Chief Diversity Officer - University of Florida

Level Up Podcast

Level Up on Presence and Belonging was produced by the Office of the Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida. This series explores the meaning of belonging at UF and consists of 76 episodes featuring members of the UF community including students, staff, faculty and alumna. Below you can find five seasons of episodes. 

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Season 5
24:53 Minutes
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Episode 076: Wolfgang Sigmund

In this final episode of Level Up, Antonio comes full circle with Dr. Wolfgang Sigmund, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering. Wolfgang was one of the first people to welcome Antonio to UF when he arrived in July 2018 and has been a great supporter of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts on campus. Wolfgang discusses how difference encourages critical thinking and originality and how creating belonging is a daily practice not a one-time fix. Tune in to find out how nanotechnology is helping address world problems and how students are at the forefront of these super exciting engineering solutions.



[00:00:02] Antonio Farias: Welcome to the last episode of season five of Level Up podcast, where we explore how students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida create presence and belonging. I'm your host, Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida. This is also the last episode as I’ll be departing the university and heading west to continue my journey.

Welcome to another episode of Level Up on presence and belonging. Today we are fortunate to have Dr. Wolfgang Sigmund, who is a professor in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering in material science and engineering. He is the former chair of the presidential LGBTQ+ advisory committee and received his PhD from a Johann Gutenberg University in Mainz Germany, His research interests befuddle me as a humanist, but they are wildly exciting, semiconductor oxides, energy harvesting, nanostructures, and nanoparticles that all sort of fuels my sci-fi inner soul. Welcome to the podcast. Dr. Sigmund, how are you?

[00:00:58] Dr. Wolfgang Sigmund: Yes, I'm doing well.

[00:00:59] Antonio: We always start the podcast by asking the question. What is your story of belonging?

[00:01:06] Dr. Wolfgang: Yes, thanks for asking the question. That triggers, of course, a lot of thoughts, because belonging, that's a big desire for any human being. You want to belong; we are social people, and we need others, we want to belong. Of course, then, for me, as you already mentioned, I am active in LGBT communities, I'm gay myself. It actually started really, really early, when you're about, I would say, maybe two years old, three years old, you start to feel that you are a little different. Of course, this happens to many people that they're feeling different, but you feel something it's not quite as maybe the world would expect from you. With this growing up of this feeling that you might not completely belong, you start to ask yourself a lot of questions when they're young. Of course, then, as you grow up in your teenage years, and so on, you discover that actually, your parents, your teachers can't give you the answers, so you have to start critical thinking yourself, and then you come to this, "Okay, what is the meaning of belonging?" That you're actually part of a group, and that you can have friends and enjoy this.

Just, especially nowadays, with the pandemic, we see how important it’s to have human connections, to be with other people. This was early on in my life, triggered this thinking about what it's like to belong. Of course, it also means being gay, you felt that other people that told you that you don't belong, that they tried to push you out, and so you had to learn early on how to do things that you are capable of, staying within a group or belonging to the group. That is actually also really valuable in life because anytime you go somewhere, again, you have to prove that you belong. People are welcoming, but still, you want to be really a part of everything, for that, it's really good when you early on in your life, learn how to interact with other people, so you, yourself, start to feel like you belong to that group.

[00:03:24] Antonio: That's fantastic. Interesting, you mentioned early identity development and critical thinking, and value add, lots of things that you just covered. We talk about diversity, equity, inclusion, and difference bringing more to the table and creating more innovation. Can you say a little bit more about it, because especially this sense of what you bring, with all that difference to the table, you bring a different mindset, right? Because that's really what we're trying to get to, in terms of bringing diverse populations together, is to create a level of innovation, but that innovation won't be there unless people are actually welcoming in a way, because this belonging is a two-way street, It's not just subjective, but you also feel it in a very visceral way in the environment. You work and you play it, right?

[00:04:12] Dr. Wolfgang: Correct. That's absolutely right. I could say, I am now at the university, I was lucky in my life that I was able to move to a university professor position. Then this was actually triggered early on in my life because I was forced to do critical thinking. Many students learn this in school, but if your life is really nice, the environment is fitting you, you're not as challenged.

Having these challenges early on, really made me question a lot of things. You had to question what your parents told you, what your church told you, or the teachers told you. Of course, a lot of things they said are absolutely right, but then there's certain things where they just themselves didn't think deep enough. I grew up, of course, in the '60s and '70s, in Germany, where they may not have had the knowledge yet. You were required yourself to think, and that helped me a lot of time. Of course in the school, because with critical thinking, you can actually dig deeper into understanding than other students, so you get actually better grades, which then allow you later on to succeed, go to university, so it's a key thing in life.

As you mentioned, it's important later on in life that you're welcome and being invited to the table. If I were unlucky, which happens to a lot of people, they don't get to come to university, and as a professor, or research faculty, they don't even get the chance. Then when you hear, when you can be part of the community, the way of thinking that you bring along is so different, because every time I think about something, I build it actually up from logical building blocks, it's not just pulling a memory from something, it's really putting things together, and that brings, of course, many times a different solutions or different questions than other people.

[00:06:17] Antonio: That’s it, right? It's the different questions and a different sort of optic.

[00:06:22] Dr. Wolfgang: Correct. In this respect, I also have to say, some people or people that I meet, especially from the trans community or transgender people, they can also do the same for me, they are even more original or deeper questions that they have. They also think very different. That's exactly when I feel like, "Wow, there are more people out there diverse and have different types of thinking," and that's a beautiful thing. That's actually the wonderful thing at the university. I especially, need to point out, there are other experiences, people come from other countries, they grew up in different societies, different experiences, so it doesn't have to be just sexuality or gender identity that can trigger all these things in your life that you need to be more critical thinking and more independent.

[00:07:17] Antonio: Right. Well, yes. That's the point, right? It's like how do we subvert this, us versus them, in-group out-group mentality? I'm curious about your experience, because A, you're an international scholar, but you grew up in both in Europe, in Germany, we were just discussing before we started off the beautiful background picture, and you were mentioning that it was during your travels to Seoul. Within the international construct of the academy, do you find that it fosters a better sense of belonging, as opposed to general society, or is it just simply a reflection of society, where we're patting ourselves too much on the back in thinking that the academy actually is a safer space for bringing up differences?

