In April, the Latino Native American Cultural Center welcomed students, faculty, and alumni to an evening commemorating its 45th anniversary at Iowa. Featuring a ribbon-cutting service and speeches from the Center's original founders, the celebration served as a reminder of the importance of supporting diversity and inclusion on campus.
Since opening its doors in 1971, the Center has been a gracious host to students, campus organizations, cultural celebrations, activism efforts, and supportive services.
The Center's presence has special value to the Iowa students who self-identify as Latinx or Native American amidst a predominantly white student body. For these students, feeling a true sense of cultural belonging outside the classroom can prove difficult.
"It's a basic human thing - wanting to belong," said Peggy Valdés, a graduate assistant for the Center. "There are ways students can belong through their discipline or other activities. But when they're underrepresented, either ethnically or racially on campus, they need a different kind of belonging."
Through the years, several student groups, including the Native American Student Association (NASA), the Association of Latinos Moving Ahead, multicultural sororities Lambda Theta Nu and Sigma Lambda Gamma, and multicultural fraternity Sigma Lambda Beta, have called the Center their home.
"It's exactly the place students need," says outgoing Co-President of NASA, Haley Henscheid. "The Center supports and embraces Native American culture, and gives students a space to feel comfortable around people from similar and differing backgrounds."
Whether gathering for their organization's purposes, casually socializing with peers, or even looking for a quiet study spot, these Latinx and Native American students see the Center as a "cultural community"— a place to cherish and preserve their heritage on campus.
Creating these welcoming, diversified spaces has been a special priority for Multicultural Programs in the Center for Student Involvement & Leadership (CSIL), since the 1960s, when the concept of student cultural centers at Iowa first arose.
Roy Salcedo, coordinator for the CSIL Multicultural Programs, explained, "People want to feel acknowledged. That’s to be expected. We are here to validate them and welcome them, and we are always open to helping address what students need from their college experience to be successful here."
The atmosphere within the Latino Native American Cultural Center helps ease student transitions from their own families and traditions to the new, vastly different campus environment during the first years of college.
"The Center provides a place where students can be 'normal,' with people of similar background and experiences, rather than feeling out-of-place or 'abnormal' in other areas of campus, where identity, especially white identity, may be very taken for granted," Valdés said. "Once they've had a little cultural break, then students can go back outside and continue being Hawkeyes just like everyone else."
From Haley Henscheid's perspective, the benefits of the Center to this community have been invaluable. "It's been a great platform for increasing diversity initiatives on campus, allowing marginalized groups to be heard, and helping minority students find comfort in a sometimes unwelcoming environment."
As the university looks to the years ahead, Salcedo said, "Our goal is to have students see the Center as a 'home away from home.' We need to constantly be making sure that they feel welcome and included. And in that pursuit, our work is never done."
Festivities for this April's anniversary, which highlighted speeches from Tony Zavala, Ruth Pushetonequa and Rusty Barceló—the Center's original founders—drew a crowd of more than 500 students, faculty, and alumni to the house on Melrose Street.