Opening doors: Latino/a Board Chairs share their stories and advice

At the Business Meeting during the 2015 NASPA Annual Conference, Dr. Frank Lamas became NASPA’s new Board Chair. Lamas, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management at California State University, Fresno, has served as the Board Chair-Elect for the past year and will serve NASPA as Board Chair until the Business Meeting during the 2016 NASPA Annual Conference in Indianapolis.

Lamas isn’t new to NASPA, having served as Latino/a National Network Chair and on the Board of Directors as a Member-at-Large from 2011-2013 and as NASPA Conference Chair for 2014. His election as Board Chair marks the first time a Latino holds that title. Under the previous NASPA organizational structure, Dr. Patricia Telles-Irvin was NASPA’s first Latina Board President, serving from 2010-2011. Tells-Irvin currently serves as vice president for student affairs at Northwestern University.

As we welcome Dr. Lamas into his new position, we thought it would be appropriate to ask both Latino/a Board Chairs to share their experience, perspective on student affairs, and advice to other student affairs professionals. 

Frank Lamas Bio: As Vice President for the Division of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management at Fresno State, Lamas serves on the President’s Cabinet and other committees as assigned. He is responsible for organizing, directing, and managing the resources of the Division to meet the needs of the students, university, and surrounding community. He leads 300 professional faculty/staff and 450 student employees. Prior to coming to California State University, Fresno, Lamas was the Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students at The University of Texas at Arlington for 10 years. 

Patricia Telles-Irvin Bio: Patricia Telles-Irvin is the Vice President for Student Affairs at Northwestern. She oversees a staff of 270 and a budget of $95M. Before coming to Northwestern, Telles-Irvin was the Vice President for Student Affairs at the University of Florida from 2004 to 2011. During her tenure at the University of Florida, she increased student engagement, focused on global initiatives and developed a scholarship program for first generation students. She also led the university’s efforts to address the problem of binge drinking. Prior to her tenure at the University of Florida, she served in multiple roles at Florida International University, including Director of the Student Counseling and Psychological Services Center, Assistant and Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Sr. Vice President for Student Affairs and Human Resources. 

Question 1:  How did you end up in student affairs?

Frank Lamas:

I was born in Havana, Cuba and raised in Syracuse, New York and am a first generation college student. I received my bachelor’s degree from the State University of New York at Potsdam. I expected to be teacher and coach, or maybe a principal or superintendent. But, at Potsdam I became interested in student affairs work and worked as an RA and got involved with student government. I met Tony Gervin who was the Director of Career Services at the time. His mentorship really solidified my interest and motivated me to look at student affairs as possible career avenue.

Patricia Telles-Irvin:

I was born in El Paso, Texas. I was fifth generation of a large extended Mexican-American family. I lived there for five years before moving to Costa Rica. I was a first-generation college student that pursued a degree in education at Duke University, and a masters and doctorate in counseling psychology from Boston University. While getting my graduate degrees, I worked in a mental health clinic that served a large number of college students. I loved working with this population; the topic of my dissertation was identity development among college age students. My interest in working with this population led me to my work in university counseling centers. Several years later, I joined a counseling center at the University of Texas at El Paso and several years later worked at the University of Texas Health Science Center-San Antonio where I held a joint appointment in the counseling center and in the department of psychiatry as an assistant professor.  Later, when I moved to Miami with my husband, I started as a psychologists in the counseling center at Florida International University and became the director about three years later.  Over time, I was asked to take on more responsibility in student affairs, which ultimately led me to the role of sr. vice president for student affairs and human resources. I moved to Gainesville in 2004 to become the vice president for student affairs at the University of Florida.

Question 2: What do you think are the pressing issues for Latino/a students and professionals in higher education today? 

Frank Lamas:

As we look at higher education today, there’s a very real and changing demographic. There are a lot of changing issues with finances. At my institution, 70 percent of our incoming students are diverse, first generation and receive financial aid. How do we need to change and challenge ourselves to meet their needs? We need to take a hard look at how demographics are shifting and changing. We can’t stay in the status quo; we have to figure out how we leverage resources and be relevant today, provide necessary programs and services and impact student success.

Everything starts and ends with student success in mind in the broadest sense of the term.  I think we’ll become more generalists; we’ll all have to be about transition, outreach, careers, leadership, and advisement to make for successful graduates and future leaders.

Patricia Telles-Irvin:

The expected national demographic changes suggest there will be a growing number of Hispanics entering college. Our challenge will be to integrate this new generation of college students, many of whom will be first generation, low-income to campus life and to effectively address issues of belonging and student success. Many of these students have been told that they will not make it, and we need to counter that message with opportunities that allows them to succeed.   We need to understand and address constructively  “stereotype threats” (termed by Claude Steele author and provost at Berkeley) which may exist and prevent these students from progressing despite their aptitude.

