The MLC gives students a safe place to call home

by Casey Donart

MADISON, Wis. – They definitely cleaned up the mess.

At least, that’s the version of the story I received from the second floor on their not-so-legal indoor snowball fight.

“We brought in a bowl of snow and then everybody was just throwing it at each other and stuff,” Multicultural Learning Community resident Marlena Sturtzen said. “The snow was kind of hard and crumbly, but we definitely swept it and cleaned it up after.”

Just another bonding experience in the MLC, according to the residents.

The Multicultural Learning Community (MLC), located on the second floor of Witte Hall, is the home away from home for 56 students on campus. Created upon request by students who wanted a space where they would always feel welcome, the MLC remains a unique community for students to explore identity and multiculturalism.

Before arriving to campus in the fall, students are able to rank their preferences of University Housing options. Those who select a learning community, such as the MLC, are able to choose a specific room to live in for the upcoming year.

According to Jennifer Roche, residence life coordinator, the housing process means the MLC is made up of residents who specifically chose to be there.

“Knowing you are bringing together a group of students who have expressed interest in a specific topic, you are able to create a very different type of support within that community, because every student has chosen intentionally to be a part of [it],” Roche said.

This shared interest, combined with MLC-only events such as cultural dinners and trips to amusement parks and local performances, has allowed everyone to bond early on in the year, MLC resident Evan Kalaw said.

“In the beginning, we had ice-breakers and a lot of events on the floor and it was really easy to get to know people,” Kalaw said. “Now everyone on this floor is really close.”

Close enough to do silly activities like snowball fights and obstacle courses in the hallway. But while the MLC residents love their games, it was their more serious interactions, such as the cultural dinners, “lemon squeezes” and social justice speaker events, that created the connection they now share.

Bi-weekly discussions on the floor, called “lemon squeezes”, focus on issues of race, gender and social justice and encourage the residents to share their oftentimes personal, individual experiences.

“I think the rest of the dorm, you get to know people on just a friendly level, but living in the MLC, you get to connect with people on an intellectual level as well,” Sturtzen said. “We would talk to each other about serious issues and get each other’s opinions, so in that way, you really get to connect with people on a deeper level as well.”

The MLC also hosts a 3-credit seminar class called Multiculturalism and Social Justice to further supplement the discussions on the floor. Current resident Jaxs Goldsmith, who transferred from Cole Hall to the MLC at the beginning of the semester, said that the class is a great way to share his thoughts with his fellow residents.

“It really is a space where you can vent your problems,” Goldsmith said. “Whatever it is that you want to talk about, they are more than willing to hear what you have to say about it. It’s just amazing. I love that class; it really gives you a chance to speak.”

During the year, a series of speakers come to the MLC and share their experiences in social justice advocacy in fields such as politics, education and the arts. It’s these conversations, combined with everything else, that accomplish the MLC’s original goal of creating an inclusive space for all ethnicities, cultures and diversities, Roche said.

“The seminar course, programming and the conversations that students are having, either with their house fellow or each other, [are] helping to increase their education about different aspects of identity and culture,” Roche said. “It’s a way to help them have information so they are able to engage and continue to learn more and build relationships across differences.”

Aside from the professional staff, the MLC is similar to other floors in the residence halls in that it has a house fellow, a resident student staff member who is responsible for community building and the everyday interactions on the floor.

Asly Warren, the MLC house fellow, is a junior this year and lived in the MLC herself freshman year. She said she chose to be a house fellow because she wanted to help other students in the way the MLC and her house fellow had helped her.

“For me, I just really wanted to continue the mission of the MLC,” Warren said. “I just thought that I wanted to create a safe space for students. I wanted to help and influence students as much as my house fellow influenced me.”

While the MLC is unique in its mission to create a multicultural space, it is only one of 10 learning communities on campus. Many of the others focus on particular niches such as the Women in Science & Engineering community and the International and Language Houses.

Carren Martin, director of the Center for the First-Year Experience, spoke more broadly on the role learning communities have at helping students overcome the challenges of adjusting to college.

“[Learning communities] try to connect people to their academic experience, but they are also where students live and are a smaller community of people,” Martin said. “So I think as much integration as those communities find, I think it is a real positive for students.”

At the end of this semester, the residents of the MLC will be moving on to new adventures in different locations, but the experiences they’ve shared on the second floor won’t be easily forgotten.

“This is one big family,” Goldsmith said. “We’ve come to learn who we are, what we do, each other’s quirks, each other’s strengths. We’ve really grown close to one another, and I think that’s the thing I’m going to remember and miss the most.”