William & Mary

In Their Own Words

A Conversation with Dania Matos and Eva Wong

In Their Own Words

Dania Matos (left) is the Inaugural Deputy Chief Diversity Officer, and was recently selected as one of the “Top 25 Women in Higher Education and Beyond” by Diverse: Issues in Higher Education. She is a 2003 graduate of Brown University and a 2009 graduate of the Catholic University School of Law. Before coming to William & Mary, Dania was the Executive Director of Latinas Leading Tomorrow and worked for the Office of the Federal Public Defender (Eastern District of Virginia) and Beveridge & Diamond, P.C. Her primary responsibilities include oversight of institutional diversity action plans and diversity and inclusion efforts.

Eva Wong (right) is Assistant Director for International Programs at the Reves Center. She directs programs, advocacy and outreach initiatives, including collaborative partnerships with campus offices, to support the success of William & Mary’s international community. Eva received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

 

You both have come to William & Mary from other communities and institutions and organizations. What paths and decisions brought you here?

DM: I had a career that had spanned government, corporate, leading a nonprofit, and I wasn’t really happy where I was, so I took a month off. Kind of through divine intervention I was able to sustain myself financially through that period so I could spend a lot of time digging deep into what I wanted to do next. I made a list of things I was passionate about and loved and realized what I cared about most were equity and justice issues. I had done a lot of this work at Brown and it was very clear to me that higher ed was a place where I could make the most impact. So when I saw this job [at W&M] it was kind of a dream come true. But a dream that I thought was beyond my reach.

I had convinced myself I was going to apply to five jobs a week that scared me, and this was one of them. I think we all have had that inner dialogue that says, “Oh, no, I’m not qualified. I don’t know that I can do this. Am I insane?” All those questions kept coming up for me. But I forced myself through that inner dialogue to apply, and I was participating in a program in Spain when I got a phone call about 8:00 p.m. one night from a number I didn’t recognize, and it was Chon Glover asking me to come to W&M for an interview.

I had to fly back from Spain, landing at midnight with my interview at 9:00 a.m. that morning because it couldn’t be delayed. So talk about being extraordinary. And that’s how I got here.

EW: And I was on your search committee…

DM: Oh, yes! That’s right! You were!

EW: You say that this is something you thought maybe was beyond your reach but you decided to go for it anyway. Well my fellow search committee members and I are so glad that you decided to take that leap. I remember talking to you when you had just arrived at the airport and thinking, she’s coming from Spain, and she’s at the airport, and is meeting with us, even with jet lag!

DM: I woke up at 5 am, but I said we’re going to do this!

EW: I think it was also an indication that you were really interested in the job, that you were willing to make it work.

DM: That’s right. You were one of the first friendly faces I met.

EW: We’re so glad that you’re here.

My journey to W&M was different. I was finishing my doctorate at UC Santa Barbara, where I met my husband [Max Katz, Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology]. He was in a doctoral program in the music department; I was in a doctoral program at the school of education. I’ve always been in higher education administration, and halfway through my program I knew that I wanted to go back to administration not academia. Max was going to go the academia route, so I knew that most probably I would be the trailing spouse.

DM: There’s a term for it?

EW: Yes, the trailing spouse.

DM: There’s nothing trailing about you!

EW: Well, I knew that I might need to fill that role because finding positions in academia is hard, and I thought there would be more options for me.

He was offered a job at W&M and we didn’t know much about W&M because we were both based in California, but in 2008 we moved here, and I had to go job hunting. It was challenging but I think the amazing thing was that everybody was so supportive – in the college community and Williamsburg. My job at the Reves Center was the perfect match for me. I came to the U.S. as an international student, so being able to work with international students is almost coming full circle.

What does diversity mean to you?

DM: I recently read an article in Inside Higher Ed that talked about the shift that colleges need to make in the language of appeasement, by which they mean diversity refers to inclusion, a concept with which most folks are comfortable. It’s in the vernacular. But diversity is really about equity and justice.

So we ask ourselves: “Do we have to increase the diversity of our faculty and staff and students?” Now, that’s a diversity question.

