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Building Communal Belonging in Student Affairs   

April 20, 2022 Luciano Zuniga University of Pennsylvania

Attending NASPA as a Jim Rhatigan Fellow allowed me the opportunity to take myself outside of my university and learn from professionals in Student Affairs. I am a proud first-gen college graduate and current graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. As someone who is both new to the field and navigating academia without the guidance of those before me, I am grateful for experiences like these to connect to people in the field who I can learn and gain perspective from to guide my journey. 


Right when I got to NASPA, I had the opportunity to attend the New Professionals and Graduate Symposium, which was focused on providing support and community for those of us who are new to the field. I especially loved hearing from Dr. Miguel Hernandez, Dean of Students at UC Irvine, and seeing leader who is critically thinking about student affairs and the ways our identities ground us in our work. After leaving this session, I kept seeing how “community,” one of the four competencies discussed in the symposium, kept showing up in my experience at NASPA. 


I attended a workshop hosted by the JED Foundation where they shared a framework centered on data and practice to help support LGBTQ+ mental health. I sat in a room with community college leaders discussing how they can attract and retain Latinx populations to higher education, particularly during the time of COVID. I learned from queer Latinx scholars about frameworks and theories that are guiding their practice when it comes to supporting student activists. And finally, I connected with first-gen professionals in higher ed on tools and tips for navigating the journey ahead. It was experiences like these, the one-off conversations I had in the exhibition halls, and the meals I shared with peers and leaders that provided me with a sense of community, belonging, and inspiration.


My experience at NASPA was life-changing and I credit this to the amazing individuals that took part in making sure the experience is dynamic, from the keynote speakers to those who worked behind the scenes in planning the conference. I am inspired to take these tools that I have gained and apply them to the spaces I occupy, as well as use these learnings to inform my professional development in higher education. I hope to inspire other first-gen, queer, students of color to attend conferences like NASPA and build community with each other as we continue to make radical changes in education.