UPUA leads fall ‘welcome’ banner campaign with town-gown support

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Najee Rodriguez, vice president of the University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA), wants Penn State students to know one thing: “You belong here.”

This fall, students and community members will get a daily reminder as they walk through campus and downtown State College thanks to a new UPUA-led “Every Person Belongs Here” banner campaign.

Najee Rodriguez

Najee Rodriguez

IMAGE: Penn State

“It’s like we’re laying out a welcome mat,” said Rodriguez, a sophomore who co-led the initiative while serving as the student government’s Justice and Equity Committee chair and College of the Liberal Arts representative. “The banners will be a physical representation of our University values to create a welcoming and inclusive community for all, and to promote the idea that Penn State is a family and a home for every student.”

What started a few years ago as a “You Are Welcome Here” banner initiative by UPUA in collaboration by the Borough of State College to welcome international students to campus and community has now expanded to offer a broader message of belonging and support for those from historically underrepresented and marginalized groups, according to Lexy Pathickal, immediate past vice president of UPUA and Penn State senior, who collaborated with Rodriguez on the project.

Pathickal recalls seeing the “You Are Welcome Here” banners downtown as a first-year student — and credits them for inspiring her to join UPUA in her sophomore year with a focus on advancing diversity and inclusion. As a junior, she worked on a second iteration of the banners up until the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted plans last spring.

This semester, the revitalized “Every Person Belongs Here” banner effort has been a signature focus of UPUA’s new Justice and Equity Committee, which was formed in 2020 with the mission to expand representation and advocacy efforts at Penn State and within University Park’s student government.

With town-gown support from the University and the Borough of State College, approximately 90 banners will be placed along sidewalks and walkways on campus and around town beginning in August.

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“I am pleased that student government took the lead on this important initiative and other students were involved in its development, too,” said Damon Sims, vice president for Student Affairs. “Our collective determination to create and maintain a truly inclusive community has been challenged by recent events and likely will be challenged again. But this initiative is a clear statement of our intent, and I hope it will be embraced by all members of our community with the same open and welcoming spirit from which it was born.”

For Rodriguez, who also is involved with Lion Ambassadors, the Presidential Leadership Academy, and the Liberal Arts Undergraduate Council, working on this project has been personally significant because of his own experiences as a member of underrepresented groups.

“I come to this project from a perspective of empathy and compassion and who I am in my identity as a queer person of color. When new and prospective students come to the University and see the banners, I hope they feel accepted and understood and that they belong here no matter where they come from,” Rodriguez said. “This is who we are as a community.”

To create the banners, Rodriguez and Pathickal said it was important to include a variety of voices in the process.

They collaborated with UPUA representatives — including those from the Black Caucus; Latino Caucus; Lion Pride; Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Caucus and more — as well as other University groups such as the Indigenous Peoples’ Student Association and Student Disability Resources. Following months of outreach and conversation, the first batch of banners will feature a message of belonging for international, Asian, LGBTQIA+, Black, Latinx, Indigenous, religious and spiritual students and community members; diversity of thought; and those with disabilities.

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In the future, the pair hopes UPUA will continue to incorporate even more groups and identities.

“It can only expand from here. We set the blueprint and I’m excited to see what might happen as we gradually grow this program to include a multitude of other communities,” Rodriguez said. “I think it’s important for students of all backgrounds to see these banners and say this is a school that wants me here and I belong.”

In addition to collaborating with various student organizations, UPUA is working with the borough and Penn State’s Office of Physical Plant and Student Affairs on the many behind-the-scenes logistical elements — from printing the final designs to mapping out the light poles where they’ll hang — to bring the banners to life in time for the fall semester.

“We are so pleased to be able to continue to work alongside the University and UPUA to help support this town-gown initiative. We are one community and are jointly committed to fostering a welcoming and engaged community for everyone who lives and visits here,” said State College Borough Manager Tom Fountaine.

For Pathickal, the banners are part of the legacy she hopes to leave behind at Penn State. Though she will have graduated by the time the banners are officially unveiled, she said she plans to return in the fall for a walk around town and campus with Rodriguez.

“To be a part of the evolution of this project has been really memorable and I can’t wait to see where it continues to go,” Pathickal said. “I joined UPUA to have an impact and I feel like I’ve tried my absolute best to help make positive change. I want all students, and especially minoritized groups on campus, to know that they are welcome here and that there are resources and people at Penn State who will always support them.”

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