For many people, cultural and ethnic identity are essential parts of their lives, but they are also topics that can bring up a lot of questions. A great place to start asking those questions is the Ethnic Student Center (ESC), which offers extensive resources, clubs, projects and entertainment for Western and the surrounding communities.

The ESC began in 1991, and that same year held its first ESC conference.

“We've had a conference every year since we started in 1991,” Michael Vendiola, ESC Coordinator said. “I was at that first one, as a student, in 1991. The mission then was to get all the ESC clubs together , to think of a long-range plan for the ESC.”

The theme of this year's ESC conference is “Shift Your Perspective.” The conference, which offers a variety of workshops and speakers, is aimed to encourage students to get involved in their campus community, Vendiola said. The conference is from Oct. 17 to 19, and although it is currently full the ESC offers many other opportunities to get involved throughout the year.

One of the ESC's main objectives is to form connections between Western students, the Bellingham community, Whatcom County and other communities. Students can do this through volunteering and planning club events. The ESC collaborates with other entities like New Student Services, Center for Service Learning, Village Books, Whatcom Human Rights Task Force and Whatcom Community College.

Vendiola said that while the ESC continues to create ways to bring its clubs together, its mission has expanded to other areas, such as social justice, leadership and academic success.

“[We're] trying to find a space in the local community where people feel safe and included,” Vendiola said. “Students [have] a big impact on the Whatcom community. We like to have the opportunity to get students off campus. It's outreach to the community.”

Vendiola said the best way to get involved with the ESC is to join an ESC club. All the clubs have offices in the ESC main office, located in Viking Union 420. There, students can sign up for projects and plan events throughout the year. Many ESC events are annual. Event participants can expect cultural education and the opportunity to learn about different communities, Vendiola said.

“[Annual] events are the Filipino Heritage Dinner, [the]Black History Month Celebration, Afro-Carribean Club's Culture Night, Hui O' Hawai'I's Luau, [El Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano/a de Aztlá┬ín] MECHA's Lowrider Show and the Native American Student Union's Powow,” Vendiola said.

One of these annual events, the Filipino Heritage Dinner, is at 5 p.m. Oct. 25 in the VU Multipurpose Room. It is hosted by the Filipino-American Student Association (FASA).

“There will be performances and a keynote speaker. It's going to be a good time,” Jazz Espiritu, webmaster for FASA said. “It's great to learn about Filipino culture and [its] diversity. It seems like such a small country, yet the diversity within it is amazing.”
The event is centered around celebrating the various languages and traditions of the Philippines.

“I like that about this club, the diversity in it. You go in thinking you'll learn about the Philippines in general but there's more to it than that,” Espiritu said.

Events aside, the ESC has a lot for students by way of day-to-day resources. It offers community support for finding cultural identity and learning more about it. The ESC also welcomes anyone who is interested in learning about backgrounds and traditions different from their own.

“It's not just a place for minority students to gather, it's a place for everyone,” Cara Bertram, ESC Public Relations Program Support Staff said. “[The ESC is] a safe place to learn about yourself, to learn about other cultures you may not be familiar with. [It's] a place to develop leadership skills by getting involved with clubs, or a place to just hang out and have fun.”

A visit to the ESC can open up many topics of interest, and the program offers the opportunity to meet other students and staff that are interested in cultural and social issues. The ESC serves this interest by creating a place where cultural diversity is openly discussed and celebrated.

“[The] ESC provides a social environment for dialogue and particularly a social environment for underrepresented populations,” Vendiola said. “The majority of students we work with are trying to find a place to explore their identity.”