[00:08:03] Dr. Wolfgang: Well [chuckles] that is really difficult to decide because society is not homogenous, neither is the academy. If you look at the state of Florida, of course, Alachua County, when you just look at the map of how people vote, or the direction people think Alachua County looks very different than the neighboring counties. Then, of course, the academic community is really a key contributor for Alachua County. Yes, in this respect, you can just simply say, Florida and North Florida, where academic community is much better, more welcoming, I completely agree.

If you now go out in the world, that can be very different. There are institutions, of course, now International, that do not welcome LGBT faculty. It's really, a very difficult thing to push everything together on these two simple things. Overall, let's say, at the University of Florida, and typical of US academic institutions, we've built, and I think we can be proud of that. We've built a nice environment that is more diverse, more welcoming.

At the same time, I've been many years in this area, also looking into diversity and belonging and doing inclusion work, and there's still a lot of work to be done. It's pretty much a never-ending process, where you have to continue to work. So we can pat us a little bit on the back, but at the same time, there's so much to be done. That's why we have the CDO in the University of Florida but we need to actually almost two or three for this huge university, to really do all the things that are needed to be made better basically for everyone.

[00:10:03] Antonio: I incredibly appreciate your perspective because you're absolutely right. It isn't just a finish line, we don't just get there, it's a process of continuous introspection, continuous improvement. You mentioned earlier even about the transgender community. We're always challenged wherever we are, however identities feel marginalized or not, that there's always others that are even more marginalized. If we're not willing to always look back and around and have an awareness of who is in need then we're going to be also part of that problem that needs to be helped along.

One of the things that we ask is that what excites you about the work you do? Again, as a humanist, I'm incredibly impressed by anything that says nano. That's my William Gibson sci-fi world of the humanities that I fall in. You do a lot more than just science, but tell me about both the science and the rest of the work that you do here at UF and maybe in the broader community that really excites you?

[00:11:13] Dr. Wolfgang: The cool thing about engineering we teach the students and ourselves we learn how to define a problem and to solve a problem . Of course, now with global warming, with the pandemic, there are a lot of engineering problems out there. I focus actually on key topics that allow us to, for example, increase energy efficiency. I had projects before where we worked on solar cells, improving those.

I have a lot of projects on environmental remediation. Basically cleaning up the environment from pollutants that are out there. There are things from society that drive the research. Of course, what we do there from the fundamental part is then as you mentioned nanomaterials and why do we do nano? Because when you go from the bulk, from the big items down to the nano range, suddenly you can get quantum effects. In addition, also you get really large surface area while you use a little bit of material.

I can tell him a little bit funny story there, where industry in Germany didn't realize what it means when you go to nano. Nano isn't too new, it was already in the 1990s in Germany. I did my PhD work there in Mainz, as you mentioned at the Max Planck Institute. We created nano layers, a single molecule or layer on the surface of water, and you can assemble these and build structures, super efficient structures, really well done. Of course, industry and the German government sponsored it for millions of dollars at many places, not just in Mainz.

Then the industry at one time asked, so really cool what you did, how many tons can we sell per year? Because they need to recoup the dollars they put in. Then we said, "We do it so efficient, probably you can sell one kilogram per year to cover the money. With that the industry is like, "Not for us. We want to sell way way past." They want to sell mega tons in order to make money.

[00:13:27] Antonio: That's the difference between the research that happens in your labs that eventually leads to efficiencies in the market, but the market wants to get there yesterday, doesn't it?

[00:13:38] Dr. Wolfgang: Yes, correct. That's the beauty that when you go to small dimensions, you can do so many things. The other part is that you can now allow every human being, even when we are hitting 10 billion people on this planet, every human being can have it because it's so energy efficient, it doesn't pollute the environment anymore, we can even reverse global warming probably with certain technologies. That's the beauty that we have engineering solutions in the making. That's so exciting to be able to work on this.

The other part I have to say, not just with research, it's the human interaction, it's the social aspect of the university. Young students come in and they, of course they have their entire lives ahead of them, and they will be able to see all these changes over the next 50 or 80 years and contribute to this. That's the exciting part, being able to guide them what nano materials can do and what could be done within the limits of the physics that exist in engineering and that they engage with it and advance everything. That's also another beautiful part about research that's super exciting, and that's what's so cool about a university because you get this young talent and you can interact with them. This is so very different if you go to the industry, usually you have not as many young minds and especially industry, they want them after they graduate. We get them earlier at the, let's say, more exciting stages like diamonds in the rough. That's an exciting part of it.

[00:15:17] Antonio: Focusing a little bit on the students then, what's your sense of the engineering field from when you were a young scholar and where the field of engineering is right now in terms of scholarship, in terms of engagement in the classroom, in the laboratory, now as populations have become more demographically diverse? We have more women, more under represented minorities, more people that are going and showing an interest in STEM and particularly in engineering, do you feel like some of those barriers, earlier barriers are falling and how do you see that happening here at UF?

[00:15:58] Dr. Wolfgang: Well, barriers start to fall, but they are not falling quickly. There's still the general barriers out there, there's systemic racism, women typically due to pregnancies might get disadvantaged, so that while they study and they get their PhD they might not get the job later on. There are barriers that are falling, but there's work to be done to make it more equitable for all the minorities that are coming in. We are lucky at UF that we are able to attract so many women and actually this is a part I can really highly applaud our Dean, a woman, Dr. Abernathy She did a fantastic job with ascending us in the nation and pushing a lot that we actually got women faculty and now we get a lot of women students and that's awesome.

The diversity still can be improved so much for minority students especially, and we're doing well, but I think not well enough that there needs to be more done. We need scholarships for these students and so on to help out more.

[00:17:14] Antonio: I completely agree with you. It's very much so an unfinished product and project. What would you say is one actionable thing that you would recommend to people and maybe to your fellow colleagues that they can do to create a sense of belonging at UF, whether it's in a classroom or in the laboratory or just generally in the academy?

