Articles, Blog

SAHE MOOC: Global/International Perspectives. Oscar Felix, Associate VP for Access & Diversity, CSU


Hi, there. My name is Oscar Felix. I serve
as the Associate Vice President for Enrollment and Access, also as the Associate Vice President
in the Office of the Vice President for Diversity. It’s a long title, a lot of responsibility.
I also serve as the Executive Director for the Access Center. Those are programs that
do outreach to high school students in Northern Colorado to help them get to college, for
students who don’t typically see themselves as college-bound.
I am a graduate of the Student Affairs in Higher Education program at Colorado State.
I’m very proud of that fact. Coming from that tradition, I always feel that it is very important
to be aware of what the institution should be doing for students on campus. The latest
trend is that we want more international students. We want them to be here, we want them to be
successful, we want them to be a part of our traditions. What do we do as student affairs
practitioners? To me, it is a fundamental obligation for
us to prepare, not only ourselves, but future practitioners in how to work effectively with
international students. You really can’t do that if you’re just hanging around your town.
If you’re just, for example, hanging around Fort Collins all the time, you’re not going
to grow a whole lot. You’re not going to learn. You need to get out of town. Literally get
out of town and go see the world. Experience the world in every shape and form, from the
good to the bad, so that you get a sense of how, when the students come to us, how they
feel about being in a new place, how isolating it can be if you can’t find a certain room
or a certain office. You need to go through all of that, all the good and all the suffering,
so that you can then be a better practitioner and be able to do that on your own campus,
to provide those services. I think it’s also critical that we grow as
professionals. We typically can do that by seeing other parts of the world in ways that
are new and fresh. When, here at Colorado State University, we have students from China.
They love our town, they love our university. But, they don’t like our food. One might say,
“How can they not love our food? We have the best pizza in town! They should just get used
to eating pizza.” How can we be more empathetic about that? Well, we recently took a group
of SAHE students, Student Affairs students in their graduate program on a trip to China.
We really got to know all the variety of the food that they have. Literally every meal
was ten to twelve, sometimes even eighteen courses, of the most delicious food. Having
been exposed to that, coming back to our town and seeing the limited choices, you can really
empathize as to why they hate our food. They’re not used to it, it’s very limited; it’s just
not what they’re used to. We learned firsthand how important it is not to dismiss that they
don’t like our food. Now that we want them to come here, how do we accommodate for that?
How do we make it so that they are able to find more of the food that they like?
Another example: if we as a university want to welcome more students from, for example,
Arabic countries, Muslim countries, and we know that in their religion they have to pray
several times a day. One might think, well, they can do that on their own or they can
find a place. It’s not until you go to a Muslim country that you really see how deeply embedded
it is in their everyday life. If you go to the mall, if you go almost anywhere, there
are prayer rooms. It really is built into their everyday life. How can we build that
into our infrastructure so that we can honor their traditions and so that they can find
that level of success at the university? One way to do it is, at the Student Centers, we
could have meditation rooms. They are multiple use rooms, but our Muslim students can use
them for their daily prayers. Yet, it can be used for other things. There are ways that
we can find success in various ways, not just that we have to build a whole infrastructure
to accommodate international students, but there are ways that are practical but yet
serve the students that we are hoping to attract. When I think about my own children, I’m thinking
if they go to another place, they go to anywhere in the world, I would hope that those universities
on the other side of the world, or even across the border, take into account their needs
and what they would bring. It’s sort of give and take. It’s not until we get out of our
comfort zone, it’s not until we go and see the world that we can truly see why that matters
to them and why it should matter to us, especially if we’re hoping to attract more and more international
students. I think you know that there’s no undergraduate
degree in Student Affairs. We all come to the profession with different degrees. Mine
happened to be International Relations. I was really in love with the profession, with
a future of being a diplomat. Life took me in another direction. I was at Colorado State
University for about, probably 18-20 years before my degree really came into full use.
I was teaching in the Student Affairs program and realized, gee, we are talking about helping
our students be more internationally aware. Yet, there is absolutely nothing that we are
offering them to be able to fully explore that in a way that is substantial.
