When your entire industry exists to serve students, where does power come from? In this episode, we chat with Edna Dominguez, AVP of Student Affairs at UT Austin, about her journey to an AVP role, the importance of community, and codeswitching. From not knowing what an AVP was to becoming one herself, Edna shows us what it takes to be a strong leader.
Meg Sunga: Hey y’all; it’s Meg Sunga and welcome to “Will There Be Food?”, the student affairs podcast that, like your job, is so much more than free pizza. Every week we get to explore a new topic in higher ed with humans in the industry. On today’s show, we’re going to be talking about leadership and power in student affairs. The thought of powerful leaders conjures strong images of game-changers, visionaries, experts, and decision-makers. Leaders are charismatic and influential humans who have the ability to create change and reach goals. But no leader is perfect. On today’s episode, we have Edna Dominguez. Edna is the Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs for Strategic Initiatives at the University of Texas at Austin. So before we start, before we start anything, Edna, I have to tell everyone, um, the essentially the story of how we met, cause it really frames our conversation today in regards to leadership and power. So you and I sort of met at NASPA 2013 when I was an undergrad at the University of Arkansas. You actually had met, um, my classmates, um, the Arkansas boys. Even beyond that, the defining memory that I have of you and I is when I sat next to you had the NASPA region III board meeting in…I think it was 2014 and I was super nervous as a grad student serving the region for the first time. And it was my first time actually, you know, sitting in a room with all of these professionals and people with higher titles and I was just so nervous to be there as you know, the only grad in the room. So you had leaned over to me and asked if I knew what was going on and I whispered that I didn’t. And then you said, “oh, thank God, neither do I.” And then you kind of laughed. I don’t know what it was about the laugh or the whole situation, but in that moment you completely disarmed me and made me feel so much more comfortable. So yeah, it just made me realize that these professionals, so you and everyone in that room, you know, they’re all human and normal people just figuring it out. So I didn’t have to feel as intimidated as I did, I guess.
Edna Dominguez: Totally. Because that was my first meeting at that, because it was our first group meeting. Except that I trusted Becky very much — Becky Spurlock — very much. And I trusted the process and so I knew that was going to be fine, but I knew very few people, you know, in the room and I hadn’t been a part of that process. And, um, but I know a lot of them now. And, um, I knew that I’m always trying to be sensitive to whoever is next to me, you know, to make that connection. But especially when there’s a new professional or in your case, a graduate student. Like it’s all going to be okay, breathe, you know, we’re all going to learn a lot. It’s all going to be okay. So I’m, I’m glad that we had that moment because I always want to be able to laugh, you know, and, uh, appreciate the joke and you know, if and when it’s gonna stumble, I’m willing to be the stumbler, you know. And you, you had that look. You weren’t there without reason. You were there for a great reason.
Meg Sunga: Still validating me six years later.
Edna Dominguez: Right. And look who you are. It’s true.
Meg Sunga: Edna, I’m so excited to have you on the show because I don’t think you had the traditional student affairs path. Right? And so that’s always been exciting to me; to see people navigate these spaces and go up in their careers, but not have the traditional story. I actually want to talk about that a little bit and ask you, what did your journey to becoming an AVP look like?
