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“A split between the cultural bonds”: students question OIIL division

During the Fall Term of this academic year, Carleton administration set in motion plans to reorganize the Office of Intercultural and International Life (OIIL) into two bodies—the Office of Intercultural Life (OIL) and the Office of International Student Life (ISL). Who drove the office reorganization remains unclear as a group of students petition against the change. 

OIIL, OIL and ISL: The Basics

As Carolyn Livingston, Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Students, wrote in an email to students, “The Office of Intercultural and International Life (OIIL) plays a key role in affirming, supporting, and engaging both students of color and international students at Carleton.”

OIIL runs a peer leader program; organizes events such as International Student Orientation, the OIIL Retreat and collaborations with student cultural organizations; supports students through immigration, legal, financial and personal matters; and provides support for an inclusive campus community.

The split will move ISL from Sayles Hill 201 to share Sayles Hill 051 with the Student Activities Office, introduce an international peer leader program and bring staffing changes to both offices. 

Liz Cody, formerly the International Student Program Coordinator, will be the new director of ISL. Associate Dean of Students Sindy Fleming will serve as interim director of OIL until a new director is named. Brisa Zubia ’05, the director of OIIL since 2009—credited by OIIL peer leaders for the unified vision of the OIIL Office—left Carleton in December.

The Decision to Reorganize

OIIL peer leaders (OPLs) heard midway through Fall Term that the OIIL office was going to be split up. “Most of the OPLs did not like it,’’ said Diaraye Diallo ’23, a current peer leader. Peer leaders JoJo Zhang ’23, Siddharth Chundru ’23 and Luke El-Fishawy ’23 set up a meeting with Dean Livingston. 

In this initial meeting, the main reason given for the reorganization was that Carleton’s OIL and ISL offices were only combined in 2009 due to a lack of funding. Thus, with more funding available now, “there is incentive to re-separate the offices in order to give more funding to both,” explained Zhang.

“I think where that logic falls short for us is, it doesn’t really make sense why the funding would be better if it was separate. If you have a certain amount of funding, you can just use that, even if the offices work together,” Zhang said.

Cody, the director of ISL, explained that the international budget has historically been separate from the intercultural budget within OIIL, and the transition will only add a student work budget to support nine student employees for ISL. 

A group of students started writing a petition against the split over Winter Break. They sent an email to Dean Livingston over the break asking questions to better understand the context of the decision, but did not receive a reply, and “so sent it again at the beginning of Winter Term, didn’t get a reply. Followed up, no reply,” said Zhang. 

“It was difficult to do anything because we were essentially being ignored,” she said.

Dean Livingston emailed the student body about the reorganization of OIIL in mid-February. That email attributed the office reorganization to the growth of BIPOC and international student populations at Carleton.

“Since the time when BIPOC and international student support were combined under one office in 2008, the BIPOC population at Carleton has increased by 52%, while the international population has grown by 58%,” Livingston wrote. “This notable growth signals a need for more specialized resources focused on serving the direct needs of these groups.”

“The goal with the office split is to provide more diversity in programming for international students and BIPOC students that is tailored to the needs of individual groups within the two offices,” Cody explained further.

What remains unclear is who was consulted for the decision to reorganize OIIL. The college failed to consult students. When students met with Dean Livingston Fall Term to voice concerns, Zhang said, “I think the separation of OIIL was 90% solid at that point already.”

The situation is reminiscent of the creation of OIIL more than a decade ago. A 2009 Carletonian article about the integration of two offices to form OIIL said, “The question of who ultimately made the decision to incorporate OIL with international programs is unclear.” Robert Stephens ’10, an Intercultural Peer Assistant at the time, was “uncertain whether or not OIL had a say regarding their final unison,” although he supported it.

As Sameer Swarup ’21, an international student who opposes the recent office reorganization, said, “It’s less than what’s being done, it’s more about how it’s being done, and the history behind the way Carleton has mistreated the international population… It’s really looking like a one step forward two steps back kind of thing.”

Student Concerns

Many OPLs are concerned that the office split ignores students’ intersectional identities. “Not everyone is only international or only domestic students of color,” said Luke El-Fishawy ’23. 

Diallo, a current OPL, agrees: “I am Guinean American, which means I know what it’s like to grow up here and be Black. But I also know what it’s like to be an immigrant here in the United States.” When the office was first combined in 2009, students appreciated the move as a recognition of intersectionality and that interculturalism was not exclusive to America.

Swarup is concerned the split will add an unnecessary layer of confusion. He appreciated being able to point freshmen he met through Carleton’s South Asian club, MOSAIC, to the OIIL office: “It’s a unified system where I can refer them to one source where they can get all of their resource questions addressed.” 

Students are afraid the split will reduce the cross-cultural unity and solidarity that was fostered by the OIIL Office. “The idea of OIIL is this welcoming space for everyone where people just kick back, relax and talk to people of different backgrounds,” said Zhang.  “An important part of bringing awareness to a lot of issues is the ability to share those issues and experiences with other groups that are willing to listen—that may fit under this similar scope of being minority groups,” she explained. 

“It’s creating a split between the cultural bonds,” said Swarup.

In their petition to the administration, the OPLs suggested ISL and OIL would work better as two branches connected under the umbrella of OIIL. Siddharth Chundru ’23, an OPL and one of the organizers of the petition against the split, said students suggested this Fall Term but Carleton administration was “pretty dismissive” of the idea. 

Splitting the offices is “not as effective” said OPL El-Fishway: “It makes the presence on campus of both offices smaller, whereas if we had them together it’s bigger; it plays its role more effectively.”

Holding Administration Accountable

Students advocating for a Black Student Union say this split is not a step towards meeting their demands. “Why are you trying to fix something that’s not broken? Our [Ujamaa] demands were just to give more resources to the OIIL office, not split it up,” said Diallo, a member of the Ujamaa Collective. 

“[The split] felt like a cop-out, like a quick Band Aid solution to us not having a Black Center,” said Diallo. The Carleton administration told the Ujamaa Collective that the decision to split the OIIL office predated their demands. 

According to the Ujamaa Collective, Carleton administration has been resistant to dedicating a Black student space within the intercultural side of OIIL. “There’s this emphasis of equality versus equity,” said Diallo. “But Black people are marginalized within those other groups… we have unique challenges.” 

Diallo is part of the committee to select the new director of OIL and described the challenge of searching for a director without a clear mission of OIL or idea of what the independent office should look like. The vision is “very broad, there’s nothing tailored,” said Diallo.

In joining the search committee, Diallo said, “If this is their solution to allocating OIL more resources, then we’ll work with them, but we’ll also hold them accountable.”

“The office split is still a work in progress and I know that both offices will be seeking out input and suggestions from students to help create meaningful and fun programming to support our students,” said Cody. Both OIL and ISL will host focus groups to gather feedback, according to Dean Fleming.

 The office reorganization is currently in progress and will continue throughout this term.

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