Comfort Zones: Dedicated Campus Spaces Support Increasingly Diverse Student Body
This article is one in an occasional series about the people, offices, and services dedicated to supporting WPI students and our community.
Space is a valuable resource at WPI, and, despite the physical restraints of a small campus, there’s great value in students having physical places where they feel accepted and safe enough to be their authentic selves. Places where they can gather with others who may look like them, think like them, and even pray like them.
That’s a big reason the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Multicultural Education (ODIME) has worked so diligently with campus partners to create WPI’s first formal affinity spaces—physical areas set aside for traditionally underrepresented groups—in addition to renovating some existing student spaces.
“Having multiple identity centers highlighting the diversity of WPI sends a message to the larger campus community and beyond that the Institute sees these communities and values their presence on campus,” says Arnold Lane Jr., director of multicultural education and community engagement.
Fostering a Sense of Belonging
The Center for Black Excellence and the Lavender Lounge, two new affinity spaces that opened in November 2022, are located in the Rubin Campus Center.
“There already were spaces for students to hang out and connect, but before now our queer and trans students and our Black students didn’t have spaces dedicated to them, with resources for them,” says Mia-Kay Fuller, assistant director for gender equity and sexuality.
Multiple individuals and organizations on campus have long sought to improve the student experience for those from groups traditionally underrepresented at WPI—including Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) students and those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex, asexual, aromantic, agender, and pansexual (LGBTQIAP+) community. The Lead with Purpose strategic plan, however, formalized WPI’s commitment to fostering a greater sense of belonging among students. Housing the new affinity spaces in the Rubin Campus Center has been an intentional piece of that.
“Taking the steps to create and curate centralized physical spaces for different identity and cultural groups provides an opportunity for students to truly build a sense of community with those who share their identities, cultures, values, and perspectives,” Lane says. “Campus identity centers and dedicated affinity spaces also allow for students, student affinity groups, faculty, and staff to design intentional learning experiences around these diverse student populations in promotion of our campus values.”
Fuller agrees, pointing out that the Lavender Lounge and Center for Black Excellence are not exclusively for queer and trans students and Black students, respectively. “These spaces are for everyone because we want to ensure that folks who are searching or questioning or learning are also welcome. So come and explore and hang out.”
All Are Welcome
Likewise, both the OASIS (Offering Acceptance, Support, and Inclusion to Students) Multicultural Center at 20 Schussler Road and the Collegiate Religious Center (CRC) at 19 Schussler Road are open to all. Over the last few months they have been spruced up and are undergoing some continued renovations to become physically accessible.
The OASIS Multicultural Center has gotten a fresh coat of paint both inside and outside, as well as new carpeting, electronic charging stations, and furniture, including large viewing screens in the conference room and the group gathering area. In the newly renovated kitchen, students regularly prepare meals for cultural events and other informal get-togethers.
Across the street at the CRC, construction is underway for an accessible ramp into the building. There are new charging stations and areas where students can gather in small groups or one-on-one with any of the university’s chaplains. While the kitchen is not a fully kosher space, it is vegan, and Hillel hosts Shabbat dinners at the CRC on Fridays. The upstairs multifaith worship space houses Gompei’s Closet, where students in need may request and receive clothing.
Also upstairs is a small Islamic prayer space. It’s next to a bathroom, which makes it easier for students to perform wudu, the ritual cleansing before Islamic prayer. But the room is not an ideal group gathering space for Muslim students, says Kalvin Cummings, assistant director for religion and spiritual life. Because prayer occurs five times a day in Islam and the CRC is a few blocks south of campus, students wishing to pray there can’t arrive punctually for both prayer and class. In addition, the room is not large enough to accommodate WPI’s sizable Muslim community.
Wellness Includes Body, Mind, and Spirit
“The ways each tradition prays look different, and not being able to pray together really inhibits the ways someone practices Islam,” says Cummings. “It’s important that WPI incorporates spiritual wellness into our understanding of student wellness.”
That’s why the Muslim Students Association (MSA) is working with Dean of Students Gregory Snoddy to find an Islamic prayer space closer to the center of campus. During B-Term, the MSA was able to gather in the robotics pits in the Sports and Recreation Center when that space wasn’t being used for robotics competitions. That area is not available during the spring semester, however, due to previously scheduled activities.
Snoddy acknowledges that identifying a private, quiet, and centralized space that can accommodate up to 30 people at a time is a challenge, but he is committed to the effort.
“We not only have a growing Muslim population at WPI, but more of our Muslim students want to gather and pray together,” Snoddy says. “Finding a place where they can do that is part of WPI’s commitment to be welcoming and to treat everyone fairly. It’s also the right thing to do.”
In other words, while space at WPI is valuable, students feeling safe, comfortable, and fully themselves is priceless.