Edna Dominguez: Sure. And the first thing that I would say is that I didn’t even know what an AVP was. I don’t know when I actually figured it out; sometime in my thirties, maybe. When I came to the University of Texas, I had to get a job. I had to be able to afford it. I came here on a Greyhound bus with a suitcase. My parents did drop me off and asked on the street, where’s the bus that goes to UT Austin? I had to get a job. And so I started working as a clerk typist for the library system. So through the undergraduate libraries, I would get promoted, you know, then I worked full time and I worked for the Latin American Collection Library and the Mexican American library program because universities like to, you know, name and triple name our departments, our programs. And so, as soon as I started working there, I felt very nurtured. I felt like I knew my people, but I learned that I was good at certain things; building community and shared excellence for giving students, you know, the service that we provided for students. And then I moved to the University of Pennsylvania. At that point, I gravitated towards student affairs and then was hired in housing and I was in housing for about two years and really found that what I liked most about that experience was the RA interaction, the RA interviews. I joined committees that were cross-university committees, like affirmative action. There was such a sense of camaraderie in terms of people of color, you know, wanting to support each other. And so I felt then that I had a calling, a greater calling, and it was to higher ed. It was in higher education. How can I help people? How I wanted to help people was staff members who are serving our students, right, to be as fulfilled, to feel that they were appreciated and valued in their salary, in their working conditions, etc., as possible. So I applied for human resources jobs and I got one. So that launched, uh, decades, you know, a couple of decades of working in business affairs. So I did HR type of work back to the libraries at Penn until they asked me to come back to the University of Texas-San Antonio business affairs and that particular vice president and that, that particular administration really had like bigger plans for me. And so I’m adding to this knowledge, I’m back into the UT system. And along the way you build relationships, right? And I have really strong relationships with several vice presidents. And one of them was an academic from UT Austin who became our vice president for student affairs at UT San Antonio. And, uh, she wanted to restructure and I happened to be in the position that could help her do that. We restructured it. We created AVPs from directors because they deserve to be because we want it to be competitive nationally and get the right people. From that relationship, though, came an opportunity to switch into student affairs and work for her. And she knew the work that I had already done and she wanted me to do very similar work in student affairs. And I thought, “let me get back, please let me get back to working directly for student programs and for the people who were running student programs.” So now in this career, I spent the majority of time in student affairs. And this is where I stay, this is my home forever. But everything leading up to it informed the work that I do now. Everything that you learn along the way you use; there’s very little that you don’t use.
Meg Sunga: Thank you for that. I appreciate that honesty. And I, I’m curious to know what other challenges or what challenges that you face as a woman of color in this journey.
Edna Dominguez: In Latina fashion, let them know Latina fashion, um, home. Our family is so important and it sets the foundation for our life and our lives and our accomplishments, I believe. And um, it’s a place that you can always go back to. I don’t think that half of my 35 first cousins know what I do for a living. I think they know that I work at a university, you know, but they don’t care because when I’m there, I’m just Edna, you know. I’m Edna. I knew that I could fail and go back and knock on my parents’ door and come back and come back in. I would have to get a job really fast and get out again. But they would always take me in. Home was always…you know, there was no fear of failure. I was bused to school and in elementary school and I was bused from a Mexican American neighborhood to a predominantly white elementary school. We called it Anglo, you know, in Texas, Anglo School, or maybe, uh, people of color were 5% of the population at most, and mostly Mexican American, a few, uh, blacks. And, and there was a lot of rural in San Antonio. There’s like, there’s, there were pockets. I wasn’t in the center of the city. I was in West San Antonio, which is a minority type of place and neighborhoods. But there was a lot of rural poverty or rural, um, middle-class, right? So we went to these, these, we went to this school, the school district. I’d been to a Catholic kindergarten with a Spanish speaking nun who was my teacher, who was very affirming. And, you know, said to my father, “watch out for her, make sure she gets a good education,” you know, et cetera. But bottom line, she believed in me. So I go to this school and we’re learning to read Tip and Mitten books, you know, and I learned that they don’t have the same words for my home — my casa — right, that I use. Like when they pointed to a living room, I knew that room as the sala, s-a-l-a and they said living room. And my immediate thought was, why do you have to use two words for one short word? My second thought was, “why didn’t my parents tell me that there’s two languages and we don’t all speak the same languages.” And, but I never raised that with my parents because I think, you know, as an adult looking back as childhood was, “Ooh, I gotta learn this language.” There’s a common metaphor throughout my adult years and my career years of “what is that language? What is that language and how do I become someone? I have to learn the language.” Right. You know, um, they eat different foods than I do. You know, when I was invited, you know, over, um, in those years I certainly did not want to bring to lunch a breakfast taco which is, you know, everyone knows about Texas tacos right? Back then, that was not the case. It was more, I’m going to bring that right. So I had to have bologna and white bread and whatever.
