207 See It to Be It : Higher Education Industry (w/ Dr. José I. Rodríguez)

On the tenth entry of our See It to Be It podcast series, Amy C. Waninger chats with Dr. José I. Rodríguez, a professor at California State University, Long Beach, about how he got involved in academia and what about it appealed to him, and he graciously shares the biggest surprise he had arriving into the industry. José also names several programs that are available for persons of color to help them feel supported and connected within the higher education space. 

Connect with José on LinkedInTwitter and Instagram, and check out his website by clicking here.

Find out more about the programs José mentioned, BUILD, the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, and RISE.

Find out how the CDC suggests you wash your hands by clicking here.

Help food banks respond to COVID-19. Learn more at FeedingAmerica.org.


Amy: Hello, Dr. J. How are you?

José: Good, how are you doing?

Amy: Doing great. How’s the weather in California today?

José: Well, today the weather is good. It seems we have weather. [laughs]

Amy: Oh. That’s unusual for you guys. [laughs]

José: Right, right. It is highly unusual, but we’re happy. We need the weather.

Amy: So I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit–so you work in the education industry. You’re a professor at Long Beach State. And I was wondering if you could tell me, how did you get into academia, or higher education, and what about it appealed to you? Did you always want to do this or did you kind of happen into it?

José: Right, thank you. That is a great question. I got into it because I–you know, the pretty typical story that you have going to college, you know, your family tells you that that’s the thing to do, and–at least in my family–you have to either be a doctor, a lawyer, or some other profession of that ilk, and I thought, “Well, I don’t want to be a lawyer. I don’t want to be a doctor. I’m gonna be an engineer.” I started out as an engineering major, and I just got tired of doing math if I can be perfectly frank. By the time I finished a third semester of calculus I was done. [laughs]

Amy: Fair enough.

José: Yeah, exactly. You know how that goes. So I took this GE class in communication, and we sat around, and we were studying small group communication, and we would get together in groups and we would discuss topics and we would share ideas and we would have conversations in a college classroom–which I thought was revolutionary, because up until that point I really didn’t have experience with communication in the classroom, and I just fell in love with it. I thought, “Wow, this is really cool. I think that this might be my thing,” and the next semester I switched my major to communications studies. I started working with one of my favorite professors, who became a mentor, and one thing just led to another. So it wasn’t like I had this grand vision of, “Gosh, yes, I’ve wanted to be a professor since I was 4 years old.” That wasn’t me. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. It was quite confusing. And I just stumbled onto what I do. I developed a nice relationship with some colleagues at the university. I got into a good master’s program, and then just created a trajectory, really through networking, which I know is dear to your heart, and that networking panned out in some really interesting ways. So it was a lot of networking and things that I really didn’t plan a priori but just seemed to work out in the process of doing and connecting with people, and I really loved it, and I still love it, and I think the idea of just connecting with people, connecting with people through conversations, connecting with people through teaching, through doing workshops, retreats, things of that sort, I find that very rewarding, very much, you know, aligned with the things that I value, and I find working with people to be, you know, useful. You see the results of it right away if you impact somebody’s life. If somebody is moved by something that you say, you see those results very quickly just by looking into people’s eyes. Somebody’s getting an idea or somebody’s asking a question or somebody’s emailing you and saying, “Oh, my gosh, that was great. That was fantastic,” and I think I really enjoy that almost-instant feedback in interactions through teaching, through doing workshops and things of that sort.

Amy: That’s fantastic. So what I heard in that was that you grew up with a value around education–and a lot like I was, right? I went into my college programs not knowing, like, what does that mean, what am I gonna be when I grow up, and sort of through the role of a mentor and sort of happenstance you were able to channel this value of education into something that’s giving forward to new students and is true to your values and maybe not so much math. [laughs]

José: [laughs] It’s true to my values, that’s for sure. Yeah, giving forward, you know, connecting with people, making a point or having a conversation with somebody that wasn’t there before, right? So you enter into conversation or you enter into dialogue with someone, and in moments that come seemingly from nowhere you develop a line of thought or a line of argument or a conversation that is really meaningful, enriched, and it almost seems like magic is happening, that you’re co-creating or co-inventing with someone, and that’s really kind of fun and engaging and becoming more and more rare as we lead mediated lives, and I find that really rewarding.

