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Thursday, May 23, 2024
Fernie Rodriguez,
Fernie Rodriguez, associate vice chancellor of identity and inclusion in Student Affairs at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is pictured in a studio portrait on Jan. 24, 2024. (Photo by Althea Dotzour / UW–Madison)

Q&A: Dr. Fernie Rodriguez aims to promote community for UW-Madison students

Dr. Fernie Rodriguez will be concluding their fifth week Friday as UW-Madison assistant vice chancellor for student affairs.

Originally from El Paso, Texas, Rodriguez left their hometown as a first-generation student at the University of Texas at Austin, seeing it as an opportunity to explore their queer identity.

After completing a master’s degree at New York University in higher education and student affairs administration, Rodriguez found themself unexpectedly at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. They spent 13 years in Minnesota, completing their Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, focusing on masculinity among first-generation gay Latino men along the border.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Rodriguez said they aim to provide support for all students, especially those in underrepresented communities.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

As associate vice chancellor for student affairs, what specific programs and services do you lead to support student success, especially those focused on underrepresented student populations?

I'm going to tell you the units that are under my leadership — the specific initiatives I'm going to table because I haven't been here long enough to say. So first, the Multicultural Student Center is under this identity and inclusion area. That includes the Black Cultural Center. It includes the Indigenous Student Center, it includes the Asian Pacific Islander Center, it includes the Latinx Center. I also have the privilege of supporting the Gender and Sexuality Campus Center, who are tasked with supporting our LGBTQIA+ student communities here on campus. 

I also get to work with veteran student services [and] the Office of Inclusion Education. And then the other exciting space that I'm able to support is our Center for Interfaith Dialogue. And of course, the McBurney Disability Resource Center, a huge apparatus that supports all students on campus to ensure that faculty have the resources that they need to make their classrooms accessible to our students. I will also be able to develop and implement in partnership with the community, first-generation student initiatives, programming and support.

How do you plan to integrate understanding of intersectional identities into your role to contribute to holistic student development?

In all of my roles, the ways my experience has shaped how I lead are in a few different ways. I'm a first-generation kid from the border, I come from a low-income background. That is one of the core realities I have navigated and to some degree will always navigate because poverty is a legacy. 

The other piece I hold in my experience is my identity as a Mexican-American. I referenced earlier the ongoing — and now normalized — reality of being one of the only people of color in the academic classroom, one of the only people of color at all of the leadership tables that I have been in, in every institution. And then my developing understanding of it at some point was my gay identity. Now I'm realizing it's my gender identity. Those three identities come up with classism, racism and transphobia.

If we are not doing programming that allows students to bring in all of those realities along race [and] class, then I believe we are not giving students the full understanding of how to navigate the world after their time at the institution. 

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The chronic issue in higher education is that Latiné students, black students, specifically at [the University of Minnesota], were not graduating anywhere near the goals that the region had set for us. So going into that space and saying, “Yes, we're going to celebrate culture, yes, we're going to engage in discussions around budgeting, around credit, around preparing for the future. But we're also going to make an effort to bring our communities together to talk about how we are building relationships with faculty and staff.” To talk about how they are developing their study skills, how they are experiencing those small-group dynamics, where racial microaggressions and other aggressions play out as they are navigating differences in identities among peers. 

Could you share your approach to leadership, especially in fostering collaboration between Student Affairs and the Division of Diversity, Equity & Educational Achievement? How do you envision your role as a key liaison?

This was one of the parts of the job that excited me. One of the things I started doing at the University of Minnesota I hope I will be able to do to some degree here is understanding that faculty need to know the experiences of the most marginalized communities as they relate to what is happening in their classroom.

The beauty of Student Affairs is that I have been in it, I've experienced it and I'm in a community with students. As the director of the Multicultural Center, I heard so many experiences of our students, whether it was concerns about the syllabus and the curriculum, where they felt either represented or not.

I felt like there was a huge missed opportunity to sit with faculty and hear their experiences supporting students from marginalized communities. Now when I look at this opportunity in this role, and the experience that I know I can bring and have, it is about coming to the table on the academic side of the house. As a representative of Student Affairs, as someone who has lived it but also has a record of advocacy on behalf of and with students, [I want] to be able to come to the table and to start looping faculty into what the experiences are of these communities here at UW-Madison.

In the context of efforts to review and provide direction for student cultural spaces and programming, what strategies do you plan to employ to enhance and support a diverse and inclusive campus environment?

The only way that I know how to do this work is in [a] community with students. The reason that is critical is because any movement on how or what the cultural spaces will look like, do look like and should look like, has to be informed by a leader. I believe I am key to this conversation that has a close understanding of what is happening and what is needed.

By the end of the spring semester, my goal is to be able to speak confidently to fill-in-the-blank student group. In this case, I am paying close attention to our Jewish, Muslim and Palestinian students on campus. It is critical for me to hear their perspectives and their stories.

I envision a campus culture and climate that supports students in their racial identity but also supports students in their sexual orientation or gender identity or class background. I hope to carve out a campus that has all of our identity and inclusion centers — whether it be the Center for Interfaith Dialogue, the Multicultural Student Center or the Gender and Sexuality Campus Center — coming together to provide initiatives and programs that celebrate someone's queer identity, but also that name their spiritual journey and their religious affiliation.

As a first-generation college graduate, how do your personal experiences shape your approach to advocating for students, especially those from similar backgrounds?

As a first-generation student at UT Austin, I remember many critiques around the so-called affirmative action that Texas implemented. I am someone who benefited from UT Austin’s top 10% rule. 9/11 had just happened, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan was taking off and the racial tensions on campus were hot.

Somehow, I never lost sight of why I was at UT Austin in the midst of a lot of homophobia, a lot of classism, a lot of racism, a lot of microaggressions and a lot of reasons as to why I wouldn't finish my degree. Somehow, the universe allowed me to come back to the center and remind myself over and over again why I was there.

I want our students from first-generation backgrounds [to] not just to make it but thrive. I want all of our first-generation students to know and to be reminded why they started this journey to begin with: to walk across that graduation stage so they can be the first graduates in their family. 

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Ellie Bourdo

Ellie Bourdo is the features editor for The Daily Cardinal. Ellie previously served as associate news editor, where she specialized in breaking news and University of Wisconsin-System news reporting. She also works at WisPolitics. Follow Ellie on Twitter at @elliebourdo.

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