The Interview USA
Wake Forest University
Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion, Chief Diversity Officer

José Villalba

Higher Education (HE) institutions are not only about fostering development within classroom settings. It’s just as important to foster personal and social development, typically by providing safe spaces and cultural centers where students can connect with shared identities and learn about others.

José Villalba, Vice President (VP) for Diversity and Inclusion (DEI) at Wake Forest University, sat down with GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews to discuss his background in counseling, dismantling barriers post-Covid, and the importance of humility as a HE leader.

José's Journey

Kira: Can you tell me about your role and how you got there? 

I’m José Villalba, and I’m the VP for DEI at Wake Forest University and a Professor of Counselling. I laugh when students ask me, did you plan your career out in freshman or sophomore year? Of course, it didn’t really work out like that.

I took a multicultural counseling class in graduate school, which made me think about my own ethnicity and the ethnicity of others in a much more intentional way. I took for granted what it meant to be Latinx growing up as a Cuban-Colombian guy in Miami. My research and teaching have led on from this point. The cornerstone of my work is a much more intentional way of looking at ethnicity and race.

Kira: You’ve done research on Latinx adolescents, could you tell me a bit about this?

I’m a second-language English speaker, Spanish is my first language. I wanted to research primary school-age counseling interventions that would help Hispanic Latino kids adjust to school. That’s what started my research into Latinx college access. 

As I grew into my academic and research prowess, I looked at health inequities. I looked at what it means to grapple with health disparities — it’s not just about medical illnesses affecting certain groups over others, but also the inability to access quality healthcare and insurance. That trifecta of health disparity has really broadened my scope and focuses on not just ameliorating academic barriers but health barriers as well. 

Regarding how that influences me, my leadership style is rooted in my counseling paradigms. I’m a person-centered therapist, which includes tenets like empathy, unconditional positive regard, and congruence. I’m everyone's VP for DEI, and congruence is about being authentic: doing what you say.

Kira: You’ve mentioned removing barriers to access and academic success. I’m keen to explore since Covid, what barriers you’ve noticed students facing and what work are you leading to respond to some of these challenges?

In the States, we can’t really talk about Covid without talking about the murder of George Floyd. They happened within months of each other, and for me, having done work on health equity and disparities, there’s an intersection between the murder of this man and a world grappling with Covid. 

For those from underrepresented backgrounds, the pandemic elevated what people needed to get through their daily lives. If you’re an underrepresented person, you’re already dealing with a system that has put up many barriers for you to thrive. 

For those from underrepresented backgrounds, the pandemic elevated what people needed to get through their daily lives. If you’re an underrepresented person, you’re already dealing with a system that has put up many barriers for you to thrive. 

It’s not a fluke that more and more people are talking about mental health. We have something called Thrive at Wake Forest University, which is our 8-part well-being strategy. As a result, our students were already accustomed to this language before the pandemic. We also have RIDE (Realizing Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity), which can work dually with Thrive. It allows us to talk about what we’re doing in a much more straightforward and consistent way. 

We’re also intentional assessors. We assess and evaluate everything; our office and campus life and the Wellbeing Center are always doing assessments. For students who have a negative experience with their counselor or are the victim of a biased incident or act of discrimination, accessing support is important, but they also need to be able to benefit from that help and let us know if they don’t.

I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture, but we constantly take in that constructive feedback.

Kira: In the interview, we also discuss the importance of creating a positive student voice to ensure a positive campus climate and give students the feeling that they make an impact. What does belonging look like at Wake Forest?

It requires diversity and representation. We have done a pretty good job of diversifying all of our populations; we hit a plateau a few years ago where around 20% of our students were domestic Students of Color in our incoming first year undergraduate class. This year, we reached 28%, which is significant. We’ve also had a similar increase in faculty on tenure-track positions.

Diversity is the lowest bar, it’s about compliance. Inclusion is about consciousness, and equity is about making things better for underrepresented people. 

Our office has something called the Network for Inclusive Leadership and Engagement; we meet to share best practices. Our identity centers also work as brave and safe spaces — I’m talking to you the day after a mass shooting in Colorado Springs at an LGBTQ+ venue. It’s moments like this when those centers really become safe spaces. 

Three Quickfire Questions 

Kira: What’s your most important tip?

Be humble! HE positions will hand you all sorts of challenges and make you question your training. Coming at it with a sense of humility opens you up to self-awareness and learning opportunities. I’m a big believer in self-grace — to ensure you don’t burn out. We need people who care about students now more than ever.

Kira: Who do you admire the most in the HE space?

Dr. Malika Roman Isler. I have the unearned privilege of working with her; I admire her because she’s a public health professional who took that frame to a HE setting. As Beyonce would say, she slays every single day!

Kira: What book is most important to you?

Heavy by Kiese Laymon; it’s a memoir by someone teaching at Rice; it’s the only book I’ve read in one sitting!

Curious to see what the future of training looks like?
Kira Matthews
Community Engagement Lead
Kira leads our community outreach team working hand-in-hand with changemakers on both sides of the pond. If you want to join the next series of The Interview, or just learn more about GoodCourse, then get in touch at

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