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Our Spaces Aren’t Safe

Campus | April 2, 2018

Many Tufts students will look back at their college as a place that became home over the course of four years. But the process of creating these homes is political. For decades, students in higher education with historically marginalized identities have had to work extra hard to make their universities homes. At Tufts, this practice continues with the Group of Six (G6)—a cluster of resource centers housed under the Student Affairs office that serve international students; students of the African, Asian and Latinx diasporas; and queer, trans, and non-binary students. Next year, the G6 will become seven, adding an additional center that will serve first-generation, low-income, and undocumented college students. These centers provide more than just advising, academic support, and physical spaces. For many students, these places become home.

But a center, like any home, needs to be maintained—how and why they are maintained are questions that have been asked of and by administrators and students alike. But throughout the centers’ decades long history to this day, the onus has overwhelmingly been on students to answer these questions. To mitigate this problem, in the 2017-2018 academic year, this campus has seen many exciting changes to the G6’s structure. While these changes on paper reflect an exciting moment for the current G6, difficulties are constant. The centers are perpetually underfunded and understaffed, limiting educational opportunities for the communities they immediately serve and those beyond, further alienating the demographics Tufts institutionally seeks to help.

As a center intern and student who has frequented the Women’s Center since her freshman year, senior Natasha Karunaratne spoke about how the lack of resources the Group of Six centers receive raises serious concerns about the university’s institutional priorities. “Tufts is a corporation and thus naturally puts money in where they’ll get some return back,” Karunaratne said. “But at the end of the day it’s also a university that promises to serve its students, which makes me wonder which students it’s most dedicated to serving when the centers for women and students of color are underfunded.”

Since taking an official role in the Women’s Center, Karunaratne has led SAGE Advice, an advising program for first-years and Peer Ed, a program that gives on-campus trainings regarding gender mapping and safe spaces. Now as a leader of the POC Circle, a discussion group of people of color of all gender identities, Karunaratne sees investing in the centers as investing in the education of all Tufts students. “We fill so many gaps that the university would need to fill themselves in our absence,” Karunaratne said. “I’ve seen [Women’s and LGBT Center directors] K. [Martinez] and Hope [Freeman] teach people, within and outside of the centers, facilitation skills that we’re not learning anywhere else. The centers are not just a space for students but they’re home to resources and services that I could not get through Tufts without.”

Likewise, senior Belina Xian, an Asian American Center intern and former peer leader, sees the allocation issues as a natural extension of the university’s structural operation. Without strong initial investment, the Center has not had the opportunity to show its potential as a community space to those in administrative roles. “I think the university is unconvinced that putting money in the centers will result in more donations in the future,” Xian said. “I honestly feel like that’s fair, since the amount of money that they currently give is not enough for people to gain enough of a sense of community to donate…We definitely need more permanent staff for the AAC.”

Lacking the proper full-time staffing, Asian-American Center interns like sophomore Tien Hoang have had to do the extra work in making a home out of a space. To fundraise for the Asian American Center’s transition toward increased accessibility and more space, Hoang has been working with Asian American Center Director Linell Yugawa to comb through a list of potential alumni donors: past peer leaders, house residents, and others involved heavily with the Center. Working with Associate Dean of Student Affairs Christopher Rossi, they decided to use a crowdfunding page as a landing site for alumni who wish to donate for the Center’s expansion. Hoang has been writing letters inviting alumni to visit the Center during their returns to campus this spring for planned reunion events.

While Hoang is hopeful about the Asian American Center’s future, aspects of the Center’s operations frustrate her. While the petition to open the center was successful, funding to reimagine the space’s potential has not continued. “I think one of my bigger frustrations is the fact that the university is accepting the change of the Asian American house transition, but they’re not funding any of it,” Hoang said. “Our budget is not going to change despite that the fact that the center is getting bigger, which means we need more maintenance, more supplies.”

“I think part of it is helping the majority…if you renovate the big buildings, the dorms, you’re helping ‘everyone,’” Hoang said. “But if you help the centers you’re only targeting the minority…which I don’t think they see as a big cause. But for people of color, queer people, it’s really important for them. Not seeing the support from the university, it makes them kind of resent the university.”

With high tuition and sprawling new developments across campus, many students find it hard to reconcile the G6’s lack of funding, staffing, accessibility of space, and even attention to some centers’ structural integrity. From her perspective as an intern at the LGBT Center, sophomore Anéya Sousa has sharp criticism for the structural inequities in university funding. “The excuse that ‘there is not enough money’ at this school is complete bullshit; it is entirely incorrect,” Sousa said. “The total of tuition and fees to go here is about $70,000 currently, and it steadily increases every year. There is always some new addition being made, some new non-crucial renovation being added, some brand-new building being built, but somehow when it comes to the centers, the money is just never there in the amounts that we need it to be.”

As an intern, Sousa is working with others deeply invested in the LGBT Center by advocating to move the center from Bolles House, where the Latino Center is also located, to a new space. But for Sousa, simply moving the Center to a new location is not enough; students advocating for the Center’s relocation hope to hold the university accountable for the Center’s continued visibility and success. “We also want to be intentional in saying that we want our own house just as all of the other centers have, [and for that house] not to be thrown in the basement of another building and be forgotten about,” Sousa said.

