Her Story 2015

Providing students with 'culture, advocacy, resource and education'

Melanie Castillo-Cullather sits at her desk looking at a computer
Melanie Castillo-Cullather  

Melanie Castillo-Cullather is on a mission.

As the Asian Culture Center's director since 1999, her aspiration is for each Indiana University student to stop by at least once before graduation.

"We celebrate, we honor and we are very proud of our Asian culture. But you don't have to be Asian to come to the center," she said.

Melanie Castillo-Cullather smiles at the camera, she is standing in front of a red door
Castillo-Cullather has been director of the Asian Culture Center since 1999.

Castillo-Cullather is from Davao City in The Philippines. She met her Indiana-born husband, a Fulbright Scholar, when she worked at the U.S. embassy in Manila. The couple lived in Washington, D.C. while he completed his Ph.D.

She recalled that in 1993 he was considering opportunities at three colleges: one in upstate New York, one in Hawaii and one at IU. "And I said, where is Indiana?"

He brought her to see Bloomington -- in the wintertime. By the time they landed, night had fallen. From the Indianapolis airport they drove away into complete darkness. She thought, "There are no lights. What is this place?"

Nick Cullather joined the faculty as a history professor. Castillo-Cullather immersed herself in volunteer work and substitute teaching. In one rural community, curious children innocently peppered her with questions. "They were genuinely interested in my background and were not shy to ask me about it," she said.

In those years, Castillo-Cullather hungered to hear her native language. "You feel so new, so out of place."

So, she shaped the Asian Culture Center into a nurturing place of CARE: Culture, Advocacy, Resource and Education.

The exterior of a yellow building
IU's Asian Culture Center.

"Not all campuses have cultural centers," she said. "We were the first in the Midwest."

The center offers a full schedule of events, from cooking lessons and game nights to weighty discussions on timely topics.

Free lessons are offered in Mandarin, Korean, Sanskrit and Hindi. And unlike formal university courses, here students have the chance to preview a language without commitment or grading. "Often, they love it and that is when they check out the other classes on campus," she said.

Castillo-Cullather is especially proud of the English language tutoring and peer support offered more than 30 hours a week. No appointments are needed to meet with the volunteers from different academic areas. Visitors ask about everyday life and classroom life. "Most just need affirmation. They want to be sure they have understood something correctly or responded correctly. And sometimes they just want to talk," she said.

In Fall 2014, more than 4,000 IU Bloomington students identified themselves as Asian or multiracial with Asian heritage.

"It's a diverse group of people, speaking many languages, with different faiths and different backgrounds," Castillo-Cullather said.

International students have different needs and interests than Asian Americans, whose families often have lived in the United States for multiple generations. "Asian Americans are just as American as anyone in this place," she said. "But often during this stage in their lives, they want to explore their identity and ethnic heritage."

The global students miss familiar things, and that extends to food. They miss speaking their language. Some feel lonely and isolated. Others embrace campus life, participating in all kinds of activities. "Everything is new from the moment they step out of the airplane," she said.

Melanie Castillo-Cullather sits on a couch while speaking with a student
"It's a diverse group of people, speaking many languages, with different faiths and different backgrounds," Castillo-Cullather said.

To reach both of these groups and the general student community, "We try to be as creative as possible."

And, she said, as a mother she likes to offer a snack or a cup of tea. "The students really appreciate it, and the whole staff enjoys offering this kind of reception to the students," she said.

Today, Castillo-Cullather has adjusted to Indiana winters. In fact, she's an avid outdoor runner with nine marathons under her belt.

Her daughter, Isabel, is attending college in Vancouver. Her son Joseph, a high school senior, has other ideas. He wants to attend a school called Indiana.