“In my job, I wear two hats,” said Mboka Mwilambwe. “A discipline hat and a culture hat.” As the assistant director for student development in University Housing Services, Mwilambwe’s day-to-day work takes him along two seemingly divergent paths. However, a desire to help students stay on the right track and a keen interest in cultural diversity helps him to balance the extremes in his job.
Mwilambwe is responsible for coordinating the staff response to student disciplinary issues in the University residence halls. A typical day might include meeting with students who have violated alcohol, drug or conduct policies. That same day can also see him hard at work on planning the popular series of cultural dinners, co-sponsored by University Housing and other partner organizations across campus. The recent Black History Month, Latino, Indian and LGBT cultural dinners have brought well-known performing artists and actors to campus to share their experiences and insights. Other cultural dinners have highlighted Women’s history and Asian, Native American, Silent and Volunteerism cultures.
“It can be a juggling act sometimes,” he said. “Once in awhile, I have to stop and think whether I have on my discipline hat, or my culture hat. I also work with sustainability initiatives in the residence halls, so that adds another dimension to my job.”
In promoting sustainability, Mwilambwe urges people to move beyond the widely accepted and practiced basics. “It’s important to go after the low-hanging fruit like recycling and turning off lights,” he said. “Students are on board with those types of things. But, I encourage them to take a more sophisticated approach to the issue by examining things like their buying habits. That takes it to the next level.”
Taking it to the next level is a good illustration of how he also approaches student discipline matters and cultural programming. Students may not always have a clear idea of what they want to do in life, and they do not always stop to think about how getting into trouble in college can impact their future. When he meets with students about conduct issues, he addresses the problem at hand and then encourages the students to think deeper about their lives. He talks to them about their future plans, their career aspirations and their life goals.
“I feel my responsibility is to help to guide students, especially ones who have made bad decisions,” Mwilambwe said. “I’m not naïve enough to think I have all the answers, but their mistakes are an opportunity for me to intervene and to help them reflect on their lives and get back on the right track.”
Mwilambwe notes that a person’s cultural awareness and understanding can grow out of simple experiences, such as sampling food from another country. Students have grown up being exposed to different kinds of ethnic cuisine. Campus Dining facilities also serve a wide variety of culturally influenced dishes. “Food serves as a cultural introduction,” he said. “It gets people interested in learning more about the countries and the people that inspired it. The cultural dinners concept has been very successful because it combines food with presentations by well-known artists, scholars and entertainers from a variety of backgrounds.”
The cultural dinners began on a small scale in the 1980s and were often held in residence hall conference rooms. Today, the events are held in the Brown Ballroom and regularly draw more than 400 students, faculty, staff and community members. Mwilambwe began overseeing the dinners in 2008 and devotes a great deal of time to scouting for future dinner speakers. He is encouraged that speakers in recent years have had a wide appeal across campus and have drawn multicultural, multigenerational audiences.
“I’m always trying to determine what subjects and issues will appeal to audiences here at Illinois State,” he said. “It’s especially important for students to have the chance to see well-known, successful and multidimensional performers such as Lin-Manuel Miranda, Aasif Mandvi, John Forte and B.D. Wong. The messages those speakers have brought have been very inspiring for students.”
Reflecting on what inspired and prepared him for a career that combines discipline and culture, Mwilambwe looks back to his childhood and to his days as an Illinois State student. A native of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the son of a United Nations official, he spent a good deal of his youth living in other African nations and attending international schools. In 1990 he arrived at Illinois State as an international student. While pursuing his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, he worked as a resident assistant and a graduate assistant in the University residence halls. “Those jobs were a great training ground for me and taught me a lot about self-discipline and accountability,” he said. “They also showed me what I was good at. I learned that I wanted to have a career in a people-centered, communication-based field.”