Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) is a deeply nuanced field. In Higher Education (HE), students and faculty alike often have multiple, overlapping identities, so it’s important that universities provide spaces and support for these various identities. This allows students to find community and feel seen.
Willie Banks, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at the University of California, Irvine, sat down with Kira Matthews, GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead, to discuss his career in student affairs, the importance of finding your passion, and kindness.
My name is Willie Banks; I serve as the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at the University of Irvine, California.
Like many people in student affairs, I didn’t really know about it. When I was a freshman at Mercer University, which is a small institution in Georgia, I showed up not knowing what to do on campus — I just knew that I loved the thought of being in college. So I was really searching for community.
I got involved in a number of different organizations. I did everything; I worked in the student center, got involved with student government, and worked with our programming board. I did a whole host of things! And I had some great mentors. During my time there, they asked whether I had ever considered going into student affairs, which was the first time I realized it could be pursued as a career.
So I fell into it. But what has kept me in this field for almost thirty years has been creating communities — not only for our students but also our staff — and working with young leaders and students who are trying to change the world.
There’s no other place like student affairs; it’s both rewarding and challenging. The learning that happens, the access to different thought leaders, the many experiences — it’s a phenomenal career to have.
I think people can overcomplicate things. I actually have a very simple approach — I ask students what they want and need. We can make a lot of assumptions, but in reality, we don't always hit the mark. So before someone goes down the road of creating communities for others, I tell them they must find out what people need because every campus has a different culture.
I’ll share a story. I grew up in a multi-racial household. My mother is from Thailand, and my father is a Black man who grew up in the south. They met when my dad was in the service in Thailand during the 60s. Growing up mixed race, I struggled to work out where I fit in or find community. It’s the same thing showing up at college. I was a 17-year-old who knew I was not Black enough and not White at all — so where was my community?
I think many of our students are just trying to find connections. One of the most important things for them is to be able to find a group of people with similar interests. When I think about creating those spaces back in the late 80s and early 90s, not everyone was thinking about that. It was trying to fit into the majority culture, so for marginalized people at large institutions, it was hard to fit in. So you have to ask students what they want.
I don't want to take credit for creating the African American Culture Center because that had been on campus for a number of years when I arrived — but it was the only one. So part of my work when I got to Indiana State in 2015 was surveying the campus. I met faculty and students and learned about how loved the Cultural Center was — but what about people with multiple identities? Were they welcome in those spaces?
Of course, the cultural center was welcoming to everyone — but I saw that there was a need to consider the gaps in our providing. We were missing an umbrella office that could capture that work. We didn't have a center for Hispanic, LGBTQ, or international students. A women’s center used to exist but had faded away, so I resurrected it. Part of my work at Indiana State in my first year was creating those different resource centers to give students a place to connect, so they knew they were supported and seen. It was an easy sell because Indiana State was ready for something different. They wanted to move the conversation around diversity beyond Black and White because the issue is a broader one.
I was honored to receive the award from NASPA, which is the organization I’m affiliated with. Receiving that award is, for a lot of us, the pinnacle of our career. When I received it, I was deeply humbled and honored — but also realized that I'm getting older!
Looking back on my career, there was no one specific initiative. I think the award was for my life’s work. I’ve done so much! Renovation and construction projects at the University of Georgia were a huge accomplishment; expanding our student center, which created another 100,000 square feet of space, was fantastic. But if anything, what I’m most proud of is that I have been able to lift up people throughout my career and help them find community.
What I’m most proud of is that I have been able to lift up people throughout my career and help them find community.
I hope that when people look back on my career, they think I was a great leader — but more importantly, that I was a kind human being. I’m proudest of the relationships I've built, not only with fellow colleagues but also with students.
When I started at UCI, I felt like people had forgotten how to be kind to each other. Being kind is about providing grace, opening up and listening to others, and just being nice! So, in every message I push out to staff, one of the things I talk about is what it looks like to be kind. I’m not saying I'm always kind; sometimes, I have to make tough decisions. But you have to work at kindness and remember — even in the toughest situations — to be empathetic, and position yourself to think about what the other person is feeling.
Absolutely. Not only for our students, but also for our faculty. I think everyone is struggling. For almost three years, we were isolated. From March 2020, for a good year and a half, we didn't know what was going on. I lived by myself because my family was back in Georgia. Part of human nature is needing physical contact and community, which was taken away. I think everyone has struggled to reintegrate back into society after being locked down for so many years.
Many of our incoming students were robbed of the typical high school experience and are now figuring out how to interact with people — faculty and roommates — so there has been a rise in conflicts.
Expectations are askew; we’re trying to figure it out. But ultimately, I hope people have learned through this experience that relationships matter. People lost people without much notice and many couldn't see their dying loved ones. So I hope that we can tap into our humanity.
You have to figure out what you're passionate about. If you're looking to make money — and there’s nothing wrong with that — then you should consider whether student affairs or HE is for you. People need to be passionate about working with students and creating communities. For me, the trade-off was fine because I was committed to doing that work. But you need to find what you're passionate about.
I have so many people — that's like asking who your favorite child is! It’s a tough question. I work with a lot of great people.
A dear friend of mine, who I’ve worked with for a number of years, is Dr. Dyonne Bergeron, who was last affiliated with the University of Colorado Boulder. She displays the grace, humanity, and kindness that is needed for DEI work. I am always impressed with how she moves in those spaces and around those issues — because you need someone who can finesse difficult conversations.
There are so many books — but along the lines of DEI work, we provided a book to our division after the murder of George Floyd called How To Be an Antiracist by Ibram Kendi. It reframed how I thought about anti-Blackness and anti-racism work, on college campuses and life in general, so I continue to refer back to it. It’s a really great book that I think the general population should be connected to, even though there’s more work that needs to be done after reading the book.