Fighting for a Space for the 6%: The Student Perspective

The Latinx Student Center is the product of generations of students demanding the University provide marginalized students with the resources they need

Words by Ria Aguilar Prieto. Photos by Riley Walsh. Graphics by Alyce Yang.

The new Latinx Student Center is a bustling hub of interactions. As soon as you walk in, you encounter groups of students studying, relaxing or simply hanging out, listening to the vibrant music somebody is playing on the speakers. A mural of a tree adorns one wall, and messages written by students on whiteboards and post-it notes are scattered around the room. The study spots are furnished with plenty of seats, with many chairs and comfy sofas, and the space is well-illuminated by the various windows that allow sunlight to enter the space — a big change from the former Multicultural Student Center, located in the basement of Newcomb Hall with no windows before it was relocated.

The Latinx Student Center, inaugurated in early February, is the product of generations of students demanding the University provide marginalized students with the resources they need. Located on the third floor of Newcomb Hall, its opening was accompanied by that of the renovated and relocated MSC, LGBTQ Student Center and the new Interfaith Student Center. Though the University’s decision to create this student space was officially initiated in June 2019 as part of University President Jim Ryan’s 2030 “Great and Good University” plan — which intends to amplify diversity and inclusivity — the student push for this project had been in the making for years.

According to University data, the undergraduate Hispanic-American population currently stands at 6.62 percent, with approximately 1,100 undergrads identifying as Hispanic or Latinx. That number — along with the fact that multicultural students make up over a third of the entire student body yet had a student center that could only accommodate 49 people — made the aforementioned expansions and additions long overdue. While current members of the Latinx community on Grounds played key roles in its creation, the LSC is the product of both past and present students at the University.

“[The LSC] is not just the achievement of one person or the achievement of people at U.Va. currently — this is the achievement of generations of marginalized students pushing for the services and resources they deserve at the University,” said Kayla Dunn, a fourth-year College student and former president of the Latinx Student Alliance.

The new Latinx Student Center was inaugurated in early February. 

Dunn and Natalie Romero, a fourth-year College student and the co-founder and co-president of PLUMAS — a “radical group aimed towards justice, education, and equality” within the Latinx community — have been working on the push for a Latinx student space since their first years at the University. Romero’s involvement in the LSC effort began even before PLUMAS was founded, while she was a member of LSA’s advocacy committee her first year. 

In the fall of 2016, Romero began looking into the possibility of a center for Latinx students with the advocacy committee, making phone calls and researching existing student centers within the University. Though the work then did not amount to much, Romero now had the idea of a center in her mind. During the spring semester of her first year, when she co-founded PLUMAS with now-alumna Paola Sanchez Valdez, Romero and Valdez picked up and continued working on the idea of looking more into Latinx representation — including the possibility of a Latinx space.

“[Members of the Latinx community had] beautiful ideas, but they weren’t really cohesive … [and] there was a lot of division [within the community],” Romero said, noting what the group needed was unity to enable them to ask for the resources they needed. 

During their second years, Romero also became the student director for the Multicultural Student Center, and Dunn was elected LSA president.

Shortly after assuming her role as president, Dunn created the Juntos Podemos — “Together We Can” — group that included members from Latinx-identifying and Latinx-serving organizations on Grounds. The group sought to identify the most salient issues faced by the Latinx community at the University and, after creating a list, found the need for a Latinx-dedicated space at the very top. 

Alex Cintron, then-third-year College student and candidate for Student Council president, included working closely with minority groups in his platform, becoming a key player in the push for the Latinx space. Because of this, PLUMAS endorsed him.  

“[PLUMAS] endorsed him with the caveat that he would include a Latinx proposal and … a Latinx Student Center,” Romero said. “Then the next year Ellie [Brasacchio] also added it to her platform, that they would be working with PLUMAS and advocating for a Latinx Student Center.”   

A group of Hispanic/Latinx students released the “Our University to Shape” proposal Oct. 22, 2018, written to bring attention to what could be done to make the University a more inclusive community. The very first issue identified in the proposal was the Latinx Student Center. The proposal committee argued that although the MSC provided various resources for students, it was insufficient to serve over a third of the undergraduate population. Moreover, the proposal asserted the Latinx community required its own center “to specifically address the socioeconomic barriers, cultural stereotyping, and institutional marginalization that often impact the Hispanic/Latinx college experience.”

“[Having a physical space is so important] because it gives us the opportunity to not only congregate as a community, but talk about our shared experiences,” Dunn said. According to Dunn, a physical space is essentially a piece of one’s culture physically embedded into the University. 

“Our University to Shape” was modeled after the “Towards a Better University” proposal written by members of the Black Student Alliance in April 2015. Solidarity across student groups was crucial for the movement for the LSC. 

“The whole proposal and all advocacy work we have done is on the shoulders of other multicultural students, especially Black students, and just taking off of their lead and taking off of their model of what advocacy at the University is like,” Dunn stated.

The “Our University to Shape” proposal was paired with an open letter which, shortly after its release, was defamed by white supremacists. Though the defamed letter was quickly taken down by LSA executives, they sent a copy of it to the University administration as an illustration of the aggression to which the Latinx community on Grounds is at times subjected. 

“Here is an example of why we’re advocating what we are advocating for,” Dunn said. “A lot of Latinx students, including students from all marginalized identities, at U.Va. still experience discrimination and prejudice and racism, and it’s important for us to feel like we have a home here at the University.”