[00:17:37] Dr. Wolfgang: They're usually so so many that can be done. The one thing is of course communication. Communication is key. I guess maybe that's also belonging. It's not enough if we have one day in a class where we talk about diversity and tell everyone,"Yes, you belong." It's actually a daily thing that needs to happen because we come from different areas, and while we try to be nice to each other sometimes we have to actually learn to interact with each other because we come from so much diverse backgrounds.

In order to make everyone belong, I would say constant communication with the students and with the other faculty and let them know in these conversations that you accept them how they are. Of course, sometimes maybe that's the other thing, we are a big university, there's sometimes friction. Sometimes you have to also educate a student or a faculty member, "Hey, what you just stated is actually micro-aggression or it's not the best approach if you talk to this person like that." Communication is the key thing, and keeping it up, the communication. The moment we shut it down it's not going to provide what we want, basically. That's what I mentioned earlier, the process, you cannot just do one action item and you're done. It's a continuous thing.

[00:19:10] Antonio: I love that. Yes. It can be effective communication because it's not just one way communication. Then I love the other part that you mentioned, it's an everyday thing. It can't be just today, we're celebrating one affinity month or one affinity group, and then we can go back to business as usual. It's got to be a consistent learning process. I love what you said about learning because it's not just the students, it's also the faculty that also have to learn. This is a continuous learning process. As you mentioned earlier, that we always have these spots that we can't see in our periphery and the only way to understand that is to be open to communication and to being educated. There's too much of the world that we don't know. You know that very well because you do the research on the unknown.

[00:19:58] Dr. Wolfgang: Yes, correct.

[00:20:00] Antonio: So we always close the podcast with the question of "What brings you joy?".

[00:20:05] Dr Wolfgang: In this time of pandemic with so much problems in the world that seem overwhelming it's an important question, but also I think before I answer that I want to point out, I'm a realist, so there are really problems out there and I address them personally. I know how difficult it is for many people and so that there are dangers to life, there are dangers for health of people due to the pandemic.

But then, yes, what brings me joy is that I can go outside here in Florida, I can exercise. I love going outside in the sun. I like to travel, of course pandemic means I can't travel right now, so I mainly stay in Gainesville and walk the neighborhoods, and of course enough distance with anyone who's on the streets.

What brings me joy also a lot, typically is meeting people and that's something I learned about myself. I did not expect that I depend on meeting people and seeing them in person instead of just online means so much to me. That's something I never expected, I thought just you have online contact, phone and so on would be enough but no there is some aspect of the joy of meeting people, seeing them live and interacting with them, let's say, closely and without mask. Of course we need masks right now, we need them.

[00:21:38] Antonio: We do.

[00:21:39] Dr Wolfgang: That's the part I have a lot of joy at, I didn't realize it. Then the other part, I recently got a dog because it's really hard times for our mental health and so I got a dog and the dog brings me constant joy, walking the dog, running with the dog. You know, animal friends are really fantastic. So this is pretty much the things that bring me joy besides also teaching and doing research.

[00:22:11] Antonio: Very much so. That's beautifully said Wolfgang. The dogs, I think we have a lot to learn from dogs in terms of forgiveness and also what matters in life. Great sort of a picture you painted for us. I absolutely agree with the sense of, we have to do all the things that we need to do in terms of being safe and keeping our communities safe, but like you I also hunger for a different level of human contact, just the handshake, just the hug and those kind of things. We have to put them on hold right now but its still there, that urge that you mentioned about being more in contact and being in the world, and the 2D world of Zoom just doesn't cut it, but for now it does. We have to delay until we get there. So thank you Wolfgang. Thank you Dr. Wolfgang Sigmund, professor Materials Science and Engineering in our phenomenal college of Engineering here. It's been a pleasure.

I want to close just by saying also thank you very personally to you because when I first came to UF about two and a half years ago you were one of the first people I met and you gave me such a warm welcome and a real sense of deep belief that given the work that you were doing on the presidential committee, that we were actually on the right path. So thank you for the work you've been doing here at UF.

[00:23:36] Dr Wolfgang: Thank you very much too. It was wonderful to have you interview me.

[00:23:40] Antonio: Thanks for being with us for 5 seasons and 76 episodes. I’ve learned so much from our amazing guests and the phenomenal people that make up the University of Florida. This podcast journey would not have been possible without my amazing colleague Brigit Dermott who has served as produced, technical maven and all around creative partner. The podcast started with a borrowed podcast kit from Marston Library—thank you so much—and a fundamental question, what does it mean to belong? And as I depart, I ask you to continue to let the question tumble around in your head and in your heart. So that you give more than you get; call people into conversations that are not always comfortable but always necessary. And most of all welcome those for whom a University of Florida education or position is a life-changing opportunity. May you find peace and grace on your journey. Gator CDO out.

[00:24:06] [END OF AUDIO]

29:30 Minutes
Podcast Guest Image

Episode 075: Robert Thomas

In this episode, Antonio speaks with Dr. Robert Thomas, Associate Professor of Business Law and Technology and Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion at UF's Warrington College of Business. Robert talks about the exciting changes taking place at Warrington and invites UF undergraduates to consider the opportunities "that are hard to pass up." He also shares that creating belonging is the responsibility of everyone in a community and it starts with taking the time to really listen.



[00:00:01] Antonio Farias: Welcome to season five of Level Up a podcast where we explore how students, faculty and staff at the University of Florida create presence and belonging. I’m your host and Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida.

Welcome to another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. Today I’m super excited to have Dr. Robert Thomas, who is the Associate Professor of Business Law and Technology and Huber Hurst Fellow in the Warrington College of Business Management. He is also the Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion and a campus diversity liaison.

Dr. Thomas is an expert in intellectual property technology law and negotiation. He hails from many intellectual powerhouses such as the University of Michigan, Princeton, and that school out west, Stanford, I think it’s called. Welcome to the podcast, Robert. We always start the podcast with a question which is, what is your story of belonging?

