Providence, R.I.--Rafael Zapata recently began work as the first-ever chief diversity officer and associate vice president at Providence College.
Zapata is leading the new Office of Institutional Diversity, which is charged with promoting a campus culture that is inclusive, diverse, and welcoming of all--a key component of the College’s new Strategic Plan, and a core value of its Mission Statement.
Zapata, a graduate of Iona College and Arizona State University, has been assistant dean and director of the Intercultural Center at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania since 2002. Prior to that, he was assistant director of the Office of African American, Latino, and Asian American Student Services at New York University.
Zapata recently answered questions about his hopes for his new position.
Q: What attracted you to PC?
I was deeply impressed by the process that led PC toward establishing this position. It was collaborative, smart, and comprehensive, and from there emerged a bold vision and deep commitment to diversity, inclusion, and academic excellence. At the same time, many of the people I met with were clear-eyed about the challenges that remain in achieving the goals of the Strategic Plan for Diversity. I deeply appreciated that honesty. This work is extremely important and centrally tied to the academic mission of the college, but it is not easy and requires this kind of steadfast commitment.
Additionally, when I was asked to consider how PC’s values (particularly the belief in the fundamental dignity and equality of all human beings, and our shared responsibility to create a more socially just world) resonated with my own, I realized how deeply ingrained and intertwined my Catholic upbringing and my bi-cultural New York City-Puerto Rican heritage were in shaping my personal and professional commitments. Those fundamental values are things that have always guided me, but the process brought them into sharp relief. I came to realize that this position at PC specifically was a wonderful fit for me. Indeed, it was quite a spiritual exercise.
And finally, this is a very caring community, and that matters a great deal to me.
Q: What can students expect as you arrive on campus? Will they have a chance to meet and interact with you?
I would love to meet with students as soon as I’m settled in on campus. Being new to PC, I’ll draw on the knowledge of my colleagues and others I met during the search process on how best to make that happen. I suspect that much of my time during the spring semester will be spent meeting with, listening to, and learning from students, as well as faculty, staff, and alumni. I’m looking forward to it.
Q: PC has some active multicultural organizations, namely the Balfour Office for Multicultural Activities (BOMA) and the Board of Multicultural Student Activities (BMSA). But students in those groups have complained that it’s difficult to get white students to attend activities seen as “multicultural.” How do you bridge that gap?
In my experience, student leaders of all types of organizations (environmental, spiritual, pre-professional, as well as community-specific) often find it challenging to get their peers to attend events they work hard to organize. That may be a function of how busy students are with classes, work and other commitments -- a lack of awareness that such events are happening, among other factors.
In this particular context, I would work with students, faculty, and staff to explore topics of interest that appeal to a broad array of communities, including (but not exclusively) students of color, and working hard to ensure that programs are collaborative, well-organized and effectively advertised. Additionally, we should build on existing programs (e.g., service projects, arts-cultural programming) that foster relationship building among diverse communities on campus, while continuing to think creatively about how to provide additional opportunities for connecting students, faculty, and staff.
Q: Ultimately, what does it mean to have a “diverse” campus? Is it judged by the percentage of non-white students who enroll? Do first-generation college students who are white also count in the mix?
Demographic diversity is extremely important to the academic enterprise because it enhances the range of backgrounds and perspectives on campus, and also reduces the loneliness, if not isolation, that can arise when someone feels like “the only one” or “one of a few.”
With that said, everyone – regardless of their background - brings something to campus that reflects their unique experiences and the communities from which they hail. Everyone.
Learning to constructively engage people who have different experiences, perspectives, and ideas than your own is an essential element of a college education. So being a diverse campus goes beyond being the first in your family to go to college, beyond being a woman and-or a person of color, and includes students, faculty, and staff at all levels.
Moreover, in addition to increasing the diversity of our community, we should continually strive to create and sustain a campus in which everyone feels connected, supported, and included. In order for students to develop their full academic potential, and foster their personal and spiritual growth, they (as well as faculty and staff) have to feel that PC is their school, that they belong, that they can be successful.
Having a diverse community is a valuable, precious resource in the mission of any institution or organization. But in order to fully tap into it, we must engage it intentionally, creatively, and substantively.