Host: Terry Thies
Terry oversees Parent & Family Programs and engagement at the University of Illinois, in the office, New Student & Family Experiences.
Panelists: David Chih & Charlotte Davidson
David serves as the Director of the Asian American Cultural Center. He has been working on diversity, especially with Asian American and international students, as well as other kinds of diversity initiatives. He has been the director of the Asian American Cultural Center since it opened 19 years ago. David is a second-generation Chinese American from the Midwest. He is a counseling psychologist by training and specializes in cross-cultural psychology and Asian American mental health.
Charlotte is Diné and a citizen of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara nations. She serves as the director of the Native American House. While Charlotte is relatively new to her role, which she started last year, she is not new to campus. After graduating from Haskell Indian Nations University with her Bachelor of Arts degree in American Indian Studies, she was recruited to pursue both her master’s and Ph.D. in Educational Policy Studies from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
Tell us a little bit about your cultural centers, and a little bit about the history of both the Native American House and the Asian American Cultural Center.
Charlotte: The Native American house started in 2002. As a small office space located on Green Street in Champaign. In 2003. The Native American house opened as a standalone structure on Nevada Street. Nevada Street is a neighborhood where a lot of cultural centers and ethnic studies departments are located. What prompted the emergence of our cultural center was a lot of social unrest coming from students. A lot of student activism prompted university leadership and ushered in the creation of, the Native American House.
David: Not dissimilarly, it was largely students who made their needs well-known to the university administration, that they need more support to help them learn more about their own cultures and identities and advocate for specific needs. So, after several decades of advocacy, the university finally opened this brand-new building in 2005, with a staff that has now grown to four full-time staff. And we also housed our international education program, which has two additional full-time staff, it used to be part of the Asian Culture Center and has now extended to be independent. Even though we opened in 2005, many of the programs that we continue to do now started long, long before we opened. There’s a long history of ten to twenty years of traditional programs that will continue for another thirty years.
How are you both staffed? Tell us a little bit about who works with you and whether you engage students and work at the cultural centers as well.
David: We have a staff of professional educators who have master’s or doctorates, typically in education or something closely related to it, and a full-time office manager, who runs the building. We are an educational resource for the campus. Our staff runs over 100 programs every year, which are open to the public and are related to aspects of Asian cultures and Asian American experiences. It's mostly students that attend, but we do have 10 or 20% of the people who are Champaign community members. Also, they're not necessarily of Asian descent, half of the people who come are not of Asian descent, they come because they are these experiences and these cultures. In addition, we have many other programs that are run by student organization organizations, or by other departments on campus. So, in a typical year, we might have 650 meetings and events here at our center. 100 of them are run by staff, and the other 500 plus are student organizations that are building community and have educational programs, social events, and cultural events that support their student organizations.
Charlotte: At the Native American house, we have three professional staff members. So, there's myself who serves as the director, Eduardo Martinez serves as the Assistant Director of the Native American house, and Sarah Henson serves as our office support specialist. In addition to ourselves, we hire three student ambassadors who play a pivotal role in supporting Native student life on our campus. They not only aid us in the daily operations of the Native American house, but they also contribute to the success of our cultural center by fostering an increasingly engaged and welcoming atmosphere that works to nurture achievement and success for Native students. And any student that comes into our space, does not have to be a native person to enjoy the atmosphere or participate in any of our activities. Often, I think that there's a notion by people that think that you can't go into these spaces unless you belong to the community served by these cultural centers, but that's not necessarily the case. A signature event that we lead on our campus currently is Indigenous People’s Day. This year, it was on Monday, October 9, at various locations. We started that day of events at the Spurlock Museum of World Cultures, and had an event at the Native American house, closing out the day at one of the university residential halls. Native American Heritage Month is every November, so we are working hard right now, and finalizing those plans and implementing them. For those events, most of our events are designed and implemented by the professional staff at the Native American house. It may be just a handful of programs designed and delivered by students. One program that we have that is student-led is the Native American House Book Club, which has been a successful program for us.
Could you give us a little bit more details about some of those programs, highlight some that are favorites of students, and which are your favorites that you would like to see offered every year as a staff member?