[00:01:00] Dr. Robert Thomas: Thank you for having me here. I always like to have a definition before, so I think of belonging as a feeling of being connected to a community, of being well received. When I think about belonging, sometimes it makes sense to talk about instances when-- I guess, it’s talking about both when I felt a strong sense of belonging and when I did not feel such a sense of belonging.

One thing about belonging is it’s ephemeral, it changes over time, it’s something that comes and goes. It’s something that needs to be worked at. Coming from a single parent household, I grew up in roughly a college town suburb of Chicago, Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago.

I had three siblings, so there are four of us total with just one mother. We lived in Evanston my entire youth, but we ended up moving around the town quite a bit. I ended up going to multiple elementary schools. In some respects, that corresponds to some of the military families, except it was a single parent household. I rarely felt a strong connectedness to any particular community. There were few opportunities to develop lifelong friends.

Most of the friends that I still have come from high school, few from middle school, but mostly from high school, because there was only one high school in the town. Thinking about that connectedness sense of that lack of connectedness. Like I said, only one high school in town, and there was a large Black community, but it was at the schoolhouse door is where we separated because I was in honors and AP courses. Most of the people that I lived around were taking non-AP courses.

There was a connectedness when I was in, say, sports, I was pretty uncoordinated. The one thing I could do was run in a straight line for pretty long distances. I did pretty well in track and cross country. There was a sense of belonging there. Then after I graduated high school, I went to Princeton, because I heard it was a good school. [crosstalk]

[00:04:14] Antonio: I’ve heard that, too.

[00:04:16] Robert: Yes. Really, one of my strongest mentors, was my physics teacher. We have a program called ChemPhys. It was combined chemistry and physics curriculum, started sophomore year, through senior year in high school. It led to taking both chemistry and physics AP courses.

My physics teacher, Mr. Horton was a gentleman. I was the only Black student in the class, not surprising. He took an interest in me and he got me a scholarship to go to a summer science program at the University of Iowa. When I was looking for a college, he was pretty high on Princeton. He said something like, “It’s not as snooty as the other school on the East Coast.”

[00:05:18] Antonio: [laughs]

[00:05:18] Robert: [laughs] I listened to him. I have since forgiven him for that bit of advice.

[00:05:27] Antonio: [laughs]

[00:05:30] Robert: Again, like I said, they had a good track programs and I had an uncle who was an elementary school principal in Newark. I said, “I have family nearby, it’s a good school, it has a good track program. Yes, why not?” I went to Princeton, and never got a feeling of really being connected in there. It was seven years, no, let’s see, I went to Princeton in ’76 so it was about four or five years after the school intentionally became integrated.

As you might imagine, there were quite a few people who were not thrilled at the thought of their precious school accepting people of color. You never really felt part of it. As a result, I try my best to get out of there as quickly as possible. I had enough Advanced Placement to graduate in three years. I went on to law school with the other coast, I went to Stanford, which I heard was a pretty good school as well.

[00:06:53] Antonio: You went to that other school that supposedly isn’t snooty, right?

[00:06:59] Robert: [laughs] After Princeton, it actually felt pretty like a breath of fresh air. I kid you not.

[00:07:13] Antonio: I’m joking, too, because Stanford’s great, but I’m a Berkeley alum. As you can tell, I have a bone to pick with our colleagues across the water .

[00:07:24] Robert: I took that comment seriously, because there was a gentleman there who worked in administration by the name of Michael Jackson, and, not related to the singer. I don’t know if he could sing at all.

[00:07:40] Antonio: [laughs]

[00:07:41] Robert: He actually went on to be Dean of Student Affairs at USC, which is where my twin daughters went, Southern Cal. When I talked to him, and we’re looking for schools, he really had a bad image of Stanford. This was 20 years after we were there. He said, “Stanford was okay back in the day, but it’s really gotten arrogant and snooty, and the students are awful.” He might have just been trying to sell USC at that point, but he really had given me the impression that things had changed.

[00:08:21] Antonio: I can tell you as a dad, who went through the college search two years ago. We stopped by the Bay Area with our daughter, because she was obsessed with California schools. Two minutes into the-- Even the way that Stanford ran its admissions like its tour, we got just this sense of vomit in our mouth about the process.

[00:08:45] Robert: [laughs] Yes, I think Stanford has really embraced that Harvard, of the West Coast attitude, which is unfortunate, because there was a certain esprit de corps there that was distinctive. It was an excellence without having all the garbage trap, too. It’s lost a bit of that.

The one story that I take away, that I want to share about Stanford, I was conversing with my crim-law professor at a social event, John Kaplan, who was a wonderful man, he was Jewish. He asked me about my background and I told him, “I went to Princeton.” I told him that I didn’t like it there, and I was just happy to get out of there. He said, “I have a friend who does a great imitation of John Kaplan.”

I’m not going to screw that up. He basically asked me, “Did you get what you needed out of Princeton?” I thought, I reflected for a moment, I said, “Yes, I absolutely did.” From a Jewish person who-- basically, the essence of practical. Basically, no-nonsense, it’s just like, “Yes, life's rough out there. Things are difficult and it’s great if you get accepted, but if you can achieve your goal, then you work through whatever obstacles get put in your way, in your path.” That was one thing that stuck with me.

One more thing on belonging, I like to think back on the time when I actually felt the greatest sense of belonging. That was when I was on sabbatical back in ‘02, ‘03. I went to the south of France to a town called Aix-en-Provence. They had a nice business school there. I was in residence there for six months. My God, the French people just opened up their arms and embrace me.

My French, I had taken three semesters of French at UF in preparation for going. My French was pretty rough, but nonetheless, these people, embraced me, they invited me into their homes. They tried to help me get situated and it was like, “Whoa, this is what community truly is all about.”

[00:11:28] Antonio: That’s super interesting. Thank you. That was incredibly rich journey you took us through. I love the way you framed it. The way you started with like, “Belonging is something that you need to be working on consistently.” Then framing that with that advice you got from the dean at Stanford. Asking you the question, “Did you get what you needed?”

Many times, now, that’s struggle, particularly, for our students of color and underrepresented groups at predominantly white institutions is this question, this notion that “We want to feel like you’re not just a guest but you actually own the institution.” At the same time, the practicality of like, “Did you get what you needed out of the organization so you can continue your journey?” This is not the end of your journey, right?

