Daniel Custódio '00 opened a panel discussion on careers featuring Latino alumni during the inaugural Multicultural Reunion with a warning that it wasn't enough for students to think only of professional and financial interests. Good career choices, he told students, also were about "creating a world that works."
And he delivered a closing plea: "I challenge you to pose difficult questions."
It was a challenge that in some ways captured the spirit and energy of the entire reunion, as alumni from across four decades gathered to renew friendships, lend their voices to multicultural life on the Hill, and address the difficult questions that lead to a more inclusive campus culture.
The reunion, which offered events ranging from the festive (a fashion benefit sponsored by the Black Student Union and La Vanguardia) to the career-minded (professional workshops and networking sessions) to the inspiring (a retrospective Multicultural Life on the Hill panel), drew about 80 alumni, students and guests during Fallcoming Weekend. Each was the work of the Multicultural Reunion Planning Committee and several campus liaisons. "The idea," says Imad Qasim '79, chair of the Multicultural Alumni Relations Committee, "was to bring back as many diverse alums as we could, and to structure a program that involves a lot of interaction with students."
It's a theme that has been at the heart of MARC's mission since its formal inception, with full representation on the Alumni Council, in 2002, and with predecessors such as the Black and Latino Alumni Network before that: to become more deeply involved in recruiting, retaining and mentoring multicultural students — and, by extension, faculty and administrators — at Hamilton.
Hamilton's student body has diversified; with 17 percent of its students now multicultural and another 5 percent international, "there's a lot of diversity going on here," Qasim notes. But campus culture has not always followed suit, and multicultural students are more likely to leave. "It's not always a matter of academics," says Cassandra Harris-Lockwood K'74. "It's personal, cultural, financial. It often has to do with a comfort level."
Torrence Moore '92, who served as MARC's first chair and this year co-chaired the reunion committee with Custódio, says many members are driven by a desire to help today's students bridge the gap that alumni often felt in their own college lives: "They may have felt marginalized when they were students here, but they also recognized that they got a great education."
Mentoring has always been a cornerstone of MARC's work on campus, but members say they have found that productive mentoring requires more than simple one-on-one pairings with students. It demands a nuanced approach to students' needs and "a constant flow of information" between MARC and the College, says Phyllis Holmes Breland '80, director of opportunity programs. She, Robert Taylor '60 and others on a MARC subcommittee on mentoring anticipate a process in which the Career Center acts as a facilitator and point of contact, drawing on alumni volunteers in a range of roles. "They might be mentors, they might be coaches," Taylor says. "They could help with job networking, both for internships and for permanent positions — whatever the need might be."
But whatever form the relationship might take, Associate Professor of Philosophy Todd Franklin told MARC colleagues, there is a common denominator: "The more personal attention our multicultural recruits get from faculty and alumni, the more likely they are" to come to Hamilton and then succeed here.
MARC-sponsored offerings throughout Fallcoming Weekend provided just that kind of guidance and perspective, as alumni and others talked with groups of students about their own expectations and experiences. The Latino Alumni Career Panel and a Professional Ethics Workshop focused on the importance of finding and working with mentors, on staying positive, on gaining experience and establishing values in the workplace. "Surround yourself with positive people, but different kinds of people, and share your stories with each other," said Vladimir Rodriguez '06, former co-president of La Vanguardia and one of the first students from Clinton's A Better Chance program to attend Hamilton. And Margarita Quevedo '87 told students, "Work in the field at the community level. The more experience you have, the better your chances of getting the job you want."
In the Bristol Center's Dwight Lounge, the talk turned to more personal experiences in a panel discussion about Multicultural Life on the Hill across four decades. Percy Luney '70, who helped found Hamilton's Black Student Union, recalled days of campus strife and the cooler heads that allowed Hamilton and Kirkland to survive relatively unscathed. "It was a time when people would get angry easily, and often they didn't know why," he said.
One of the angry ones was Phyllis Holmes Breland herself. "I arrived on campus in combat boots and army fatigues," she said. "I was a little Black Pantherette." But she was able to harness and transform that anger into a different kind of energy, a drive to be the first female member of Pentagon and class speaker.
Hamilton's ability to become a more diverse culture rests with that same capacity to evolve, a number of speakers said. "This was an institution that allowed for change, and change happened," Luney noted of the '60s. Said Michael "Doc" Woods, associate professor of music: "Hamilton is a place where things can happen that can't happen elsewhere. Only a small school with proud people and forward-thinking ideas can do that."
And a young woman who now follows in their footsteps observed that the task is never complete. "I see my role on campus as an agent of social change," said Robyn Gibson '10. "We need to push ourselves and each other to get outside the bubble of the Hamilton comfort zone."
MARC honored Breland, Moore and Daniel Garcia '84 during a formal dinner with awards for their service to the multicultural community. The keynote speech by Larry Arias '84 underscored the weekend's message: "It is in everyone's best interest, and everyone's responsibility, to make diversity an absolute necessity," he said.