Charlotte: While I'm not new to campus, I am new to my role. So last year, it was my first year as a director, one of the things that we did, and it was not only a favorite among students, but one of my personal favorites was we created what we called an indigenous modality-making collective. An indigenous learning modality is something that you create with your own two hands. Indigenous modality in our case, was something that we did was we had students create a being using beadwork practices. You could create, jewelry, regalia, anything like that with beadwork. This was a program that was open to all students, so we had native and non-native participants participating in our program. We invited an Ojibwe native alum, who earned her PhD here in Educational Policy Studies, and her name is Dr. Jennifer McCann. Her dissertation was centered on indigenous academic identity growth processes. In her dissertation, she beats this model for an indigenous academic identity growth process. We took from Dr. McCann's research work applied it and translated it into creating this program. Some of those outcomes from that program included Native students and other students honing their narrative around their own experiences in higher education. Because at the heart of the program, students were encouraged to develop a beadwork project that best embodies their academic identity development process, and or their higher education journey. We had a couple of graduating Native students who participated in this program, and what they created where they created a beadwork to attach to their mortarboards. The colors and the designs came from colors and designs that are a part of their histories of survival as Native people from their families, from their communities, from their traditional homelands, so they were able to express through that project, you know, their relationships to people, places, and communities. In addition to encouraging retention for our students, we also do a lot to promote a sense of belonging and inclusion. This project was something that left and continues to leave a lasting impact not only on the students but myself and the other staff who facilitated that program.
David: We have a wide variety of programs for people's various interests. We try to make all our programs open to the public and welcoming of anyone who wants to come participate. Much of the programming does relate to Asian cultures, teaching about religions, the arts or books, literature, or performances. Most of what we do is very practical for college students, helping them learn more about health and wellness practices, and helping alleviate depression or scripts. It’s using Asian types of practices of medication and yoga or tai chi and addressing those stresses. We also do a fair number of programs about social justice issues around the world, especially in the United States. Last few years, unfortunately, because of the COVID pandemic we've been seeing nationwide the world rates pipe in the amount of anti-Asian hate, discrimination, and violence. It's doing programming about stopping Asian hate and teaching people about the history of systemic racism in the US against people of Asian descent. We have regular holiday-themed meals, and in conjunction with our residence halls, nearly celebrate Diwali in the fall and their new year in the winter. We also do leadership development for our student organizations, of which we typically have fifty or so that choose to affiliate with us. We have monthly supportive discussions about leadership development, issues of culture and gender, and leadership. We also have a specific South Asian American Leadership Conference in Atlanta again, but especially focused on South Asian cultures.
There are several other cultural centers on campus as well, including the Salaam Middle East & North Africa Cultural Center, the Bruce D. Nesbitt African American Cultural Center, La Casa Cultural Latina, and more. We also have resource centers, including the Women's Resource Center and the Gender Resource Center. How do you all collaborate with these groups? I know you do a lot of work together, and you're serving not only the students that either come into your space or identify with your communities but also talking a little bit about how all the cultural centers work together to provide opportunities for the broader university community.
David: The second thing we all have in common is that we are trying to help serve students, and support students in their own developmental needs as young adults, and to teach them about how to navigate the world, and the diversity that exists. We do a good deal of programming together when we're trying to celebrate the vast diversity of our campus and the world and have programs throughout the year, some coming up very soon. And sometimes it's all together as a group of eight or ten of us or it might be just pairs or small groups that choose to do a collaborative program.
Charlotte: For us, we recently collaborated with La Casa Cultural Latina and the Bruce D. Nesbitt Cultural Center, and three cultural centers came together to host an orientation program for the students we served, or that we serve. This summer marked the launch of our coming together as one, in the way that collaboration unfolded, each of our cultural centers hosted different programs for new and transfer students. In our case for Native students, our orientation is called the Indigenous scholar's orientation. Day one was comprised of designing a series of activities and programs to connect our Native students with the circle that surrounds them because it was really important for us to share with our students and the families that have that accompany them to campus to move in, that their circle of support is much larger than us that we only comprise a small part of that circle, and that we have a vast network of relationships on this campus, that students should feel like they are part of a community in that way. There were different moments in this two-and-a-half-day orientation, where the student communities from their respective orientations would come together and share a meal. These meals were called solidarity lunches or solidarity dinners, where different topics were explored. Our staff provided our Indigenous perspective on what solidarity looks like on our campus, and just really kind of nurturing that understanding amongst all the students who participated in each of these orientations. I also think it's important to mention here too, that in addition to collaborations, every one of us at our cultural centers are really good champion of each other's work, you know, the Asian American Cultural Center has been such a good relative to us, for the Native American house. We don't have a large space, so we host a lot of our programming next door at the Asian American Cultural Center. And sometimes we might be shorthanded and might need help or volunteers to help host different events on campus. So, in addition to the Asian American Cultural Center, other cultural centers, and units in our Division of Student Affairs, we all come together and support one another in that way.