Meg Sunga: Can I ask you a question? Because what you just said was really powerful in that I think it plays into student affairs and I don’t, I’m sorry if I cut you off. The conversation about two languages. When it comes to two languages within student affairs, a lot of us feel like we are, you know, in these positions of leadership and power and you kind of have to talk multiple languages, right? Because you’re, you’re not only talking to people in different powerful positions and different, you know, with different titles but also different people just, you know, in general, um, how do you navigate that?
Edna Dominguez: You have to articulate it in a fashion that the mainstream understands and that you have to give it words. So our programs; we justify our programs and they have to come from that we’re meeting students’ needs. The entire university needs to, right? The students are here to get a degree to academics, right? But if the student affairs, the student services programs are not there – so not only the programs that have to do with our safety net, you know, counseling and mental health, university health services, emergency services – those things are integral to student success. Those things are integral. So how is this student affairs leadership — and also it’s everyone in student affairs – how are we articulating them? How are we describing? How do we know what we do is making a difference in people’s lives and keeping them in, keeping them in college and getting them graduated, you know, in four years or you know, optimally or in six years? Often for students of color, they’re working, they may be heads of households and they don’t fit nice neatly into the, to be able to afford four years of college and graduate from college in four years. So six years might be a better measure. So the challenge is what languages are you bringing and what table are you at, what meetings are you going to? And if you’re not invited to it, how do you get yourself invited to it? So that the important work that we do is understood by the academic side of the house, by the business side of the house, by everyone. Yeah. By everyone. So the, so language that, that what we call it — casa, living room, you know — and to be very proud of both things. And to always have your feet in both sides or maybe it’s multiple, sometimes, you know, maybe it’s multiple. But where am I not getting the language across or where am I not communicating in the, in portraying the excellence of our programs, our support?
Meg Sunga: Edna, you had mentioned at the start of the show, you had mentioned that you have varying views of power, different views of power. What did you mean by that?
Edna Dominguez: Power is a very loaded term, you know, and they’re going to think a president, they’re going to think somebody who’s in control, someone who holds the purse strings, you know, et cetera. And, um, growing up that, that Mexican-American, you know, young woman, you know, growing up in San Antonio in those school districts, um, often felt the power of power, which they were always white. I never knew any Mexican-American principles, although I’m proud to say that my younger sister is a principal of an outstanding elementary school in Houston, Texas. And so I have come to understand power as rather an illusionary concept. Throughout the years, I have been fortunate to serve under some really excellent presidents, people who I respected, you know, people who I thought were well thought out and brilliant. And what they often would allude to or say very directly is that people think the president has the power and that in actuality, the president is serving all of these constituents so that the power rests with the people that make up the organization, the stakeholders, right. The students are the number one reason that we are here. The alum, the alumni are still very present, especially at a state institution. Uh, there are donors, you know, often, so they have a voice. The people who work here have a really strong voice because you can’t have an organization that’s functioning at its most excellent level without buy-in to a mission, you know, and a vision that’s bringing us together. What makes us different than the other state institution that I will not name in the state — you know, the other large one – or you know, the private schools, they all have their own constituencies. And I would say that I agree with what these particular presidents have said, which is my power is serving them. It’s not that I may have the power right now to say, advise me on where to spend the money, you know, advise me on where to go with the curriculum, you know, advise me on how to deal with students and mental health issues in any of the current trends on campus climate. But the president themselves or who, any other individual, not just the president, the vice presidents, the leadership. Right. Yet any of them has power. So I would say to you that what the conventional sense of power is is illusionary. The power is shared power and that power comes and goes. Leadership changes, governors change. Chancellors, you know, of systems change, presidents change. Anyone in our, in higher ed has seen changes. And so does that whole group of leadership change, you know, whether it’s deans, whether it’s the vice presidents, it’s not unusual for there to be a whole scale change. Well, how much power was that then? How long does power last? So, I land at that power is always in the people and those constituencies and what it is and whether or not we are serving them to the best of our ability with excellent services and excellent programs 8and propelling that vision forward.
Meg Sunga: So Edna, based on what you just said, why do you think we are so obsessed with positional power at work?
