When Isaiah Crews left his home in the Bronx for the University of Vermont in the fall of 2015, his parents gave him some parting advice: meet as many people from as many different backgrounds as possible to prepare you for life in the workforce.
Crews, a sophomore mechanical engineering major, struggled initially, but eventually met students from a broad range of diverse backgrounds at the ALANA Student Center – now the Mosaic Center for Students of Color (MCSC). He’s currently a work-study student at the center’s new Living/Learning Center location, where he spends time studying, hanging out with friends and discussing important issues he might not have otherwise broached.
“The Mosaic Center has allowed me to interact with people I might not have met like those from the Asian American Student Union, LGBTQA, and the Ski Club,” says Crews. “We probably would have just kept walking by each other on campus and never really gotten to know each other. The Mosaic Center provides a space where you can hear the perspectives of people that you might have made assumptions about, and realize that you aren’t so different.”
Students of color have utilized the MCSC since 1973 when it was the Center for Cultural Pluralism, and later the ALANA Student Center at Blundell House on Redstone Campus. Many of the reasons students rely on this “home away from home” remain constant, like friendship, academic support, lectures, home cooked meals, peer mentoring and the Summer Enrichment Scholars Program (SESP).
The scope of the center’s mission has evolved, however, along with the diversity of the university’s student population. Over the past decade, students who identify as being from ALANA ethnicity groups have increased from 4.6 percent to 11.4 percent with relevant programs emerging such as The Brotherhood, Queer People of Color, Sisterhood Circle and the Examining White Identity Retreat.
A mosaic of individuals joining together to create community
A broad spectrum of stakeholders were asked to conceive of an inclusive name for the ALANA Student Center to best represent the university’s more diverse population. It was decided that the name “Mosaic Center for Students of Color” most accurately captured its modern mission: to “fully support the holistic development of African, Latino(a), Asian, Native American, Multiracial and New American students so that as confident students of color they attain their goals for academic achievement, personal growth, identity formation and cultural development.”
MCSC Center Director Beverly Colston said during the dedication ceremony at the center’s new location in Living/Learning (Building E, Room 140) that the name represents the collaborative work and expressed desires of students, alumni, faculty and staff to clearly state whom the center serves.
“A mosaic is an intricately designed art piece constructed from assembling small, gemlike, colorful pieces of glass, stone, beads or other materials,” said Colston. “While each piece retains its individual nature it also becomes part of a larger and beautiful whole. We see the term ‘mosaic’ as a metaphor for what community can be, a place where we are our distinct and individual selves even as we join the greater whole in the creation of something multi-faceted, brilliant and larger than ourselves.”
Colston also emphasized the importance of the center’s new location in the heart of campus and expanded space in extending its outreach, improving student accessibility to services and further developing campus collaborations. “Situated at the crossroads of the student community at a time when the racial demographics of our nation and our community are shifting, I imagine a more central role our students and the center will continue to play in the life of UVM.”
Isabella Sierra, a first-year exercise science major from Chelmsford, Mass., agrees that the larger room at L/L with couches, desks, offices and adjoining activity rooms is ideal for students and staff. "I really like the new space,” she says. "It feels really homey and is a good space for studying or just hanging out and meeting people. Everyone makes themselves at home, which makes you feel like you are with people you know really well in a comfortable space that isn’t in a campus building or classroom.”
Blundell House: “A welcoming sight in 1983”
Wanda Heading-Grant, vice president for human resources, diversity and multicultural affairs, arrived at UVM as an undergraduate in the summer of 1983 when UVM’s ALANA enrollment was 2.5 percent. She vividly remembers walking to Blundell House in hopes of just seeing another student of color.
“I really could go a week without seeing anyone who looked like me,” recalls Heading-Grant, who was part of the first SESP cohort at UVM. “I had heard that UVM was very white, but I struggled at first and wondered what I had gotten myself into.”
Spending time at the ALANA Student Center with other students of color greatly improved Heading-Grant’s college experience and played a vital role in her returning for her sophomore year and eventual success in higher education.
“The center really was my foundation and played a key role in who I am today,” she says. “It was a safe place where other students of color understood the feelings I was having. I think the same holds true for students today, but there are a lot more multi-racial and bi-racial students here now, so we really needed an inclusive name that reflects how our world is changing. Mosaic speaks to that broader lens that people will be able to look through to really see themselves at the center.”
Keleyah Gregg, a first-year secondary education major from Philadelphia, says she especially values the support of Mosaic staff members like Assistant Director Sarah Childs, who understand the issues facing students of color on a predominantly white campus.
“It’s a community hangout and a safe space where I know I can see people like me who understand what it’s like to be a person of color at a PWI (predominantly white institution),” says Gregg. “I feel like it’s so important for students of color to have staff members of color to support them because it gets you through some tough times. Sometimes you do feel alone being a person of color on this campus, but just knowing that I can come to a space like this where the community is loving and supportive is really important.”