Learning to lead
Campus center helps students connect, grow
Julie Ortega remembers her first day at Chico State vividly. Now a senior, Ortega, who grew up in Oakland and attended a primarily Latino high school, experienced culture shock in a big way.
“When I stepped foot on campus, at first I didn’t even think that the culture would affect me,” she said. “When I walked into my first couple of classes, I noticed that I was one of a few people of color in my classroom—like four of us. It made me feel a little sad.”
As a first-generation college student from a low-income background, Ortega sought support from the Cross-Cultural Leadership Center (CCLC)—an on-campus program that, according to part of its mission, “exists to create an environment in which all students, regardless of their ethnicity, culture or differences, feel respected, connected and affirmed.”
For Ortega, that rings true. She was welcomed by staff, which is composed primarily of students, and found her place on campus. In fact, Ortega’s experiences at the center were so life-changing that she’s now one of its interns.
The CCLC was founded in 2007 and will celebrate its 10-year anniversary in September (see infobox). A lot has changed since those early days.
In the fall of 2014, Chico State became a Hispanic-Serving Institution, meaning at least a quarter of its student body is Hispanic. The designation allows the university the opportunity to seek out specified grant funding from the U.S. Department of Education. According to a campus press release, the university has already received a five-year, $4.2 million grant that aims “to increase the number of Hispanic and other low-income students attaining degrees in the fields of science, technology, engineering or mathematics.”
Despite the designation, Krystle Tonga, an assistant program coordinator for the CCLC, said that students of color may still feel isolated on campus. Thus, part of the center’s mission is to help them combine their cultural identity with leadership skills.
“Students will come in here and they’ll say, ‘I’m not a leader—that doesn’t resonate with me,’” she said. “For us, it’s helping them recognize that their voice is their power, their story is their power and that they get a chance to shape that story through transformational leadership.”
Earlier this summer, for example, the center hosted a luncheon with the university’s president, Gayle Hutchinson. Members of the CCLC’s staff spoke with Hutchinson about the center and its goals, and what it means for the campus. They also learned more about the president’s plans for the university.
The center offers students a variety of programs. One of them, Beyond Obstacles Leadership Development, teaches students how to succeed on campus. Each biweekly meeting covers a different topic including self-exploration, leadership and diversity, said Karla Guzman, a CCLC student employee.
Another program, Pipeline Through College, pairs students from underperforming high schools in Sacramento with volunteer student mentors from Chico State. The goal: to show the high-schoolers that higher education is achievable and to allow the undergraduates to develop their leadership skills.
Tonga has held her current position with CCLC since 2012, but she remembers what it was like to be a student struggling to fit in and overcome obstacles and how the center helped her to do so.
“The CCLC saved my life,” she said. “For me, as a student, it truly was a place of possibility.”