Amy: Yeah, I want to come back to that idea of mediated lives in just a moment, but can you tell me first – what’s been the biggest surprise to you? So you moved down this path of becoming a professor, and then you got there. So what surprised you now that you’re on the other side of that particular journey? What didn’t you expect–good or bad–about your industry?

José: Yeah, the thing that surprised me the most was the variety of activities that one needs to perform as a college faculty member. so I got into it because I like to teach and I like the interaction with students, I like being in the classroom, I like getting into discussions, I like lecturing, I like having that experience where you share a concept or an idea and it makes sense to somebody. They get it. Their eyes light up, and all of a sudden they are impacted in some positive ways. I really like that, and I thought that that was the majority of the show, but no, that’s not the majority. In fact, that’s just one third. There’s this whole thing about publishing and being on committees and having service obligations, and I found that to be surprising and extremely time-consuming. And not that it’s bad. It’s just typically not my thing. I think in most areas of academia people have their strengths or their weaknesses or their preferences, and my preference is on the teaching side of things. Service and academic publishing are great and I’ve done some of that, but that isn’t really where my passion lies. So that was a bit surprising at the beginning and at times a bit daunting, just because it’s time-consuming. It’s a lot of work, especially in publishing and getting your work out there and the process of revision and working with reviewers. All of that can be very time-consuming, and so that’s a challenge, yeah.

Amy: So I remember being in college, and I can tell you that my favorite professors were the ones that were there because they enjoyed teaching, not the ones that were there because they enjoyed the publishing aspect. They were usually not the best ones in class. I usually learned a little less from them because they tended not to care as much about making connections so much as, you know, they were worried about the publications and that sort of thing. So on behalf of your students I want to thank you for sticking with it and being there for them. I think that’s so important.

José: Thank you. I hear that. I hear that from students every once in a while, at times. You know, some faculty are very blessed. They won, like, a genetic and I guess personality lottery, right? They’re very good at teaching, they’re really good at publishing, and they’re very good at doing the whole service thing, but I think most people have a strength in a particular area and everything else is okay but isn’t as, I guess, you know, dominant in their professional life. So yeah, I think your point is well-taken, and at times it’s a struggle for faculty who really are into the whole publishing game to teach as effectively as possible. And don’t get me wrong, that’s not everyone. I think the vast majority of faculty do a great job, and sometimes people who are very well-published are actually very good teachers because they’re kind of on the cutting edge of their field and they are really excited about it and they bring that excitement to the classroom, and that’s fantastic. But in my experience, that’s fairly rare.

Amy: Yeah, absolutely. So if somebody’s not in academia now, if that’s something they aspire to, maybe they’re an undergrad or even a grad student at this point and they’re thinking, you know, “Maybe this is for me.” Where would they go to learn more?

José: One of the places to learn more is through a mentor or a colleague or somebody who’s already quote-unquote arrived. If you find a professor, a colleague, who is really a mentor, that’s really the best way to find out if the career is for you. Usually when you go to grad school, especially if you’re getting a Ph.D, you’re gonna have a committee of people that are working with you as you finish your dissertation, and you usually have a faculty mentor or a faculty advisor, and that person typically is the type of person that guides you, that, you know, writes your letters of recommendation, that has you on their research team, and that is the primary way that you get socialized into the process of becoming a professor. Another thing that people tend to do is go to conferences and, you know, networking events where once, twice or three times a year there are national conferences, local conferences, international conferences, where graduate students go and meet people across the nation and really create a growing body of colleagues across the globe or across the United States and find opportunities to work. In fact, most people I believe, still today, get hired that way. You hire people that you know or you hire people that have worked with people that you know. In my experience, that probably happens 60 to 70% of the time. And again, just like in almost any other industry I would assume, networking becomes very critical. It becomes a part of your professional practice, and it’s a great way to find out if the profession is right for you.