Edna Dominguez: What is true of higher-ranking positions as a student affairs professional or higher education professional moves along the ranks in the promotion, you know, is that that decision-making ability comes. And where you put your resources, and recognition for strong work, for strong programs and climbing up that ladder, right? So if you make more money, if you have a position called director, you know, if you supervise a lot of people or if you have a big budget, that those things become power. You know, if your motivation is clear and good, you know, that you’re gonna get more and more done. They have the opportunity to get more and more done as you’re in a position to make decisions that affect people’s lives. Which is why I went into human resources. I was realized that the most…that we would spend 40 to 60 hours of our lives at the workplace. And yet we didn’t, we didn’t know what the structure was at the time. It wasn’t necessarily posted, right? We didn’t know what that structure was. We didn’t know what that salary structure was. We didn’t know, uh, how could we negotiate or how not. And I thought, “holy cow, that’s like number one.” That’s number one. And I have too…I want to make that information as transparent as possible. If I look from a student affairs perspective, it was “how can I help create the structures that are going to help the most amount of students be successful and graduate from college?” However, to do that you have to then take care of staff needs; pay them adequately, make their jobs interesting, role growth and skill development, helping them find the meaning to their jobs. They gotta invest in them, right? So the power comes in at, you have the ability to make these decisions cause another person in the same position might say, “no, we’re not going to go with that program. We’re going to go with this program.” So that’s why I think people want power because I think that they think they’re going to get a bigger budget and society has told you more money equals greater worth. You know that that’s not true. I know that.
Meg Sunga: True. So, a question that we do want to ask for our listeners out there is, how do we help entry and mid-level SApros feel more empowered?
Edna Dominguez: We provide excellent mentorship, right? We provide more collegial activities for them to learn from each other; the ability to join committees that may or may not, be within their own department. For new pros, it’s more a…it’s a welcome. It’s a welcome. And actually we’re right now designing a program that’s like an NPI, but it’s a new professional welcome where we’ll take 25 people and do a retreat, you know, for them. We give them access also in a new staff welcome to meet the leadership and to encourage them to come and drop by and speak with us at any time. We have open-door policies and you know, and you need that as a new professional. That it’s a time of great learning. And I think that makes it really exciting. You know, cause it’s a time of great learning and it’s gonna help you discern where you actually have your strengths and where you want to capitalize on them and you know, uh, how your, your direction is going to go. And I always like to tell people that, um, like when I was a new pro, I said yes a lot. You know, would you like to be on this committee? I didn’t know a darn thing about it. I thought I would be like the least helpful. And I would still say “yes, yes I will do that.” This is might be asking too much, do you want to do it? Yes, I want to do it. Yes. And that leads you then to giving back. But I think that that’s the best thing that we could do is to have mentors, to give them the opportunity for skill development, the ability to fail and to nurture them, you know, through “that didn’t go as well. Our assessment information seems like this was really strong and this may need more attention. So how do we get you more attention in that area?” I don’t like negative feedback without, without a positive; what have we learned from that and how are we going forward? I would never do that to anyone. I’ve never done that to anyone.
Meg Sunga: Thank you. Thank you for not doing that. Representation matters, as we both know, and it matters for our students. It matters for the work that we do, but unfortunately VPSAs around the country overwhelmingly still are individuals that don’t look like us, or hold our identities or marginalized identities. Why is that?
Edna Dominguez: Couple of things. You will find them in greater numbers in the southwest, right? Maybe a little bit in Florida and those nine states where we have more um, Latinos or people of color. When I think back to when I first got into this and who was interested in student organizations, I want to say that it’s a calling and that we kind of cull ourselves our work in student affairs. And I’ve seen folks that have done it in early decisions, deciding to go corporate because the salaries are so much better. I’ve seen people who were, um, also Mexican-American, you know, or Latinos who got to the highest they could get in student affairs or higher ed, you know, say a director of training I’ll use – I’m thinking of a certain person in particular. But they could work for a pharmaceutical or for oil and gas, right, and do diversity training for three times that salary and travel across the world. I don’t think that there’s a, there’s much of a concerted effort to make it as attractive as possible, you know, for people of color to stay in the profession. And it weeds out, it drops out. We’re not competitive with salaries, you know, is one and it takes a long time for us to move through this, just move through. And the other thing is we don’t have other people who look like us who understand us, you know, who are saying, “here, come work with me.” You know, I’m going to, I was very lucky that I did have that. I had African American women, I had a Filipino, Mexican women, I also had white males, you know, who said, “I so appreciate the perspective that you bring.” So I was so fortunate that I had great leaders that recognize that and wanted, acknowledge the cultural piece and you make a mistake if you don’t acknowledge the cultural piece. But they acknowledged the cultural piece and said, “I want that cultural perspective in this workplace,” but I don’t think that’s common.
