The Interview USA
Vice President for Student Affairs at San Jose State University
Vice President for Student Affairs

Mari Fuentes-Martin

Unlocking the potential of every student demands more than just academic excellence: it relies on recognizing and respecting the diverse backgrounds and cultures of each individual. This understanding is central to the work done by Mari Fuentes-Martin, Interim Vice President for Student Affairs at San Jose State University, who has dedicated her career to working tirelessly to advocate for students and their welfare.

Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, met with Mari to discuss everything from the importance of effective communication in ensuring student safety to strategies for building a sense of shared belonging for a diverse student body.

Mari’s Journey

Luke: Let’s start with a brief introduction to yourself and your institution.

I’m the Interim Vice-President for Student Affairs at San Jose State University. I’ve had a 33-year career in higher education and I’ve spent almost all of that in student affairs. I have twenty years of experience as an Associate Vice President and Dean of Students at various institutions.  My first Vice President for Student Affairs role was at Texas A&M University San Antonio and I’m now at San Jose State. 

Luke: What inspired you to pursue a career in higher education?

I think it was my undergraduate experience. I was quite an engaged student. I attended the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, far away from where I grew up in South Texas. But I felt that my Latina identity was lost there. I saw that the African American students were very organized, but the Latinx students hadn’t found a voice that was quite as powerful. So I found myself getting involved in everything to do with Latinx students on campus. Then, when I started working at Notre Dame, I was asked to join the Alumni Office to help set up Affinity Groups. After that, I became the Assistant Director of Multicultural Affairs. That’s when doors began to open and I found my vocation. When I was a student, I never saw people like myself in these positions, but once I started my career in Student Affairs,  it became clear that this would become the work of my heart.

Luke: What are the key things to get right when it comes to student safety?

Communication is key. You need to capture students at the right time, when they are ready to listen. Colleges front-load a lot of things into orientation: before you even step on campus, you’re bombarded with information about learning skills, registration, Title IX, and everything else. But students aren’t listening – they have enough to deal with already! So you need to try different channels: websites, flyers around campus, and reaching out to students through clubs and organizations. You don’t just need to communicate; you need to over-communicate.

Luke: What’s your approach to effectively communicating with a diverse body of students from all walks of life?

We have a highly diverse campus at San Jose State: 40 percent of our students are Asian, 28 percent are Latinx, 20 percent are international students, and 25 percent are grad students. I find that one-on-one or small-group interactions are the most effective, as students are more engaged in a small meeting than in a room of 500 people. It’s important to find the issues that are most relevant to students. If you’re a grad student, you might be thinking more about careers, but if you’re a freshman, you’re probably more focused on the social environment. You can’t have the same message for everybody.

Luke: What are the most important things to keep in mind when building a sense of belonging for students from diverse backgrounds?

There has to be an appreciation that each person has their own culture. Your upbringing, your background, your values – all of these things matter. No two people are alike, and everybody has their point of view. We have to find affinity groups while recognizing and respecting other people’s differences. But it’s hard to make that one-on-one work reach everyone in a university of 36,000 students. So you look for pockets: residence halls, clubs and organizations, and even classrooms. It’s crucial to find common ground between staff and students so you can have those diverse conversations.  

Luke: How can we best facilitate an environment where students can communicate across difference and have constructive conversations about difficult issues?

It’s about moving the discussion away from yes or no, right or wrong, black or white. You need to rephrase the issue so that people can become invested. Hear both sides in search of a peaceful resolution. Instead of opposites, try to see parallels. When you encounter conflict, ask the question “What do we have in common, and how can we work through it together?” I’m a big believer in the Social Change Model, which looks at how individuals, groups, and the community intersect to make positive change. Just one person can be the catalyst for fundamental change. 

Luke: How do you encourage colleagues to be open to new ideas and approaches?

We need to understand that it’s our responsibility to affect positive change. If a student has a problem, then it becomes your problem, too. We have a duty to show care and concern for the experience of every student. Everyone needs to play their part: if you aren’t going to step up, then I’ll need to find someone else to do that job. As a leader, you need to have a compelling argument to show people how to change things for the better. Then the question becomes, how do you do that for 36,000 students? Well, one step at a time. I believe you should start with an end in mind, and work backward from there. In my twenty years working as a Dean of Students, I’ve learned that you’re always in a crisis: you’re always reacting, so you need to be adaptable to any situation.

Luke: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

When I was at Notre Dame, I had a mentor named Dr Roland Smith. He always gave me a voice and made me feel heard. One day, he told me that I had a lot to offer in the field of higher education and that I should pursue a Master’s and a Doctorate. That taught me that if you see potential in someone, let them know you believe in them and that you’re there to help guide and mentor them. 

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