The University administration was receptive to the proposal, leading to numerous meetings between Dunn and various administrators. Among those with whom she met were Dean of Students Allen Groves and Julie Caruccio, assistant vice president of student affairs, to specifically discuss a Latinx student space.

Also present at the meeting with Groves and Caruccio was then-Student Council President Cintron who, along with Dunn, elaborated on the need for the resources the LSC would provide students. Dunn said that the response at first was hesitant — although Groves and Carussio both said they understood the points that were being raised, they stressed the possible infeasibility of creating a new center for Latinx students specifically.

Nonetheless, Dunn, Cintron and the other students pushing for the space were determined to keep propelling the movement forward.

Third-year College student Stefan Lizarzaburu said that, for him, involvement in the University Latinx community has been rooted in what he describes as two worlds tugging at him — coming from a mixed Peruvian and white family in Yorktown, a predominantly white, rural town in southern Virginia, he grew up not knowing how to be both at the same time. Here at the University, he has been able to reconcile his identities. 

As a second-year, Lizarzaburu participated in the Latinx Leadership Institute — a student-facilitated leadership development program aimed at researching and finding solutions for issues within the University’s Hispanic/Latinx community. Throughout the program, Lizarzaburu worked with now-second-year College students Natalie Cordero and Samantha Santana and now-second-year Engineering student Stephanie Gernentz to conduct a research project about a potential Latinx space, and together they created a presentation for faculty and administration members. Although the idea for a Latinx space had been floating around, this group of students researched the necessary logistics in depth.

The LSC is located on the third floor of Newcomb Hall next to the relocated LGBTQ Student Center.

Through the research process, Lizarzaburu and his group came up with the idea of relocating the MSC — located at that time in the Newcomb Hall basement — to the spacious former Game Room, situated directly across from the dining hall. As for the LSC, they figured it could be built somewhere else in Newcomb Hall. 

Additionally, the group contacted comparable schools in the state — among them Virginia Tech and George Mason University — to gather information on the type of resources those universities offered their marginalized students. They found many of these other universities in Virginia were, in fact, providing designated spaces to minority students. 

“Space is really, really important,” Lizarzaburu said. “I am an advocate for everyone to have their own individual spaces.” 

Although the reception to the project after its presentation was generally positive, the plan was not immediately taken up by the administration. Lizarzaburu remained hopeful, but the road ahead was not without its obstacles.

When presenting the idea to Caruccio, the conversation was not as encouraging as Lizarzaburu had hoped it might have been.

“She more or less told me the idea was unrealistic,” he recounted. “She said, ‘If you all want a space, then everybody is going to want a space,’” to which Lizarzaburu responded, “Dean Caruccio, that’s kind of what I am getting at, I know.”

In an email statement to The Cavalier Daily, Caruccio recalled the obstacles that stood in the way of making the LSC a reality — specifically funding, usage of space and staffing.

“As [the Student Engagement and Inclusion team of the Student Affairs Division] is largely student fee-based in our funding, we have to be as wise and frugal with those resources as possible,” she wrote. “[In the case of the LSC], we sought student input, looked at available data on need and projected use, assessed the impact of taking some general use space offline for more targeted use, worked with Dean Groves and Vice President Lampkin to identify new funding sources with President Ryan, determined the impact on current staffing, and attempted to ensure the space’s longer term sustainability.” 

Despite the disappointment from that meeting, Lizarzaburu was still optimistic the center could happen. He continued disseminating the idea, working closely with Cintron.

Then, on May 19, 2019, Lizarzaburu, along with various other students, received an email from Dean Groves saying that the University was ready to move forward with the project. The Latinx Student Center, along with various other student spaces, was going to happen. 

“Earlier this month, Vice President Lampkin and I submitted a detailed proposal to President Ryan, requesting his support to move forward on all four projects,” Groves said in his email. “His response was immediate and enthusiastic, as these initiatives fully support his goal of a more inclusive and welcoming University.”

Lizarzaburu said it felt like a push in the right place at the right time, with Ryan’s 2030 plan right around the corner.

Students played a large role in designing the layout of the LSC.

The summer of 2019 was spent figuring out what the space would look like. Meetings were held weekly, usually on Fridays, on topics ranging from the layout of the center to the programming it would have and its mission statement. 

Though the meetings were generally facilitated by administration members — among them Program Coordinator Dean Sadira Glendenning — students had a significant say in what the center became. Third-year College student Jennifer Flores was one of the students involved in the LSC creation process over the summer. 

“Students really created the space,” Flores said. “Giving the feedback, looking at the layout of the space … [the process] was facilitated by the administration, but students made quite a bit of the choices.”

Romero recounted video-calling members of the community who were not in town over the summer of 2019, bringing in those who were critical to building the space but could not spend the break in Charlottesville. She also described a meeting in the old MSC once the fall semester had started, when she stopped random Latinx first-year students to ask for their input on the decorations being discussed.

Flores spoke about the significance of having a physical space dedicated to the Latinx community in which they can freely speak in their native languages and share their cultures with one another. 

“[Latinx] is a fairly large umbrella term. The thing is, at a predominantly white institution, you can feel out of place here a lot,” she said. “[The LSC is] a space for us to call home.”

With the LSC, Latinx students have been given a space on Grounds in which they can comfortably express themselves and foster community relationships.

“[The LSC] allows for a fluidity of different types of people,” Romero said. “It is a place to build community and strong love … and appreciation for one another. Representation actually really matters … and the more they give us, the more we can do — uplifting our community only helps the university.” 

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