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MSSC expands presence, reach during director’s first year

Colin Wagner | Photographer
Multicultural Student Services Center Director Dustin Pickett.

The Multicultural Student Services Center will focus on expanding its on-campus presence and representation of student groups as Director Dustin Pickett nears the end of his first year leading the center.

Pickett said the MSSC’s physical space will expand from one portion of the University Student Center’s fifth floor to the entire floor by the end of the school year and hopes to expand the center’s services to the Mount Vernon and the Virginia Science and Technology campuses, with an emphasis on bolstering the center’s LGBTQ+ and religious support. Pickett — who took over as director in January following the retirement of former director Michael Tapscott, who served nearly two decades in the role — said he met with four former MSSC directors, including Tapscott, to learn about the center’s history and possible improvements during his first months at the helm of the center.

The MSSC is housed under GW’s Office for Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement and strives to foster an inclusive community at GW through community programming and support built on three pillars: race, ethnicity and culture; gender and sexuality; and religion, faith and spirituality. Pickett said his predecessors advised him to keep students at the focal point of his goals, which he integrated as a core principle of his leadership.

“What I plan to do is to continue doing what I’m doing — building connections, charting a way forward, honoring the leadership that Mr. Tapscott brought here to really honor what he’s done and then also vision for what the future of this space can be,” Pickett said.

Officials temporarily moved the MSSC from its former home in an 118-year-old townhouse on G Street to the fifth-floor student center space in January because of pest and HVAC issues, like rats and black mold. Officials made the move permanent in September, a switch that Pickett said was because of ADA accessibility issues in the old townhouse and the cost of the extensive renovations required to make it accessible.

Pickett said the center’s physical presence will grow from its suite on the fifth floor — which formerly housed offices like the Office of Study Abroad and International Services Office that are now located in the reopened G Street townhouse — to the entirety of the floor by the end of the academic year. Pickett said the MSSC has seen an uptick in student engagement after its first months in the student center and now requires students to tap their GWorld card at the front desk to track how many times people enter the center.

“There was some apprehension, but I think overall, when students started to see the cubicles coming down and what the space was shifting into, a lot of folks have named that it really feels good to be in the space,” Pickett said. 

He said the MSSC’s student center location allows the MSSC to host larger and more spontaneous events like the Black Student Union’s opening mixer earlier in the semester which about 200 people attended. He said the former G Street townhouse could not have accommodated an event of that size.

“The centrality of where we are located, I think this space is different and so it provides a different level of possibility,” Pickett said. 

Pickett said officials are adding in new furniture to the center’s current space on the fifth floor and are considering painting the “LGBTQIA+ resource room” in the center, which will include a gender-affirming closet with clothing and resources like TransTape — a chest-binding tape — that help students align with their gender identities. He said he hopes to also install a gender-affirming wardrobe on the Vern.

“Mainly they’ve been set up for folks who may be transitioning or are navigating trying to better express who they are and it just provides clothing options, which may be difficult sometimes for folks to get a hold of,” Pickett said.

Pickett said GW aims to cultivate more religious pluralism on campus and just filed to enter the Interfaith, Spiritual, Religious and Secular Campus Climate Index, a national database that evaluates a university’s efforts toward promoting a welcoming environment for students of different religious identities.

Pickett said their membership into the index will “answer some questions” and will help the University foster an inclusive environment for people of all faiths and prioritize resources accordingly.

“We’ll get a rating and then we will continue to shift, update, edit, develop policies and programs and initiatives to ensure that we’re increasing and continue to build and better,” Pickett said.

In response to how the MSSC plans to help students dealing with pain and mixed feelings among students about the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, Pickett said the center will continue to be a place where students can lead their own conversations about intense topics, receive support from staff and get connected with campus resources like Counseling and Psychological Services.

“We have always had to respond to moments of crisis and be a support avenue for students,” Pickett said. “We will continue to do what we have done over the past 54 years, is to be here to support students to offer space for students to really allow this to be what they need.”

Sophia Martinez Tohmi, a junior and the student programming assistant for the MSSC, said while the center is built on three pillars, people are not as aware of the LGBTQ+ and religious components because the centers name only reflects the “multicultural” aspect. She said Pickett’s push to expand these resources and make them more widely known has been effective.

“For someone who might not know about the MSSC, that might not necessarily be their first thought of being like, ‘Oh, they have this and these religious and LGBTQ+ resources as well,’” Martinez Tohmi said.

Religious and LGBTQ+ organization leaders said they forged stronger connections with the MSSC since Pickett stepped into the role, opening opportunities for collaboration between student groups on campus.

Megan Clancy, a junior and the president of GW Catholics, said the organization did not interact much with the MSSC before Robert Zayd KiaNouri-Zigmund, the center’s graduate assistant for religious and spiritual life, reached out to them at the start of the school year about ways the center can support them.

“Having that point person, that partnership with the University through the MSSC was really exciting for us because that, in our view, gives us greater visibility and greater accessibility,” Clancy said.

Clancy said the new bond has allowed them to collaborate with Hispanic student organizations to commemorate el Día de los Muertos by leading a procession Wednesday from an ofrenda at the student center to the Newman Catholic Student Center townhouse on F Street. Clancy said GW Catholics’ Chaplain Father Benjamin Petty will be performing a mass in Spanish.

Clancy said the MSSC’s plans to take over the entire fifth floor of the student center would help organizations, who may not have their own physical space on campus, better foster a community.

“Expanding the MSSC, hopefully, would be able to provide that for every student org because having an actual space can make all the difference,” Clancy said.

Dina Grossman, the president of Kehila GW — a student organization for students who identify as Jewish and part of the LGBTQ+ community — said this year all LGBTQ+ organization leaders have a shared group chat with AJ King, the associate director of the MSSC’s LGBTQ Resource Center, to keep each other informed and work collaboratively for event programming.

“That’s what the queer community is all about,” Grossman said. “It’s all about that community and so we’re trying to work together and build on those relationships across the orgs.”

Grace Chinowsky contributed reporting.

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About the Contributor
Fiona Bork, Assistant News Editor
Fiona Bork is a sophomore majoring in journalism and mass communication from San Diego, California. She is The Hatchet's 2023-2024 assistant news editor for the Student Life beat.
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