A Space to Belong

How the Multicultural Business Program is building inclusive community and cultural awareness

Spend enough time around the Multicultural Business Program (MBP), and you’ll see certain words repeated. On the flyers and signage. On the documents and presentations. On the website and emails. From the front of a first-year orientation class, Program Coordinator Justin Gomez speaks them aloud: belong, matter.

Spend enough time around the Multicultural Business Program (MBP), and you’ll see certain words repeated. On the flyers and signage. On the documents and presentations. On the website and emails. From the front of a first-year orientation class, Program Coordinator Justin Gomez speaks them aloud: belong, matter.

In some ways, these have become a special type of higher education buzzword, the kind that universities use on their websites and collateral to emphasize community without actually defining it. Words that tell students, “you’ll find a home and a purpose here,” without showing them how, and without speaking to their specific backgrounds and experiences. Words so broad they risk losing their meaning. But here, in the opening session of MBP’s orientation, full of first-year students in their first week of classes, belonging and mattering are tangible, real, and they mean everything.

The words’ all-encompassing natures, in this room full of students from underrepresented backgrounds, becomes their strength. These are students who may have arrived on campus feeling the opposite: marginalized, like they don’t belong, like this isn’t the “home away from home” they thought it might be. That’s why, from the very start, MBP presents itself as not simply an organization, or a service, or academic advising, but as a family.

At the first session of orientation, near the check-in table, a couple young women chat nervously about their upcoming classes. Two MBP student coordinators wearing blue polos and big smiles welcome them, holding out doughnuts with blue iced letters. “Make sure to look at the icing,” they say, “those are the initials of your PALS.”

PALS stands for Peer Assisted Learning Supporters, older students that help advise and mentor younger MBP members, offering career advice, personal guidance or just a shoulder to lean on. In the classroom, one mentor sits at each table, chatting with their mentees and making immediate connections. Gomez attributes much of MBP’s successful community-building to the PALS. “They’re an accessible resource, someone who will always be there for support. They understand what a first-year student goes through, the challenges of being from an underrepresented background. And a lot of these relationships only deepen as time goes on.”

Fourth-year member Abel Rivera credits his persistence at Cal Poly to these kinds of relationships. “A lot of my closest friends are from MBP,” he said. “We lift each other up and they genuinely want what’s best for me. That’s the type of people I want to spend time with, to work with and to be friends with.” Relationships are fundamental to MBP, part of its DNA, starting with the very first meeting, where Gomez and Graduate Assistant Marissa Chavez show slides containing photos of their families and heritage. Right off the bat, the message is clear: we’re going to be an intimate group, and we’re going to celebrate our unique backgrounds.

Gomez and Orfalea leadership founded MBP three years ago to help students from underrepresented backgrounds connect and persist at the college. The goal: to include members in an inclusive community, with comprehensive support and resources, from their first day of classes until they graduate. Each incoming MBP cohort takes two courses together: Orientation and Business Professionalism I. This year, they will also take a third: Race, Culture, and Politics of the U.S. The first-year programming facilitates intimate friendships that last for students’ entire college experience.

But if community-building is one side of the MBP coin, professional development is the other. The program’s aptly-named “Feel Good Fridays” feature boxed lunches and representatives from various corporate partners. The reps speak on how their organizations create inclusive work environments while explaining how to overcome challenges students may face in the future.

Given recent studies that show diversity as a strong influence on corporate success, industry partners appreciate MBP’s work. “MBP is a fine effort, a tangible step in creating safe spaces for people of all backgrounds to make connections,” said Al Carrasco, director of Americas talent team for Ernst & Young. “With a greater appreciation of what makes us unique comes greater engagement and richer interactions. In our Firm, this is what creates an environment for high performing teams.”

These same corporate partners also host MBP groups for industry tours to give students an inside look at their workplace cultures. And every Spring, MBP puts on a conference, open to all students, called “Leadership Beyond the Resume,” which features speakers and workshops focused on diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

These programs are instrumental in helping MBP members develop career readiness. “As a first-generation student, MBP was my first introduction to industry,” said fourth-year Jorge Valdez. “For example, before college I had no idea what to do during an interview, but MBP helped give me those skills and provide connections to industry leaders, and I wouldn’t be where I am without that.” This fall, Valdez leveraged the professional skills he’s gained to earn a finance job at Apple.

