The College community celebrated the dedication of the Hormel-Nguyen Intercultural Center (IC) in style on Friday, with an overflow crowd relishing live music and festive foods while getting to know the various staff members and students who call it home.
It was a celebration, too, of Swarthmore deepening its commitment to inclusivity and diversity and to educating the whole person, and of the generosity of James Hormel ’55 and Michael Nguyen ’08 that made it all possible. Hormel, an attorney and member of the College’s Board of Managers, and his husband, Nguyen, a performing artist, gave $4.3 million for the realization of a new IC.
“This is a space that embraces difference, that provides support in challenging times, and that celebrates the diversity that makes the Swarthmore College community so rich,” Provost Sarah Willie-LeBreton told the crowd. “This is the result of years of campuswide conversations about the need to develop and improve communal spaces, to enhance opportunities for informal gatherings and conversation as well as creative collaboration.”
“I want to thank you all, all of you who are involved, all of you who’ve supported this project, and all of you who made a commitment to the diversity of this campus,” Hormel told the crowd at Friday’s ceremony. “I understand that 23 different groups are served by this facility. We’re extremely proud to be a part of that.”
Added Nguyen: “I find that it’s quite interesting that we have repurposed an observatory, which very symbolically has been a space of outward looking, outward thinking, seeing beyond ourselves, and all of the infinite possibilities in the universe.”
The Intercultural Center has 26 years of rich history at Swarthmore, and its Big Room in Clothier Hall remains a destination. But the reimagined space across the courtyard, opened earlier this year, brings the IC and the offices of Religious and Spiritual Life and the International Student Center under one roof in the heart of campus. It is bolstering the IC’s programs and creating chances for cross-collaboration, says Thomas Alexander, interim director of the IC and dean of the sophomore class.
“It’s raising these offices’ visibility and accessibility,” Alexander says. “We’ve got people from all areas of campus using the space in a variety of ways on a daily basis.”
It’s also giving affinity groups a space they can call their own, says Veronica Testi ’21, “without being compacted into a singular IC.”
“I think it’s been a long time coming,” says the Queens, N.Y., native. “I think it’s already having a huge impact in terms of helping students feel recognized by the campus, as it simultaneously allows people of many identities to meet and have meaningful conversations.”
Those conversations often occur naturally, as students waiting to speak to a staff member strike up their own discussions, sparking insights and connections, notes Jennifer Marks-Gold, director of the International Student Center.
“I’ve already met so many students I wouldn’t have otherwise,” agrees Joyce Tompkins, director of religious and spiritual life. “Now we have people with all of these identities in one place, celebrating those identities at the same time, experiencing their overlap in ways they weren’t before.”
None of that would be possible, though, if the place weren’t welcoming. But from the coffee and tea station that greets visitors, to the lounge seating and blankets in front of the fireplace, to the community-building kitchen, the IC is scoring high marks.
“I’ve found it the most welcoming and soothing place on campus,” says Rodrigo Hernandez ’19, a political science and economics major from Panama City, Panama. “From the spacing of the furniture to the lighting, the IC has allowed me to both study comfortably and have conversation in a pleasant environment.”
“The small lounge with the couches and fireplace provides a safe space for us to have discussions about identifying as religious or not, first-gen, low-income, or Latinx/people of color,” adds Elizabeth Garcia ’22, of York Springs, Pa. “It’s comforting to know that this space exists for us to reconvene and be open about our fears and ambitions.”
The IC staff loves the new space and the programming options it affords. Among the key spaces are the kitchen, which can host a workshop or a faculty luncheon of 20 people, and the ground-floor commons, which earlier this month was the site of an altar for Mexican, Haitian, and Puerto Rican commemorations of the dead.
“The mix of different groups that have a home here was a great context for lifting up the value of [the commemorations],” says Rabbi Michael Ramberg, Jewish student adviser. “Such cultural expressions are incredibly important to students of the cultural groups on campus and enrich our community as a whole."
But the showstopper for the new building, both at Friday’s celebration and since its opening last month, is the second-floor dome space, where the Sproul Observatory’s telescope used to be. Able to accommodate between 90 and 150 people, depending on the setup, the space looks and sounds great.
“It’s special,” says Ramberg, “unlike any other location in the heart of campus.”
The dome made its mark on the community from its very first event—a vigil after the synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and the killings of two African-Americans in Kentucky. It’s also the spot for the monthly IC Art House, a poetry open mic with a featured artist that affords “a different type of performance, and for the artists to move around and interact with the students in a different way,” says Nyk Robertson, associate director of gender and sexuality initiatives and program manager for the Women’s Resource Center. It was also the location of a faith and LGBTQ+ identity event for Transgender Day of Remembrance last week.
For all of these events and more, including morning yoga open to the College community, the staff and students share a wealth of resources and opportunities. There is no need for IC staff to search out space on campus or call in caterers or Media Services—a “game-changer,” says Alexander.
Bringing the lived-in, “homey” feel of the old IC was a key discussion point at the IC student and staff retreat held earlier this year, and remains a top priority. It all ties back to the ultimate goal, says Alexander, of making the space as comfortable and useful as possible for as many as possible.
Says Hernandez: “I hope the new space can keep attracting more students and encouraging the connectivity among the student body that makes Swarthmore special.”
Learn more about Swarthmore’s commitment to access and inclusion at lifechanging.swarthmore.edu.