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University Students Advocate for Their Own Cultural Centers

posted on: Nov 9, 2022

Photo: Purdue University MENA Cultural Center petition

By: Mariam Alyakoob / Arab America Contributing Writer

Because of the exclusion of a Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) category in the U.S. Census, MENA individuals have been unable to access the same resources that are provided to other minorities and underrepresented communities. 

Even within college campuses, MENA students are fighting to be recognized by advocating for their own cultural center on their campuses. Many other minorities on college campuses are provided a cultural space as a means to express their culture, but given that MENA students are labeled as “White” within their universities, they are not granted similar spaces. 

In this article, we will be discussing how MENA students in three college campuses have been advocating for their own cultural center and safe space. These three colleges are 1) Yale University, 2) University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and 3) Purdue University  

Yale University 

Photo: Arab Student Association event at the MENA Room / Source: https://www.instagram.com/p/CiRLd2cDA38/

At Yale University, there are currently four cultural centers for Yale students of different cultural backgrounds. These cultural centers include:

1) the Afro-American Cultural Center (“Af-Am House”),

2) the Asian American Cultural Center (AACC), 

3) La Casa Cultural de Burgos, the Latino Cultural Center, 

4) the Native American Cultural Center 

These cultures provide various resources to students who are connected to the identities the cultural centers represent. Within these cultural centers are libraries, kitchens, computers, and other facilities as well. 

These cultural centers also host many different student organizations who fit within the overarching cultural category.

Since at least 2018, Yale students and the Yale Middle East North Africa (MENA) Student Association have been advocating for their very own cultural center. MENA students have utilized space within both the Asian American Cultural Center (AACC) and the Afro-American Cultural Center but believe that an individual MENA Cultural Center is vital given that the MENA identity is distinct on its own. 

This academic year, MENA students have made some progress towards achieving recognition through a smaller space they were given. Within the Yale Asian American Cultural Center’s third floor, a room has been designated as the MENA Room designed to represent MENA cultures. 

Because of the hard work of many Yale students, there has been progress towards MENA representation within their campus. 

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC)

Photo: UIUC MENA naming contest / Source: https://www.instagram.com/p/Cfo-bj1L815/

Similar to Yale, students at UIUC have been pushing for their own cultural center as well and all their efforts have been worth it because UIUC’s Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations have provided them this cultural space for the fall 2022 semester following years of advocacy. 

UIUC student organizations such as the Arab Student Association, Egyptian Student Association, Lebanese Student Association, and more felt that there was a lack of Middle Eastern representation on campus and felt that a cultural center would allow them to share and express their culture. 

Suaad Rashid, the MENA director of the Arab Student Association, stated that the biggest pushback they received was from administration and the lack of support for this initiative, stating “I think they understood the need but it did not seem like it was a priority for them. They were mostly concerned about costs. But the university literally hires people to oversee cultural houses and student affairs so it is their job to work on this”.

Another barrier was the lack of documentation and data regarding MENA enrollment, given that UIUC, following the U.S. Census, also categorizes their MENA students as “White”. So, despite there being a significant MENA population signifying the need for a cultural center, racial/ethnic enrollment data did not parallel this due to the mis-categorization. 

After years of advocacy, approval to open the cultural center came about in March/April of 2021, following the acknowledgment and support of this need from UIUC Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Success, Inclusion, and Belonging, Jim Hintz. 

The UIUC MENA cultural center will be located at 700 E Gregory St, Urbana, IL.

UIUC student advocacy is commended and will encourage many other students at different universities to do the same because it is worth it in the end. 

Purdue University 

Photo: Purdue University MENA Gala event

Lastly, students at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana have also been advocating for their own cultural center. I, Mariam Alyakoob, who is writing this article, am a Purdue student who has been one of the many students advocating for this. 

Purdue University has five cultural centers which include:

  1. The Asian American and Asian Resource and Cultural Center (AAARCC) 
  2. Black Cultural Center (BCC) 
  3. Latino Cultural Center (LCC)
  4. The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ)
  5. The Native American Educational and Cultural Center (NAECC) 

The cultural centers at Purdue provide students a physical safe space to express their own culture. There are also full time staff who work in these cultural centers who provide support and programming assistance to different students and student organizations.

*Purdue students have shifted from using the terminology  MENA to SWANA in August 2022*

In 2020, many SWANA students at Purdue felt that there was a lack of cultural representation on campus for students from this region and culture. In response to this concern, representatives within the Purdue Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging continuously referred these students to utilize the Asian American and Asian Resource and Cultural Center (AAARCC). This felt odd to many of the students given that half of the students are North African, and that they were not only culturally not Asian, but also geographically not Asian, so literally not Asian. North African students would also not be able to utilize the Black Cultural Center (BCC) given that many of them are phenotypically not viewed as being Black. 

Many students who were from the Asian part of Southwest Asia felt that the AAARCC was mostly representing East Asian cultures, given that as soon as entering the building, you saw many decorations representing East Asian cultures and a lack of decorations representing SWANA cultures. The AAARCC also did not recognize Arab American Heritage Month last April, which is a momentous month for Arabs within the SWANA region. 

Because of the lack of support from administration, many representatives from different  student organizations, such as the Purdue Arab Society, Iranian Culture Club, SJP, etc. formed the SWANA (Southwest Asian North African) Student Union in the fall of 2022. 

When meeting again with representatives within the Purdue Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging after providing them with progress towards this effort, SWANA students were met with lack of support and were once again directed toward the Asian American and Asian Resource and Cultural Center. The students were told by administration that not only would they not be provided a cultural center, but a room within a cultural center or hiring a full time/part time SWANA administrator could not be promised to them in the foreseeable future. The students, after providing said administrator with reasoning behind the need, were also asked why they deserved a cultural center in comparison to other cultures, which felt very disrespectful to national efforts towards this cultural recognition. 

Although the response at Purdue University has not been as positive as that of Yale or UIUC, seeing the success at these other universities keeps us motivated to continue to advocate for our culture to be heard and acknowledged. 

Check out Arab America’s blog here