Newcomer Felix Braffith brings deep understanding and a culture shift to Student Diversity.
Felix Braffith, director of student equity and outreach, has a deep understanding of the challenges historically underserved students face while attending college. The oldest of 16 children in a military family, he was raised in Lakewood and Tacoma, Wash., two ethnically diverse and culturally rich communities. With a background of working with the military community and directing TRiO programs, Braffith brings to his position a passion and commitment for ensuring that historically underserved student populations are provided the resources, support and affirmation needed to achieve their fullest potential at WSU Vancouver.
Students face a number of challenges pursuing higher education, but college students who are first in their family to attend are more likely to come from underrepresented ethnic populations and low-income families, be financially independent, have dependents and work 20 or more hours a week. Many are unsure of the processes around attending college, including how to apply, get financial aid and what a successful college career looks like. According to Braffith, “despite these challenges, historically underrepresented students have untapped cultural and community wealth that fuels their success.”
Braffith, who joined the student affairs and enrollment staff last spring, has a vision and plan to better serve these students in line with the equity and student success goals of WSU Vancouver’s strategic plan. With a focus on cultivating a student-centered approach and encouraging identity development, his plan starts with the reinvention of the Student Diversity Center.
Established in 2014, the Student Diversity Center became a home for underrepresented students to gather, learn and grow together. It took the lead on many events including Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, the LGBTQ+ Conference, Noche de Familia and many others. The center operated out of just 400 square feet on the north end of the Firstenburg Student Commons.
New Name, New Digs
Over the summer, Braffith hired Julie Mercado, WSU Vancouver alumna and former admissions counselor, as the manager of the center. They, in partnership with the 2019/20 student staff, renamed the Student Diversity Center to the Center for Intercultural Learning and Affirmation (CILA), and moved it to the center of the Firstenburg Student Commons. This “can’t miss” location allows for better access and increased the space to 1,200 square feet.
CILA’s mission is to cultivate an inclusive community where students are affirmed through intercultural learning, support and dialogue. CILA will be a teaching and learning space for cultural awareness on campus. Braffith envisions a committed student staff that works together to provide weekly cultural workshops for the campus community. He hopes to provide wrap-around services including advising, academic support and personal accountability.
A remedy for change
“Culture is medicine and a first step in healing from historic traumas for many communities of color,” said Braffith. This fall, CILA will bring a Cultural Arts and Equity Hip-Hop Series to campus. The lineup will feature local and global activists, scholars and artists to provide workshops, talks and performances. Braffith hopes this series will enhance cultural competency while broadening the community’s understanding of the diverse and talented student population, and provide a common human experience to illuminate how much people have in common with one another.
Learning to THRIVE
Braffith’s other focus since arrival has been THRIVE—truth, history, resilience, intersectionality and equity—a program to support 20 incoming WSU Vancouver freshmen from Evergreen, Fort Vancouver and Hudson’s Bay high schools. These students attended a four-day leadership retreat in August and are enrolled in Braffith’s first-year success seminar. The plan is to provide personal support and one-on-one advising to these new students.
“Relational support and understanding go a long way with students because they know someone sees them for who they really are,” said Braffith. With the support of grant funding, he hopes to extend THRIVE to an additional 140 students in the future.
With a new name, new space and supportive programming in place, Braffith believes a positive culture shift will lift underrepresented voices and the campus community as a whole.
Want to be involved? Plan to attend the new Cultural Arts and Equity Hip-Hop Series events. ■