Research shows when students can learn from teachers and leaders who look like them, they are more likely to succeed inside and outside the classroom. In fact, educators of color are linked to positive academic achievement and behavioral outcomes for all students, not just students of color.
Diversifying the teacher workforce is a large part of the mission at the University of St. Thomas School of Education, and it doesn’t stop with K-12 education. Leaders and mentors of color in higher education have a similar positive impact on Asian, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other college students, which is why the faculty and staff leading the School of Education’s Leadership in Student Affairs (LSA) program cite equity and inclusion as cornerstones of its Master of Arts degree curriculum.
“The LSA program’s explicit focus on leadership, applying theory to practice and social justice really prepares student affairs educators for the kind of work higher education requires right now,” said program director Dr. Jayne Sommers. “Institutions want practitioners who have a keen understanding of how higher education operates, what students need and how we can best serve them. Student affairs practitioners are a vital part of the student experience and play a key role in building truly inclusive cultures on campus.”
Meet some of the dedicated local student affairs professionals.
Nayely Becerra Castillo ’24 MA, assistant director of retention and student success, Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion Services (SDIS), University of St. Thomas
Current LSA student Nayely Becerra Castillo applies her new learnings every day at St. Thomas. She believes a student’s education must be approached holistically, and one of the first steps is feeling comfortable in your environment.
“When a diverse student encounters a diverse staff member, there is an immediate common understanding that can include language, culture, upbringing or faith. That encounter allows the student to exhale and be themselves with no further explanation necessary,” she said. “That student no longer has to be the ‘first’ of their background on campus or the only diverse person in the room. Diverse staff members ensure that diverse students can enjoy the privilege of just being a student. They can leave the DEI work to us.”
The LSA program has also broadened Becerra Castillo’s views on equity, and she is grateful.
“As a woman and a person of color, I entered the program with firm views of social justice and equity that were shaped by my lived experiences,” she said. “However, this program encouraged me to widen my view of social justice and equity as it extends to our LGBTQIA+ students and students with disabilities. I am comfortable admitting I have a lot to learn, and I could not hope for a better group of people to learn from than my LSA community.”
Gustavo Angel Manjarrez Villanueva ’21 MA, admissions counselor, Macalester College
“I chose to enroll in the LSA program because St. Thomas seemed like it would give me an opportunity to help me achieve my dream of working in a college setting,” said Gustavo Angel Manjarrez Villanueva. He’s keenly aware that predominantly white institutions are challenging for students of color in higher education, and he saw the LSA program as an opportunity to gain skills and continue to advocate for social justice and equity for all students.
In his own educational journey, he is grateful to his St. Thomas advisers. “They viewed me with a holistic viewpoint that took notice of me as a person. They also took notice of milestones that I have accomplished throughout my difficult journey that were more as a nontraditional college student throughout my undergraduate studies.”
He takes that same approach in his current role as an admissions counselor. “I got into admissions and financial aid because I really care about access and equity in higher education based on my educational journey and because, personally speaking, it was not easy as a person of color,” said Manjarrez Villanueva. “I aim to see what students’ challenges are and the ways that they have overcome them,” he said. “That makes them resilient and persistent in achieving their goals in their higher education journey.”
Layton Hernandez-Offner ’21, assistant director of student affairs, University of Minnesota Law School
“One of the main reasons I decided to pursue a career in student affairs is because when I was a student, I did not see people like me and that caused some harm and barriers,” said Layton Hernandez-Offner. “It is so critical for students to see themselves in roles of leadership and, in general, surviving and thriving in a world that does not value people at the margins.”
“I chose to enroll in the LSA program because of the job placement rates and because I felt at home,” he said. Thankfully, that safe environment provides students important space to grapple with hard issues around equity and inclusion. “We need to go beyond one-off programming, initiatives, and other performative work. This work is hard and will continue our whole lives.”
In his LSA program research, Hernandez-Offner chose to highlight the need for marginalized students to see others like them in positions of leadership because it helps them imagine the possibilities for their future. He also believes storytelling and knowledge sharing are key to imagining and working toward an equitable environment.
“In my current and past roles, this looks like encouraging and supporting students’ ideas around programs and initiatives,” he said. “I want them to take charge and share with the world what knowledge and power they hold.”