[00:12:19] Robert: Absolutely.

[00:12:22] Antonio: I love your move to France there for sabbatical. Was that your James Baldwin moment of getting yourself out of the US loop?

[00:12:31] Robert: [chuckles] Yes. I did feel something of being an ex-Pat. I wasn’t in Paris by any moon and there were quite a few African-Americans who had made that journey to France. I don’t know how many had made to the south of France. I know that the singer Tina Turner is now living in the south of France, beautiful.

France is a gorgeous country, no matter what part, y ou’re in, the history, just the feeling of “This is us. This is France.” Now, one thing I want to say about France is that’s not a universal feeling, they have their motto, the equality, fraternity and liberty. I love the way they say it in France, and I’m not going to butcher that.

Now, but as a result, they try to be colorblind. They try to be race-blind. I know for a fact there’s a lot of racism. I realized that I was accepted as I was primarily because I was a foreign dignitary, so to speak. In that people of color, North Africans, Sub-Saharan Africans who reside in France do not get the same treatment. There’s incredible racism in that country. The experience I got there was not a universal experience.

[00:14:10] Antonio: That’s a common story. Even when it translates down to the US, it’s similar in terms of like Black Caribbean citizens that come through the US and particularly through the south vice versa African-Americans that have been here for generations. The sense of like, “You’re somehow different and we’re going to treat you different because you’re not part of what we understand as Black here in this country or in this part of the country.”

[00:14:36] Robert: That’s right. I think the distinction may have been greater in France. I do see some of my Caribbean friends, colleagues as sometimes being, in a sense, when they get the treatment that is the norm for African-Americans in this country, they get somewhat shocked that they’re not recognized as being different. You can almost call that a coming to Jesus moment.

[00:15:08] Antonio: Yes. It’s the insanity of this crazy loop that we’re in and with this construction of race and how we devalue human beings. Now how we try to make sense of something that is literally insane in this country and in the world, as you’ve pointed out. This isn’t just something that happens in the US, every country has its own flavor of this.

[00:15:29] Robert: Definitely.

[00:15:30] Antonio: Let me switch gears to talk about, you do a lot here and at UF as a faculty member, as an administrator, but what excites you about the work you do? Again, you’re in a classroom, you’re an administrator, you’re also a campus diversity liaison. You do your scholarship, your research, but what really excites you about the work you’re doing now?

[00:15:54] Robert: I’m really excited about the idea of work that we are doing in the Warrington College. I don’t think it’s a criticism of the previous administration. It wasn’t a priority with them, but today we have a new dean who started the summer. A wonderful time to start a new job.

[00:16:14] Antonio: Oh, yes, virtually.

[00:16:16] Robert: Yes. He is very committed to moving the college forward in many ways. When I took the position of Assistant Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, one of the things that I learned is that Warrington College is not seen as a very welcoming place to people of color. It’s dominated by Greeks. There’s a lot of organizations are ...

They seem to have something of an inbreeding in that the people who are in leadership positions they bring on people who are part of their organizations that belong to their cliques, their communities, and also for people of color, especially people who are say, students who are first-generation college. It is a very difficult, tough environment to navigate. We’re working to change that.

I’m actually pretty excited about opening up the Warrington College and making it more exclusive, making it more welcoming. Because interesting story is when I graduated from Princeton, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, I guess, my senior year, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I knew that I didn’t want to go to business school, anything but business. I ended up getting my PhD at Stanford Business and it was really eye-opening. Because I found that the Stanford Business School was a far more open and embracing, nurturing, and community-oriented program than the law school.

The law school, that was an age where alternative dispute resolution was just getting off the ground. We were looking at mediated and negotiated settlements, but it’s still the adversarial framework culture that permeates so many law schools was still there. The business school was a whole different animal.

I see business, especially in the State, it offers so many opportunities. We have employers who’d come here, who are looking for students of color. There are a lot of students around the university who maybe are not well-directed, who would find that they would really excel and they would really enjoy what the Warrington school has, Warrington College has to offer. I’m really excited. I’m working with Alex Sevilla who’s the Director of our undergraduate school and program and with the Dean Saby, new dean of the school. We have a multi-front attack. We want to really enhance our PhD program, get more students of color.

One thing we’d like to do is, I won’t use the term raid the engineering program, but maybe engineering graduates, again, who are not certain about what direction they want to go and might consider a PhD in business. Other students, undergraduates take a look at business as a possible major because in this day and age, it’s the opportunities that are there, the summer internships that are available. It’s hard to pass up if you have the chance.

[00:20:23] Antonio: I’d love your approach, which is let’s not pass up on the powerful talent that we have here in terms of our diverse students, undergraduate populations, and let’s really take them in and develop them to the next level, whether it’s the MBA or the PhD or the MDs. I know the schools down at the health science colleges are actually looking conceptually and very pragmatically of like, “Why do we not really engage our undergrads in all the schools and all the colleges here and bring them into the fold.” As opposed to just letting all that talent to go to Stanford and to Princeton, and to Michigan.

[00:21:04] Robert: Absolutely.

[00:21:05] Antonio: Thinking about that question about what you’re doing right now around D,E, and I, and re-conceptualizing it with the new leadership team there. Can you offer a one actionable thing that people can do to create a sense of belonging here at UF?

I love that again, going back to the framework that you gave us, did you get what you needed, which is the bare minimum. How do you create this consistent hard work of actually creating belonging on a consistent basis? What is one actionable thing that people can start doing now, today, as opposed to waiting for superman to come in and fix the problems, which never happens? We have to fix our problems ourselves at different levels of the organization.

[00:21:52] Robert: That’s a wonderful question. First, you don’t rely on leadership to tell you what to do. Every member of the community needs to take action. The simplest, most effective thing is to be willing to, it may be the hardest thing, spend some time and listen to each other.

