Students find Penn State home in Paul Robeson Cultural Center

Shea Bracken
January 17, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Nestled in a corner on the ground floor of the HUB-Robeson Center sits the Paul Robeson Cultural Center (PRCC), the primary destination for exploring cultural identity and social justice at Penn State.

The PRCC, a unit of Penn State Student Affairs, sponsors many high-profile programs and speakers throughout the year, but the center also supports a strong community ready to listen and discuss issues of diversity, race, identity, religion, politics and more.

“It took me a while to realize that I really needed a space like the PRCC,” said Alexis Scott, a senior majoring in women studies. “The people in the PRCC care for you and will connect you with the people and resources you need.”

Scott knew about the PRCC as a freshman but was hesitant to explore it. Scott was pushed to reach out to the center’s staff during her work to reinvigorate the Queer and Trans People of Color (QTPOC) club sophomore year. Mildred Williams, program coordinator in the PRCC, became the club’s adviser and a mentor to Scott. Scott started visiting the PRCC regularly to recruit for the club and found the space to be welcoming and supportive.

The PRCC houses a gallery, an auditorium, a library and study area, and meeting rooms. The center is also home to many multicultural student organization offices, and, almost any time of day, the PRCC is bustling with students studying, working, or just hanging out.

“I first encountered the PRCC as a freshman when I was initiated into my sorority, which, as an Asian interest sorority, was very involved with the cultural center,” said Brooke Jin, a senior in Information Sciences and Technology. “Through the PRCC, I have been able to learn more about Penn State and other cultural groups on campus. As a senior, I still come to the PRCC as a place where I can feel very comfortable about myself and hear about what's going on with the University or the World.”

The PRCC has been a cultural centerpiece at Penn State for over 45 years. In 1972, Penn State officially recognized the Black Cultural Center, which up until then had been a student-run initiative, as part of the University. In 1986, the Walnut Building, which housed the center, was renamed after Paul Robeson, a man whose achievements, dedication and commitment in the areas of intellectual development, physical excellence, humanitarian spirit and artistic accomplishments serve as a model for college students. The PRCC moved to its current home in the HUB in 1999.

The PRCC's primary mission is to emphasize the diversity of the roles of African-American culture and reflecting the way in which this diversity intersects, overlaps, and complements the cultures of Latino, African, Asian/Pacific Islander, Caribbean, European, and the Indigenous peoples of America. The center’s activities, which range from intimate discussion groups to speakers that fill an auditorium, explore concepts like respect, acceptance, understanding, social and cultural competency, responsibility, civility, meaningful relationships, and the appreciation of the many individuals, cultures and communities of Penn State.

Naeem Holman, a 2015 Penn State alumnus, puts PRCC activities into two categories – small programs or discussions that touch on current events or issues and programs with a large reach.

“Some of my favorite programs attracted not only students who frequent the PRCC, but also students who may not have much interaction with people that don’t look or think like them on a regular basis. All of those individuals in one room share ideas and these conversations really pushed forward the idea of diversity and inclusion that the PRCC strives to achieve at Penn State,” said Holman.

Throughout the year, the center holds events such as community forums and workshops on identity, speaker series, discussions groups, social events, and more. They also sponsor music, dance and spoken word performances. Some of the most recent events include a Hip Hop Summit; a talk by actor, writer and comedian Hasan Minhaj; and The STOOP, and art, music, poetry and dance event.

For spring 2018, the PRCC will host Janet Mock on Feb. 20, as part of the Radical Justice Speaker Series; a brunch with social activist Ruby Sales on March 17; and a Celebration of Womynism on March 27.

“The programs the PRCC puts on are phenomenal,” said Ashley Rankine, a senior in kinesiology. “All of them exceed my expectations. The most moving program I remember attending was Black Trans Magic. I didn't know much about the LGBTQ+ community and I definitely wanted to learn more. The PRCC provides an opportunity to learn about these topics through the experiences and stories of others.”

While programming and facilitating discussions is an important part of the PRCC’s mission, the space also functions as a second home for many students and a safe space at times when they may not feel comfortable in the larger campus community.  

The center hosts a Penn State Counseling and Psychological Services counselor once a week to talk to students about any issues they have. The center has also brought in counselors when national events led to strong emotions for many students.

“When anything happens related to current issues nationally or on campus, the first place I go is the PRCC because I always know there is space for me to have a dialogue with people or just have people to empathize with,” said Jin. “I think especially after the election last year a lot of people didn't feel safe walking around campus, myself included. Being able to be in the PRCC here and process events in that way was definitely crucial to my well-being getting through the year.” 

For Holman, the PRCC was instrumental in supporting a social justice project and demonstration to highlight how the lives of people of color are not respected in the same way as their white counterparts, which he took on during his presidency of Black Caucus.

Holman credits the PRCC with helping him realize his professional goals by giving him a work-study position that allowed him to practice his graphic design skills while designing their event posters.

“I was not only able to make money doing what I enjoyed but being in that space helped shape my world views to an extent that has translated to my professional life as a web and graphic designer for a labor union,” said Holman.

Jin also credits the PRCC with helping her discover her passion.

“Coming to college, I knew I had a lot of interests and I didn't really know how to tie them together so even though academically my interests are more aligned with business and tech the PRCC helped me find my passion for advocacy and social justice. That passion has really translated into my work in school,” said Jin

Jin admits that coming into the PRCC for the first time can seem intimidating because many students have been involved in the community for a long time, but the students and staff work hard to make people feel welcome. It’s a place for students to step outside their comfort zone and learn more about themselves and others. But it’s also a place for students to feel supported and cared for in a judgment-free space.

“The PRCC has made me feel more confident in my voice as a student and how I can impact other students and to some degree the administration,” said Scott. It’s also helped me create a home for myself at Penn State.” 

  • Walnut Building Historic Plaque

    A plaque that commemorates the Walnut Building where the Paul Robeson Cultural Center, then the Black Cultural Center was housed until it moved to its current location in the HUB. 

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated January 17, 2018