Making the transition to university is always difficult, yet students from marginalized communities face more obstacles than most. As Vice President for Student Affairs and Chief Diversity Officer at San Diego State University, J. Luke Wood is leading pioneering research into racial equity in education while tirelessly advocating for the rights of students.
Luke sat down with GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead, Kira Matthews, to discuss his path into Higher Education (HE), his groundbreaking work supporting minoritized students, and how we can make lasting change to our institutions.
Absolutely! I serve as Vice President for Student Affairs and Campus Diversity at San Diego State University, as well as Chief Diversity Officer. I began my career here as a tenured Professor in the College of Education.
I began my student affairs career in outreach, particularly in advising, student support, and men of color initiatives. As a professor, my research focuses on racial equity issues. I look at how institutions, particularly schools and universities, can be more effective in supporting minoritized students.
When our new President arrived at San Diego State in 2018, I applied for the position of Chief Diversity Officer. I was initially hesitant — I know how difficult these positions can be — but I believed in her vision and experience. In 2020, the divisions of Campus Diversity and Student Affairs merged, bringing me into my current role.
Other than my experience as a student leader, my research has had the largest influence on my work. The research focuses on equity, understanding minoritized groups, and what interventions are needed to support them. It’s important to approach the issue from the perspective of institutional responsibility — it’s not about blaming students, families, or communities, but looking in the mirror to understand our own frailties. I believe institutions and educators have a responsibility to help all students succeed.
I believe institutions and educators have a responsibility to help all students succeed.
We need to create institutional change. As W. Edwards Deming and Paul Batalden said, “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” If we want to change outcomes, we need to change systems and the way they operate.
My mentor Caroline Turner said that many minoritized students feel “like a guest in someone else’s home.” When students arrive on campus, it can be alienating — the building names, the images, and the scenery are not always relatable. We must show students that they are not guests: this is their home.
At San Diego State, we do a lot of work with the Black and African American community. Out of 23 institutions in the California state system, we were the only one to reduce the equity gap between Black students and their peers.
We want to replicate the experience you might see at a historically Black college or university. We are striving to build a seamless system of support, from the moment students first become interested in our institution up until they become alumni. We have the Harambee Weekend to welcome new students, and also the Black Excellence Tour, which provides a campus experience from a Black perspective. You can see the place where Martin Luther King spoke, the office where Shirley Weber started her career, and much more.
After arriving on campus, you become part of the Henrietta Goodwin Scholars Program, a comprehensive support scheme for our first-year students. This support will continue throughout students’ whole time here, and finally, the Hal Brown Program will help students prepare for their careers after graduation.
First, you have to recognize it’s not about you. We are here to support students and their success. Due to systemic issues like racism, discrimination, and white supremacy, our institutions were not designed to support diverse student bodies. So we need to reevaluate our institutions and our practices.
Second, you must believe in students’ ability to achieve, and they need to know you believe in them. You have a vested interest in their success — if they do well, you will feel like you’ve made a difference.
There are so many! But one I would definitely say is William Smith, from the University of Utah. He works in the DEI space, but he’s also an important scholar — he first coined the phrase “racial battle fatigue.” When you are in a racist environment, it has an effect: emotionally, psychologically, and physically. It also affects young children, even in preschool and kindergarten. That understanding of racism is critical to building more effective systems of support.
That’s an interesting question. I think it’s probably the book Black Male(d) by Tyrone Howard, who is a professor at UCLA and Head of the American Educational Research Association. He’s a colleague, a friend, and an amazing individual. His book looks at ways in which Black students, especially males, experience school and the discrimination they face. Most importantly, he provides concrete recommendations on how to create lasting change. In the end, it comes down to one thing: dignity. If we have that, all students will have the opportunity to succeed.