Amy: So you said something interesting, and I know that–I’m betting that you knew I would pick up on this. You said that people typically hire people that they know and networking is important, and since the audience, for at least part of this interview–to use Living Corporate’s terminology–black and brown professionals who maybe feel like they’re outside of the in group and in academia, right? If we hire who we know, that tends to self-perpetuate the demographics of a department or of a school or of a profession, and so what resources are available to young people of color or to professionals of color in your area that help them maybe navigate those waters in a way that someone like me wouldn’t have to do? What advice can you give them to kind of overcome that feeling of otherness?

José: The feeling is a challenge, no doubt. No doubt. What’s really exciting is that there’s more and more programs for persons of colors and individuals from historically marginalized groups, programs like BUILD and the Mellon Mays Research Fellowship. There’s another one called RISE, and we have those types of programs on campus–and they’re national, they’re all over the country, and essentially those are programs designed to help students from minority groups form a relationship with a faculty mentor in a larger community that is designed to help them navigate the murky waters of their professional development. They would start their undergraduate program with BUILD or with Mellon Mays or with the RISE program, let’s say, perhaps when they’re, like, a sophomore in college, and they would be assigned to a faculty mentor, to a research team. They would participate in conferences and get mentoring advice, and they would get help putting together a statement of purpose, a resume, a [?], and have publications with faculty members or, let’s say, conference papers on their own as a part of a research team. All of those things are not only very possible, but I see them happening on campus every day. It’s part of–what I do is I train faculty mentors on how to create conversations that are empathic and nurturing and holistic so that people know the kind of language that might be best, the kinds of things to say, how things might be interpreted, and we try to create scenarios where we’re asked to engage in everyday conversations in a way that is much more inclusive and less divisive. So that’s my best answer. Find one of these programs on your campus and join. Put in your application and take it from there. That’s one of the best ways to do it.

Amy: Yeah, that’s fantastic. Thank you. Sometimes we just don’t know what we don’t know, and if the target demographic for these organizations, if the target age or, you know, the target year is sophomore year, that’s very early for a lot of students even where they want to head or, you know, what they might want to do. I know I was, like, mid-senior year and then all of a sudden panicked because what I thought was gonna do wasn’t gonna happen, right? So I think it’s great that if we can engage students earlier in these kinds of programs so that they can explore what out there, and specifically what’s out there for them in terms of help so that they can overcome some of the affinity bias or some of the self-perpetuaing selection processes that maybe existing faculty have, so thank you for that.

José: Oh, you’re welcome. That’s an excellent question.

Amy: So what other recommendations do you have for students, and particularly students of color, who want to explore careers in academia? Are there books? Are there articles? Are there websites? Are there other resources around that they should take a look at?

José: Well, there are plenty of resources, and again I would just go back to the resources that are available in some of these programs. Obviously all of these programs, BUILD, the Mellon Mays Fellowship, the RISE program and many others that I don’t have off the top of my head, are available obviously online. So if you Google the Mellon Mays Fellowship, if you Google BUILD, you will see a major website or local website for your university or for locations across the country and then be able to, you know, gather the information that you need, not only on the website but find out what campus near you, maybe even your own campus, has that program. I know that the BUILD community goes out to junior colleges and does some pretty heavy recruiting to let students know that these resources are available. So BUILD in particular, I’m familiar with them because I’ve worked with them for the past couple of years, and I know that a huge part of their initiative is recruiting. So not just waiting for students to come to them, but really allowing students to know that the resources are available by going out into the community.

Amy: Excellent, thank you. So you had said before that you have kind of this passion for creating connectedness and that you discovered this passion when you took a general ed class in communications, and so can you tell me more about where that passion comes from or what do you think was awakened in you in that moment?

José: Yeah. One of the things that was awakened is just the power of solidarity, the power of coming together through dialogue to find what we have in common as opposed to what we have in difference, and that whole idea, you know, it’s kind of a nice idea and it sounds like a really nice phrase, but to have that as an experience is life-changing, where you go “Gosh, here I come into a conversation where I thought there was all these differences or I’m not getting along with people or I’m different or there’s something wrong with me,” and then I go into a room and I have a conversation with a variety of strangers, and all of a sudden there’s this feeling of connectedness, there’s this feeling that I belong, there’s this feeling that I can contribute, there’s this feeling of, you know, kinship, right? Father Greg Boyle, who’s out here in California, he runs the #1 gang rehabilitation center in the United States–

Amy: Homeboy Enterprises.

