Vassar Today

Creating Community

By Rachel Beck '04

In October Vassar unveiled the new student space on the second floor above the All-Campus Dining Center. Thanks to a generous donation from Philip and Lynn Gross Straus '46, the college has reclaimed this space (from catering offices and a bake shop). There are now even more student-friendly venues on campus for exchanging ideas, studying, or simply chilling out. Among the busiest and most popular spots are:

ALANA Center

Michael Awusie '04 found out about the African American/Black, Asian/Asian American, Latino, Native American (ALANA) Center, a major campus resource for students of color, when he attended meetings of the Black Students Union (BSU). During his junior year, he was a program assistant there. "I got to work with a lot of people, mostly through organizations like the BSU, ASU [African Students Union], and the Asian Students Alliance," he said. "Students would also come over to have a quiet place to study, or to just hang out or watch TV."

Beyond that, the ALANA Center serves as a place to discuss issues, Awusie said, including interracial and intraracial relations, retention and success for students of color, and ways to continue building an all-inclusive community. Some topics "people are open to talking about all day," he noted, "but others make people uncomfortable. Sometimes the community needs to be pushed in some way, and one way to get the conversation going is through the center. It wasn't until I really started getting involved there that I realized these were not just my issues — they were also other people's issues, and I wasn't the only one going through this."

Working at the ALANA Center offers him a unique opportunity to be a leader and a facilitator, Awusie asserted. "If you work there, you have no choice but to think about your community and what you can do to improve it and make people feel more welcome. In addition to broadening your own experience, you're focusing on broadening Vassar's experience in general. It really makes you feel like you have a stake in the transformation and enhancement of the whole community."

A student gets her blood drawn, sitting in a chair and smiling
A student gets her blood drawn, sitting in a chair and smiling

The Villard Room is the setting for several all-campus blood drives each year.

Villard Room

Anyone on campus on September 11, 2001, can still recall the fear, shock, and confusion of that morning. Compounding those emotions was the desire to be with others. Many eventually found themselves in the Villard Room, where the college set up a big screen television so that students could gather and watch CNN. People came and went amid tears and hugs, but the room was never empty. At a time when students wanted to be informed and embraced, the Villard Room was a place of comfort and communication.

Though typically it is used for everything from lectures to film screenings to banquets to parties, the Villard Room is often where students go to be soothed or to improve their well-being. With its comfortable furniture, grand piano, high ceilings, and many windows overlooking the College Center, it's the site of regular blood drives, in which campus members and the greater community participate; De-Stress Daze, a finals-week event that gives students a chance to unwind and relieve end-of-term tension; and SEXPO, a fair of sexual health information and HIV testing.

The 2nd floor of ACDC: The new Students' Center
The 2nd floor of ACDC: The new Students' Center

Donors Philip and Lynn Gross Straus '46 intended that this new space be specifically for students.

Students' Building

Once upon a time — prior to 1974 — Vassar had a student center. It was a lovely area where students could go to relax, converse, study, or reflect. Now the newly renovated space is again open day and night, serving, in the words of President Frances Fergusson, as "a much-needed site for the ever-burgeoning extracurricular life of our students."

Recent events in the new student center have confirmed that sentiment. A presentation by geology professor Brian McAdoo's "Digital Underground" class, for instance, featured research on a Dutchess County public burial ground. "It's a beautiful space," observed McAdoo.

Other offerings have varied from a poetry reading hosted by the student group Poder Latino to a hypnotist sponsored by Vassar College Entertainment (ViCE). Whatever the affair, there's no doubt that the restored space will continue to impress.

Students exit the chapel as others blur in the background
Students exit the chapel as others blur in the background

As tradition dictates, convocation is held in the chapel. Seniors garbed in cap and gown and faculty adorned in academic robes gathered for the Fall 2003 Convocation, to listen to speaker Patricia Kenworthy, professor and chair of Hispanic studies, in celebration of the start of the academic year.


With its vaulted ceilings, dazzling stained glass, and somber air, the chapel is a place of inspiration — and sometimes intimidation, though it needn't be, according to Charlotta Asell '03, the community partnerships fellow in the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life. "I think it's a misunderstood place," said Asell. "It's not just a place of worship."

Sam Speers, director of religious and spiritual life, agreed. "We are a worship space, of course," he said, "but also a ceremonial space, a contemplative space, a community space, and a place for the arts. It's a gathering place for a diverse group of campus and community events."

In the past few months, the chapel has hosted everything from a Dar Williams concert to a conversation with actor Tom Hanks to a candlelight ceremony of lessons and carols. All of these events were open to the public, forming a bridge between the college and the larger community.

The chapel also strengthens identity within the Vassar sphere. "Without the use of this student space, the system would fall apart," said Chris Ramirez '04, a member of the Vassar Catholic Community. "People need the sense of community that the chapel generates."

And finally, it's a place where one can find sanctuary, apart from the almost constant swirl of activities that dominate the campus. "I'm struck by the number of people who just come to the chapel to be alone in a quiet place where it's not seen as odd to want to find a kind of public solitude," said Speers.