If you've never been on Nevada Street at the University of Illinois, it's an amazing street that houses most of these cultural centers and it's a very international vibe when you walk down the street, and it's always active. And there are so many things going on and students engaging in hanging out. That's one of the beauties of the cultural centers. I think that they're so welcoming, and they invite people all the time. And I think one of you mentioned earlier that you don't have to be a Native American who enjoys being at their Native American house or an Asian American to come to the center over there. So how would you say you go about encouraging and welcoming people who may not specifically be a member of those communities but want to get to know more about them? Or about the culture and the traditions? How do you bring people in from other parts of the wider university community?
David: We have many programs that are repeated throughout the years. Every Tuesday at noon, have a lunchtime discussion series. We call it Food for Thought. We have a variety of experts about Asian and Asian American cultures and experiences and people are invited to come and listen. We average about seventy-five people each week. Yesterday’s topic was about World War two Japanese American incarceration. Next week, we'll be talking about an artist a Japanese calligraphy artist. The week after that will be a discussion about mental health, depression, and suicide prevention. On Tuesdays, it's this discussion series at noon. On Wednesday evenings around dinnertime, we collaborate with our international education program, and often with international students and scholar’s services, about international topics, which might include topics for international students to learn about US culture, sometimes forget that US culture is a culture as well. It's the kind of explicit workshop that teaches about our cultural expectations and value values. Those are Wednesday evenings. Then, on Thursday, we have an afternoon, a couple of hours of community study table, and welcome anyone to come and have a snack. We also have Facebook and Instagram. Those are some ways that anyone interested, can come on over and hang out.
Charlotte: All anyone must do is really walk into any one of our cultural centers and spaces, and you will be greeted in such a pleasant way and always with a smile, and a willingness to answer any questions that you might have. Even with the energy that our staff brings into this space, any visitor can feel immediately that they are always invited. We emphasize that all the time to anybody who walks into our Native American house, even on our social media channels. We have a Facebook page and an Instagram. A lot of our cultural centers have social media channels where we communicate these types of messages, and we always emphasize that all are welcome to many of our events. Like the Asian American Culture Center, the Native American House also hosts a Dinner on Us program. Lunch on Us is like a signature program of Student Success, Inclusion, and Belonging (SSIB). A lot of cultural centers and Resource Centers host lunchtime Lunch and Learn programs. For us, we hosted Dinner on the US version of Lunch on us. We typically host that in the fall between September and November, and in the spring between February and April. It's a bi-weekly program that's either practitioner-led, or it's a scholarly type of workshop. Much like the Asian American Cultural Center, a lot of our programs are centered on the perspectives and experiences of native and Indigenous people. We had our first Dinner on Us program last week. And we had a scholar by the name of Dr. Ramirez who provided a presentation on the history of Indigenous Mexican migration to the US South, and next Tuesday, the Native American outreach team through the Counseling Center, is going to offer a workshop on perfectionism. That kind of gives you a sense of the kind of the more student development side of having a practitioner-led workshop as part of this program, versus a faculty-led one where they talk about their research and broaden people's ideas around Indigenous and native peoples.
Could you talk a little bit about how you are as a cultural center trying to promote health and wellness with our students and how you interact with the counseling center specifically and the embedded counselor program, because that is just such a great resource. I think it's great for families to know about that option.
Charlotte: For the Native American House, we have a three-person Native American outreach team. They come to the Native American House once a week, every Tuesday from 4-5:00. What they do here as part of being an embedded support, is they offer satellite hours for students. They don't necessarily provide a counseling session, per se. What they do provide are consultations. If a student has any questions or concerns about emotional, mental, or psychological issues, they can have a conversation with any one of the three members of the Native American outreach team. Each of those members, rotates, so they take turns offering satellite hours at the Native American house. And we also, as staff, engage with them in discussions around well-being.
