Working in Student Affairs looks different depending on the population of students that you are responsible for, so programming and policy need to be specifically tailored toward the students that you represent.
GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews spoke to Tonantzin Oseguera, Vice President For Student Affairs at California State University Fullerton, about how to create policies that include underrepresented demographics and the importance of providing resources for students that are struggling.
I didn’t plan it, but I was really involved in student organizations as an undergrad at Colorado State. Through that, I was exposed to the Vice President of Student Affairs and the Dean of Students when we were pushing for cultural graduations. We ended up being successful, and the Vice President for Student Affairs asked if I’d ever consider it as a career path. So I applied to the Student Affairs master's program and felt really passionate about ensuring underrepresented students had someone attentive to their needs. I haven’t looked back since.
I use that experience and my understanding of these issues in my current position. Higher Education (HE) as a system is racist and was established with systemic racism in place, and a lot of it still remains embedded in our systems today, which creates barriers. The population I serve here is overwhelmingly from underrepresented backgrounds; over half of our students are first-generation. I know what that is like to navigate, so we make sure that this is incorporated into all of our policies and programs, so we are serving our specific population. I think about everything we do through that lens.
We implemented a lot of financial aid programs that were crucial during the pandemic. We kept them in place because they are still so valuable. We better aligned our payment deadlines so students wouldn’t be out of pocket and waiting for their financial aid. We looked at students who were close to dis-enrolment and were ineligible for more funds because we saw a lot of students drop out due to no longer being able to pay. That was disproportionately affecting our underrepresented students, so we implemented grants for these instances so that students could continue their studies and graduate with their degrees. Since then, we have been able to save hundreds of students from dropping out due to financial issues by reaching out to them ourselves and letting them know that the support is there.
The issues lie within our structural systems. Universities are set up to leave out the experiences of underrepresented students, so it’s up to us to fix that.
We know from research that the key thing that helps students become resilient and feel they can get through their education is identity and belonging. We have resources dedicated to this, with space and staff available to help students connect to their identity. For example, we have a veterans' resource center for students who have done military service, so if a student connects with that identity, then they have a place to come together with others in that community. This works for students seeking support but also for enjoyment — if students are happy, then they are more likely to do better.
If a student connects with that identity, then they have a place to come together with others in that community. This works for students seeking support but also for enjoyment — if students are happy, then they are more likely to do better.
We also have ethnic identity resource spaces. We have ones for Black and African American students, Latinx students, LGBTQ+ students, Asian & Pacific Islander students, and also for undocumented students. We have a lot of undocumented students and students that are not citizens, which makes them ineligible for many rights. They need those resources and also that sense of community to form connections. We also have over 300 student organizations, and students can form their own organizations based on their interests and what they want to achieve.
We have a lot of university-organized programs too. For example, during finals, we offered events alongside our wellness program for students to come and gather for food, drinks, and socializing — we even had therapy puppies for students feeling stressed during the exam period. This makes students feel like the university cares about them as people, not just academic students.
The landscape has changed post-pandemic. This is a profession, not a job — it's a lifestyle similar to being a doctor or a lawyer in that it’s time-consuming and you need to love it.
I’d say the President of my university. Having done this for 30 years, I’ve learned that you have to like the person you work with. I have a leader that allows me to be innovative and get things done, as well as being a problem solver. He is also very proactive about DEI and keeps it at the forefront of everything.
Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Friere is the one I always go back to and have read at various points in my career.