive affirmations instead of numbers.
“Go ahead and step on it, and the scale spins to “fierce”—and this other one over here spins to a series of smiley faces,” says Dr. Kristen Hogan, UT Austin alumna (M.Ed. ’08) and education coordinator at the GSC. “Students created these to affirm all of us and to challenge harmful messages about size – like a recent summer program about the ‘freshman fifteen.'”
This is just one of the many ways staff at the GSC are empowering students to take pride in themselves and others during their journey on campus. Now well into its 12th year, the center has grown into a major hub for student organizations, trainings and workshops, speaker events and various other activities.
“This is a place where students can put down their bags and shake off the world,” Elsen says. “When students come back to campus, I often see them running up to each other and hugging. It reminds me of how vital it is to find a place where you can be your full self in a supportive environment.”
This is especially true for Johnathan, an engineering freshman, who came to the university with the hopes of forging connections with the LGBTQ community and advocating for transgender rights.
“During freshman orientation, I felt anxious not knowing whether or not my peers were as accepting or liberal as the city of Austin is known to be,” says Jonathan, who asked to not
be identified in the story. “However, when I went to the open house at the GSC, I instantly felt safe knowing there is a substantial community on campus that accepts me for exactly who I am.”
During his short time on campus, he has used the GSC as a resource to connect with other student groups and organizations that align with his passions.
“As opposed to my high school where there was a small group of people in one club, the GSC and the organizations offer multiple groups that focus on different parts of the LGBTQ community,”
he adds. “It’s great to see representation.”
Lydia Tsao also became active in student life when she joined the Student Leadership Committee, the GSC’s advisory committee. Through her campus advocacy work, she decided to set her sights on a challenging, yet meaningful career.
“The GSC gave me a platform to explore my interest in social justice and greatly affected my decision to pursue a career in eradicating social inequalities and promoting social awareness through law,” says Tsao, a psychology senior.
Tsao is among many students who call the GSC a “home away from home.” However, for others who are dealing with unaccepting family members, this is their home, Elsen says.
“I tell my students who work at the front desk to keep in mind that students are coming in here for a reason, and that they need to do everything they can to find an answer to their questions,” she adds. “We want to make sure our students are getting connections to all the many great resources here in Austin.”
SERVICES FOR STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES
Another space on campus that connects students with valuable resources is Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD). Located on the fourth floor of the Student Services Building, the office provides accommodations to more than 2,600 students per year.
Keeping with its mission to make the campus more accessible, SSD aims to provide accommodations to students with disabilities right when they begin their college career. This can be challenging for those who are new to the accommodations process.
“It’s important that freshmen know what supports are available to them before they need us,” says Kelli Bradley, executive director of SSD. “The largest group of students registered with SSD have psychological disabilities, and many of them are diagnosed for the first time while they are in college.”
Although the SSD office isn’t necessarily a spot where students can relax with friends in between classes, it’s a place where they can meet with a trusted coordinator who can help them find solutions. Whether they need accommodations for a test or to convert their text books into audio files, SSD is their first point of contact.
“We want the incoming students to know about our resources and services before the need arises, and for them to know that help is available.” Bradley adds. “Much in the same way that students know where to go for tutoring, career services or medical attention.”
Another big challenge for many new students, Bradley notes, is self-advocacy. This includes following through with accommodation letters and reporting any physical, instructional and attitudinal barriers.
“We will work with students on the best ways to talk to professors, explain the purpose of the accommodations, and help the students understand that using accommodations does not give them an unfair advantage, but ensures they have equal access to learn and demonstrate their knowledge,” Bradley says.
To help guide students through the process, the SSD office offers walk-in hours every day to answer questions and provide referrals. A testing fund is also available for students who need some help covering the cost of a psychoeducational evaluation. “It’s really helpful for students to have a person on campus who they can approach with questions and concerns,” says Emily Shryock, assistant director of SSD. “This is especially valuable for incoming freshmen because they often have a hard time figuring out where to go for help.”
Outside of the office, SSD encourages students to forge connections at campus events. In collaboration with the disABILITY Advocacy Student Coalition, they host an array of
awareness activities such as Adapted Sports Night, Study abroad info sessions and panel discussions with Paralympic athletes.
“We want to provide events that are encouraging everyone to learn about what’s possible for people with disabilities,” Shryock
says. “For our Adapted Sports Night, we want everyone to come try out a different sport. It’s a way to build a more unified
community and break down assumptions about people with disabilities.”
Shryock and her colleagues also provide disability education and awareness in campus wide disABILITY Advocates training sessions. She notes that participants are often surprised when they learn that the majority of disabilities on campus are not outwardly visible.
“We use a pie chart representing the different types of disabilities to demonstrate the prevalence of invisible disabilities, and to highlight the importance of always considering accessibility and creating an inclusive environment,” Shryock adds.
Shryock and her fellow staff members are also spreading awareness about invisible disabilities among their students who oftentimes feel alone in their experiences.
“We want to help them realize that being a student with a disability is not rare or a strange thing,” she adds. “It’s a part of campus diversity. This is a time for them to rediscover who they are and who they want to be, and we want to help facilitate that process.”