Staff members of the Centers for Student Equity, Empowerment and Belonging pose in front of office at 626 Thurston Ave.

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Identity-based offices unite under new name, offer greater student support

During her first semester at Cornell, amidst the pandemic, Logan Gibbs-Porter ’25 found it challenging to connect with people who shared similar life experiences as a Black, queer, genderfluid person. However, things changed when she came across Haven, The LGBTQ Student Union.

"Without Haven, I feel like I would have had a very lonely experience,” Gibbs-Porter said. “I've always cared for community - that was always a core value of mine - but I realized I have a talent for it and it's something that I need in my daily life."

The Haven student organization is advised and supported by staff at the LGBT Resource Center, one of the seven offices within the newly established Centers for Student Equity, Empowerment, and Belonging. The group of affinity and identity-based organizations, overseen by the Office of the Dean of Students, officially came together under the new name this summer.

The new name is meant to strengthen connections for students navigating the offices and the groups they work with, and emphasize the intersections of students' varied identities.

“Without a feeling of belonging, it's harder to feel like you can excel in academics,” said Huey Hsiao, the interim co-director of the Centers and the Kent G. Sheng ’78 Associate Dean of Students and Director of the Asian and Asian American Center.

“If you don't feel like you are safe, that you're accepted and belong at an institution, you're not going to thrive in the classroom. So that's what the students come to the Centers for,” Hsiao said.

Gibbs-Porter, a biology and society major, joined Haven during their first semester on campus to connect with other queer people and became co-president of the group in 2021. As a leader in Haven, they learned about another office within the Centers; the Gender Equity Resource Center (GenEq,) formerly called the Women’s Resource Center. As a student worker in GenEq Gibbs-Porter formed connections across multiple offices, inspiring them to coordinate a unique event, Found Family Dinner, for students seeking a non-traditional celebration at Thanksgiving in 2022.

The event was a collaborative effort among multiple groups, emphasizing the significance of supporting the multifaceted identities of each student. It took place in the meeting room of the Africana Center and featured a selection of West African vegan cuisine. This gathering was co-sponsored by GenEq, the Native American and Indigenous Students at Cornell and Haven.

“It had been a long time since I myself had been home to celebrate family and togetherness, and having this event brought me to tears,” Gibbs-Porter said. “It was a really wholesome thing that encouraged intersectional identity. Especially at a university that's so big, it was really nice to be able to feel like we found each other in that moment.”

The Centers combines six existing offices; Asian and Asian American Center, Gender Equity Resource Center, LGBT Resource Center, Office of Spirituality and Meaning-Making, First-Generation and Low-Income Student Support and Undocumented/DACA Student Support, along with two new 2023 additions; Black Student Empowerment and Latinx Student Empowerment.

“We want students to take greater control of their life as a student here and take advantage of all the opportunities at Cornell,” said Marla Love, Robert W. and Elizabeth C. Staley Dean of Students. “We're trying to cultivate communities that welcome individuals, that celebrate their identities and that value their contributions, making the whole Cornell community richer.”

The Centers new name had been in the planning stages for many years, but stalled during the pandemic. Love said that the words equity, empowerment and belonging were chosen because they encapsulate all of the work done within The Centers.

“We use the word empowerment because we want to promote asset-based development in which we partner with students to enhance their Cornell experience,” Love said.

Students seeking community, education and connection based on factors such as culture, race, socioeconomic status, gender, gender expression, sexual orientation, immigration status, religion or spirituality can now explore new pathways to connect more deeply with peers seeking intersecting communities.

“The LGBT Resource Center has existed for 30 years, and I think we have a good reputation on campus,” said Cortney Johnson, interim co-director of the Centers and associate dean of students and director of the LGBT Resource Center. “But people think we exist floating in space. If students know the LGBT resource center exists, but don't know that it's connected to a root system of different identity supports, I think we lose some of our impact.”

Each office within the Centers offers signature programming tailored to their specific communities as well as internship opportunities and workshops. Ongoing programs include Boba Talks; a discussion series addressing mental health within the Asian community, Afternoon Tea Dinner Series; an opportunity for undocumented and DACA students to support each other and Care Groups; staff-facilitated meetings where students can explore meaning, purpose, faith and spirituality. Each office also has staff who advise student organizations like Haven.

As a collective, The Centers work to support Cornell students who may be facing additional barriers that impact how they connect with and experience life on campus.

“Sometimes those barriers are social; building community, finding people who have a similar experience to you, and some of them are more pressing, like feeling safe,” Johnson said. “Our centers aim to create those social spaces for community building and they also provide services that not the whole general student body is going to need.”

The Centers are located across campus – in Barnes Hall, Willard Straight Hall, Anabel Taylor Hall and at 626 Thurston Ave. – to provide students with easy access to resources. Each office offers unique amenities such as lounge spaces for studying or relaxing, meeting rooms, spiritual reflection spaces and free supplies.ß

Gibbs-Porter said her exposure to multiple offices within the Centers has been the highlight of her college experience. One of her favorite events, 'No you’re not overreacting,’ a student-led discussion series seeking to cultivate campus inclusivity and empowerment for women of color, helped her open up about the hardships of daily life while relating to others.

“A lot of people go through the same loneliness and feelings of isolation as I went through. They feel the same amount of pressure as I feel to be super great and successful,” Gibbs-Porter said after hearing others’ stories at the event hosted by GenEq. “This was a space to not only express it, but to work through it, while building relationships.”

Laura Gallup is a communications lead for Student & Campus Life.

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