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Thursday, June 27, 2019

Meet COE’s New Associate Dean for Diversity and International Affairs

Dr. Cristian Aquino-Sterling

On August 22, Dr. Cristian Aquino-Sterling will become the inaugural Associate Dean for Diversity and International Affairs in the College of Education. The position represents a first not only for the COE, but for San Diego State University — both in having a dedicated administrator focused on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) at the college level, and in its blending of diversity and international affairs responsibilities.

Aquino-Sterling brings perspective relevant to both aspects of the dual role. Born in the Dominican Republic, he came to the United States as an adolescent and attended public school in Manhattan. After pursuing undergraduate degrees in philosophy and Spanish literature at Fordham University, he obtained a master’s degree in Hispanic cultural studies and literatures at Columbia University, and an Interdisciplinary Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction at Arizona State University.

An expert in discourse analysis, educational linguistics and teacher education for linguistically and culturally diverse student populations, Aquino-Sterling joined the SDSU faculty in 2011, first in the Department of Policy Studies in Language and Cross-Cultural Education (now the Department of Dual Language and English Learner Education). Subsequently, Aquino-Sterling transferred to the School of Teacher Education, where he currently serves as an associate professor with teaching appointment in the Joint Ph.D. Program in Education.

We recently chatted with him to discuss his philosophy and vision for DEI and international affairs. 

What are your thoughts on embarking on this new journey as Associate Dean for Diversity and International Affairs? 

“I am truly honored to serve the COE and SDSU in this meaningful and strategic endeavor. Having the opportunity to lead collaborative efforts to intentionally and systematically continue to advance diversity, equity-equality and inclusion — as well as to devise initiatives to continue to support our students and faculty in sustained international collaborations — is for me quite exciting personally, academically, and professionally.

“I remember sharing with Dean (Y. Barry) Chung during the interview that one of the ways I know whether a particular academic-professional position resonates with my heart and mind is through the process of writing the application letter. When ideas flow naturally, as was the case with this particular letter, I take it as a sign of a deep willingness and readiness to take on the new responsibility. Because of my background and life experiences as a transnational Latino gay man of color — there are white Latinos and I consider myself an afrodescendiente — in academe, it feels as if I've been preparing my entire life for this particular moment in my professional life.

“And the fact that, as someone in a new administrative role, I can count on the support and guidance of seasoned leaders and mentors in our Dean's office and the broader SDSU community, makes this new challenge even more appealing to me.”

What do you see as the logic in combining DEI and international affairs?

“We are most definitely treading new exciting grounds as the combination of these two areas is indeed a novel undertaking at both local and national levels in higher education. Dean Chung is the strategic leader behind this endeavor. He believes that these two positions can be merged given the relationship that exists between them — and they're indeed in very clear alignment.

“One really can't do global affairs unless one embodies a diversity, equity and inclusion mindset. For example, when our students engage in international experiences, it is important they leave SDSU with the DEI tools required to be able to learn from people who operate from and within different cultural systems. I don't think global affairs can be done well without the knowledge, orientations and dispositions that DEI provides. In the same way, DEI can be enhanced and expanded when seeing its relevance not only for our local context, but for social life beyond real and imagined borders.”

"I don't see this work as something that I am fully responsible for — we are responsible for this as a community and my hope is that one day there is actually no need for such a position for obvious reasons."

How does your own international background inform how you look at these issues? 

“When I think of the significance of my experiences as a transnational adolescent living between the U.S. and the Dominican Republic, one of the most important lessons I have learned that is of direct relevance to DEI and international affairs has been that of 'mirroring' or 'perspective-taking': the experience of living as an immigrant in the U.S. allowed me to think critically about the plight of my Haitian brothers and sisters who migrate to the Dominican Republic.

“At both micro and macro level of Dominican society, Haitians are generally under erasure; we have had an unofficial policy against negritude for quite some time now. Being myself minoritized and othered within a U.S. context gave me a sense of how my former disposition to minoritize and to other Haitians was something I socially learned. It also helped me put myself in someone else’s shoes so that I could begin the process of deconstructing and unlearning perspectives that — although not oppressive — were definitely counterproductive to the co-construction of a democratic, equitable and inclusive lifeworld.

“I have also been extremely fortunate to have worked at The Lauder Institute of Management and International Studies at the University of Pennsylvania teaching Superior level Spanish to Wharton MBAs. As part of the immersion program, each summer we travelled abroad to countries such as Argentina, México and Spain to learn not just the language, but also to experience and understand how people do social, cultural, economic and political life in those countries. What I have learned from these experiences — coupled with my own travels and my recent research-teaching sabbatical in Spain and Brazil — will most definitely impact my perspectives and approach to the work at hand.”

Why do you think it's important to have a leader within the college focused on DEI? 

"As I understand it, one of the main goals of this position, in alignment with SDSU’s broader DEI strategic plan, is to design and facilitate activities that foster an academic and professional community where a strong regard for uniqueness and belongingness guides our ways of proceeding and practices. I believe drawing on this uniqueness intentionally and systematically have the power to enable us to be more creative, understand different positions and create synergies toward greater academic-research, teaching and service innovations. Right now, there is a need for someone to facilitate this discussion within our community. I don't see this work as something that I am fully responsible for — we are responsible for this as a community and my hope is that one day there is actually no need for such a position for obvious reasons."

How do you plan to facilitate this discussion? 

“One of my suggested initiatives is to create an Inclusive Excellence Council (IEC), comprised of faculty, students, administrators and staff to begin a conversation about the degree to which we are a diverse and inclusive College of Education. For this, we need to conduct an assessment — to find out where we're at. It's only from there that we can start to understand what we need as we also align ourselves with the greater SDSU strategic plan to develop — in the words of SDSU President Adela de la Torre — 'the ethical innovators, compassionate leaders and global citizens' our world needs.”

How much room for growth do you see in the area of international programs? 

“I think there is a lot of room for growth. I know that at the university level, we do attract a lot of international students, but they go to business, engineering and other programs. As a college, we need to define our uniqueness and competitive advantage in ways that are appealing to international students and scholars. I believe that to the degree our curriculum becomes internationally relevant, we'll have greater opportunities to market ourselves globally and to continue to devise viable opportunities to create more sustained student-faculty exchange programs and partnerships with universities abroad. We do have a lot of knowledge about the theory and practice of education in general, but also about education for diverse populations within a border context.

“There is much we can offer at international levels. We just need to continue to do great internationally-relevant work and I know we do have and can continue to build our capacity to make a greater impact in our world. We’ve already started with ourselves.”