Volume 84 | Issue 3
May/June 2016

Osmosis 101: Culture and the College Union

Bernard J. Pitts, ACUI Past President
ACUI Past President Bernard J. PittsOver the years, our universities and colleges have established free-standing facilities designated to provide a physical and visible space for enrolled students of color and international students. These centers—in addition to providing students a place to relax, unwind, study, and support each other—also complement their academic studies and enrich the quality of campus life through educational resources and programs. Their student-directed programs promote an environment where diversity is valued and uniqueness respected. I am indebted to my mentor, the late George Stevens, former director of the Oregon State University Memorial Union, for his insight. It was his vision to establish and operate, as a Memorial Union service, several campus cultural centers. He resolved that if any group of students could not experience a supportive and comfortable campus environment, the college union has not fulfilled its mission. These special facilities continue to be considered vital to the campus community.

Although many campuses did not pursue this manner of support, most campuses, in fact, do have a cultural center. It is a universal cultural center and is called the college union. The college union is recognized for creating a comfortable, inclusive, and supportive campus-wide environment to enhance learning and the collegiate experience. This has been traditionally accomplished by using some basic components (i.e., food services, leisure recreation, convenient support services, meeting space, social/educational programs, and relaxing with peers in social gatherings). As the college union accomplishes its mission, it also augments, supplements, compliments, and accommodates the other campus cultural centers.

I am so proud that our profession continues to move forward. We should not get so focused in facility management, fiscal and human resource management, creative program planning/advising, renovation/construction, etc., but recognize we are also educators. In contrast to those traditionally seen as the educators on campus—faculty, we use different tools and sometimes in a stealthy way. Cultural awareness and understanding is often transmitted through intentional but tacit means. We contribute to holistic education and experiential learning but our syllabus is less linear. I suggest that all of our campus community members have one thing in common: We are all enrolled in the class Osmosis 101. Osmosis involves an absorption, diffusion, and suggestive medium. In the holistic educational environment, learning occurs in many ways including gradual or unconscious assimilation or exposure and adoption. The college union offers unlimited sections of Osmosis 101. For illustrative purposes, let’s assume you and I are attending this class today.

First, we walk over to the college union food court, as destination visitors, and select lunch from the 12 different food concepts. While in line, the person in front of us is one of the football stars. We chat and he invites us to his table. Face-to-face dialogue is certainly better than social media. After our lunch with our new acquaintance, we are walking toward the exit. There is a lot of traffic in the building due to high school visitation. We notice several high school students coming out of the art gallery saying, “People would not do other people that way.” We become impulse visitors and go into the gallery to see what provoked that comment. An impressive but graphic collection of photos and a short informational video of the Tutsi Genocide in Rwanda is on display. We question if it is possible that K–12 students are not exposed to this historic occurrence, and if so, what other history is not communicated? Just as we reach the exit, the university president walks in and asks if we are aware that city officials are hosting an open forum to discuss local challenges. We again became destination visitors and go to their presentation. We arrive early to the conference room, which has an Asian theme, and become impulse visitors when we notice an impressive Japanese scroll displayed with its interpretation. Next to it is a framed copy of a letter from then-President Bill Clinton formally apologizing for the United States’ action at the beginning of World War II, sending Japanese Americans to internment camps. Also in the frame is a copy of a check, as a symbolic action, to help cover their personal losses. After the city officials’ presentation we leave the college union by taking the primary interior stairway to the exit. We find the sensational life-size replica of a terracotta warrior of the Qin Shi Huang Army and its informational display. The archaeological find of these figures is considered the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” Once outside in the Union Plaza, we become impulse visitors and observe the start of an LGBTQ+ rally.

The next morning we start the day at the college union’s coffee lounge. We find ourselves tapping our feet to the background music. On the wall is an attractive poster that describes it as jazz and that it is America’s indigenous music. While sitting in the coffee lounge, we observe the diversity the college union brings together. It clearly reflects the different life styles, behaviors, mannerisms, communication methodology, etc. Taking our lattes, we walk down a hall showcasing local artisans’ work and arrive at the faculty senate meeting. In this small theater room hang the national flags of students who attend our university. An associate sits next to us and shares that he arrived early for this meeting, so took some time walking around and noticed that several of the meeting rooms in this part of the union were themed with interesting cultural information. The African American room displays information on the Negro Baseball Leagues and the Tuskegee Airmen. The Hispanic/Latino room has a display and information on the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the Mexican-American war. The Native American room displays information on the different tribes in our state and copies of several treaties. Before the meeting begins, we have a thoughtful conversation about what we’d learned in our elementary and secondary coursework and what lens those lessons used to present history. We wonder whether occurrences that have impacted our various cultures were presented accurately.

At the end of the day, we go to the college union recreation area to bowl a few games. When we arrive, the league for students with disabilities is just ending its games. While we wait, we end up talking with one of the students. She tells us about her nerve disorder and that she is also a military veteran who started a student organization for veterans with disabilities. She invites us to their upcoming panel discussion to be held in the union next week.

After spending most of the last two days in the college union, I am going to be anxious to see how I do on the Osmosis 101 midterm. If you kept count, we made four destination visits that led to nine impulse visits. The exposure from those impulse visits could lead to future destination visits and that could result in more impulse visits. Our college unions have always been able to captivate both destination and impulse visitors to our facilities, services, and programs. This is an advantage over standalone cultural centers, art museums, and other facilities because they are challenged to attract the impulse visitor who would normally not have an interest or may believe they don’t need to be exposed to that facility/service/program. Via general observation, you may find that a destination visitor may also become an impulse visitor during the same visit and an impulse visitor becomes a destination visitor the next time, specifically seeking out the college union. Thus the importance of the Osmosis 101 class.

Many agree it should be a top priority to create a comfortable, supportive, and inclusive environment for all students. Recently, we see central campus administrations becoming aware that students of color and marginalized populations are frustrated with the quality of their campus life experiences. Among these students’ concerns has been the need for greater cultural understanding throughout the entire campus community. We have an opportunity to connect with fellow ACUI members and identify ideas to infuse this education throughout our programs and facilities. States’ cultures, customs, traditions, and rituals could be a source for program opportunities. We can develop and share resources to support this goal. Given our role in providing successful educational and collegiate experiences to our destination and impulse visitors, college union professionals can be and should be an integral participant in administrators’ discussions and in implementing efforts to resolve these unfortunate situations.

Tomorrow is another day in Osmosis 101. Welcome to your college union.