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Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Ask an Alum: Emelyn dela Peña ’98, ’09

Alumna Emelyn dela Pena

Emelyn dela Peña ’98, ’09 returned to the Golden State this summer to start her new position as Stanford University’s associate vice provost for inclusion, community and integrative learning. It is the next challenge in an impressive student affairs career that has included stops at Harvard University and Washington University in St. Louis. Emelyn was prepared for this journey at San Diego State University, where she earned a master’s degree in postsecondary educational leadership and instruction and a doctorate through its joint Ed.D. program. Recently, Emelyn chatted with us about her new position in Palo Alto, her passion for diversity and inclusion and her favorite SDSU mentors.

What excites you most about your new role at Stanford? 

“What excites me most is the opportunity to learn something new and to develop professionally by taking on new challenges. While the portfolio has some areas that I feel particularly confident working with — the diversity and inclusion work, first generation and low-income student issues, campus community centers work — I was also drawn to the position because it offered a nice balance of work where I'm confident I'll excel, but also areas where I knew I'd have a good learning curve. It's always in those times when I feel challenged by complex issues that I think I grow and learn the most. In this case, I'm excited to be working with fraternity and sorority life as well as career education. And I hear that Stanford Band is it's own brand of special!”

Your career has centered around issues of diversity and inclusion and advocacy for underrepresented groups. Why are you so passionate about this area? 

“This commitment has been informed by early experiences with marginalization as well as several critical incidents that have shaped my philosophy and practice regarding social justice and diversity. A critical incident — defined as one that creates cognitive dissonance — can be experienced as a one-time event or over the course of multiple moments of dissonance that cause an awakening in our consciousness. While I have had a few critical incidents in my lifetime that have led to my calling in this work, there are a couple that were most influential in my career trajectory in higher education. 

“On April 29, 1992 the verdict was announced acquitting four LAPD officers caught on camera beating Rodney King, an unarmed black man. I was a sophomore in college at UC San Diego and my family was only 100 miles away in Los Angeles. While classmates demonstrated by marching through campus and blocking Interstate 5, I made a conscious decision to go to class. I told myself that day that I was going to graduate and return to make a difference for a student like me. This was a turning point in my decision to become a professional in higher education at a time that also saw the emergence of a new field of scholarship about campus climate issues.

“My master’s thesis examined LGBT issues in residential life. During my first year of graduate school and in my first professional position as a residence hall coordinator, I experienced several acts of homophobia in my residence hall. Through an empirical examination of these issues — my Masters thesis in COE — I was able to examine resident advisor hiring practices and develop programs and practices to better serve our LGBT students. This critical incident demonstrated not only the power of evidenced-based practice, but also confirmed my commitment to understanding diversity work as intentional practice.”

When we get caught up in whose office or budget is bigger, who gets to go to conferences or can we buy food for our staff meetings, we have to stop and ask how much of this matters to the student experience.                                      —Emelyn dela Peña

How do your personal experiences as a woman of color inform how you look at these issues? 

“As a woman of color from a working-class background, I approach diversity and social justice work from an intersectional perspective. In particular, this philosophy allows me to find empathy and understanding across multiple identities and experiences. Within an intersectional approach, anyone, regardless of group memberships can be marginalized. As such, the work of inclusion becomes everyone’s job.

“My own experience with diversity on college campuses has shown me that, while diversity can be achieved in a variety of ways, inclusion is much more elusive. Diversity can exist without inclusion. It is, therefore, imperative that our diversity and social justice paradigms be action-based and intentional about creating inclusion and achieving equity. The practice of diversity is about celebrating all the ways we are different, working towards equitable outcomes within higher education, and intentionally bringing people together to feel a sense of belonging and community on our college campuses.”

What's the most important trait for a student affairs professional to have? 

“A high tolerance for ambiguity! I have it on my resume under ‘SKILLS.’ Having a high tolerance for infinite shades of grey has helped me survive this work, adapt to new environments and constantly shifting priorities, and manage crisis and expectations.

“Alongside this, however, you have to have a personal and professional mission that is student-centered to help remind you why you became a student affairs professional. In my current office at Stanford, I have a large post-it pad on my wall with some doodles and drawings of what I imagine my new work will look like here. On it are the words, ‘What would our work look like if our SINGULAR FOCUS was helping students create lives of meaning and purpose?’ When we get caught up in whose office or budget is bigger, who gets to go to conferences or can we buy food for our staff meetings, we have to stop and ask how much of this matters to the student experience.”

How did your experience in the SDSU College of Education impact you? 

“At the time, my program was Postsecondary Educational Leadership and Instruction. I think the ‘instruction’ part of my program really helped me become a better student affairs professional. I learned about adult learning theory. I became a better trainer and educator. I learned to convey my thoughts about diversity and social justice through theory-based practice. One of my course projects was to develop a curriculum and syllabus. Years later, I would end up teaching that "made up" class in another student affairs graduate program. My program at COE helped me to become excited about my role as a teacher, not just as an administrator.

“Being part of the joint Ed.D. program sharpened my skills even more as a scholar and a practitioner. In both my interviews for Stanford and for my previous job at Washington University in St. Louis, members of the search committee commented on my deep knowledge of the scholarship in my field. The program really emphasized the concept of 'your workplace as your laboratory' and I have been intentional about continuing to keep up with and contribute to the scholarship and practice of both student affairs and diversity and inclusion work in higher education.”

Did you have any mentors in your program here who impacted you? 

Dr. William Piland was definitely a mentor for me in my MA program. As someone who is a first generation college student, I was inspired by his story of coming the community college route and then earning his Ph.D. and becoming a faculty member. His classes were some of my favorite — even though I couldn't get an A in his class to save my life! I appreciated that he continued to be a mentor and a professional reference for me even after I graduated.

“For my doctoral program, I would have to say Dr. Margaret Basom. There was one particular assignment I remember, where she commented about how I'm an excellent teacher, and that she hoped I would have the opportunity to teach in the classroom someday. That planted in me the seed to teach, even though my career trajectory is administrative. I kept that paper and took a picture of those comments. I remember posting it to Facebook after I had started teaching in other higher education graduate programs.”

Do you have any advice for future educational leaders currently in COE programs? 

“Embrace the planned happenstance. I've taught in several student affairs graduate programs in the past 10 years and I'm always amazed at how many graduate students have their lives planned out so precisely. I understand the need to have a goal and to plan for it. But what I can say is that my last three positions — AVP at Stanford, AVC at WashU, Assistant Dean at Harvard — were all unplanned. I was not looking for a job at the time these opportunities came along. I did not have it all planned out. But what I did have was the courage to look into the possibilities, even when my heart was telling me, ‘I'm happy where I am.’ And rather than being hyper focused on my next position, what I did was get really good at what I was currently doing. I believe ultimately this is what got me noticed by my next employer.”