I decided to take a little risk and start taking the students on little trips. Let’s
get out of town, let’s go out and explore. Our first one was not very far away, in fact
it was within the US. We took them to New Mexico. But, it got us used to doing things
outside our town. The next year we were a little bit more ambitious. We went to Vancouver,
Canada. You would think that Canada would be too much like the US, however, three are
distinct differences in higher education and how that is delivered and how the students
find success. To our students, even going across the border to Canada was a real experience.
After that, we went to Toronto—another experience for students to know higher education in that
part of Canada. The following year, through connections we
made from students who had graduated from our program, we were able to go all the way
to the Arabian Gulf to the nation of Qatar. That was a major, major, huge step. In fact,
the students, their families, when they told their families that we might go the Middle
East, a lot of apprehension, a lot of fear, that in the end proved to be so off base,
because Qatar and the capital city Doha is just about the safest city that we’ve been
to. It was amazing to us when we were there, we can’t believe that just six months ago,
our families, the program, even ourselves were apprehensive about being here. Yet, we’re
finding ourselves in the safest place that we can be at.
Culturally, religiously, and in any other shape and form, the students were truly transformed
in their beliefs from what they thought they knew about women and religion, what they thought
about the higher education aspects of it, to even energy. For example, we learned that
in Qatar, their energy supply is not unlimited. They’re going to be running out in about fifteen
years. Right now, they’re preparing to switch from a carbon-based economy, to an education-based
economy, to a service-based economy. To see their commitment to education, to culture,
was really, truly eye-opening to our students and for the staff.
For us to go to the Student Center at Education City, Hamad bin Khalifa University and to
see how they integrate the prayer rooms into their student center in a way that is architecturally
beautiful, just beautiful, and to bring that back to our own campus so we can do similar
things and help our Muslim students here find success. That was truly an eye-opening experience.
The students will never forget that. The next year we went to China. Another life-changing
experience. Here at our university, at Colorado State University, we are hoping to attract
more and more students from China, just like everyone else in the world is trying to get
this huge piece of what they see as a lot of opportunity. Now, again, if we really are
making a commitment to having more students from China, what are we doing as an institution
to prepare for that, to provide the services that they expect? Their parents, as you may
know, China has a one-child policy, so those parents are sending their only child, their
only child, with all the hopes and dreams about the future success of that family to
us, to us here in the United States. What are we doing to make sure that they find success?
It was really eye-opening for this group of Student Affairs folks to go to China, get
a lot of culture, get a lot of what we know works over there, so we could bring it back
and for us to be better practitioners. For us to be more honest and genuine in the promises
we make to those families that their sons and daughters will find success at Colorado
State. I feel that by going over there, we can bring back a lot of those elements that
will help us live up to that promise. When you think about studying abroad, going
to another country, it is what it looks like to be. It is fun. It’s a lot of fun. It’s
a lot of work, too. You have to be in a place where you allow yourself to experience difference.
There will be a lot of awkward moments. There will be a lot of human connection moments.
If you don’t do that, then I think you are cheating yourself out of something really
special. Not only something special, but something necessary. If you want to be a really good
practitioner in Student Affairs, you need to put yourself in a vulnerable place, a place
of growth. There’s nothing that, travelling outside the US, there’s nothing that can substitute
that. It also opens you up to be more human. Once you know how lonely it can be, or how
hard it can be to navigate another place in the world, then you can bring that back and
say, hey, what can we do here to help our students do better? To be more integrated?
I have been very fortunate to do quite a bit of travel. After a while it sort of becomes
second nature. But also, it has allowed me to take a lot of students who haven’t done
it. That’s a lot of fun because you get to experience it for the first time along with
them. I encourage you to do that. If you don’t have your passport, go to Walgreens right
now, get your passport picture, and apply for your passport. That’s the first step.
Second step is, what do you feel that you are in need of? Is it, you need to know another
language? Do you feel like you need to know students from a certain part of the world?
Explore that. Explore that. Money can be an obstacle, but there are ways to have the school
help you pay for it. Don’t let that stop you. Lastly, I want to tell you that the way that
our profession is evolving is to be more open to all cultures. I know there’s a lot of lip
service to that, but it’s truly becoming that. To the extent that you as a professional put
yourself in a place where you can truly say, I know how to help students from other places.
I know what it’s like. I’ve been to other places in the world. The more you can do that,
the better it will help you as a future professional to do the things that we profess to want to
do for students in a way that is meaningful. Again, travel is a lot of fun. I recommend
it. Get your passport and I’ll see you at the airport!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *