Creation to Community: 25 Years of Swarthmore's Intercultural Center


On Thursday, February 8th at 4:30pm in the McCabe atrium, Swarthmore’s Intercultural Center celebrated its 25th anniversary. The Intercultural Center (IC), described as a center providing programming and services around multicultural experiences, commemorated the event with a panel discussion and an intricate display illustrating its highlights and turning points.

Sonya Chen ‘18, former co-president of Swarthmore Asian Organization (SAO) and IC intern, organized the event with help from Swarthmore librarians Celia Caust-Ellenbogen and Susan Dreher. A number of alumni, even those who could not attend, reported that the IC had been a vital part of their lives at Swarthmore.  “The IC's 25th year is a celebration of how significantly the IC has grown and how many students have been able to find some kind of comfort in its presence throughout the years -- but also it should be an acknowledgment of the historical (and persistent) challenges that students and other members of the community from marginalized groups have faced in Swarthmore's institutional structure,” Chen wrote to Voices.

Chen began work on the discussion and display at the beginning of October. “Over the months, I went through all of the physical IC archives in the Friends Historical Library in addition to all the digital Phoenix archives,” Chen noted. “Going through all these resources gave me a detailed picture of what the history of the IC over the last 25 years or so has been.”

IC interns Jessica Xu ‘19 and Ferial Berjawi ‘19 began the event on Thursday by introducing the panelists and the topics of discussion. .Peter Schmidt, professor and Department Chair of the English Department,  worked alongside students in the IC’s creation. The other three panelists were Swarthmore students during its founding. Rita Burgos ‘93 is a self identified “instigator and … trouble maker of the IC”. Gayle Isa ‘93 said she “identifies just as strongly with being Asian American as she does with being a gemini”. , Zed Bell‘91 noted that he identified as female and queer during his time at Swarthmore but now identifies as male and trans.




The panelists began by describing to the atmosphere on Swarthmore’s campus in the early 90s, settling on the word “tumultuous.” Tensions were building and students were looking desperately for spaces to call their own, spaces to be themselves, and greater representation in curriculum and faculty.

Burgos said that many in the Swarthmore community were“rebelling against an unstated culture of whiteness at the school.” The demographic of students of color in 1991 was hovering between 15% and 20%. Her response to the lack of multiculturalism on campus was, she remembers, rage. “This place needed to reflect me a little more.”

In Schmidt’s perspective, “Swarthmore had not left the black/white paradigm, and those who didn’t fit within that black/white paradigm had no space to turn to.” He notes that the creation of the IC was, in a way, “acknowledging a new demographic in the school, a new demographic in the country.”

In terms of Queer life on campus, Bell remembers that the community was  largely unacknowledged and unsupported. The few meetings they had, he said, were held in the back closet in the current IC building. “There were less [queer] people out on campus than you could count on one hand,” he says.

When asked why they pushed for the IC’s creation, Burgos described the difference between consciously and unconsciously creating something. Looking back, she said, “I didn’t always know why I was doing what I was doing.” Nevertheless, she attributes the impetus for her actions to a “search for wholeness.” Expressing gratitude for the way that Swarthmore prompted her to consider questions of identity and purpose and meaning, she said she deeply appreciates Swathmore for asking students to think about what she terms “the big questions.”

Burgos wishes they had begun the founding of the IC by sitting down to establish a set of given principles and tenets that would inform the IC in its beginnings and guide it as it grew into the future.

Instead of a set of principles guiding its design, it was the BCC, founded in the late ‘60s, that served as the most important model in crafting the structure and functions of the IC. Schmidt remembers noting how the BCC created both public and private spaces for students. He said that many people held the same dream for the IC. While there was consideration among faculty of whether the IC would create more or less division on campus,  Ultimately, the majority of them settled to support the creation of, as Schmidt described, “a space to acknowledge the multiplicity of the people on this campus.”

Like many valuable fixtures of this campus, the IC came to fruition through a series of protests. According to Burgos, an African American student took issue with the lack of diversity in paintings on Parrish Parlor’s walls“Why aren’t there any brothers or sisters on the wall?”

She proceeded to write this sentiment onto a sign and post in on the wall in Parrish. The action cascaded the community into a huge discussion that took place in person as in the form of photographs, art, posters and quotes nailed to the wall in a huge controversial collage.

The display reached its crescendo when a Korean American student, an art major, posted a painting he had made of Malcolm X only to find it torn down and ripped into a pieces a few days later surrounded artifacts that signified a mock lynching.

Protests were organized around the poster compilation and eventually, the momentum culminated in an organized walk out.

“Out of that, and that moment, one of the concessions that the college made was to create and commit institutional resources to greeting the IC,” said Burgos. The unlikely combination of student groups that were the first to make the IC reality included a Latinx student group, an Asian American student group and a queer student group.

An unlikely combination of identities, these groups were challenged to understand the intersections of their struggle and to find common ground. Ultimately, they worked together knowing that, as Burgos said, “We’re in this together.”

Schmidt offered his perspective of the role of the new IC as a faculty member. “Whiteness was governing the things that got taught and weren’t taught in ways that were not being talked about,” he said. For the administration and faculty, the creation of the IC was about moving away from a simplistic understanding of diversity. The large room in which the board met a few times a year, where the colleges large decisions were made, was given over to house the groups coming together to create the IC. This change in the use of this space, noted Schmidt, marks a “giant reconceptualization of what the college should be defined by.”  

Schmidt adds that multiculturalism was new to Swarthmore, especially to Swarthmore’s leadership. “The student body has evolved in a way that the institution hasn’t yet evolved to meet,” he said, adding that this is frequently the case.

Wrapping up, Burgos shared something she learned to be vital to her life and advocacy work at Swarthmore. “Focus on agency over alienation,” she said, “what you can create is far more important than the alienation you feel.”

Twenty-five years later, the IC continues to bring students with different identities together. With over 15 groups in the IC Collective, the IC was involved in the production of 53 events last semester. For IC intern Gene Witkowski ‘21, “it was crazy for [him] to realize just how present the team is on campus and how many students [they] have the power to reach.”

Interning at the IC has also opened his eyes to the injustices present around the world and in Swarthmore. “Growing up, I thought I had it hard, but through the IC I've become exposed to stories far more difficult to tell than my own. I'm angry that those stories exist in the first place; the idea that a person's identity, an identity that they did not choose and cannot change, can inspire such cruelty and intolerance on the part of others, hurts me” Witkowski said.

Though these experiences can be disheartening, having resources like the IC help students like interns Witkowski and Faith Booker ‘21 find a way to channel their anger to make a difference in the Swarthmore community. The IC “opened a lot of avenues of communication and gave me a lot of connections I probably wouldn’t have had access to,” Booker said. “There are a lot of people doing really important and special things on campus...I got to see it up close.”

As the IC continues to celebrate its 25th anniversary celebration, it has big plans for the future. “I know that one of the IC's goals this semester is to become more visible, and I personally hope that we're able to accomplish that -- simply being present is significant in and of itself,” said Witkowski. He hopes that all Swarthmore students come and experience what the IC has to offer and to use their platforms to change the injustices they see in the world.

Chen noted the importance of preserving the history of the IC. “Institutional memory is difficult to keep at Swarthmore, but the history is vital, especially to understand that the IC did not come to existence in a vacuum; rather, it's the work of many generations of students, faculty, and staff.”

Booker said, “The IC was founded by troublemakers, and I’d encourage anyone who has the guts to be that. Every generation needs that.”