The Ethnic Student Center continues a fifteen year tradition of giving students a place to gather, form their identities, and work for change in their communities: the very move-ments that led to the founding of the Ethnic Student Center in 1991.
Michael Vendiola, the Ethnic Student Center Coordinator and Activities Advisor, was a student at Western in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when students identified a need for a space for ethnic students.
“At that time, the services that the students at Western used were the Multicultural Ser-vices Center,” said Vendiola. “We’d go there to get support for classes and things like that. Back then there was a whole different process. That’s where we’d go to get sup-port, but then we’d start all going there, and we’d all run into each other and it created this natural meeting place on campus.”
It was there club leaders from ethnic groups on campus, primarily the Native American Student Union, MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán), Black Student Un-ion, Asian Pacific Islander Student Union, and the International Students Club ran into each other. The Multicultural Services Center staff even provided a couch and refrig-erator for the students that hung out in the MSC office.
“We could see on the part of the MSC staff they were trying to provide for the need stu-dents had,” said Vendiola. “In addition to that, they put in one of those two drawer filing cabinets, and in the top drawer they had five files for each of the student organizations. That was the beginning of what we’d call the Ethnic Student Center now, just kind of this small organization.”
Although students were able to connect at the Multicultural Services Center, some stu-dents felt they were encroaching on a workspace. Unfortunately, at the time, there were few other places to meet on campus. “It was not like a student activities center, it was an office,” said Vendiola. “But it was one of the few places we could hang out as a stu-dent group and sort of meet at.”
By 1989, Western began emphasizing how multicultural the university was to stress the school’s diversity.
“When people talked about the multicultural or the diverse aspect at Western,” said Vendiola, “they’d talk about the Cinco de Mayo celebration or the powwow or the Black History Month Dinner... The university was saying, ‘We are really diverse because we put these events on.’ But the events were put on by students, the students were really organizing these events. We as students began to think about how that seemed kind of unbalanced. We thought that the university could really provide more in terms of sup-port and space. We started to slowly nudge the university: where do we want to go with this talk about diversity?”
Wondering what the university would do about this increased interest in diversity, stu-dents formed the Ethnic Student Alliance and found allies among students and faculty across campus. The Ethnic Student Alliance negotiated to form centers on campus for different ethnic groups. Progress slowed, so Salvador Martin, the president of MEChA, sat in the university president’s office with a sign.
“The next day there was an additional person with a sign that said, ‘Ethnic students need a place to go on this campus,’” said Vendiola, “and the day after that I remember the office was entirely full with students who wanted to make a change. Then it went back to the table, and they came up with really what was the Ethnic Student Center.”
The Ethnic Student Center wasn’t the individual centers the students originally imag-ined, but having one group on campus united students in an unexpected way, a way that remains today.
“It was a blessing in disguise because fifteen years later, the organizations are really tight with each other,” said Vendiola.
“You don’t really see that at the other universi-ties... I think that’s what really winds up happening: you see underrepresented popula-tions organizing separately around different issues. Then the ESC was created and it let people really learn about today’s issues: Minutemen and boarder issues.”
The ESC continues the tradition set out fifteen years ago.
“When you talk to any of the alumni,” said Vendiola, “a common theme is that they don’t use so much of the skills they earned with their degree as they use their skills they learned from the Ethnic Student Center.”
The ESC programs also educate the greater campus and Bellingham community. They also bring high school students who aren’t tracked to college to visit Western, and in more recent years the theme of collaboration has extended beyond different ethnic groups.
“We’ve been trying to promote an active agenda,” said Vendiola. “We know there’s women here, women of color here, and there’s common issues of oppression. You see people begin to think, ‘Oh, I never thought of the oppression of women as the oppres-sion of people of color, or the oppression of LGBT community, as the oppression of eth-nic people.’ That’s more of a recent, the last five years, that we’ve been pushing and trying to get out there to really collaborate.”
This year, the ESC is adding a fundraising element to many of its annual events--like the Martin Luther King Celebration and Native American Powwow--to support its schol-arship funds. The ESC needs to raise twenty thousand dollars to a renewable scholar-ship endowment, and the AS Board has agreed to match the donations three-to-one. The scholarships will be broken into five separate funds, and beyond that it is up to stu-dents to decide what they want. “The scholarships are going to focus on academic and student leadership ethic,” said Vendiola. “It’s really the students choice, what we’re go-ing to put together with the criteria is what we’ll go with.”
Donations to the Ethnic Student Center’s scholarship fund can be made to Western Foundation, which is located in Old Main 430.