UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Sometimes it is the people behind the scenes who make the greatest impact on a person’s life. For many Penn State students, those people are the counselors at the Multicultural Resource Center (MRC), a University Park campus resource that provides individual counseling and educational services to students from underrepresented backgrounds.
At the MRC, students have the opportunity to meet one-on-one with counselors to receive support in all aspects of student life. Guidance is offered for academic, financial and personal issues. While the center works primarily with first-year and transfer students, the staff’s goal is that no student is turned away and every issue is addressed.
“We don’t say, ‘this is an academic issue so you need to go to this office,’ ” Moses Davis, director of the MRC, said. “We work with students to improve their chemistry grade. We help them find financial aid. We help them work out relationship and roommate issues. We talk to them about the latest episode of ‘Scandal.’ ”
“This place is a safe haven for our students. It’s a place for them to come and just breathe, despite anything else that is going on out there. They can just be.”
— Moses Davis, director of Multicultural Resource Center
Davis describes the MRC as a sanctuary for students to visit to escape the challenges that may accompany life as a college student.
“This place is a safe haven for our students,” he said. “It’s a place for them to come and just breathe, despite anything else that is going on out there. They can just be.”
Shonna Graham, a current University of Connecticut student affairs graduate student and 2012 Penn State graduate, agrees. For her, the MRC is the one place where she says she was accepted for who she is.
“You can walk through the door and there is no judgment,” Graham said. “You’re not defined by your race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or religion. It’s a safe zone.”
Graham was amazed by the special affinity she felt toward the MRC. After transferring from Penn State Mont Alto for her junior year, she initially found coming to the much larger University Park campus was not what she expected. She yearned for the intimate feeling and close relationships she experienced at the Mont Alto campus.
“University Park is huge,” she said. “When I came here, I really struggled. And I found that the MRC provided me with the opportunity to feel like I was connected to Penn State. They just really opened their arms to me and really helped me transition.”
Graham says her appreciation for the staff at the MRC is immeasurable.
“There is a quote that I live by,” she said. “ ‘Show me the light at the end of the tunnel, show me that light so that I may be that light to someone else.’ The MRC was my light.”
In addition to these groups, the MRC also has strong working relationships with other University employees including college multicultural directors, academic advisers and financial aid staff who actively assist students.
“The research shows that if we don’t get our hands on first-year students and transition students, they don’t stay very long,” counselor Mike Wood said. “When we start working with a student early on, their level of success and their opportunities to remain at Penn State increase.”
Diane Farnsworth, assistant director of Penn State's Multicultural Resource Center, has worked there for 28 years and is dedicated to the students she serves. “It really is my life,” she said.
Image: Patrick Mansell
Former student Will Dennis supports that statement, stating that the MRC is the reason he holds a Penn State degree.
“The support I received from the MRC was life-changing,” the 2010 graduate said. “I truly accredit my graduating to the MRC. If it weren’t for the staff there, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Originally from an urban area, coming to Penn State was a cultural adjustment for Dennis. The small town and large university were different from what he had always known. But when he visited the MRC, Dennis no longer felt isolated.
“At the MRC, they saw me as a person,” the current strategy analyst for Accenture said. “I wasn’t just a number. They saw who I really was — my goals, my ambitions, my potential. They supported me and showed me how to reach my goals.”
Reaching out to the MRC as a freshman, Dennis regularly visited with counselors for guidance. During his tenure as a Penn State student, Dennis faced financial difficulty and was concerned he would not be able to finish his education at the University. With the help of MRC counselors, Dennis was able to explore multiple avenues of financial aid that he hadn’t known existed. The counselors worked with him to find, apply and secure the aid he needed.
“They helped me so much,” Dennis said. “Because of them, I was able to stay at Penn State. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
But it isn’t just alumni that have great things to say about the MRC. Dayanna Reeves, a senior majoring in human development and family studies, has been taking advantage of the services offered by the MRC for the past four years.
“It is my second home,” the Lenfest and McNair scholar stated. “Everybody here is just open and honest and respectful.”
“At the MRC, they saw me as a person. I wasn’t just a number. They saw who I really was — my goals, my ambitions, my potential. They supported me and showed me how to reach my goals.”
— William Dennis, class of '10
Like Dennis, Reeves also experienced what she calls “extreme culture shock” when she came to Penn State. Growing up in inner-city Philadelphia, Reeves was raised around the African-American and Hispanic cultures, and the diversity she encountered at Penn State was intimidating to her.
“Everybody was just different,” she said. “I wasn’t used to being around so many people of different ethnic backgrounds. I didn’t know how to interact with people.”
But campus diversity wasn’t the only obstacle Reeves faced. Although she grew up in Philadelphia, she attended a relatively small high school where she could easily interact with teachers and other students. But as a Penn State freshman, things were different.
“It was shocking going in to a classroom with 700 students,” she said of her class in Thomas Building. She wondered, “How do I talk in class? How do I make a connection with the professors or TA?”
To get answers to these questions and advice on how to succeed at Penn State, Reeves visited the MRC on a weekly basis, meeting primarily with Diane Farnsworth, counselor and assistant director. As Reeves reported weekly updates, Farnsworth provided tips and advice on how to overcome some of those barriers.
“I really didn’t know how to handle things,” Reeves confessed. “Those weekly meetings really helped me deal with campus life.”
As she nears graduation, Reeves’ gratitude toward the MRC is palpable. In her four years at Penn State, the MRC has helped her overcome multiple obstacles, including selecting a major, and also recommended her as a McNair Scholar, entering her into a program that has aided her in securing a fully funded offer to attend the community health doctoral program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” she said with emotion in her eyes. “From the bottom of my heart — thank you.”
It is not unusual for students to graduate feeling a special connection to an individual. For some, it’s the quirky professor that pushed them to succeed. For others, it’s a resident assistant, a staff member or even someone like Mike the Mailman who brightens up their days on campus. But a perspective not heard as often is one of faculty and staff members feeling gratitude toward the students they serve.
“It really is my life,” Farnsworth said of the MRC. “My heart and soul are in my work, and when I meet with students, my heart and soul are in that moment.”
Having been with the MRC for 28 years, Farnsworth appreciates the diversity of students she meets and enjoys listening to and helping them address their needs. When students visit the MRC, Farnsworth and her colleagues joke that they “press the easy button,” giving students an opportunity to be open and honest. Many times, students just need a shoulder to cry on, a place to let go, and someone to listen.
Counselors understand that students view the MRC as a safe place that is free of judgement, and the staff embraces that characteristic.
“That’s what makes the MRC unique,” Davis said. “We care about the whole student. We look at everything.”
For the counselors at the MRC, going to work is something they look forward to on a daily basis. They understand that students view the center as a safe place that is free of judgment, and the staff embraces that characteristic. The counselors love working with students and learning from them.
“I learn something new every day,” Wood said. “I learn about them as students but also as people. It’s what I love most about what I do.”
Davis shares Wood’s outlook. When asked why he loved his job, he stated, “Your job is what pays your bills and your work is what leaves you inspired and allows you to inspire others. And, when you’re lucky, you’ll have a job that will allow you to do your work. The MRC allows me to do my work.”
The MRC will host its 23rd annual Senior Awards and Faculty/Staff Diversity Recognition Reception on Wednesday, April 15. Nominations for awards, which may be submitted online at http://equity.psu.edu/mrc/awards, will be received through March 14. For more information, visit the MRC at 220 Grange Building or go to http://equity.psu.edu/mrc.