An equity question is: “Why are they not here? What’s the climate been like that these folks are not here?”

Another example would be: “Let’s do a panel on Black Lives Matter,” That’s the diversity question. The equity and justice question would be more along the lines of “Why do we feel like we have to put a marginalized community on display?”

And so it’s using a different lens.

I think that sometimes we get bothered by numbers, but there’s a story behind the numbers.

And I think climate is something that we address a lot with our international students. Diversity may be a completely different concept in different countries, and so their issues of equity and justice might also be completely different. We just hosted our first Student Diversity Symposium and the keynote speaker was Ken Bouyer, Director of Inclusiveness Recruiting for Ernst and Young Americas. He talked about how diversity in Latin America is really about class and socio-economic status.

In other countries it might be about disabilities and abilities.

Diversity encompasses whatever issues are affecting a particular population. So we need to ask ourselves, “How do we address diversity in ways that we also address inequities in the context of a particular country and its people?”

EW: I think in a very similar framework. When I was at UC Santa Barbara I had the privilege to be a teaching assistant and teaching associate in the Departments of Asian American Studies, Black Studies and Women’s Studies. Being in those departments and working with some amazing faculty members really formed my ideas of what diversity, inclusion and equity mean. Yes, it’s true that lots of times when we talk about diversity we talk about numbers. It’s so easy, kind of the low hanging fruit. “Look at our numbers. We’re always increasing diversity.” But that is just at the very surface of it.

I think for many people — particularly from marginalized communities — it’s so important to talk about the social justice and equity piece

I wonder how as an institution we can make sure that once we’ve attracted diverse students, faculty and staff, we make sure that every single person feels they have the support and the resources they need to thrive and flourish.

I think that is that big piece that we haven’t necessarily been really good at. How do we make sure that resources are equitable? This is not a comfortable conversation, because a lot of time when we talk about equity, it’s a redistribution of power and of resources which can make some people uncomfortable. But if we were truly to become an equitable inclusive society, I think those are the conversations that we need to have.

We have to work hard to figure out how we provide the same kinds of opportunities, as far as we can, to every single person who comes to our institution.

DM: I think about that, too. For instance, facilities staff can seem like the invisible labor. People don’t see when they come in; don’t see them when they leave. Are they included? I’ve been meeting with all the academic departments for their diversity action plans. And it wasn’t until my 35th department meeting that someone said, “Oh, we should include custodial staff in our diversity committee.”

It’s interesting and also important, because a lot of this work is about process and thinking about how we don’t know what we don’t know, and where we’re not engaging folks. We’re so used to emailing. That’s how we advertise things. Is this a population that even gets e-mails? How do they receive information? What times are they off?

I have such a privilege. I’m not an hourly employee and I don’t get docked if I go to a meeting, but they do. The monetary amount they get an hour is crucial. It might be critical to them. So we need to think about reaching them where they are and figuring out how we can best disseminate information.

Who’s there to create those programs that can reach them, and who is thinking about providing opportunities?

I ended up at Brown because one of my high school teachers said, “You’re so Brown!” She had gotten her Ph.D. at Harvard but she urged me to consider it, and that’s how I ended up putting Brown on my list. It can take someone else seeing the greatness in you that you might not see in yourself.

EW: A lot of times when I’m in a meeting with a committee I look around the table and ask whose voice is missing? Like with your example of the department’s diversity committee asking who is missing from this conversation.

Whom do we need to invite to be part of this conversation? And particularly for those who are in leadership positions and those who do have the power to make decisions, are they making opportunities and inviting as many people as possible to be part of that conversation? I think we need leaders who are willing to think outside the box to look at these issues in the broadest sense.

It’s also like your teacher who suggested Brown, seeing potential in you.

I can speak for myself that it was so many people — as mentors and faculty and staff — who really invited me to either be in a committee or to be part of the conversation or encouraging me to go to grad school and pursue a Ph.D.