Question 3: What do wish you would have known or what knowledge would share with a younger version of yourself? 

Frank Lamas:

I grew up as an athlete, playing basketball, baseball, running track and in a bicultural world. It was all about family and team orientation. What I would say to young professionals is that is it critically important that you think beyond yourself and look to make a difference for your students, institutions, and profession. Often young professionals are rightfully ambitious, but I would tell them to keep a team orientation - don’t worry about so much about your title, worry about the work and making a difference; gaining the skillset you need to progress to positions you desire. It’s all about the journey and making things better. Enjoy the journey, get the educational and professional experiences you need to have the career you want and be a change agent for greatness. Surround yourself with great colleagues, hire great people and great things happen.

My younger self would say, “Stay the path. Help greater good.” 

Patricia Telles-Irvin:

I would have taken some courses in business and learned more about strategic planning. Being strategic is critical to one’s success. It is important to strive toward a well-defined vision and a team that embraces it. One of the early lessons I had to learn was not to assume people understood my motives behind decisions. This is not always the case. You need to over communicate what you are doing and why!

You cannot do it alone. It is important to understand the great value in surrounding yourself with talented people that are experts in their respective areas who can provide you with guidance and input as you formulate a decision. Finally, in the last 17 years of being a vice president, I have read a great deal about leadership. I would encourage anyone to do the same.

Question 4: What else can you share about your leadership, involvement in NASPA or approach to the work?

Frank Lamas:

NASPA has been my professional home for over 30 years and has given me a lot of wonderful experiences. I’d tell people to get involved. I remember getting involved on the Region II Advisory Board as the newsletter editor. I did that for three years. That opportunity led to me being asked to get involved in and to lead the National Latino Network, which later became the Latino/a Knowledge Community. Growing up, I didn’t have many opportunities to work with Latinos; it was very satisfying to have these NASPA experiences.

My experiences have helped me define and shape as a leader. I am a real leadership book junkie and read and attend all I can. I read extensively about leaders within and outside of higher education and draw from all I learn to shape my style. I also draw a lot from my cultural values. I’m about leading, innovating, and transforming.  I’m so appreciative of all the people who invested in me and mentored me along the way like Richard Correnti, my VPSA at Ithaca College and former NASPA President. As we lead, we need to foster student success, be nimble, results oriented and ready to serve the profession, students, and undergraduates as new developments come to forefront. We have boundless opportunities each and every day to transform the lives of students and the institutions we serve, leading with passion, integrity, courage, and wisdom bold change agents for the greater good.

Patricia Telles-Irvin:

My family values and bi-cultural experience have defined and influenced how I see my roles. One of most important values that was instilled in me was education. Access to higher education is essential. I strive to make sure that students who want to go to college can do so. I believe we must partner with students once they arrive so they can be successful. It is about opening doors for others. I can achieve these goals by being part of student affairs. I love the field and appreciate the colleagues I have gotten to know.

The values that my Mexican culture instilled in me such as family, community, serving others and giving back guide me daily. Additionally, my bi-cultural experience, living in other countries and speaking Spanish, have helped me open myself to others and embrace diversity and inclusion. We (Latinos/as) need more role models that embrace both parts of who we are. It is important for students to know that someone like us has reached this level and can help other Hispanics believe in their own ability to be successful.

It was truly a great pleasure to have the opportunity to interview these two amazing leaders. As the national chair of the NASPA Latino/a Knowledge Community, an immigrant and a bi-cultural first generation college student also, I found myself inspired and motivated by the experiences Dr. Lamas and Dr. Telles-Irvin shared.  They are two excellent examples of how Latinos/as leaders, as well as all others, can positively impact not only students but also student affairs professionals.  On behalf of all Latino/a students and professional student affairs community, I thank you for your service, your leadership and dedication and for opening doors for those that have followed you.  

About the Author:  Angela Batista serves as Dean of Students at the University of Southern Indiana.  Prior to this position, she served as Associate Dean of Students for Community Life for Mills College in Oakland, CA and as the inaugural Chief Diversity Officer at Champlain College, where she established a successful institutional diversity initiative, led institutional strategic diversity planning and addressed issues related to the experiences and retention of faculty, staff and students of diverse backgrounds.  She also served as adjunct faculty teaching a course titled “Social Injustice in a Diverse Society”.  Batista has also worked as a career counselor at Lynn University in Florida and at the University of Vermont (UVM) where she worked in the ALANA Student Center, the Counseling Center, and the Residential Life Department.  She serves as the 2014-2016 NASPA Latino/a KC Chair, a member NASPA’s Equity and Inclusion Commission and is on 2016 NASPA Conference Leadership Team.  Batista was recently named as associate vice provost and dean of students for Oregon State University in Corvallis, OR.