Beyond Access: Working towards a multicultural perspective at Swarthmore College

Posted by on June 30, 2016

An interview with Mohammed Lotif, Assistant Director of the Intercultural Center

By Caitlin Fritz

On May 25th, PHENND’s college completion and success AmeriCorps program, Next Steps, hosted an end of the year event celebrating the accomplishments of the Corps Members, our college partners, and other supporters of the program. At this event, Mohammed (Mo) Lotif, Assistant Director of the Intercultural Center (IC) at Swarthmore College, spoke about grit and resilience, and creatively incorporated the use of spoken word.  Inspired by his words, I interviewed Mo to talk more about his work with students at Swarthmore College.

Caitlin: What is the Intercultural Center at Swarthmore?

Mo: It’s probably best to start with why the IC exists. As higher education institutions became integrated in the ‘70s, you saw a rise of protest across the country from students of color, particularly Black students, who, among other grievances, felt that there was a lack of a sense of belonging on college campuses.  This lead to the formation of many Black Cultural Centers.  In the ‘90s you saw a movement towards inclusion of other minoritized students on campuses. At Swarthmore the IC was created in 1992, as a result of student activism lead by a coalition effort of LatinX, Asian, Queer, Native students and others. It was a direct result of the students’ personal experiences on campus. The IC was founded as a place where the various minoritized groups that make up Swarthmore can stake their own claim, build community and a place of belonging. It is a place for students to regenerate, a place of respite, and a space to mobilize for further institutional change.

Caitlin: What’s the role of the IC now?

Mo: The IC, in many ways, is a harbinger of how a twenty-first century university has to be. The United States will soon be a country made of a majority of minority groups, which will be reflected in the cultural makeup of higher education. The work of the IC continues to engender a sense of belonging and inclusivity. We work on awareness raising through activities such as heritage months (e.g., Gay Pride, Pan-Asian, LatinX, Native). Heritage months raise awareness of the issues concerning these groups and put them at the center of university life. We also work with other aspects of student life to ensure that there is an identity conscious approach to student development. For example, we have worked with colleagues in Career Services to devise an identity conscious and developmentally aware approach that takes into consideration the backgrounds of our students in order to inform career services. We ask how can we take into consideration the backgrounds of our students and inform how career services works for students of diverse heritages, political perspectives and social and cultural experiences. A one size fits all model doesn’t work in a  twenty-first century university.

We also support cultural/political student organizations.  All of these groups are rooted in particular identities and social justice. We have actually grown from sixteen groups last year to twenty-one this year. Some of the groups include the Swarthmore College Muslim Student Association and PersuAsian, a group for those who identify as both queer and Asian. I’ve been working on developing a framework for how to sustain these organizations over time, especially considering of the value these groups add to our campus.  I work with these groups on their leadership transition plans and help them develop a set of core values that can endure campus changes, while simultaneously driving those changes.

Caitlin: What are some of the strategies that you are engaging?

Mo: I am working to develop students’ own sense of agency. I set up leadership committees to plan out the activities for the heritage months. I don’t prescribe what has to be done, rather I lay out the parameters; the rest is driven by the students. For example Asian-Pacific Island American month was put together by students from across the diaspora and included perspectives from both Asian Americans and international students. They also decided to engage in dialogue about the experience of the queer community, and tackle other difficult conversations such as how whiteness is upheld as an ideal in many Asian communities.  The students conceptualized all of this, I just provided the framework.

We also have a group of students that work on the IC team. When I work with these students, I ask them what initiatives they would they would like to realize or what changes do they want to see? For example, the students wanted a space to express themselves artistically, so I worked with them to identify the tools needed to create an online magazine called VISIBILITY Zine. The students took submissions from each identity group on campus and through the help of the IC’s graphic design team, which is also student driven, they designed and created a unique, artistic expression of their multicultural perspective. The stories and art created in this zine helped the students grapple with their own identities and develop their own agency. They imagined it, and then realized it in the real world.

I have also been working to integrate technology, such as TRELLO, a program management system that allows groups to manage workflow, create checklists, and monitor progress. Each of the heritage month committees have adopted the use of technology in their own way, which helps them facilitate communication and hold each other accountable. Creating virtual team environments using emergent technologies and combining these spaces with in person work powerfully bolsters collaboration and collective accountability. It also supports identity development in a way that connects with the sensibilities of our millennial students.

Caitlin: How do the activities at the IC help students succeed and complete college?

Mo: Access to college is just the first step. Colleges and universities must be designed in a way that mirrors the pluralistic society in which we live. Student life is an important part of every college student’s experience, and it must support the personal and intellectual development of students of every identity.  The work of the IC also has an effect on how students see the world beyond graduation. I work to cultivate an empathic imagination amongst the students. This not only develops the student’s agency to succeed in college but their ability to be successful in the realities of our pluralistic society. The work of the IC also helps the students’ development of technological competencies, thereby preparing them for the twenty-first century workplace.

Caitlin: What are your future plans for the IC?

Mo: We want to explore how to engage faculty more purposefully with our programs. We are also looking into how to devise more mentorship opportunities and align programing with curriculum. I’d like to continue to experiment with emerging technologies and virtual work environments, such as SLACK, a program used by the Mars Rover team. I am continually focused on how we can create spaces for students to express themselves and learn skills that are applicable for realities and challenges of the twenty-first century.

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