As a first-year in the fall 2015 semester, current junior Ayotola Onipede participated in actions and negotiations with administrators during the Three Percent movement, a campus-wide effort to increase support for Black students and address institutional racism at Tufts. Although some steps were made to address Black students’ demands, among them an increase in Africana Center funding, these changes were not made easily. “It was crazy that we as students—a lot of us first-years at the time—had to do this tiresome work,” Onipede said. “We really had to prove to [administrators] we need more support on this campus.”

For Onipede, although negotiating with administrators during the Three Percent movement proved powerful, the work took a toll on her. She has since assumed a leadership role as an Africana Center peer leader helping students transition into college life through the Students’ Quest for Unity in the African Diaspora (SQUAD) pre-orientation program. “I’ve taken a bit of a step back,” Onipede said. “Being involved with [the Three Percent actions and negotiations] freshman year took a lot of energy out of me, and that’s something I don’t want to deal with again. I’m a student. I don’t want to be used and abused by the school. A lot of the stuff I do now is about making people feel comfortable here, trying to make sure people have a space where they feel free and open to speak.”

Nevertheless, Onipede continues to see structural inequities in university funding. For Onipede, the initiatives that the university prioritizes are in plain sight. “Seeing how much money Tufts puts in places like the SEC [Science and Engineering Complex] when there are structures on this campus that that need repair, I think their disregard…for [the center] does translate to the university not wanting it to be better,” Onipede said. “It’s not like people don’t constantly say to administrators, ‘This needs to be fixed, we need more money here, more events here.’”

But when administrators heed the call of student voices, they can empower Tufts students and the community at large. One more recent example of collaboration of this kind is creation of the new F1RST Center at 20 Professors Row. With heavy input from the First-Generation Student Council, the newly announced center will be a resource for first-generation, low-income, and undocumented students. For first-year and First-Generation Student Council Co-President Bizaye Banjaw, institutional support for the upcoming F1RST Center promises an exciting opportunity for the Tufts community. With a central location at 20 Professors Row, the council will not have to reserve spaces like Metcalf and the Women’s Center for its biweekly first-generation student “hang-outs” anymore. “It’s just a little bit stressful trying to find a common area to hold some music and food, which I feel like shouldn’t be that much to request,” Banjaw said. “But now that we have the center, now that we have administrators who can get the money for these events that really establish community, some kind of thread of recognition between students, that’s really exciting. I hope it can really grow in that way.”

For Associate Dean for Student Success and Advising (SSA) Robert Mack, who himself is a first-generation college graduate, listening to input from the First-Generation Student Council was critical for all involved in establishing the F1RST Center. But during the Center’s development, Dean Mack worked extensively with administrators like President Anthony Monaco, Dean of Arts and Sciences James Glaser, Dean and Associate Dean of Student Affairs Mary Pat McMahon and Christopher Rossi, to ensure the burden of actualizing the Center did not fall on students. “It is clear that the history of students having to work and advocate for opportunities and changes at this campus, as they have for campuses across the US, is how things have progressed and changed,” Dean Mack said. “And we acknowledge that…I didn’t want this to fall on the responsibility of students to make it happen. I felt that we had an opportunity at Tufts to recognize the need and the opportunity and move forward in a way of valuing what we say we value.”

Even with the enthusiasm of administrators throughout campus, being thorough and intentional about changes takes time. For Dean of Student Affairs Mary Pat McMahon, advocating for resources to address students’ needs requires understanding the need for patience. “One of the things I do understand about working in a university is that universities move incredibly slowly. Generally speaking, they’re one of the most slow-to-adapt institutions in a society, and yet if you’re here for undergrad, you’re only here for four years, maybe a little bit more,” she said.

Dean McMahon acknowledged that the limited time students have to actualize change on campus makes her role as a full-time advocate for students difficult, but she takes the challenge in stride. “Part of it is helping students recognize the scope of what’s going on, and then helping other folks recognize the sincerity and need the students are expressing, and trying to bridge that somehow,” Dean McMahon said. “Students are juggling a lot of competing priorities. They want to see change, they want to be a part of change.”

Dean McMahon was also a member of the Student Life Review Committee, a 23-person committee, including seven students, assembled in December 2016 by President Anthony Monaco. In April 2017, the findings of the Student Life Review Committee were presented in a report to Monaco with the recommendation that the university “[c]onduct a comprehensive study of the programs, services, facilities, and resources provided by or allocated to the Group of Six to determine ways to increase support across campus for traditionally underrepresented students.” Almost a year later, students eagerly anticipate the results of such a study. But a study alone won’t be enough. If Tufts hopes to “acknowledge, with sincerity, transparency, and authenticity, that it is not yet as diverse and inclusive a community as it aspires to be,” as the report has tasked it, the university must continue to be held accountable for its priorities and actions. And it largely has not.

There are many successes in the history being made by Tufts students and administrators right now. Avenues for students to be heard by administrators exist and have been used to actualize change. Beyond the intensive work done by those who want to make these centers better homes, students can schedule appointments with Student Affairs or write articles in student publications. But even after administrators have heeded the calls of students and empowered individuals in communities to take ownership of campus spaces, students still lack useful hard metrics by which to hold administrators accountable. What we are left with is the slow, seemingly endless work of making our experiences known.

In 2018, the lessons learned in intentional spaces continue to resonate with many students; this knowledge exists outside of the classroom, even extending beyond the G6, into the lives of current and past students. Self-cultivation has never been easy, but the stakes are often greater and the hurdles much higher for students with historically marginalized identities. The G6 will continue to be a powerful space for self-actualization and a home, as long as student voices are heard, and administrators held accountable for the progress only they can facilitate.