José: Yeah, there you go.

Amy: He is a national treasure. He is a hero.

José: He is amazing, yes. Father Boyle. He has this great line where he says, you know, “Imagine the circle of kinship where no one is outside that circle,” right? And I love that metaphor, the circle of kinship, and I believe that we do that through many means, but primarily through conversation, through discussion, through the process of sharing messages with each other. I see him do this. You know, he has his daily message of the day and he, you know, films himself having a little talk, and, you know, this impacts people not only in his community but all over the country, and he goes and gives talks, and I can see that a part of their process is really this constant conversation of bringing people in, of making them a part of the community, of using a language, a discourse of unity, of connectedness, of how we come together really as an extended family and then bring people into that family, help them feel included so that we can heal what has been broken through this new experience of solidarity, right? And the power to do that through messages, through language, through metaphor, is I think just such a gift, such a beautiful experience to have with people, and I’ve discovered that that was, like, a rare thing, you know, that I saw in college back at the time. I’d go, “Wow, to be able to study this process of creating messages and using words to bring people together,” the power of story for example, telling compelling stories that people can relate to about our challenges and where we came from and how we are similar through the narratives that we construct about our life history, our different positionality, the different intersections of race, class, nationality, sexual orientation that then help us be relatable, human, understandable, vulnerable, right? Those things I think get navigated primarily through the exchange of messages, through the exchange of linguistic, you know, discoursive thought, and those kinds of things I find just very rewarding.

Amy: That’s fantastic. So for those who don’t know, Homeboy Enterprises is–it’s a lot of things, but primarily what they do is they take former gang members and teach them job skills, marketable job skills, and then they create businesses, right, with the people in their program. So they might create a whole t-shirt company that’s comprised–the employees of which are maybe even rival gang members all working together in sort of this rehabilitative space to overcome the past and to contribute to the economy and to really heal through work and through shared goals.

José: Exactly, exactly. I think they have, you know, four or five businesses. They have a cafe. They have a bakery and quite a wide variety of businesses, and about a year ago one of the organizations on campus, the [?] Center for Ethical Leadership, gave Father Boyle an award, and he came–he was invited to come and, you know, accept the award. Unfortunately he was under the weather at the time and I didn’t have a chance to meet him at that time, but one of the Homeboys came instead, and Miguel, who was in charge of marketing, just delivered this speech that was stunning. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. It was just powerful, yeah. So very moving work.

Amy: That’s amazing, and all of that through storytelling and connectedness.

José: Exactly, and it was all really through the power of language. A guy up on a stage with a microphone telling his story.

Amy: That’s beautiful. So in the time that we have left, I would like your perspective on code switching and on cultural dexterity. So you and I had a brief conversation about this before we started recording, and I just want to know, what do those terms mean to you? I know that you use the term code switching to talk about when you’re flexing between English language communication and Spanish language communication, but what does that mean to you? What’s the feeling behind that term?