If somebody has a problem that they want to be heard or if they just want to talk or if they want to ask a question, they want to feel you out, sit down and take the time and listen. Reach out to people and say, “Hey, I’m a part of CAP, which is one of the student organizations in the Heavener School , would you be interested in finding out what it takes to become a CAP member? Would you like to learn more about the opportunity? I had an internship with Morgan Stanley last summer, would you like to know what they’re looking for?”

Just take the time, reach out, embrace other people around you. It can be daunting. I grew up, I was a very shy, introverted person and talking to strangers was one of the hardest things, but reaching out to each other spending time, that was one of the things that happened to me in France is people reached out. They invited me into their homes. We had these three- and four-hour dinners and we just talk, chat and got to know each other. Listening and getting to know each other is probably the most effective thing that each of us can do right now.

[00:23:46] Antonio: I’d love that message, Robert, particularly the way you framed it about, it’s like, waiting for leadership to give you the answer is the wrong solution. Leadership has a responsibility, but it’s not only their responsibility. We have to allow agency to flow and to flourish in our students in our staff and our faculty. You’re right, it seems like it’s a, duh, answer. It’s like, “Listen and be heard,” but it’s so incredibly powerful and yet we don’t do it really well. Do we?

[00:24:18] Robert: No, we don’t. Two of the people that I’ve come across in my life were so good at that and is part of the reason they’re so well loved. One of them is obviously, Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton could listen to you and you were the only thing that mattered in the world. He gave you that impression.

There was a person who was on the track team at Princeton, Craig Masback, who went on the head to be the president of the American track and field association, and he could do the same thing. I was a freshman when he was a senior and he would stop and look at me and talk. I was the only thing that mattered in this world at that moment. It’s got to be sincere. If you’re going to listen to the people, if you’re going to reach out, you really have to be sincere about really wanting to hear them.

[00:25:19] Antonio: That’s it. It’s that emotional quotient that the business world does seem to understand. It’s not just about being really proficient i n your subject matter expertise, you also have the emotional intelligence in order to drive change and really drive teams to excellence.

[00:25:38] Robert: Absolutely.

[00:25:40] Antonio: Let me end this with the last question that we always end the podcast with, which is, what brings you joy?

[00:25:48] Robert: A lot of things too. My wife complaints that I have too many interests too many hobbies , and not enough of them include her, but if she would be willing to get on the bicycle and ride 20 miles with me, we could really get something going together.

[00:26:05] Antonio: Oh, wow, you’re a road warrior.

[00:26:07] Robert: [laughs] I wouldn’t actually call myself a road warrior. I was a distance runner, that was one of the ways I defined myself for years. Then my joints gave out on me and I had to give that up. Yes, I got on the roads and I try to ride, I don’t know, a 12 to 20 miles, three or four times a week. I’m not sure if that qualifies me as a road warrior, but my real passion is photography. I’ve had this ambivalent relationship with photography since college.

I picked it up after the kids finished high school and we’re gone again. I really enjoy photography. Lately last couple of years, I’ve got into birding and I’ll go out to Sweetwater, just spend an hour or two or three out there taking photographs of birds and just generally birdwatching.

[00:27:15] Antonio: That’s incredibly relaxing. More power to you, Robert, not just on the artistic side with your photography and nature. That’s really powerful for us to get out there and to be seen out there, and to really claim that as our space, because it does bring a level of just the calm, to be quite frank, to our souls.

[00:27:37] Robert: It does. When you get out there and you see something like a snail kite, which is a somewhat endangered predator, they have a very specific diet. They only eat snails, a special type of snail, large snails and you see these beautiful birds just soaring and just gliding in the air. It is a magical experience.

[00:28:08] Antonio: Continue doing that. It’s something that I need to do more of. Usually, I do the brute force version of it, which is just go hiking and barrel through nature or through the water. I’m going to take this as a cue t o maybe slow down. I have a pair of binoculars that I haven’t used in the wild. Maybe I will do something like that, it’s just go out and do a little bit of birding.

[00:28:33] Robert: All right. Give me a call and we can make a date of it.

[00:28:38] Antonio: That sounds good. I’ll take you up on that. Thank you, Dr. Robert Thomas, Associate Professor of Business Law and Technology in the Warrington School of Business and also Assistant Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and a phenomenal campus diversity liaison and a colleague. It’s been a pleasure to have you on the podcast today.

[00:29:00] Robert: Thank you for having me.


[00:29:05] Antonio: Thanks for joining me, Antonio Farias, for another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. If you enjoyed this episode, please like the track and share on social media. We welcome your comments and suggestions for future programs. You can find more episodes of Level Up and contact information for the office of the Chief Diversity Officer


[00:29:31] [END OF AUDIO]

21:29 Minutes
Podcast Guest Image

Episode 074: Jennifer Setlow

New episode available February 23!

In this episode Antonio talks with Jennifer Setlow, Associate Dean for Academic and Student Affairs with the College of the Arts. Jen shares how being outside the norm can provide a unique perspective that leads to innovation and change. Jen’s background as a lighting designer informs her work as someone who helps others find the stage for their talents and shines a light on their achievements.



[00:00:01] Antonio Farias: Welcome to season five of Level Up, a podcast where explore how students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida create presence and belonging. I'm your host Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida. Welcome to another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. Today, we are super lucky to have Jennifer Setlow who joined the College of the Arts as Associate Dean for Academic and Student Affairs back in July of 2017.

She is responsible for overseeing curriculum, advising, and student services for the college, and guiding the work with the New World School of the Arts in Miami, and assisting with the tenure and promotion process. Jen comes to us from her previous position at Arizona State University where she was also the associate dean for students and has an incredible background in lighting design at really storied playhouses like the La Jolla Playhouse, the Old Globe in Berkeley, lots of amazing places. We hope to get maybe a little bit into that and into lighting design or what really fuels her. Again, welcome, Jen, to the podcast.

[00:01:11] Jennifer Setlow: Thank you.

[00:01:12] Antonio: We always start the podcast by asking the question, what is your story of belonging?

[00:01:17] Jennifer: This is such an interesting one because I don't really know that I have a story of belonging. I probably have a lot of stories of belonging. It's funny, I joke with my fellow associate dean in the college that we're probably the only two associate deans at the University of Florida who've both been janitors. My career, it's been through a lot of elevations or evolutions. I think that at each stage along the way, I've had a different story of belonging. I come from a family of a lot of scientists, a lot of scientists. My mom, my dad, my brother, my sister-in-law, three out of my four grandparents. We have a lot of scientists.

