UNIVERSITY PARK, PA. – Najee Rodriguez, vice president of the University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA), wants Penn State students to know, “This is your place.”
This fall, students and community members will be reminded daily as they walk around campus and Downtown State College thanks to a new UPUA-led “Every Person Belongs Here” banner campaign.
“It’s like putting out a welcome mat,” said Rodriguez, a sophomore who co-led the initiative and chaired the student government’s Judiciary and Justice Committee and represented the College of the Liberal Arts. “The banners will be a physical representation of our university values to create a welcoming and inclusive community for all and promote the idea that Penn State is a family and a home for every student.”
What began a few years ago as a “You’re Welcome” banner initiative by UPUA in partnership with the Borough of State College to welcome international students to campus and into the community has now expanded to include a broader message of belonging and support to cater to those of the past underrepresented and marginalized groups, said Lexy Pathickal, former UPUA vice president and senior Penn State who worked with Rodriguez on the project.
Pathickal recalls seeing the “You Are Welcome Here” banners downtown as a sophomore – and credits them for inspiring them to focus on their sophomore year at UPUA on promoting diversity and inclusion. As a junior, she worked on a second iteration of the banners until the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted plans last spring.
This semester, the revitalized “Every Person Belongs Here” banner was the focus of the UPUA’s new Justice and Justice Committee, established in 2020 to promote advocacy and advocacy efforts in Penn State and within the University Park student government to expand.
With support from the city and the Borough of State College, around 90 banners will be posted on sidewalks and sidewalks on campus and around the city starting in August.
“I am pleased that the student government has taken the lead in this important initiative and that other students have helped develop it,” said Damon Sims, vice president, student affairs. “Our collective determination to create and sustain a truly inclusive community has been challenged by recent events and is likely to be challenged again. But this initiative is a clear declaration of our intent, and I hope that it will be embraced by all members of our community with the same open and welcoming spirit from which it emerged. “
For Rodriguez, who also works with Lion Ambassadors, the Presidential Leadership Academy and the Liberal Arts Undergraduate Council, working on this project was of personal importance because of his own experience as a member of underrepresented groups.
“I come to this project from a perspective of empathy and compassion and who I am in my identity as the strange person of color. When new and aspiring students come to the university and see the banners, I hope they feel accepted and understood and that they belong here no matter where they are from, ”said Rodriguez. “This is who we are as a community.”
To create the banners, Rodriguez and Pathickal said it was important to have a wide variety of voices involved in the process.
They worked with representatives of the UPUA – including representatives of the Black Caucus. Latino caucus; Lion pride; Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Caucus and more – as well as other university groups like the Indigenous Peoples’ Student Association and Student Disability Resources. After months of contacting and chatting, the first row of banners will contain a message of affiliation for international, Asian, LGBTQIA +, black, Latin American, indigenous, religious and spiritual students and community members. Diversity of thoughts; and people with disabilities.
The couple hope that UPUA will continue to include even more groups and identities in the future.
“It can only be expanded from here. We have established the blueprint and I am excited to see what can happen as we gradually expand this program to a variety of other communities, ”said Rodriguez. “I think it is important for students of all backgrounds to see these banners and say that this is a school that wants me here and that I belong to.”
In addition to working with various student organizations, UPUA works with the County and Penn State Office of Physical Plant and Student Affairs on the many logistical elements behind the scenes – from printing the final designs to mapping the light poles where they are . I’ll be hanging – to bring the banners to life in time for the fall semester.
“We are very excited to continue working with the university and the UPUA to support this initiative. We are a community and we work together to foster a welcoming and engaging community for all who live and visit here, ”said Tom Fountaine, State College borough manager.
For Pathickal, the banners are part of the legacy she wants to leave Penn State. Although she will have graduated by the time the banners are officially unveiled, she plans to walk around town and campus with Rodriguez this fall.
“Being part of the development of this project has been truly unforgettable and I can’t wait to see where it goes next,” said Pathickal. “I came to UPUA to make a difference and I feel like I did my best to make positive change. I want all students, and minority groups in particular, on campus to know that they are welcome and that there are resources and people at Penn State who will always support them. “