When students come to MSU for their first semester, they are suddenly one of 40,000 students from all different backgrounds. Different skin colors, loyalties to political parties, and levels of income collide in one small cubicle of a dorm room. Sometimes it’s an enlightenting experience, other times it’s miserable. But for both of those times and all others in between, the Office of Academic Transitions (OCAT) is there to smooth out the ride.
Before Proposal 2 passed in the 2006 election, making affirmative action illegal in university admissions and government hiring in Michigan, OCAT was named the Office of Racial Ethnic Student Affairs. The name change was part of a shift to become more inclusive, coordinator Terry Walsh said.
“I think then the office was focused more on just helping certain groups acclimate to the university,” Charles Brown, an OCAT aide in West Circle complex, said. Brown, a criminal justice junior, has been an aide for two years and plans to move to Butterfield Hall next year as a team coordinator, supervising a group of aides.
Brown said an aide’s job is to help students succeed and help freshman, transfer, and international students get acclimated to MSU. The job entails holding programs on topics like time management and building relationships with students. “Mentors try to do the same thing on the floor, whereas OCAT aides work on the scale of the whole building,” Brown said. “We’re here for any problems that [students] have throughout the building, at home, or relationship issues,” he added. “We’re here to help solve those issues, and if we can’t, we’ll help find somebody who can. If they’re having financial issues, we’ll help them get in contact with financial aid.”
Brown said the cultural aspect of OCAT mostly involves raising awareness of the various racial and ethnic groups on campus through programs with the Coalition of Races Ethnic Students (CORES). CORES groups sponsored by OCAT include the North American Indigenous Student Organization, Asian Pacific American Student Organization (APASO), Black Student Alliance and Culturas de las Razas Unidas. They work with other subgroups to put on cultural programs. For example, APASO has 10 groups, including ones for Korean, Hmong and Chinese students. All of them combined to put on Cultural Vogue, a spring semester fashion show.
OCAT aides also mediate cultural conflicts between students. “Say if students of different races have an altercation that involves race, the mentors try to handle it first, … but if they feel we could do a better job, then we come help,” Brown said.
He said mediating racial or cultural conflicts can be difficult because of the sensitivity of the issues, but said that his training with OCAT helped. “I just try to hear both sides equally. With a situation like that, there’s usually two sides of the story and then the truth,” Brown said. “Sometimes there may not be an issue, just a misunderstanding.”
Tom Rios, acting director of OCAT and associate vice president for Student Affairs and Services, said it’s important for students to talk about racial issues, but encouraging a diverse group of students to work on projects that don’t necessarily involve race is important too. “Most of our programs have to have a relational heart, so it’s not just exhorting people to be sensitive to others,” Rios said. “Learning is social, so you learn with, by and from others.”
Rios cited International Volunteer Action Corps, a group that tries to build relationships between domestic and international students through service learning, as an example of using a common interest as a jumping off point for building the trust needed to talk about sensitive issues. “Trust requires a relationship,” Rios said.
Brown said student attendance at cultural programs varies with things like weather and exam schedules, much like other programs. “It’s gotten better,” he said. “I think sometimes it’s kind of a taboo or a touchy subject for people to come out of their shells and try something different.”
Rios said getting majority students involved in multicultural activities can be difficult. “It’s hard to reach out to [majority] students and make them see that they indeed have their own culture,” Rios said.
Walsh, who works on programs to get majority students involved, said students don’t always notice the unique qualities of their own cultures until they are exposed to others. Walsh said the dominant American culture is usually seen as white middle class, but that even something as small as the Izzone can be considered a culture because it has its own social customs. “If you live in the inner city of Detroit versus going 15 minutes out, those are two very different cultures,” Walsh said.
Walsh said that sometimes leaving words like “multicultural” out of an event’s title can change the composition of the group that comes. “I think any time that something is titled ‘multicultural,’ majority students a lot of times won’t think it’s for them,” Walsh said. “If they see that there are students like them involved, they might feel more welcome there.”
Rios was skeptical of whether students, particularly majority students, take the time to check out the multicultural groups on campus. “Michigan State’s the size of a city,” Rios said. “All I know is that each college has a representative to talk about issues related to diversity. For a lot of people those are difficult discussions. If people aren’t drinking deeply from the cup of experiences, it doesn’t matter how many opportunities the university offers.”
Still, Walsh said he’s seen progress in race relations, and that the OCAT aides generally sit in mixed groups at lunch. “They’re able to have conversations about race and race relations that I couldn’t in college 15 years ago,” Walsh said.
When he was training a new group of aides, Walsh divided them into pairs and told them to talk for two minutes and find their differences. “Not one of the students brought up ‘I’m black and she’s white,’” Walsh said. “I think that’s not because they’re colorblind, but that they realize that there are things that are more important than the color of someone’s skin.”