José: So code switching for me is, you know, experientally that capacity to go from speaking English to speaking Spanish, or then from speaking Spanish to speaking English, and being able to go back and forth from those linguistic traditions, and that’s how I tend to use the term code switching, in a very basic, organic, lay type of meaning, right? So nothing too intellectual or crazy cerebral, very simple, and I mentioned that to you in our conversation because I did that in the TED talk. One of the things I wanted to do in preparing for that was to be able to code switch from English to Spanish and Spanish to English, one because I thought that would be really fun, two I hadn’t really seen it done before–I’m sure somebody has, but it doesn’t happen very often–and also to be able to express through the power of spoken word that capacity to navigate two languages and, by doing that, create a sense of community, reach somebody through an online medium or through the internet or through whatever that message gets sent that says, “Gosh, here’s somebody speaking my language,” or “Here’s somebody code switching,” or “Here’s somebody kind of going back and forth,” and having a moment of identification, and I think through those moments of identification we start to experience solidarity, a sense of unity, a sense that we’re not alone, that there’s other people out there in the community that are like us, that are human and are willing to put themselves out there and put out a message that can be unifying, can be compassionate, can be empathic and can be, you know, the beginnings of a healing moment, not only for us as individuals but for communities at large. So for me that’s my best answer with code switching. I want to just switch to the other topic that you were asking about, which is cultural dexterity, and cultural dexterity comes from a body of academic work looking at cross-cultural or inter-cultural communication, advancing the idea that we need to adapt or to adjust as we shift from one cultural orientation to another, and being able to do that is to have cultural dexterity, to be able to navigate not just my culture of origin or my tradition but to be able to seamlessly adapt to different discourse communities, right, without, you know, excessive effort or, you know, stumbling around, and that capacity I think is a skill that, you know, we really need, not only in our world but in our country, to be able to communicate with people that I perceive are different from me. I think we all need to have that as a skill set, because that is a primary human experience. Difference is a primary human experience. Whenever we meet the other, we are in the experience of difference. And how do we bridge that difference? How do I navigate that conversation with someone that is different from me? For some people that’s very easy, for others it’s very hard, and cultural dexterity is a concept that tries to get at the ways that we do that. And, you know, as you might imagine, one of the simplest ways to do that is, again, navigating conversations in such a way that we find what we have in common as opposed to what we have in difference. And we do this very organically all the time. When we meet somebody for the first time we say, “Hey, how are you doing? What’s your name? Where are you from? What do you do? What do you like? Where’d you go to school?” And we ask all these questions to try to gather enough information to find something that we have in common that we can then zero in on to develop a dialogue back and forth around an issue that we have in common. So if I speak with you and I know that you’re interested in networking and diversity, well, then I’m also interested in that, and I go, “Gosh, that’s a topic of conversation that we can bridge whatever divisions we might have or whatever difference we might have, because diversity and networking are such a thing that we have in common that the other stuff just is not all that important or is kind of trivial or isn’t really central to this passion that we bring to diversity and networking and things of that ilk,” and I think that cultural dexterity is an area of study, again, that tries to teach those skills strategically.

Amy: Excellent. So I want to commend you on your bilingual TED talk, and the reason I say that is because I think that there’s–I think in the current political climate with some of the news stories that I’ve seen about people who have been harassed or assaulted for speaking languages other than English in public spaces, to me, for you to speak Spanish from a stage is an act of profound resistance against a culture that seeks to punish difference, and I can only imagine what that meant to someone in the audience who, you know, is a first-generation immigrant or, you know, for whom Spanish is their primary language at home, but they have to navigate a world that is in many ways alien to them because, you know, the culture seeks to strip them of language. You know, one of the tools of colonialism has been to strip people of their language and to strip people of their culture by forbidding language, and so I commend you for that. I think that’s such a profound act of resistance and a profound act of courage and solidarity to do that so publicly and with so much empathy for your audience.

José: Thank you. No, I appreciate that. I have got to tell you, that was difficult to do, yes, yes. It is a challenge because, you know, for all the reasons that you’re articulating and more. We live in a climate where it’s extremely weird to get up on stage and then not only do that but realizing that you’re being videotaped and that is going to be launched at some point all over the internet and people are gonna be able to see that, you know, forever, right? So there’s this strange feeling of vulnerability that I never really experienced before because, you know, I’m not someone that does TED talks every day. That was my first one. But there was this whole sense of feeling very vulnerable, very open, very, you know, out there, right? Just without a safety net, right? Especially on the day of rehearsal where you see that there’s all these lights on you, right? There’s just you, the stage, and these massive lights where you can’t see the audience because the lighting is so powerful. You know, in order to capture you brilliantly in all the color and the dynamics of, you know, the technical aspects of the filming, there needs to be just massive amounts of lighting, and at first it was just a shock to the system, you know? Rehearsals for me did not go too well. I was very frustrated because I was distracted. I felt very vulnerable. I felt very agitated, because it wasn’t something that I had rehearsed before. And then I knew what I was gonna do. I knew what I was gonna get up there and say. And after saying it though, it felt really good, you know? It felt very rewarding. It felt very evocative. It felt transformative. It felt very emotional. There was a couple of times during the performance where I choked up, because I didn’t want to go up there and just be safe. I didn’t want to go up there and just be very logical. I didn’t want to go up there and just say, “Well, you know, I’m gonna talk about my research and these three areas,” and be very linear and Aristotelian and academic because I felt that if I did that I would put on a very easy shield and not really be of service, and I just felt called to just, you know, let it ride, and I was happy that I took that risk for sure, so I really appreciate the affirmation.

