The Interview USA
University of Northern Colorado
Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer

Tobias Guzmán

Universities are brimming with students from a kaleidoscope of backgrounds. Yet ensuring everyone feels a sense of belonging and inclusion isn’t always straightforward. A key aspect of this challenge is capturing and retaining student interest in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) conversations; universities need to get creative in how they share information to find new ways to reach and engage with students on these important topics.

Max Webber, Co-Host of The Interview, met with Dr. Tobias Guzmán, Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Northern Colorado, to discuss how DEI efforts must adapt alongside the ever-changing world to effectively reach all students and build a truly inclusive university community.

Tobias' Journey

Max: Let's start with a brief introduction to yourself and your institution. 

My name is Dr. Tobias Guzmán; I’m the Vice President (VP) for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) at the University of Northern Colorado (UNC). We have around 12,000 students here at UNC. I’ve been in HE for 29 years, 23 of those at UNC; in that time, HE has changed dramatically and, as an administrator, I’ve needed to change, too.

Max: What drew you to working in DEI?

You can be committed to DEI without referencing those terms; DEI is a reflection of your actions and how you treat others. Back in the 90s, DEI was about quotas, unfortunately. Now, we’re having much richer conversations around topics like identity, diversity's inherent value, and equal pay for equal work. In 2020, we witnessed how the global pandemic disproportionately impacted marginalized communities and the national reckoning with racial injustice following the murder of George Floyd. These events prompted greater awareness around DEI, but there’s still a long way to go; our work is critical, and that’s been a huge driver throughout my career.

Max: What’s your biggest focus in building a sense of belonging and inclusion on campus?

We have two key areas of focus: programming and events. Our programming involves developing organized systems to achieve a specific purpose. For example, we have a program that connects our Political Science, Sociology and Journalism students with top legal institutions; it’s been specifically designed to facilitate discussions with these students to better understand how we can create effective pathways for them to progress into legal careers. Effective programming has enormous potential to be the ‘difference makers’ for our students; it shows our students we care about understanding their needs for success and the role HE plays more broadly in their lives.

Events are designed to educate students and the community as a whole and offer them the opportunity to have immersive experiences. A great example of this is our cultural events; students can get a taste of different cultural identities without leaving campus. These events foster a sense of belonging and inclusion by allowing students to connect with and learn from diverse communities.

Max: How are you looking to reach students who may be disengaged?

Leveraging different modalities helps us widen the net and capture the attention of students who may have traditionally been disengaged. Some of the communication avenues we use include podcasting, email, online learning, face-to-face focus groups and town hall meetings; by offering students a range of opportunities to engage with key messaging, we increase our capacity to meet students where they are. We must also acknowledge that engagement is nuanced; we can’t generalize how students want to engage throughout their university experience.

In my role as VP, I make a conscious effort to connect with students in their environment. Whether it's grabbing lunch in the dining hall or striking up conversations in the University Center, these informal interactions open doors to connect with students I might not otherwise meet. By gathering data directly from students’ lived experiences, we can piece together what they want and need to succeed.

Max: What is the best piece of advice you’ve received across the course of your career?

Always seek out mentors; my mentors have helped me get to where I am today. We tend to want to do things independently, but it’s powerful when you have somebody to bounce your ideas off and receive feedback from. Having a guide in your personal and professional life adds great value to your learning experience; I share this advice with my students all the time, too.

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Max Webber
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