In the quiet clutch of campus houses on 13th Street, there’s just one house that’s painted yellow.
Take the steps or the ramp, or even pick up the phone, and you’ll be greeted warmly by one of the staff members or student leaders at the Center for Intercultural and Civic Engagement (CICE). Once you’re in the know, you’ll just call it the Yellow House, and you’ll understand that within its walls there’s a small group of people who want to change the world.
Vivie Nguyen is the center’s director for intercultural engagement. She has the contained energy of a tightly coiled spring. Her job, together with colleagues and staff members, is to lead and foster social justice conversations across campus.
The demand for these programs is high, and, as Vivie swivels in her chair between a conversation in her office and a constant string of emails, the task sometimes feels overwhelming. But there are reminders every day—from the homeless sleeping in bus shelters on 6th Avenue to the racial slurs found scribbled on walls after Charlottesville—that there is much work to be done.
“Puget Sound very much believes in equity and inclusion,” Vivie says. “The question is how we go about it.”
The Yellow House approach to intercultural engagement is open dialogue and support. Staff members, including Dave Wright ’96, university chaplain and director for spiritual life and civic engagement, and Skylar Bihl ’08, assistant director for civic engagement, host regular student-led conversations around gender identity, race relations, microaggressions, whiteness/white privilege, socioeconomic status, civic engagement, and religion and spirituality. They also work to support and celebrate students who identify as being outside of the dominant campus culture—students of color, LGBTQ+ students, students of minority faiths, and students who are the first in their families to attend college—with workshops, peer groups, and cultural and identity-based celebrations.
In their civic work, Vivie, Dave, and Skylar connect students and other campus partners with opportunities to engage with Tacoma schools and organizations. Vivie stresses that the intention is not to “give back” but to affirm Puget Sound as part of the greater Tacoma community. “This is how equity is achieved,” she says. “It’s not ‘voluntourism’—it’s getting students to be comfortable in Tacoma and to make it their home.”
Vivie was born and raised in the multiracial suburb of Diamond Bar, Calif. Her parents were both Vietnamese refugees, and she grew up in a “hardworking, immigrant-minded household.” By nature or by nurture, she was the one in whom friends confided. Listening to their stories, she began to see a need for better counseling services in her community. “I’m not saying Asian culture is nonemotional, because that is not true,” she says. “But we don’t always have the words for identity development and the struggles young people are dealing with today.” Meanwhile Vivie saw that white counselors often missed the mark without a deeper cultural understanding.
Vivie went on to study psychology at the University of California, Irvine. After graduation, she enrolled directly in a Ph.D. counseling program at UC Santa Barbara. During that time, she fulfilled practicums as a therapist and career counselor, but hit “an existential academic crisis” halfway through the program. “Being a therapeutic counselor can be isolating in some ways,” Vivie says. She transitioned to working in student affairs, where she has been able to put her counseling skills to use in a community setting.
Her first student affairs position was at DePauw University in Indiana. It was a big shift from her experiences growing up in a diverse neighborhood in California. “I always believed that anyone could be friends with anyone, because that’s what I saw around me,” she says. In Indiana, she worked with students who had grown up in more segregated or homogenous communities, and they opened her eyes to approaching inclusivity and equity on a new level.
Vivie arrived at the Yellow House in the spring of 2016. She’s careful to note that she’s not the diversity expert, and is adamant that this work doesn’t sit with one person in one office. There’s a lot of work to be done across the campus community, and it’s a complex, qualitative process. “I think people change because of feeling,” she says. “How do we see other people as humans worthy of love?” Vivie believes that this is the underlying question for building a more inclusive community—and it’s a question for everyone.
“Traditionally, diversity programs are committed to serving underrepresented students in higher education,” Vivie says. “But ultimately we serve all students, because everyone needs to be a part of the conversation. The onus is not just on those who don’t belong to the dominant culture.”
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Dave Wright had been introduced to the Yellow House, previously known as the Campus Ministry Center, as a student in the ’90s. “I found my voice here,” he says. With a bachelor’s degree in religious studies, he went on to graduate school at Duke, in North Carolina, and his first internship as a chaplain at a rural state institution serving adults with disabilities.
