Ruth de Jesus was hired last year as the first diversity and inclusion coordinator at Northland College. De Jesus has spent her adult life working with nonprofits, earned her master of divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and has served students of color and advancing equity in higher education.
Buckles: What’s on the minds of students in 2018?
De Jesus: Great question! I want to know. Truly, I bring the assumption that in order to create inclusive, equitable communities, we must build relationships. And building relationships requires vulnerability. So far, students have responded well to my approach. That tells me they are interested in and willing to practice critical self-reflection and engagement. Students know my programs are meant to challenge them and build meaningful connections. They also know my door is open. Since many students have visited me and responded well to this, my guess is they are of the mind to build a healthier self and more inclusive Northland community.
You’ve stated retention of students of color and of first-generation students is your top priority. Why?
Retention is a need the College identified and shared as one of the priorities related to diversity. As a professional in this field, I look for language that indicates the vision, commitment, and direction of an institution. I was excited to apply for a position that elevated access, equity, and student success, particularly connecting this work to admissions’ efforts in creating a campus that is more representative of our nation’s demographics. Of course, my work is much broader than retention. I highlight retention of students of color and first generation to keep us on task and not dilute the vision set by Northland.
Do you see diversity challenges/opportunities unique to Northland?
During new student orientation, a father approached me and asked if I’d read a recent New York Times article. It addressed learning experiences young people need to develop into well-rounded adulthood—among them, exposure to diverse people and cultures. He shared concerns about his son having grown up in a white home, lived in a predominantly white community and now entering Northland, an even more racially homogenous community.
This father articulated well the challenge we face. We must recognize and name the various forms of privilege we all have. We must make room to learn. And we must set about subverting the narratives and power structures we reinforce.
How have students responded to having you on campus?
My interactions with students have been delightful. They are engaged and curious and open to talking. I have had the pleasure to meet with students who drop in to share their experiences, or to develop ideas for clubs, or to invite me to collaborate on programming. Each time I have led a workshop, students will approach me to speak more about the topics we covered or will ask to meet individually to share a personal story.
What does it mean to you to be the first diversity and inclusion coordinator?
For me, it means being the first person tasked with thinking about diversity issues all day, every day. My task is to balance the expectations and hopes the community has, listen to the needs and learn the culture, while at the same time providing leadership. I take seriously the excitement and pressure of setting a tone that will shape how the Northland community understands diversity and inclusion, equity and justice.