Amy: Absolutely, and as I listen to you I think about–it was almost a coming out, a public coming out, right, where I’ve seen and I’ve experienced, you know, being in front of a room and coming out, and it is, it’s terrifying. There’s nowhere to hide. You know, physically you’re probably safe, but tricking your brain into believing that when you’re out there on your own, separated from a crowd, right, the spotlight is literally on you and there’s absolutely nowhere to hide once those words escape. It can be incredibly freeing, but it can be terrifying as well, and so–you know, and again, given kind of where we are politically and culturally right now, I just think that was incredibly brave and, you know, probably very affirming to the people that were there listening to you.

José: Thank you. That tension between terrified and then having an experience of freedom, right, that is the tension that, no question about it, you feel very liberated, but at the same time a feeling of terror, a feeling of excitement, and talk about intersectionality. Intersectionality as an inner experience of multiple intersections of oppressive, liberating energies in the simultaneity of an insane moment, right? Because, you know, how many people have the blessing or the opportunity to get up on a stage and have all the lights on you and deliver a message? It’s such a blessing, such a gift, and I wanted to honor that moment, you know? TED has a great line or a great mission to deliver, you know, a message worth spreading, right? That idea, that brand, a message worth spreading, an idea worth spreading, and every time I prepared I wanted to make sure that I was saying something that was worthy of that mission, that was worthy of that statement, that was worthy of that ideal, and in doing that, right, in attempting my best to stay true to those ideals, it was terrifying, it was difficult, it was liberating, and all of that happening simultaneously, like, you feel like your heart’s in one place and your mind’s in another and your body’s going in a different direction and you forget, and then you bring it back and then you don’t know how you’re gonna be and you can’t predict the future, but you know it’s gonna be great, but you’re not sure, and it’s these weird journeys of the heart and the mind and the soul, and you’re hoping, “Gosh, once I go through this whole maddening process, I hope I arrive on the other side okay,” right? But it’s just really what we talk about in kind of classic stories about the leap of faith, right? Taking a leap of faith, taking the hero or the heroine’s journey, finding a way to kind of navigate your journey one step a time by claiming your truth as best you can in the moment and allowing wherever you land to be okay.

Amy: Love that, yes. And, you know, the leadership lesson in that, about authenticity and vulnerability, I think is not to be overlooked, because certainly as you’re stripping away some of that facade and you’re, you know, opening yourself up in that way, people are seeing you as a leader in a way that maybe they hadn’t before, and they’re identifying with you and your story, and they become personally invested then in your success, and I think that that’s–I think that’s the real gift of leadership in an authentic and vulnerable way is that other people become invested in your success because they sense that you’re equally invested in theirs.

José: Right, I totally agree. There’s this interesting dialectic, right, there’s this interesting reciprocal relationship where I think through vulnerability we make connections with the other because we come to understand, at a very evocative, embodied level, our essential humanity. So I’m a human being just like you’re a human being, and we’re having a moment of solidarity where you might be admiring me, which is great, but I think the bigger gift is that you see yourself, you see the beauty of you in those moments, because in my, as I like to call it “stumbling successfully,” I have said something or I have done something that allows you to see what is already beautiful inside you and helps you recognize it in a moment. And then you might project that onto me, which is fine, but hopefully what happens is that you feel empowered, you feel motivated, and then you feel that you want to pay that gift forward by allowing someone in your life to know that they’re not alone, that they have value, that they are here with you for a reason, and in dialogue you get to discover what that reason is.

Amy: That’s beautiful. And if it’s okay, we will end there. Thank you so much for this conversation, and thank you for extending your vulnerability to my audience. I appreciate it.

José: It’s been a pleasure connecting with you. Always, always wonderful to talk to you. Take care.

Amy: Thank you.

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