[00:02:04] Antonio: That's significant.

[00:02:05] Jennifer: Yes.

[00:02:08] Antonio: You're the rebel then?

[00:02:11] Jennifer: Yes and no. We throw one every generation. I have an aunt who's a really fantastic professional violinist in Connecticut. Everybody in my family has always been really involved in the arts, whether through music or theater or writing or visual art, but there haven't been very many of us who've sought a career in the arts. Everybody was always terrifically supportive but it's a little bit like when you're a duck and you're trying to raise a chicken, you're like, "What do you mean you don't go in the water? I don't understand."

I think along the way for me, each step has been about figuring out how do I fit into these different communities that I've become a part of, but also because of my unique set of skills and my unique background, and my unique set of circumstances, what do I bring that actually benefits that community in a really particular way?

When you ask that question, I think about my grandmother, Jane. She was a pretty world-changing lady. She graduated from college at 20, had four kids, and then decided to go back and get her PhD in biophysics from Yale when she had four children under the age of 10, which she successfully did, and then went on to have a very, very long, and very successful career in science.

She would always tell a story that's become something of a family joke at this point. That she had just become the president of the biophysical society, which was a really big deal. There were no other women officers at this point. It was her very first time running a meeting and she was terrified. She was like, "Oh my gosh, what am I going to do? How am I going to run this thing? No one's going to listen to me."

The meeting got started and the refreshments did not show up. They finally showed up late and there were almost none of them. Everybody else in the room immediately began to fight over the snacks. She, "Wait a minute, I've got this. I raised four holy terror children." She stood up. She slammed her hands down on the table and she said, "Sit down, shut up, and I will divide the buns."


They did. This room full of distinguished scientists all sat down and shut up and waited for her to divide the snacks. She carried on with the meeting because it had no further problems.

[00:04:40] Antonio: The snacks? [laughs]

[00:04:42] Jennifer: Yes. It's a very funny story, of course. It illustrates perfectly my grandmother's personality, but it also speaks to what did she bring to the room because she was a parent, because she had done something that was very much outside of the norm. What was that specialties that she brought? For me, it's been figuring out-- I started my career as a lighting designer. I started college and this is what I did. What did I bring to that particular table, and wow did I fit in not in spite of being someone who didn't come from an arts background, but because I was someone who didn't come from an arts background? What was that fresh perspective?

I think that really brought me to work with a lot of the directors that I ended up working with and being very successful with because they really valued someone who looked at the work with outside eyes. Similarly, going into academia, especially in academic administration, people are like, "Oh, you have a background in lighting design. That's so interesting." I'm like, "It makes perfect sense. That's what a lighting designer does. We sit in the back in the dark with a headset on, and we make sure that people know what part of the story is important. We make sure that the production actually functions."

That's really how I fit into each of these adaptations of my career has been through bringing with me whatever it is that makes me unique in that position.

[00:06:18] Antonio: Thank you. That's incredibly powerful, especially the story about your grandmother and your own. The sense that we are more than whatever the resume says we are and that we're not so specialized that we forget that we're an accumulation of experiences and understandings about how to deal with the complexity of human beings which are incredibly irrational, especially in higher education.

[00:06:43] Jennifer: Right, exactly. I think that I am a better academic administrator because of the things that I've done in my life. I've had a lot of really unique jobs. I've made costumes for Sesame Street Live! and costumes for The Lion King. As I said, I've been a janitor. I've worked in all kinds of crazy places dealing with all kinds of really complicated and often very difficult personalities. People talk about, "Oh, isn't it difficult to do all these things with faculty?" I say, well, first of all, our faculty are incredible, and I'm lucky to be able to work with them. Second of all, trust me, they have nothing on directors or performers who are expecting to be treated in a very, very particular way, sometimes completely irrationally. The things our faculty want and need are rational and sensible.

[00:07:35] Antonio: Right. Speaking about rational and sensible, and now that I understand that you did costume design for Sesame Street, are you aware that the--?

[00:07:44] Jennifer: Not costume design, costume technology, it's very different.

[00:07:47] Antonio: Oh, it is? Okay.

[00:07:48] Jennifer: I just made them.

[00:07:50] Antonio: You made the costumes?

[00:07:52] Jennifer: For Sesame Street Live! Yes.

[00:07:54] Antonio: Wow. Do you know that Provost Glover has a muppet in his-- [crosstalk]

[00:07:59] Jennifer: I do. I have seen that.

[00:08:02] Antonio: Would you be interested in changing his wardrobe because he seems to have the same wardrobe on all the time?

[00:08:07] Jennifer: Interestingly, I could actually do that. When I worked for the company that makes those costumes, I worked at what was called the fur salon. We made the clothing and the hands and the fur bodies. When The Lion King opened on Broadway, I had had my hands inside of every single pair of hyena legs that were in that production . Random things you do when you work in the arts.

[00:08:33] Antonio: I love it. [chuckles] Speaking of which, in terms of what you do, what excites you about what you do? You're an academic administrator, which doesn't sound incredibly exciting just on the off-hand but you do so much more, and people don't understand what that means. What does it mean to be you and the work that you're doing, which is incredibly dynamic? It's not just the associate dean-level work you're doing, but you're also a campus diversity liaison and you're also doing a lot more work. Tell us about what really excites you about the work that you do here at UF.

[00:09:04] Jennifer: I think the reason I got into academic administration, which was initially in Arizona, was because I looked and I saw that there were a lot of ways that students could be more successful, and I could help with that. That again, and I can connect this right back to my whole career in lighting design, I never wanted to be the director. I didn't want to be the playwright, I wanted to be the person that helped make sure that everything that was happening on stage was as successful as possible, that enabled the storytelling. That, honestly, is still what I do now and what excites me about what I do now.

