Laxmi Bissoondial stands in front of a wall with photos and smiles at the camera

Q & A with New Director of Multicultural Affairs Laxmi Bissoondial

February 8, 2022
By: Deborah Alvarez O'Neil

Laxmi Bissoondial was just a teenager when she became involved with the Worcester State University Office of Multicultural Affairs. The mentoring and academic support she received at OMA as a young person with a multicultural background helped to shape her academic achievement and professional career. On Jan. 23, Bissoondial, who has worked at WSU in a variety of roles since 2004, was appointed the new director of OMA.

WSU Editorial Communications Director Deborah O’Neil caught up with Bissoondial recently to talk about her aspirations for OMA’s future.

Congratulations! You have a lot to celebrate this year with OMA’s 50th anniversary and your appointment. This must feel like a pretty special moment for you.

Thank you! This is a special moment for me as the new director. I have worked very closely with Marcela Uribe-Jenning, who recently retired as the second director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs. It has been a privilege to work with titans like her and Mr. Sidney Buxton, Jr., founder of the Office of Multicultural Affairs. 

It’s also an important year for the entire University. This year is our 50th Year Anniversary and we are excited to celebrate on Saturday, September 24. Since its inception, OMA has hosted a number of programs that have recruited, retained and graduated our first generation, economically diverse and/or ALANA (African American, Latine, Asian, Native American)/ BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) students. We are excited to welcome our community back home to celebrate this moment and legacy. 

At its very best, what does it mean to be a multicultural university?

Worcester State University is located in the ‘Heart of the Commonwealth’ and holds a history where economics, education, science, and politics have contributed to the city’s growing population. Today’s Worcester is very economically, ethnically, and culturally diverse and reflective of communities such as African Americans, Ghanaians, Dominicans, Albanians, Vietnamese, Puerto Ricans, Salvadorians, Brazilians, Caribbean/West Indians, Nigerians and many more communities. It is important for us to belong to a University that is not only welcoming of our communities but one who also promotes pluralism and includes the participation of our community in the development of its future.

The Office of Multicultural Affairs realized this back in 1975 when Dr. Lloyd Wheaton (Chemistry Department) and Mr. Sidney Buxton Jr. (Office of Multicultural Affairs Director at time) worked with students to establish the first Black Student Union (BSU.) In 1978, Dr. Wheaton and Mr. Buxton assisted the BSU student organization in their transition to a more inclusive student organization name- Third World Alliance; recognizing the impact of economics and politics on all first generation, and/or BIPOC communities. In 1978, recognizing students’ cultural identity, heritage, and academic experiences was necessary for our students’ success ,and in 2022 it still remains vital as we embrace the coming enrollment demographic and promote our commitment to their graduation. This is what it means to be part of a multicultural university community.

I know equity is front and center in the work of OMA. Can you share how you think about equity and how it will guide OMA’s work moving forward? 

Equity for Worcester State University means applying resources to those who have been traditionally underrepresented so that access and opportunity to higher learning is possible. It also includes creating a climate for our ALANA/BIPOC faculty, staff and teams that extends and delivers these resources and services. Equity has been the center of the Office of Multicultural Affairs since 1975 when we first embarked on the development of diverse academic programs on campus to address the first authorization of Higher Education Act in 1968. This prompted us to develop what we know today as the Upward Bound Program, college pipeline program and the Student Support Services (Alternatives for Individual Development Program- A.I.D.,) university/college access program. This birthed our university’s commitment to equity for our underrepresented students regardless of race, ethnic background and/or socio-economic status, and WSU earmarked a financial commitment to these programs as OMA led the recruitment, retention, and graduation efforts of our protected communities. Today, we continue to make significant strides to develop an academic comprehensive campus wide support services for students.

One example of this is in 2008, OMA developed the Multicultural Programming Committee (MPC.) Our goal was to leverage OMA’s 33 years of equity/climate work to develop a medium for a more comprehensive campus-wide approach to developing cultural programming reflective of our students’ identity, faculty expertise, promote intercultural communication and interaction between faculty, students and staff and bring awareness on topics around equity, race, class, and gender. The MPC has grown to include 33 members with 17 affiliations across academic departments and student organizations. The committee continues to plan and coordinate academic presentations, cultural heritage lectures/speakers, film screenings, and networks. Equity work includes the journey and outcomes; an appreciation for both will guide the work we uncover and create in OMA.

What gives you hope and inspiration in your work?

The short answer is our students, our alums and our OMA team. Each student that walks through our doors reminds me of one of us. They remind me of what it meant to be 19; the moments of pride, and the challenges. Our alums’ commitment to the area and to assisting the development of our students through career panels, networks, job opportunities, professional workshops, or even ‘real talk,’ is admirable and unwavering. 

The OMA team brings a multicultural, multilingual, and developmental approach to this work. Our team’s commitment and accountability for addressing students’ needs reflects academic integrity and is very inspirational. Too often, you will find OMA staff members extending themselves and their time in support of students. Examples of this include treating students to lunch to engage in talks around persistence or skills development, using networks and connections to secure job and internship opportunities, including students in meetings and creating learning experiences that are beyond the classroom. When you have a committed team like the one in OMA, I leave work feeling authentic, hopeful, and motivated about the work we do. 

Looking to the future of OMA, where do you see the greatest opportunity for change or progress at WSU?

Looking ahead, the greatest opportunity for change or progress at Worcester State University is to explore a comprehensive campus-wide strategy that will engage our students in addressing the interruption the pandemic played on student skills development. Recovery efforts to address this gap will need to have equity at the forefront. The new demographic enrolling in higher education will look more like A.I.D. students- first generation, economically diverse, ALANA/BIPOC. It will require an individualized approach for each benchmarked year and a diverse staffing/team to deliver an academic climate. This is an opportunity for us to expand the OMA model to meet the needs of our incoming students

As we celebrate 50 years of OMA, I wonder if you could look 50 years into the future and describe your vision for Worcester State University.

Fifty years from now, my vision is for our campus to be more confident in having open discussions on intercultural exchanges, economic inequality and the educational gap. I envision an emphasis on leveraging collaborative work to achieve outcomes that put us ahead of the curve:

  • Access and success that includes graduation rates of our BIPOC/ALANA students at 85% or higher, 
  • Retention rates of our first generation students during their sophomore years are 85% or higher,
  • Higher retention rates for our BIPOC/ALANA males from first year to senior year, 
  • Lower higher education debt for our students,
  • Increased numbers of our first generation, low-income and BIPOC/ALANA students engaging in more domestic exchange experiences 
  • The diversity/identities of our staff/faculty resemble those of the students we serve in greater ratios.
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