David: I think what Charlotte says is accurate and beautiful and could be similar for all cultural experts from other units on campus. The educators and counselors and cultural sensitivity to the populations that we are, for example, only the counseling center specialists from The Career Center, health centers, and International Student and Scholar Services come regularly. We also have peer advisors who can help with undocumented DACA issues. We even have a food pantry in our center for students who may feel insecure and need extra help.
Could you both share a little bit about how the cultural centers promote student leadership and opportunities that are offered to students by participating or being engaged with the cultural houses?
David: We have a leadership dinner for top leaders in student organizations. We begin the year with an open house that focuses on this year we have around forty student organizations then end the year with leadership awards, separating the accomplishments of students and their leadership. We have programs throughout the year there for any student who wants to come, even if they are not specifically an elected officer of us to always want to teach about leadership. In the context of cultures, different cultures or genders might have different ways of being all forms of leadership.
Charlotte: We work with our ambassadors to develop themselves as leaders. One of the ways that we do that is we encouraging this cultural sensibility around being a good relative. One of the things I emphasize with students is oftentimes when we are being trained by different principles of practice related to our field of study. Oftentimes, we're taught to put our heart aside or to center things other than our own indigenous identities, experiences, and histories of survival, so one of the things that we encourage our ambassadors to do is to be a good relative. That is a leadership sensibility, and to model that for them as professional staff. One of the things that we underscore in relationship to that principle of being a good relative with our native student leaders is that's not an easy thing to practice because not everybody shows up that way. As a leadership sensibility, it's about not recreating harm because when we leave our homes, that can be safe spaces, the cultural center where we serve native students is a safe space, but once they exit our structure and our space, harm, and chaos are likely to ensue. That’s a cultural teaching that I was brought up with, so, we always try to emphasize that being a leader, to think about leadership through an indigenous lens or Indigenous perspectives.
How do you engage with families of the students that enter the space that you both work in and the students that you serve, is there a way you currently engage with families? Or how would you like to engage with families?
Charlotte: We launched the Indigenous Scholar’s orientation for native First Nations and Indigenous students. I'm proud of the way that we've made such a positive impact on our parents. And I think the families walked away feeling good about leaving their students on campus in a location where they don't have any preexisting connections or relationships. Right? How we nurture that connection and relationship with parents families and supporters of our students is ensuring that we also use relationship-based language. Because that's just how we operate. We’re relationship-based. To let folks know that these are how we nurture the learning and development experiences of students. To also emphasize to them too, that they are always welcome. To participate in any of our events. I'll have family members email me just wanting to say hi and just ask about any type of events that might be happening. We're lucky that a lot of our students have families that are near our campus, so we're able to invite them as well and alert them to any events that we might be having. Another form of connection that we encourage, as we always say, is to please check out our social media channels. That's where you're going to find the most current dates, and sometimes live updates about the work that we do at the Native American House. We also encourage them to connect with us and stay connected with us through our biweekly Native American House newsletter so they can stay apprised of things, and if anything interests them, that they might want to come down and in addition to visiting their relative stop by and see us.
David: We always welcome anyone interested to come to visit us. In our programs, we don't see a lot of parents other than at the very beginning of the year and at the end. It is always fun when we see alumni who used to be students here now bringing their young adult children who are starting at UIUC. I wish we could see more students, parents, and families. During Covid, we did a lot of online programming, but now we've gone exclusively back to in-person, and I think that perhaps we should do a little bit more that is open to others who want to join us.
Out cultural centers are always happy to hear from parents and families. Anytime you want to reach out to them, you're more than welcome to do that. Please encourage your students to check out either the Native American House or the Asian American Cultural Center, as well as La Casa, Center. There are lots and lots of opportunities.
Asian American Cultural Center
1210 West Nevada Street, MC-149
Urbana, IL 61801
Building Hours: 9:00 am-5:00 pm
Native American House
1206 West Nevada Street
Urbana, IL 61801
New Student & Family Experiences
616 East Green Street, Suite 213
Champaign, Illinois 61820
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