Thinking outside of the box in Higher Education (HE) is essential if we want to move forward in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives. For Felipe Henao, Dean of Students at New York Institute of Technology (New York Tech), taking new and innovative approaches to HE is how he removes barriers and increases student success.
Felipe sat down with GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews to discuss the importance of showing students that they are part of a caring community, and the initiatives by which he has aimed to achieve this.
I am a first-generation Latino student who attended a predominantly White institution (PWI). I had the most amazing role models in college who helped me navigate the complex bureaucratic systems in place, and that inspired me to go into this role. I got really into Student Affairs as an undergraduate and did it alongside my studies without realizing that it was something you could intentionally aspire to a career in. I became so inspired to make an impact just like people had on me, so I went on to a career in the field.
It would have been really easy to do the traditional route into HE, but I knew there was so much systemic change that needed to occur, so part of my program was centered around working across systems and functions. That meant working with K-12 teachers, people who worked at the Department of Education, senior leaders of law firms, and more, trying to connect our ecosystems and work better together to solve real systemic issues. For instance, my dissertation was on food insecurity and that is not an issue isolated to HE but affects those across sectors.
In terms of innovation, I turn to industry to see what they are doing, such as looking at how employers are upping employee engagement or how they're keeping their customers satisfied, because, at the end of the day, our students are our customers whether we want to believe that or not. They come with multitudes of issues; addressing them holistically and thinking about the future is essential. It’s about challenging our own expectations and thoughts too — the industry is always changing, and it's up to us to keep up.
At my old institution, we opened three pantries and had over 800 students involved in that. We primarily had students come to this from a background of misconduct; if students were stealing from the cafeteria, for instance. From a restorative justice lens and an equity lens, my mind always asks why they are stealing and how we can address the root issue, before it goes to ‘stealing is wrong.’ It’s about building a whole picture, not just punishing students when they do something wrong.
At New York Tech we have two pantries, which we call the Grizzly Cupboard (since we’re the Grizzly Bears), and refer to students that use it as ‘members’, in an effort to destigmatize and normalize going there for food. What is important here is not what you need or why you need it, but the fact that you are part of a community that is here to help and support you. This support service is no different from academic support; if students aren’t eating, then they can’t study, and that places a barrier in front of their success.
The end goal is not just about sending students away with food, it's about ensuring that they don’t feel their situation sets them apart from other students in a negative way. We want them to know that they are still capable of completing their degree, and that we are here to help.
I started this in 2015 at my previous institution. We got together a group of students, staff, and academic advisors because we saw a real issue that needed to be addressed. Complete College America approached me, which funds projects and helps with research, and now this project is being funded by the Lumina Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I work with four historically Black community colleges in South Carolina which has been a huge learning opportunity for me regarding funding regulations and how basic needs can be addressed. I support the teams in those colleges to go on to help them support students better.
We have come so far in HE, but unfortunately, there are still so many inequities among Black and Brown students, and adding adult learners into the mix becomes even more challenging.
It’s so hard to measure a sense of belonging. Some students don’t know how to ask for resources or even which resources are available. That is why we have found it helpful to focus on specific groups. For example, we have 25% first-generation students on campus, and when you break that down into new intake each year it's over 50%. We then did more research to find out what they were mainly coming to study and found it was Engineering — so then it became a case of working with those faculties to understand the first-year population they were dealing with. It’s so important to know who your students are, and what issues they might be facing. From there it is a case of empowering them and helping first-gen students to connect with one another too.
It’s so important to know who your students are, and what issues they might be facing. From there it is a case of empowering them and helping first-gen students to connect with one another too.
Things in HE move slow, but don’t be discouraged. The more voices there are addressing issues, the more likely we are to make a difference. It’s easy to give up, but there has to be someone out there to advocate for these students.
I get a lot of inspiration from seeing what college presidents are doing, so I’ve had the chance to interview presidents from Chicago, Massachusetts, and other parts of the country. This has been so interesting to see how leadership sets the tone for the direction of an organization. It makes me think about what I am doing to be a role model and set the tone for my own institution.
After the tragic death of George Floyd, I picked up the book So You Want to Talk About Race? by Ijeoma Oluo. At my old institution I really wanted us to do more Student Affairs work to empower students. I had to check my privilege, because I needed to be informed and understand the history before moving the work forward. That book was the most impactful thing I have ever read, and it informed and inspired me so much. I also want to list the autobiography of Benjamin Mays, who served as president of the Historical Black College, Morehouse College.