Center for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Opens in LaFun

Author: Caroline Ashworth

Copy Of Img 7306"

Notre Dame students, faculty and staff gathered together for the grand opening of the Center for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023. Located on the second floor of LaFortune Student Center, the Center for DEI houses offices for the Gender Relations Center (GRC), Multicultural Student Programs and Services (MSPS) and the Office of Student Enrichment (OSE). There are also offices for the student organizations Diversity Council and PrismND. The celebration began in the afternoon with a blessing by Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., the university president. In the evening, there was a celebration for students to come and enjoy the new space. There was food from a variety of cultures, as well as crafts and activities such as painting, “Just Dance,” karaoke and crochet.

The planning for the new center has been ongoing for about a decade. In 2021, the university staff met with Workshop Architects for the first time to begin designing the physical space. In addition to these staff meetings with the architects, Notre Dame undergraduates were involved in the planning of the new space. “A vast majority of the people who were part of the discussion were our students themselves,” said Director of Multicultural Student Programs and Services Arnel Bulaoro. Two large focus groups were held in January and February of 2022 to gather student opinion, and smaller focus groups with select organizations were held in March of 2022. Students from groups such as Student Government, Diversity Council and cultural clubs were given the opportunity to share their opinions and ideas.

The location of the Center for DEI is especially important. The center is “20,000 square feet of real estate in the heart of campus,” said Bulaoro. “We were very deliberate in making sure that the footprint of professional staff is as small as we can possibly make it, because for us, at the end of the day, it’s 20,000 square feet for students of Notre Dame,” he said.

Senior Olivia Hsin served on the advising committee for the Division of Student Affairs and contributed to the planning of the new center. “When I first arrived at Notre Dame, I felt isolated and battled with imposter syndrome — something that many students of color encounter. I found solace in conversations with Paige Jackson, a previous faculty advisor, who helped me realize that I wasn’t alone and encouraged me to improve the campus experience for others.”

Hsin hopes that the new center can be a welcoming space for every student. “Students should walk into the center and immediately feel that they belong. They should see role models who look like them, people who are not just succeeding academically but also leading, sharing cultures and engaging in self-discovery,” she said.

Hsin had the opportunity to tour the DEI center at the University of Michigan to gain inspiration. Their center had features such as an open-concept kitchen and easily movable furniture that Hsin and the planning committee implemented at Notre Dame.

Hsin also saw the importance of having a dedicated area where students could engage with music, either as listeners or performers, and celebrate diverse musical cultures.

Ana Reyes Lam, the assistant director for communications and operations of the Center for DEI, said, “We’ve tried to incorporate as many different types of music as possible. We’ll have K-pop play for a couple of hours, and then we’ll move to music in Spanish, then we’ll move to music in French, Italian … We’ve heard from some students that they’re really happy to be able to hear music in their own language when they come in.”

In addition to the music, the visual aesthetics of the space create an environment of inclusivity. The photos on the walls show diverse student leaders, young alums who have made significant contributions to DEI on campus and prominent faculty and staff. The furniture is colorful and comfortable, creating an environment that is welcoming to every student.

The center features a “gathering stair” for students to sit and be with one another, similar to the steps in the Duncan Student Center. At the top of the gathering stair hangs a mural that will rotate semesterly. “The first mural is a piece from the Snite, but we also engaged local and regional artists of diverse backgrounds to create pieces that we’re going to be hanging in that stairwell as well” said Arlene Montevecchio, the director of the GRC. “We’re going to have a call for student art coming up too for some of the other spaces to get some diverse student art up on the walls as well.”

In addition to being a space where students can gather informally, the Center for DEI is a space for the GRC, MSPS and OSE to advance their work. The GRC exists to “promote a healthy dialogue around relationships on campus and issues of gender and sexuality,” Montevecchio said. The GRC focuses on four main areas: healthy relationships and healthy masculinities, violence prevention, LGBTQ student inclusion and allyship, and gender equity and intersectionality. The GRC also advises PrismND, the official LGBTQ organization on campus for undergraduates.

Senior Gabrielle Spontak, the program assistant of the Violence Prevention Initiative FIREstarter group for the GRC, is especially grateful that the offices for the GRC, OSE and MSPS are in close proximity to one another. “Being physically with each other puts these offices into conversation and encourages us all to think about intersectionality, which has been such a great benefit,” she said.

According to the mission statement for MSPS, the center “nurtures a sense of belonging, student success, and servant leadership for Notre Dame’s historically underrepresented students through growing relationships rooted in Catholic Social Teaching.” They engage with students in ways such as connecting them to resources, supporting student clubs and educating the Notre Dame community through conversations about race and ethnicity. “These are very important skills, especially as we are exploring or entering a more diverse world, a world that interacts regularly across national boundaries,” said Bulaoro. “We want to make sure that our students are prepared to enter that kind of world.”

The OSE works to promote an environment of economic inclusivity by offering programming and resources for first-generation and under-resourced students, helping them adjust to their life at Notre Dame. Through programs such as the Fighting Irish Scholars Program, the Senior Fellows Program and the Undergraduate Experience Fund, the OSE offers financial support for students who need it.

In addition to these formal working spaces for the GRC, MSPS and the OSE, the Center for DEI also features a hangout space for all students.

“During the focus groups, students articulated a desire for more open hangout space, more natural light, a place they could call home and a place where they could advance a culture of belonging,” said Montevecchio. “We really returned a substantial amount of space back to the students.”

The center features lounges meant for informal meetings and collaborating, but there are also reservable spaces for groups looking to hold formal meetings. The center has a community kitchen, which has already been reserved by student groups through the Student Activities Office. Montevecchio is most excited about the community kitchen because students can bring in food from diverse vendors. “Good conversation happens over food,” she said.

The main purposes of the new center are to create a sense of belonging for students, allow students to collaborate and meet people of different backgrounds, and provide a space for enhanced DEI programming.

Bulaoro described the lounge in the center as similar to a living room at home. “I left here Friday night, heading home, and the last thing I saw was a group of eight students in front of the TV playing a game on Nintendo Switch. Eight of them laughing and just having a great time … I envision that kind of energy happening regularly. It’s what living rooms are designed to do,” said Bulaoro.

Senior Fellow for MSPS Luzolo Matundu shares the sentiment. “We’re so excited to have an entire space that feels like a home away from home,” she said.

While the opening of the center is a definite step in the right direction, there is still work to be done on campus. “It’s exciting that we have this new space, but we really need to see this space as not only an exciting addition to Notre Dame’s campus, but the first of many important steps in terms of Notre Dame DEI work,” said Bulaoro.

“It’s right that we celebrate, that we pause and that we should be excited about this new space, but we also have to realize it’s a very long journey for us to continue to create the kind of environment where all of our students feel welcomed and excited to be part of this community.”