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USC’s cultural centers celebrate happy anniversaries

USC cultural centers
USC launched its cultural centers during the 1970s and early 80s. (Photo/Nathan Carter)

For many of USC’s cultural centers, 2012 marks a milestone year: El Centro Chicano celebrates its 40th anniversary, the Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs (CBCSA) its 35th and Asian Pacific American Student Services (APASS) its 30th.

USC launched its cultural centers during the 1970s and early 80s as diverse ethnic populations enrolled in universities in the wake of the civil rights movement. These centers helped minority groups through that difficult transition.

“Students really felt that they were not being heard, not being recognized and not being supported,” said CBCSA Director Corliss Bennett-McBride. “Cultural centers were developed in response to the cry from students wanting to have programs that spoke to them.”

El Centro Chicano, USC’s oldest cultural center, was established in 1972 as a response to student and faculty concerns about the low admission and retention rates of Hispanic students. It offers programs such as the Latino Floor, trips to important landmarks including Olvera Street and MacArthur Park, and a new student symposium.

“With El Centro, we needed to create a place that would not only bring up the numbers of Hispanic students, but would also make sure that the students we were bringing to the university would be successful,” said Billy Vela, director of El Centro Chicano.

El Centro alumnus Mike Varela agreed, calling El Centro “a really great starting point at the university.”

El Centro will celebrate its 40th anniversary in December with a program at Town & Gown featuring many of El Centro’s former directors.

“The celebration is an opportunity to remember where we came from, acknowledge the history and the accomplishments and then talk about where we’re going,” Vela said.

CBCSA, established in 1977 under the name Black Student Services to serve a population of primarily local, first-generation college students, offers programming such as its Distinguished Speaker Series, featuring USC faculty discussing African-American issues, and Black Welcome Week for incoming students.

CBCSA’s 35th anniversary, which it will celebrate in the fall, comes during the department’s year-long evaluation to assess the needs of its greatly diversified community.

“The types of students that are coming now are very different,” Bennett-McBride said. “They’re not first generation, a lot of them are mixed race, and they may not just check black or any ethnicity because they don’t want to be identified.”

Consequently, CBCSA is developing programs that explore black history, particularly in California.

“We’re supposed to bring African-American culture to the university. We want to make sure our office is inclusive — not just to black students, but to any students who want to learn more about African-American culture,” Bennett-McBride said.

Founded in 1982, APASS offers programs such as peer mentoring and Critical Issues in Race, Class & Leadership Education, a semester-long series that emphasizes leadership training in social and community issues.

APASS celebrated its 30th anniversary with “Roots to Branches,” an event held in April at the Ronald Tutor Campus Center that attracted more than 200 guests.

“Thirty years in, we’ve continued to transform ourselves, evolve our programs to meet the needs and demands of the students, and remain true to the core of our program,” said Sumi Pendakur, director of APASS.

“When I joined APASS, I was looking to find a sense of belonging,” alumna Amy Tran recalled. “It fulfilled that need and so much more.”

These celebrations are especially important as the blurring of ethnic and cultural lines have led some universities to collapse their distinct cultural centers into multicultural or intercultural centers.

“There’s a lot of literature coming out about folks not valuing the work of campus cultural centers,” said Rosalind Conerly, assistant director of CBCSA, “and it’s encouraging to see that USC really does value these separate cultural centers and realizes the impact that they’re having on the students.”

USC’s cultural centers are facing the challenges of the future through collaboration. APASS, CBCSA and El Centro, in addition to the LGBT Resource Center, are developing a joint new-student symposium. The departments also sponsor a series of discussions and events called Project ReMix to explore the challenges and identities of a mixed-race generation.

By retaining their distinct identities while keeping pace with a changing student body, USC’s cultural centers hope to ensure many happy anniversaries to come.

USC’s cultural centers celebrate happy anniversaries

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