Meg Sunga: What do you think good leadership looks like and/or feels like?
Edna Dominguez: Someone who is listening. Someone who takes the time to listen to all constituency, who is very systematic in their approach about creating those channels for listening, both for themselves and both for that next level of leadership. What are, number one, your students saying? So in this office, we have student consultants. When we…say we have a climate issue. They are given a prompt, a question in an email and they respond back to us and they then they come in as a group from time to time as well. Student voice. How are you listening to students? Going to a student government meeting is another way, right? Or going to student organizations; saying “yes” to speaking to them, meeting student leaders, and then to figure out how are we not getting to those students? It’s a small percentage. I think that the last figure I’ve heard is that maybe we’re interacting with about 10% of the student population, you know, so what is that other invisible voice and how are we getting to that voice? So in our office, we’ve done a few things in terms of assessment questionnaires — there’s questionnaires that you can buy and there’s questionnaires that you, that you can distribute yourself — you know asking “do you know about our programs?” Do you know that we’re here to serve you? Have you heard of this? Have you heard of that? So that listening, it takes place in many different ways. But I’d say that that’s the first one. And then after that, it’s “how do we determine what our vision and our mission is?” And that’s a group exercise. That’s the entire division. You have to break that down in a process very deliberately so that we know what we stand for, we know what our values are and what our mission is and how we’re going to go about it. How are we going to go, how are we going to set about to reach those goals and set those goals and know that we’ve met them and build upon them? So it takes a lot of communication within the organization, you know? So I think the strongest leader is, is committed to that process, right? And it is that serving the greater number of people. And when we can accommodate special needs. Are we not so, so administratively bogged down where we can accommodate special needs? Whether they’re for staff or for, or for students. You know, what do we have in place to do that? Do we have the flexibility to do that and to know that we’re here to serve, right? You have to believe in the goodness of people. And a good leader exemplifies those things, is a servant, you know, leading and is exemplifying, is exemplifying. And, and the compass. It’s the compass, too. That’s where we’re going, “look at me. We’re going north” We’re including everyone. We’re including a diversity of opinions. We’re including a diversity of needs. And we’re trying to figure out how best can we harness our resources to serve those folks.
Meg Sunga: Thanks, Edna. Now in episode three, we talked about burnout in student affairs. How do you think good leadership can help reduce that burnout?
Edna Dominguez: I can’t wait to listen to that episodes three. It’s a holistic approach and it’s the same approach that we’re using towards students in terms of being aware of mental health and the need for those services and how we can provide those services together. Because we can’t possibly hire the greatest number of counselors, right? That everyone wants, that everyone needs. But there’s many other ways, besides realistic job load, workweek, because we work long hours. And especially if you’re in housing, right? But it’s not just limited in housing but you know, housing folks live on campus. We lived on campus for nine years. I lived on campus. So that was really difficult for many reasons, but, that is to recognize that there is the mind, body, spirit, connection always. And you want to have a holistic approach, you know, to work your hours, we appreciate your hours, are you taking care of yourself as well? One way is to provide professional development; the kinds of things that I was talking about for new pros. Right? So, are you learning? Are you still learning? Are you on committees that are fun for you? Do we have a community recreational activity? You know, where we can just sit and be with each other and we don’t even have to talk about work or just going to say, go bowling. You know, sometimes there’ll be committees. I’ve been a member of committees where it was like the fun committee, you know? So, recognizing that that would keep someone healthy is the opportunity to have some flexibility with the workweek. To have access to excellent recreational facilities, whether they’re on campus or whether you’re human resources department and through your benefits enables you to access a gym for you know, a certain rate. Right. Um, and to recognize that for every person in a career, if you’re looking at a career and we should all be investing in our folks, you know, for their career. I have seen over and over again that really good performers, people that you want on your team, something will happen and they go into a slump, whether it’s childcare, whether it’s a change in life circumstances, whether it’s an illness, you know, something happens. We have to be flexible and help that person – kind of hold them up and get through that and make that accommodation that people need. Not just the things that are called for legally, but the things are just the right thing to do, the ethical thing to do, the caring, the nurturing thing to do. If a leader can’t capture that, that creates that environment…then that environment, then that organization is not going to be as strong as it can possibly be. How are you treating the most vulnerable of your staff members? Case in point. I run the True Colors program.