It really is about extending the invitation — whether it’s small or big — to as many people as possible. And the other piece is, as you mentioned, removing barriers. I serve as a co-chair of the Women’s Network, and one thing we’ve always talked about is that we serve all women faculty, staff, and graduate students on campus. But there are lots of staff who have different work hours and then a lot of them might not have access to email.

They don’t have the privilege to take off from work, but we really want to offer some programs that will be relevant to them, and so it was working with supervisors to determine when would be the best time for them to go. Putting flyers and posters where they are, such as in breakrooms. In that way we’ll be able to reach out to those staff and to offer some programming that will be relevant and accessible to them, But it does require making that commitment. Not saying, “Oh, it’s too hard.” It’s extra work for us, but we must learn how to include individuals who have a unique set of challenges and a unique set of experiences.

Working in Higher Education: Opportunities and challenges

DM: It’s my role in particular to foster partnerships across the entire institution. There are so many populations and I want to be responsive to everyone. In roles like mine, where my office is overseeing everyone, it’s important to me for people to have touch points.

Access is a big word in this work and it’s in the fiber of who I am. Who has access to this and who doesn’t? Nobody in my family had been in the higher ed world, so there was a lot of lingo and systems that I didn’t know. I latched on to folks that were willing to help and teach me. I wasn’t afraid to ask, but not everybody’s that way. So I’m a big proponent of putting it out there first and translating, if you will, for folks.

EW: We’re all interconnected. At an institution like W&M, everybody needs to work together for it to function, for the wheels to keep going and for it to be successful.

I think it will be really myopic to think that we just live in our little bubble or in our silos. But sometimes those silos do exist, because there’s no access, or people are not willing to communicate, or maybe there are no opportunities for collaboration.

The more we communicate, the more we collaborate, I think you will find there are so many instances to be effective in the work we do and also to build this sense of community. We’re all working towards the same mission, that we have a shared vision.

The impact of travel and international exchanges and experiences

DM: I chose to major in international relations, because I always wanted to relate internationally but I also saw that travel is such a privilege. I didn’t come from a family that could afford to do it and so college was the first time that I could. I moved to Paris two days before September 11 and I learned so much about myself, about race and religious diversity.

And I learned about what it means to be American, because at that time the State Department was sending warnings like. “Don’t look American.” And I thought, what does that mean? How do I not look American? I think that started a lot of my questions that I ask today in this work. I also knew that because it was a privilege I wanted to absorb as much as possible and bring it back to my communities.

I learned that some things are universal. And so the more of the world I saw the more I appreciated: one, where I was from, and who I am; and two, the importance of bridge building. People sometimes focus on what divides us but I think international travel gives you access to what unites us, and that’s been one of the best insights I’ve gained.

I think that it’s unfortunate some people never leave their block, to think that their world exists only with what they know and that’s it. Some people don’t think it’s attainable for them to travel, which is why I’m glad we do a really good job here in terms of scholarships [for study abroad].

EW: I, too, think that traveling is a privilege. Because there are many people who do not have access. Think about just the cost to get a passport. That’s not attainable for many people even though they may have the desire to travel. People might have many different limitations or barriers. So travel is definitely a privilege and like you, I’ve been in a position to enjoy travel, such as when I had the privilege of going to different countries when I was an international student.

I think one of the wonderful things about travel is that it gives you this amazing ability to be critical or analytical about where you come from and where you’re going. It took leaving my country to reflect back on my society in terms of race, gender or sustainability.

Why is it that we do it this way? There’s no wrong or right way of doing things. There’s always historical context. Travel helped me think in the broadest sense, to ask a lot of questions and also to be so appreciative. It takes leaving your comfort zone really.

Oh, I do miss my mother’s cooking. I miss the food, the sounds. I miss the places and my friends and family. But it took leaving my comfort zone to realize that there are so many things that I appreciate in my country.

When you’re in that new place all the things are new, all the opportunities, but it is also uncomfortable to go somewhere new. The language, the culture are different. Even for someone who is open and flexible, you miss the comforts of your own home.

