The University of Connecticut’s Middle Eastern Cultural Program (MECP) has, so far, gathered hundreds of signatures from students and faculty in their petition for university funding and support needed to turn the program into a fully-fledged cultural center.
The MECP is the youngest among five other cultural groups on campus, having been officially formed first as an association (MESA) in 2018 and then as a program this past spring semester. However, other centers, including the African American Cultural Center and the Asian American Cultural Center, have already received the status that the MECP is trying to reach.
According to the MECP’s student coordinator, fifth-semester cognitive science and statistics major Irene Soteriou, the difference between a program and a center is the breadth and quality of resources to meet the needs of students.
Like other communities that are typically the targets of culturally discriminatory incidents, the Middle Eastern community at UConn is often met with an uncomfortable shift in attitudes on campus, provoked by current events related to their community. The MECP serves as a formal socioculturally cognizant environment where Middle Eastern students can seek support.
The United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the fall of the Afghan government in late August, has been one event which has significantly affected students this semester. According to Soteriou, because of this, numerous Afghan students have expressed an inability to receive the help they need.
“More recently, we’ve seen an escalation in tensions between various groups within the Middle Eastern community following a rally that took place on campus. Many students (of Middle Eastern descent) have expressed that they fear for their lives and feel abandoned, targeted and deeply disturbed,” Soteriou said in an email interview.
Though the MECP has tried to provide the best support they can to these students, they are unable to fully meet the needs of the community due to the limits of their status.
As of right now, the program’s struggle to acquire the funding and support needed to become a center is escalated by the fact that UConn, like many universities throughout the country, has incurred major financial losses due to the pandemic. Therefore, the process of getting funding from the university has become an especially difficult process.
For the MECP, the process is even tougher. According to Soteriou, the program has struggled to collect data that assesses how many UConn students identify as Middle Eastern. The University’s Division of Enrollment Planning and Management only began collecting demographic data on Middle Eastern-identifying students last year. Because of this, the most recent data is for the class of 2024.
“This data does not encompass UConn’s large population of Middle Eastern graduate students, nor any of the undergraduate students of the previous classes,” Soteriou said.
According to her, many Middle Eastern students feel hesitant to report their background in studies, due to factors such as post-9/11 stigma. For this reason, data does not include first-semester students that elected not to report their cultural background.
“We’re having a hard time getting those numbers, which in turn makes it difficult to assess demand and reach all of those other Middle Eastern students,” she said.
Ultimately, this problem has led to one concerning outreach.
“We don’t have email addresses for the majority of Middle Eastern students at UConn, so for the time being we’ve been relying predominantly on word of mouth to pass along information. Any support on this end is much appreciated, as we are eager to get as many students involved as possible,” Soteriou said.
As Soteriou and the rest of the program advocate for their transition to a cultural center status, they have continued their efforts to build their community by meeting with other cultural groups and organizations on campus.
According to Soteriou, the MECP is currently working with the Iranian Student Association to plan a celebration of Yalda, the Iranian New Year. The event will take place on Dec. 20, for any and all undergraduates, graduates and community members.
“In particular, it’s going to serve as a wonderful opportunity for many of our Middle Eastern international students to invite their families into the community,” Soteriou said.
Furthermore, the MECP is planning on developing a number of long-term mentorship programs.
“We’ve also been developing a number of long-term programs, including a peer-to-peer mentorship program that will connect younger Middle Eastern students with older peers, a faculty-to-student mentorship program that will connect Middle Eastern students with Middle Eastern faculty and staff and a cross-cultural exchange program that will connect Middle Eastern international students with students raised in the US,” Soteriou said.
Soteriou added the MECP is looking to “work with Global Affairs to organize extensive educational and relationship-developing programs through collaborations with the Abrahamic Programs and Middle East Studies.”