Community, mentoring and networking, all functioning together, create an influential framework of academic and career support. Second-year Erika Cospin notes how this framework has instilled in her not just professional skills, but self-assurance too. It’s allowed her to see herself as a business leader, and it’s given her confidence that she can thrive in a business career.

And by empowering students from underrepresented backgrounds to share their experiences with the broader community, MBP is also helping shape the campus culture. They’re showing the rest of campus how diverse backgrounds and viewpoints are essential to successful classroom and professional environments. “MBP is for everyone,” said Valdez. “It helps create awareness about issues in diversity and inclusion so that people can have the difficult conversations that we need to be having.” In doing so, MBP is helping mold a generation of more thoughtful, empathetic business leaders.

This is a prime example of how make everyone in a room, on a team, or in a company feel valued. Of how to cultivate a welcoming community where we cherish our differences and build each other up. According to Gomez, “the program is working toward a broader community where telling someone they belong is unnecessary because they already feel so welcome, where anyone can walk into any classroom or any office and immediately feel at home.” And hopefully, someday, if we follow the lead of organizations like MBP, we’ll get there.

But like most influential movements, it starts small, on a person-by-person basis. It starts with one student at a time. Embracing them, accepting them, supporting them. It starts with a room full a smiling faces, a doughnut, a warm welcome, and a simple but encouraging refrain: you belong here. You matter.

Destiny Bun

Destiny Bun

The Multicultural Business Program is the reason I’m at Cal Poly. I almost dropped out during my first year because I experienced culture shock and I felt like I didn’t have a place on campus. But after I met Justin and he told me about MBP, I wanted to get involved so that future students wouldn’t have to feel lost on campus like I did.

MBP has been like a second family for me. Whether I’ve needed to talk to a PALS mentor for personal advice or just to hangout, there’s always been someone there for me. Whenever I hang out with my MBP friends, it’s a genuinely fun time and we always feel connected. It’s because I’m hanging out with people who have the same motivation to create a better community for younger students while also getting the most out of our own college experiences.

Through MBP, I’ve gained more confidence and a better understanding of myself. I’m a shy person, but MBP has helped me break some of the barriers that prevented me from stepping out of my comfort zone. I’ve worked on my networking skills by talking to industry professionals during Feel Good Fridays. I’ve also been challenged to lead a team which has helped me build my leadership abilities.

Khushbu Patel

Khushbu Patel

Coming from a pretty diverse, tight knit background, I felt like something was lacking during my first year at Cal Poly. It wasn’t until I got involved in MBP that I realized what it was: community, a place where I felt at home and most like myself. Sometimes around campus, I found myself unintentionally pretending to be someone I wasn’t; but in MBP I didn’t. The more involved I got, the more comfortable I felt around campus, in my classes and in my personal life. MBP gave me the confidence to be myself even when surrounded by a pool of people that weren’t like me. Now that I’m into my third year, I can look back and see how Cal Poly has really influenced my friend circle, my relationships, and who I am as a student, leader and young professional.

MBP is a community that understands it’s okay to feel uncomfortable and encourages students to embrace it. I can see how that might sound counterintuitive, but actually, feeling uncomfortable and learning how to deal with it is a sign of personal growth and that’s what MBP is all about. We live in a society where we’re told to conform to our surroundings, or that there’s a certain way we have to look and act, but MBP taught me one huge lesson: we need to embrace our differences because that’s what makes us, us.

Abel Barrera

Abel Barrera

I grew up in a very diverse part of San Jose, always seeing different groups of people, and when I came to Cal Poly, it was in some ways a culture shock. At first, I felt alone, but I knew that I would do whatever it took to succeed. My first experience with MBP, walking into that Business 100 classroom, even though I didn’t know a single person there, it felt like coming home. Everyone was so inviting. They brought me in with open arms and I knew I was in the right place.

Being a first-generation student, my parents knew nothing about college, which meant I knew nothing about college. But MBP gives you that initial push, that first step. As soon as you walk on campus, they start teaching you skills and providing resources that put you on a path to success. My parents were immigrants and I came from a low-income background and I’ve really seen how that can impact every aspect of life and career. And this push from MBP is something that can really help students in my position compete with peers who may have always had access to more resources and support.

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