For anybody who’s embarking on this new adventure there’s always this level of discomfort, but it allows you to grow and to see new things. I work with international students and scholars and their families. A lot of times I see that discomfort – in figuring out how to use the bus, how to go shopping or get a cellphone. “I cannot understand my professor,” or “My child is struggling in school.” And one of the things I always share with them is I know that is really hard now. The transition period is always hard and it’s unavoidable.

But in my own experience and my years of working with the international community, most of us will get through that difficult period and come to a point where before you know it, you will be calling this place home. You find your friends,t you find your community you find the coffee shop that you love. It does take time but eventually you know most people will get there.

Dania, what have been some challenges with moving to Williamsburg? With a new job?

DM: I was running a national nonprofit in Northern Virginia, so this has been a transition to a new community. March 10th was one year.

My only exposure to Williamsburg had been family visits, and we had gone on a ghost tour, so when I told my family I got the job here, they asked, wait… the haunted place? So I mean it was really really funny.

I was so used to intentionally engaging myself in diverse environments that this is the first time where, although I’ve gotten used to my education and my professional spaces being predominantly white, I was not used to where I lived also being predominantly white. So this is the first time in my life that all three were that so it’s been an adjustment for me.

I think it speaks volumes that I became used to that in education and in my profession. I don’t think that’s OK either, but that was my normal. I’ve always lived intentionally in diverse communities and urban environments. I was born in Puerto Rico. I grew up in the Northeast. I was very much a city girl so, at first I was wondering, “Why can’t I get this kind of food or where are these kinds of people?” Because they’re not here. And so that was tough. But I’m learning to embrace what’s here and explore more, and I do want to become more actively engaged in the community.

I think when you’re the first and people have not had help in a long time it’s not that something’s better than nothing, but it’s that you have an opportunity to innovate. You have an opportunity to set the framework. This is going to be the standard. And I determined it’s going to be pretty high.

Moving an institution forward — especially the second oldest institution in the nation – has its challenges, but if we really want to be thought leaders and drive innovation, then we need to talk about equity and diversity.

My office works with the schools, we collaborate a lot in overseeing the diversity action plans. I’m working to create a framework that is structurally sound. It should not live with just one person overseeing or being accountable. I recognize that people at this institution don’t always have to interact with each other because of their roles. And yet I get to meet so many people across the institution and it’s great.

I absolutely love it, because I really see myself as a connector and a builder and connecting this community. We say we’re a tribe, but what does that look like? What does it really look like?

Everything that I’ve started is really about coming together and sharing ideas and sharing challenges, putting our heads together. That’s a great idea. How ’bout we partner?

Eva, You’ve been on the Diversity Committee for a while. It seems to be your passion.

EW: Inclusion and equity have always been core values that I hold dearly.

Dania, I see your office taking the lead on a lot of initiatives, but I do appreciate that you’re coming from a place of true collaboration, a true partnership. I think one of the challenges that most institutions face is that a lot of times with inclusion or internationalization the responsibility lies in one office for example.

In my time here it’s been good for me to see the institution prioritizing diversity and inclusion and making the commitment that is a shared responsibility.

I’m always asking, “How can we figure out how to tackle this issue? How can we share resources? How can we share ideas? I think that once we accept this is a shared responsibility it is then that the institution can move forward. For me it’s been really great to see our institution moving in that direction, that now that we have these action plans in the department’s senior administrative offices, the student body. I think everybody’s beginning to realize that we all have a stake in this. We need to figure out how we can work in individual units, but also how we can come together and put our resources and brains together.

Any thoughts on W&M’s new president?

DM: I’m excited. A lot of what she said [at her introduction] was how diversity drives innovation. It’s what we think and who we are. I think that whenever there’s a shift there’s always opportunity. I always look at things as opportunities. There are no breakdowns, just breakthroughs. In Virginia we have a lot of shifting landscapes and now new leadership which marks the first moment as we’re going into the 100 year celebration of women.

Also, she held a role [at Smith] that we don’t have here. She was interim vice president of diversity inclusion. I say that because our role is not vice president and it’s one of the recommendations in the task force. I think it’s already functioning that way, but it’s good to show the institutional commitment behind it.