ODI a home away from home for students

Everybody likes to be included, just ask Bryan Sanchez and Samuel Nava.

As the two students met for a friendly exchange in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI), they remarked on the warm, welcoming atmosphere of a space that is quickly becoming one of the more popular hangout spots on campus.

“You really don’t see another office where students from a lot of different countries come in to do homework, to hang out,” Sanchez said.

The office is tucked away in a corner of the Rhatigan Student Center’s second floor, a space it has called home since changing its name from the Office of Multicultural Affairs and relocating in August 2014.

The space does not appear to be different from most other offices at WSU, with a reception desk, a meeting room, a seating area and a few individual offices for staff members. What sets ODI apart is the atmosphere.

Countless students like Sanchez and Nava go to ODI during the free time they have to work, relax, utilize the free printer or even knit. To hear Nava tell it, ODI accepts everyone, making it a perfect spot for students who might feel like they do not fit in elsewhere.

“The office gives you a place of comfort to do everything,” Nava said.

ODI Director Alicia Sanchez oversaw the name change and relocation efforts almost two years ago. She said that, from that fall semester to the next, there was a 150 percent increase in students utilizing the office.

For Alicia Sanchez, this is indicative of a job well done. She and her staff have created something of a safe haven for everyone.

“If you haven’t necessarily found your niche on campus, you can come in here and you’re going to meet people, and everyone is going to welcome you,” she said. “You’re not going to come in here and feel like you’re turned away because of the way you look, the way you dress.”

Of course, there is more to it than hanging out. ODI works with groups like the Hispanic American Latino Organization and Spectrum  — WSU’s LGBTQ support network — to provide academic support and organize events.

Actress and transgender activist Laverne Cox spoke at WSU last year and noted, anti-racism writer Tim Wise has an upcoming appearance in February.

Alicia Sanchez sees ODI’s mission as one of education, hoping to increase students’ understanding of each other so they can work to reduce their inherent biases.

“How can you even have a productive conversation if there is no baseline cultural communication, experience or knowledge?” Alicia Sanchez asked.

Program coordinator Danielle Johnson sees progress happening right outside her office door, often walking out into conversations about Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter or transgender rights. Students engaging in stimulating dialogue like that is emblematic of ODI’s message.

“We really push that students are able to be their authentic selves,” Johnson said. “You can be whoever you want to be in the office.”

Johnson is motivated by her own lived experiences to help WSU students in any way she can.

“When I see students going through some of the same things that I went through, I’m like, ‘That’s not OK,’ Johnson said. “They need change agents on this campus, and we need to support our student population.”

Providing a safe space and support is obviously a significant part of what ODI does, but Alicia Sanchez expects bigger things in their future. She wants widespread, systemic change within and outside the university ecosystem.

“It’s one thing to bring students to programs, to provide academic support,” she said. “But we’re not doing our job if … students aren’t being retained and graduating, and they’re not being gainfully employed.”

Until then, however, ODI exists to help anyone who needs it. Nava said any student who feels unwelcome at WSU should pay a visit.

“The majority of the people that come here have been in that position, they felt isolated or felt unwelcome,” Nava said. “We know what it’s like, and we welcome anyone.”