Meg Sunga: She does. Yes you do.
Edna Dominguez: And so I was a keynote speaker at True Colors international this year. So one of the things I’m the most proud of is that we offer it fully in Spanish. And we will have like a group of 30, 35, you know, when we do it and we pull from several — we offer it to everyone but, but they’re primarily in three of our departments. And, everything is in Spanish, Spanish. And it’s fascinating what we learn about the folks. Some folks have immigrated and they were professors in their previous countries and here they’re housekeepers or they’re cafeteria workers. And there is so much respect in that room from us to them and them to each other that it’s such a sense of comradery. Everyone participates. They all know the program is coming and it’s by word of mouth, you know. They say, “make sure you sign up for it, make sure you sign up for it.” It’s such an investment in staff. It’s knowing that you matter and that you’re valued. I think those things prevent burnout and make people still want to come to work and do their best.
Meg Sunga: I love that. Thank you. What parting advice can you provide them or what do you want them to know in regards to having power in the positions that they currently hold?
Edna Dominguez: Power rests with the individual. Power rests with knowing who you are, knowing what your values are, giving your best. That’s where recognition comes from. And appreciation and opportunity. Every, everyone has power. Everyone. It’s like the least those have the most amount of power. I’ve seen it in a homeless person who’s been around here years and some students took an interest in him and found out that he had flunked out of the university decades ago. He was, he was an art major and they started talking to people in their college and kind of shepherding him through the system. They got him readmitted and he’s now studying back in his art in a fine arts degree. He’s the person with the least amount of power. They did a GoFundMe. So there are people trying to support him, you know, to do this whether it happens or not, you know, I don’t know how inspirational is that.
Meg Sunga: That’s amazing. Yeah. And shout out to your students to you know, to harness their power to empower someone else.
Edna Dominguez: Yes. Yeah. Because we always say to people is that we are, we are a community. We are a family. We have different opinions and we have to respect, you know, that we have these difference of opinions. This is a time of polarization across the country. But where are we together? We believe the best in people and we’re working together even if we don’t agree with them because we believe in the best for people. We want the best for people. And that requires you to lay down your ego or your sword or your self-conception sometimes to say, it’s not what I need. It’s what they need.
Meg Sunga: I actually really liked that. I liked it. Edna, thank you again so much for joining us today. I appreciated listening to your stories and learning a little bit more about your thoughts on leadership and power.
Edna Dominguez: Thank you.
Meg Sunga: You’ve been listening to “Will There Be Food?” with me, Meg Sunga. My guest this week was Edna Dominguez, the Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs for Strategic Initiatives at the University of Texas at Austin. You can follow Edna on Instagram @HigherEdna. You can follow Will There Be Food @HelloPresence on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. For our episode transcript and show notes, head to Presence.io/Podcast. Don’t forget to rate us, subscribe and share with all the friends, and let us know what topics you want us to cover next. Will There Be Food? is a production of Presence. It’s hosted by me, Meg Sunga. The show was directed, edited, and mixed by our producer, Luke Burton. Our executive producer is Cassandra Corrado. Catch us next week when we’ll be talking about finding queerituality on campus.
Dare to Lead (Brené Brown, 2018)
We’re friends with the ConnectEDU network. Visit them for even more awesome higher ed podcasts.