A Home on Campus

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

The Greenfield Intercultural Center celebrates 40 years of community building.

When College senior Timethius Terrell was losing motivation to continue his non-profit startup focused on intercultural allyship, he turned to the Albert M. Greenfield Intercultural Center (GIC) for help.

Not only did GIC director Valerie de Cruz CGS’02 and associate director Kia Lor GEd’16 provide guidance, but Terrell has also become one of the many regulars at the center, which for 40 years has been a haven for people of all ethnicities, backgrounds, and nationalities to come together and breathe after a hard day at Penn. He even interned at GIC during the summer of 2022.

“I still consider myself to be an active member of this community,” Terrell said this spring. “Maybe not as formally,” he allowed. “I think that’s what makes it special, though—you don’t have to be.”

The Greenfield Intercultural Center was established in 1984, six years after the United Minorities Council, a coalition of minority student organizations, signed a petition to have its own space on campus.

To mark its 40th anniversary, the GIC is holding events throughout the year, including a celebration in their building at 3708 Chestnut Street that took place on January 27—exactly 40 years after its founding. The celebration included musical performances, cake-cutting, and the presentation of awards to Penn alumni who were recognized for embodying the spirit of the GIC through work in their communities. One of the honorees, Angbeen Saleem C’12—a creative artist, writer, and poet who “spent all of my free time at the GIC” as a work-study student there—read two poems she had written for the event.

“A lot of these alumni come back and they bring their kids and they say hi to Val,” remarked College senior and GIC work-study student Oumy Diasse. “You could kind of just look around and see everyone’s super familial.”

In addition to providing a friendly space for students to meet casually and share meals, the GIC also sponsors events related to culture and race and has helped establish and nurture programs and organizations for minority groups including the Persian Student Society, the Turkish Student Organization, and Natives at Penn [“Native Pride,” Jul|Aug 2019], which marks its 30th anniversary this year. It also helped to launch Makuu: The Black Cultural Center, the Pan-Asian American Community House (PAACH), and La Casa Latina Center, all of which are currently based at the revamped ARCH building on Locust Walk [“Gazetteer,” Nov|Dec 2022]. In 2016, Penn’s First-Generation Low-Income Program (FGLI) opened in the GIC, which also started an alumni mentorship program for FGLI students called Penn FLASH.

The January 27 celebration brought many alums back. “A lot of the stuff I do now is connected to my time here,” said Sean Vereen GEd’00 GrEd’05, who was the associate director of the GIC from 2003 to 2006 and now runs the Philadelphia-based college and career-access program Steppingstone Scholars. De Cruz, who’s served as the GIC’s director for the last 27 years, is another reason alumni love to return. “[Valerie] has a real power to stay connected to people,” Vereen noted. “She makes them feel like individuals. And she has weathered all the changes on campus and been able to maintain [the GIC].”

“I think the most important thing I bring is the building of relationships,” said de Cruz.

For current work-study student and College sophomore Kaynath Chowdhury, “the GIC’s a home.” At the center she often finds herself washing dishes, taking out the trash, giving tours, helping with events, and greeting people at the door. It’s a far cry from office work, she says; it’s more like what she would do at her own family’s house.

The familial atmosphere seemed to make an impression on College freshman Theo Greenfield C’27, the great-grandson of prominent Philadelphia-based businessman Albert M. Greenfield, whose foundation supplied the grant to launch the GIC. An additional $1 million gift from the Albert M. Greenfield Foundation a decade ago helped to endow the GIC and increase staffing and expand its programs.

“There are people here who have dedicated their lives to not just the GIC but the mission of the GIC as an intercultural center,” said Theo, who came to the anniversary event largely out of curiosity. “It’s honestly inspiring. … I would like to become more involved.”

While the 40-year milestone provided a welcome chance to celebrate the work that has gone into making the GIC what it is, attendees were also looking ahead. “Places like the GIC are not just havens but really the center of the work that the University has to do in the future,” Vereen said.

“If you don’t see yourself envisioned in this space,” de Cruz said, “come tell us how you can envision yourself in this space, and we will work with you to create that. And that will in turn change Penn. That’s the story.”

Hannah Chang C’27