Taking the reigns as chief diversity officer at one of the state’s most diverse campuses during today’s uncertain times is what Octavio Villalpando faces at California State University, Los Angeles.
On January 3, Villalpando became the university’s vice provost for diversity and engaged learning and chief diversity officer for Academic and Student Life.
“Dr. Villalpando will be instrumental in the development and implementation of the strategic planning for diversity and inclusion, as well as direct efforts to strengthen student learning and engagement,” Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Lynn Mahoney said in a statement.
Villalpando, the first person to serve in this new position at Cal State LA, is a Boyle Heights native who grew up two blocks away from Hollenbeck Park.
The oldest of five children, some of his first memories are of walking with his mother hand-in-hand with his siblings to the park on Sunday afternoons.
“We looked like five little ducklings crossing the street,” said Villalpando in a recent interview.
Growing up in Boyle Heights during the early seventies was challenging for Villalpando, his sister and three brothers, because of the high gang activity present at the time.
When Villalpando was about 11 years old, his second youngest brother got jumped by a local gang, prompting his parents to move to Burbank where his father worked as a tailor.
The move served Villalpando well, not only taking his siblings out of harm’s way, but by giving him better learning opportunities because of the smaller school district in Burbank. That learning environment helped Villalpando excel in the academic field. He earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Cal State Northridge and his Doctorate from UCLA.
That does not mean living in Burbank was any easier for the family. “We were probably the only Chicano family in the community,” said Villalpando.
He said moving to a new community is challenging for some Chicano families because they must deal with a clash of cultures.
“It’s kind of a trade-off. Do we stay in a community where we know the culture is going to be respected, or do we go into a community where we’re going to be looked at as foreigners – as outsiders?” said Villalpando.
Although his family moved from Boyle Heights when he was a pre-teen, Villalpando considers himself a native. He has relatives still living in the eastside community and visits often.
“It is part of my identity,” said Villalpando.
Because of the current political climate in Washington, Villalpando’s job has taken-on great urgency and importance –one he did not expect when he first took the position.
“We’re seeing higher education around the country trying to figure out how to protect our students, and also how to stay focused and provide the kind of education we know our students deserve,” he said.
Villalpando’s appointment comes at a time when the California State University chancellor’s office released a statement underscoring that the state of California will continue to protect its students regardless of their immigration status.
“There is fear [and] anxiety. There’s a sense of persecution among many of our students, and not just the undocumented,” added Villalpando. “We found our African American students and our Asian American students feeling like they’re being singled-out.”
To help allay the fears present on campus, Villalpando asked students to tell the administration, through an open forum, what it is it can do to help get them through these troubled times.
“We speak to our students constantly about what this means. We can’t separate what’s going on outside the walls of the institution from their education,” he said.
Students aren’t the only demographic group being affected by the frenzied activity in Washington, according to Villalpando. Faculty and staff and their families are also feeling it.
“Our job is to try to interpret these executive orders, and to determine how they affect our students and the campus,” said Villalpando.
One of the methods Villalpando plans to use is to educate the students about what executive orders are and how they differ from enacted laws and their relationship to the Constitution.
“We tell our students that we are a campus that is in a city that has declared itself a sanctuary,” said Villalpando.
He also said the school will continue to recruit heavily in the surrounding community, which is home to many undocumented students.
“In the last four years, our enrollment has increased by nearly 10,000 students and we hope to continue that trend,” said Villalpando.
He also touched on the challenges present in recruiting from a Latino community that has traditionally not emphasized higher education. “It isn’t that our communities don’t stress higher ed, it’s that our communities haven’t had the experience in preparing for higher ed,” said Villalpando.
He said one of the most effective ways to help prepare children from these communities is to begin the recruitment during their early years.
“We got to do a much better job,” said Villalpando.
Photo above: Graduation ceremony at Cal State LA. Photo by J. Emilio Flores/Cal State LA.