Celebrating the diversity of a student cohort means paying attention to the intersections of somebody’s lived experience, as well as how this interacts with the institution. At the heart of good diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) practice is paying keen attention to these differences and making efforts to cater to different needs.
Trung Nguyen, Assistant Vice President for Student Engagement and Success at the University of Buffalo, spoke to Kira Matthews, GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead, about his experience as a first-gen student, celebrating student identities and more.
I serve as the Assistant Vice President for Student Engagement and Success at the University of Buffalo. My journey started as a first-gen college student, realizing many aspects of university life were unfamiliar to me. When I first came to college, I didn’t realize move-in day was a thing, for example, so I was there without my family!
However, I got really involved in college life. I was a political science major with a forensics minor. I was at a loss because I didn’t want to go to law school. But I was so involved with campus, I was advized to consider Higher Education (HE) as an option, and was guided into graduate school by a mentor of mine.
I can see now that if I hadn’t had certain people guiding me and uncovering different options for me, I would’ve been a statistic. I made a commitment to myself that I wanted to remove those barriers and minimize accessibility challenges for other people.
I led the creation of the Intercultural Center, a space where all students of marginalized identities were celebrated. Texas Christian University was a predominantly White institution, so many didn’t see themselves reflected in the wider environment.
When we look to hire new staff members, we are very intentional about creating a diverse hiring pool. We’re considering how our staff are reflective of our student population. I continue to push the university to provide role models for students on campus.
My original research was on how oftentimes, HE will isolate one part of a student’s identity, whether that be race, gender et cetera, and develop initiatives around these isolated experiences.
When we look to hire new staff members, we are very intentional about creating a diverse hiring pool.
I challenge my team to look at students from a holistic perspective: looking at everything and how that shapes engagement with the university. Students sharing a common ethnic background aren’t always having the same experience. Their major will impact it, as will their gender, class status et cetera. If an environment isn’t welcoming to somebody as a whole, they feel it.
I always try to include our students. We try to make decisions that are best for students, but we need to make space at the table and ask them directly.
I avoid using the deficit model when working in student engagement. I think oftentimes, the administration will look at students and identify them as ‘at risk’ or ‘needing additional support’. Unconsciously, we treat them like there’s something wrong with them.
I like to engage students using an asset model — all students are bringing something valuable to the university. I want to highlight the student identity and diversity and everything they bring to the university, and not view their past experiences as a negative. Everyone brings their own value.
Something I’m doing right now at the University of Buffalo with the VP of Student Life. Just recently, Buffalo was named the flagship university of the state. We’re having some really good conversations about how we create new traditions and events that help students see themselves connected to the university while they’re here, and also as alumni.
Networking is so important, as it’s a small field. The more people you know, the more opportunities you’ll be afforded.
Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the idea of intersectionality.
Multicultural Competencies in Student Affairs, which really helped me in my work.