After graduate school, Dave continued his training in chaplaincy, serving for two years as a resident chaplain in a postgraduate training program at a large public hospital. He returned to the Seattle area in 2001 with his partner, taking a job in a Methodist church parish. In 2006, the Puget Sound chaplain, Jim Davis, retired. Dave’s bishop got the call that the position was open and encouraged him to apply. Twelve years later, Dave is still here, and says that the Yellow House has “become a home” for him.
Dave’s many duties include chairing the Swope Endowed Lectureship on Ethics, Religion, Faith, and Values; leading conversations around religious life; and overseeing a student-led, yearlong mentorship program focused on religious diversity, spiritual expression, and community leadership. In his work as university chaplain, he thinks about religion not as a set of beliefs but as a practice, and in this practice he believes there is an opportunity to explore equity. “Our population is heavily secular but also heavily Christian,” he says. “So what are the assumptions they carry as the predominant religious group? How can religion be a tool of both dominance and oppression?”
Dave also tries to address the resistance to religion that he sees on campus. “Students are experiencing a variety of degrees of bias rooted in misperceptions,” he says. “For example, there’s a perception on campus that all Christians are socially conservative and have a certain political agenda, when in fact most Christians on campus will disagree with this. And many people think that religious identity is up for debate in a way that other things, like sexual orientation or race, are not.”
He sees religion as central to the conversation around equity and inclusion. “We’re all engaged in a religious world,” he says. “So, how do we approach people who choose to practice religion with respect?”
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Skylar Bihl found the Student Diversity Center, which is now run and supported by the Yellow House, as a first-year student in 2004. She’d had a rough few years during high school in the Tri-Cities, spent a gap year in Germany, and applied to Puget Sound at the encouragement of a high school friend. One of the first courses she enrolled in was the first-year seminar Representing Multiculturalism, a class that introduced her to systems of oppression—systems of race, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, and disability—that affect how we move in the world. The class looked at how these systems came to be, and how power, privilege, and the law have promoted their continued influence.
“As a female-bodied individual, and as a gay person, I was coming to terms with my own sexual orientation,” Skylar recalls. “And while that class was more about race, it allowed me to understand my experience as not in a silo but in a group. I was part of a group of people who had historically been ‘othered,’ and it allowed me to understand what I had been going through in high school. While I will never know what it’s like to be a person of color, I am better able to understand how the system has been affecting others who have been marginalized.”
After that experience, Skylar was inspired to take on the role of social justice coordinator at the Student Diversity Center, where she continued to deepen her understanding of her own experience in relation to those around her. After earning a B.A. in foreign languages and international affairs, she went on to study identity development of college-age students from a human development perspective at the University of Pennsylvania. She cites her time at the Student Diversity Center as an undergraduate as crucial in identifying this career path. “It shaped why I want to do this work, and why I think it should be important to an institution,” she says. “We need this place to be one that creates space for critical dialogue, for everyone to understand that we don’t all see the world through the same eyes.”
In 2013, Skylar returned to Puget Sound as assistant director for civic engagement, and the Center for Intercultural and Civic Engagement, aka the Yellow House, was created the following year. “We’re trying to help students wrestle with the world and who they are within it,” she says of her role now.
What do you do with your education? What do you do with that power? What is your unique understanding of who you are in the world? And what work do you do to make the world a more equitable place? These are the questions that the Yellow House poses, and part of Skylar’s job, together with the 14 students on her staff, is coordinating experiences that will help students answer these questions for themselves.
One of those experiences is the Food Justice Program, which connects students with organizations that are responding to food insecurity in Tacoma. One of their activities involves salvaging and packing extra food from the dining hall and delivering it to Guadalupe House.
Another experience is working with St. Leo’s Food Connection to fill backpacks with food for K-12 Tacoma public school students who qualify for free-and-reduced lunch to take home on weekends.
Skylar also brings local politicians and activists to campus to speak about issues of food justice, legislative solutions, and community organizing.