The University of Virginia moved a step closer to its goal to be both great and good Thursday as it introduced new and expanded student centers that will support such diverse communities as Latinx and interfaith populations.
Newcomb Hall, the student hub on Grounds, was abuzz as a huge crowd of people, mostly students, lined up excitedly for the afternoon grand opening of the Multicultural Student Center. After the doors opened, the mass of people flooded into the new space, lining up for complimentary chicken, sweets and lemonade.
The center was one of four new student spaces that opened following years of student input. Administrators also enthusiastically introduced LGBTQ, Latinx and Interfaith student centers.
In May, UVA President Jim Ryan approved student proposals to create the new Latinx and Interfaith centers, as well as expanding the Student Multicultural and LGBTQ centers, and provided $500,000 to fund the projects. This was done in accordance with UVA’s strategic plan, “A Great and Good University: The 2030 Plan,” which calls for the University to “continuously promote and strengthen an inclusive community of trust.”
The rain falling outside Thursday did not dim the festive mood at the grand opening reception.
In welcoming remarks, Ryan welcomed the new and improved centers and lauded the student input that drove the work.
“UVA, as you all know, ought to be a place where everyone feels welcome, and spaces are an important part of that,” he said. He went on to say that the people who make up those spaces are just as important, and acknowledged Vicki Gist, associate dean of students and director of Multicultural Student Services, drawing cheering and applause.
Ryan also praised the student leaders who were the driving force behind all of the new changes. “Your advocacy, your creativity, your drive helped make this happen,” he said. “As president, I believe deeply that we need to build a community that is not just diverse, but also inclusive.” He said the new centers will advance that notion.
At the conclusion of his remarks, members of Gist’s staff took Ryan on a tour of all four new spaces as the crowd set off to see for themselves the fruit of the student leaders’ labors.
The Multicultural Student Center
All of the new centers pop with color, and are furnished with modern upholstered pieces designed for both comfort and beauty. They are open to the entire student body and can be reserved for various types of programming.
The new Multicultural Student Center is by far the largest of the four centers. Its prior space on the lower level of Newcomb Hall allowed for just 49 occupants; the new location on the second floor near Starbucks has a maximum occupancy of 491 people and is the same size as the Newcomb Hall Ballroom. In addition to study carrels, HDMI-enabled video screens and dedicated conference rooms, the center has several unique, one- and two-person cocoon-like pieces of furniture called “clouds,” which are perfect spots to concentrate.
The center is also outfitted with striking saffron-yellow screens that help delineate the space and can be easy moved to create new environments. There are also spring green-colored dry-erase boards for brainstorming.
Fourth-year student Natalie Romero, the student director of the center last year, was deeply involved in designing the new center and advocated for a larger space. She began working at the original center as a first-year student. “It was almost like our living room,” she said. “The MSC feels like a home away from home.”
Keeping that feeling was important to her. She and her classmates talked with students and created various polls to learn what people wanted in the new space.
She said getting the administration’s support was a game-changer. “Knowing that we’re being heard and listened to, and seeing progress happen before our very eyes, has been something very inspirational,” she said.
The LGBTQ Center
Like the Multicultural Student Center, the LGBTQ Center was also previously located on the lower level of Newcomb Hall. Now on the third floor in the former Kaleidoscope Room, the center is wrapped in windows, bathing the space in natural light.
Here too, visitors are welcomed by brightly colored upholstered furniture, space-warming rugs and comfortable, large bean bag chairs. There are also moveable screens that help make the space flexible, as well as accommodating to conferences.
Following student input, one accent wall is washed in a soft lavender. Rainbow-inspired pieces provide accents, from a handmade quilt to flags and drawings.
LGBTQ Center intern Blair Smith said he loves the new location and all the natural light, a welcome change from the center’s former, windowless space.
The third-year student said he learned about the pending move last summer. “Most of what I’ve done this past fall is talk with the Multicultural Student Services staff about the specific layout of the space and considerations for privacy and visibility and accessibility, which can all be seemingly contradictory,” he said.
Smith said he enjoyed talking about how the new center’s design can lend itself to safe and healthy experiences for everyone who will visit it.
Smith and his team are preparing for this year’s “Love Is Love” event, an annual Valentine’s Day celebration that sends a message of support to LGBTQ students. Having a new, vibrant center in which to organize is wonderful, he said.
Volunteers will hand out “Love Is Love” shirts next week and invite people to a Valentine’s Day reception in the Multicultural Student Center. The group will then head to the steps of the Rotunda to sing “The Good Old Song” and take pictures.
Latinx Student Center
Just around the corner from the LGBTQ Center is UVA’s new Latinx Center, which occupies the former art gallery adjacent to the Newcomb Hall Ballroom. It will serve students of Latin American and Hispanic descent.
Warm, gold walls and high ceilings welcome visitors as they enter the large room, which is broken into several casual seating and work areas. Soft lighting adds to the center’s charm.
Latinx students have been lobbying the University for dedicated space for some time and Ryan, in his second year as president, was impressed enough with their written proposal that he allocated funding for the new center.
Third-year student Jennifer Flores helped coordinate the large murals that adorn one of the center’s walls. She reached out to an area artist and was the conduit for student ideas.
The students called for the murals to represent the breadth of Latinx cultures. The left side of the mural represents the Andes Mountains and llamas of South America. The center of the mural has more of a desert feel, echoing portions of Mexico, as well as depictions of a tree bearing fruit from different geographical areas and the monarch butterflies of Michoacan, Mexico. The right side of the mural represents the indigenous aspect of Latinx communities, and features palm trees and the Atlantic Ocean, a nod to the West Indies, Caribbean and Afro-Latinx communities.
Frank Valdez, a third-year student, served on the space committee for the Latinx Center. He said he is really excited that Latinx students have their own space at UVA.
He said he was grateful for Ryan’s support. “I see that as he is very willing to listen to our concerns and I hope this is a continuous relationship,” he said. “It feels like there are people in the administration listening to us and willing to work with us.”
Valdez noted the diversity of the Latinx community, which includes undocumented, low-income and first-generation students. “Our community has a lot of needs and I hope the space with help bring awareness to people in the general UVA community,” he said.
Interfaith Student Center
For many years, a small room on the fourth floor of Newcomb Hall served as a place where students could pray or meditate.
Now that space has been expanded to house the new Interfaith Student Center. Third-year student Mazzen Shalaby, president of the Muslim Student Association, said it will be used for all walks of religion.
“The idea really came from the Virginia Interfaith Coalition, which represents about nine different religious organizations around Grounds and interacts with more than that,” he said. As the coalition’s former president, Shalaby helped create the proposal for the center and push the project forward. “The point is to have a space that all these individual groups can use independently, and then occasionally we will have some joint programming.”
Those groups include the Hindu Student Council, Catholic Hoos, the Baháʼí Student Association, the Soka Gakkai International Buddhist Club and the Jewish Leadership Council. “It’s a spiritual faith center, so you don’t have to be part of a group to use it,” Shalaby said.
Two nearby bathrooms have also been outfitted with ablution facilities that can be used to wash before prayer.
People will not be able to reserve the Interfaith Student Center during the day, so that students can come to meditate, pray or have some quiet time whenever they like. “We don’t want it to be dominated by any certain group. We want it to be open and flexible,” he said.
All four of the new centers will be open daily from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.