I get to help our faculty through the tenure and promotion process and help with things that probably sound really unexciting to other people but making sure that people are overhauling their criteria for tenure and promotion, which, again, a lot of people who will be listening to this right now are like, "Wow, she's really boring. That sounds terrible," but if you think about it, those criteria are what allows people to be successful in a system that was frankly designed for a lot of people, particularly nonwhite or non-male people to not be successful.

If I can help make a dent in how people can move through that system and change it and open up the doors. That's huge for me and that's what's really fun and similarly, how can I help work with our faculty and support their efforts to change curriculum in a way that will educate students to be the next generation not of just people who go out and make pretty things.

A lot of people think about the arts and like, "Oh, that's nice, you make plays, you make music, you make pretty decorative things." Artists are the people who make sure that stories get told. We have so much ability to change the world and artists are the people that convinced everyone that it's a good idea or that they might want to go along with it.

If I can help make sure that every student who wants to come to UF and have the opportunity to tell their story in whatever way, in whatever art form they choose, or through their scholarship, that again is fantastically important. Because I think especially the arts for a really long time have done a really good job of not being accessible to a lot of people.

Whether, because they don't have the money for it, or they don't live in a community where they have access to early education in the arts until they can't get through the door, or whatever that reason it is, we might lose all of those stories. All of those stories are incredibly important to how we evolve as a nation and as a world and as a society. That's exciting to me is really enabling other people's success.

[00:12:08] Antonio: Y our lighting design background certainly shows up here. Because that is what you're doing. You're lighting the way for what is, by all accounts, an invisible playbook and in many ways, similar to science. It's like, how do you get through this process? How do you get through a process where you don't have somebody to guide you because they're not in your family or not your friends or not in your socioeconomic class. What you're doing is you're lighting the pathway so that they can excel on all sides, which is incredible. It would be one job just to do it for the faculty, but you're doing it for the entire ecosystem at the College of the Arts.

[00:12:50] Jennifer: Yes. I guess. It's not like I don't have an awful lot of people helping. I'm really just the funnel through which a lot of it flows and I reach to both sides and say, "Hey, have we thought about this," and, "Have you considered doing that?" It's really, really fantastic to have so many incredible people to work with. Again, such brilliant faculty and students, and staff to support all of this work and to be the brains behind it.

[00:13:20] Antonio: That all eventually challenge us. This is the core issue of the arts and the sciences is to challenge us and provoke us to thinking a little bit differently than what we're doing on a status quo level. Thank you for the work you're doing there. I know particularly as a campus diversity liaison, you're doing some incredible work there in terms of really challenging what the status quo is and how we can really live up to our highest ideals when it comes to these questions of inclusion.

[00:13:45] Jennifer: Well, it's one of the most important things I think we can be doing right now, especially as a person from the kind of background that I come from. I'm a white woman from an upper-middle-class, very well-educated family. It seems like it's my responsibility to open that door and give that same privilege to as many people as I possibly can. It's a lot of fun.

[00:14:10] Antonio: Yes, which it always is when you realize that it's not a zero-sum. That opportunity is not a limited factor. This is about giving more, you get more and that's, I think what sometimes hinders this process is this assumption that it's a zero-sum in terms of talent or in terms of opportunity.

[00:14:32] Jennifer: Right. It's not either-or it's yes and.

[00:14:35] Antonio: Yes-and. I love it. What is one actionable thing that people can do to create a sense of belonging here at UF?

[00:14:44] Jennifer: I honestly think that so much of it is the little things. If someone says that they need something, answer them. If a student has a question, write back. Direct them to resources and offer yourself as a resource. I do joke about being the funnel through which half of the things that happen in the College of the Arts flow, but that I think is probably one of the most important things that I do.

I work with all of our new faculty along with our other associate dean doing an onboarding series. At our end-of-semester check-in, one of them shared that he had been talking with colleagues who had new positions at other universities and that although several of them had more financial resources at their disposal, none of them were getting the kind of help and support and the human support that our new faculty were getting.

He said he'd far rather have what we had than what they had because he felt like he had a better opportunity to be successful because he always knew there was someone go to if he had a question or a concern or an idea, or even just a big project that he wanted to figure out who do I work with out in the world to get funding for this? He felt fully supported because we answer.

I think that we're all so overwhelmed with email. It can be hard to just answer, but sometimes even that little thing that you can do, which is to write back and say, "Hey, I don't know an answer to your question right now, but I want to make sure you know I'm working on it," so that it just doesn't go into the void.

[00:16:28] Antonio: That's it.

[00:16:30] Jennifer: Yes. Just listen and respond.

[00:16:34] Antonio: We make it a little bit more difficult than it needs to be. It is, as you say, the simple things that we forget really, honestly. I am also like you as surprised that when I respond to people, they're effusive in their thanks. I'm like, "Why are you so thankful?" It must be because they're not getting that consistently across the entire ecosphere.

[00:16:55] Jennifer: Right, and again, I'm deeply aware of how buried in email, almost everybody at the University of Florida is, but even just that one-line response that says, "I don't know, but I'm looking into it. I will get back as soon as I can," it makes a big difference.

[00:17:13] Antonio: It is, especially if we're trying to be in community, which is about the people around us, so thank you. We end the podcast with a question, which is what brings you joy?

[00:17:25] Jennifer: Coffee.

[00:17:26] Antonio: Coffee.

[00:17:27] Jennifer: Not gonna lie. Coffee brings me a lot of joy.

[00:17:32] Antonio: Is there a type of coffee? Do you have an artisanal method of pouring it, or what's the ritual?

[00:17:42] Jennifer: Well, it depends on the day. Days as I do work from home a few days a week, days when I'm home or have a little bit more time, we do a Moka Pot latte, which is like the, are you familiar with the Moka pot?

[00:17:57] Antonio: Is that the Italian stove pot?

[00:18:00] Jennifer: Yes.

[00:18:01] Antonio: Yes, yes. I've --

[00:18:01] Jennifer: They're brilliant. It's the closest thing you can get to espresso without having an espresso maker, which I don't have an espresso maker. We have a Moka Pot and it's great. I'll have a Moka Pot latte on those days and the rest of the time, I usually do a pour-over. We get our coffee beans from our great-- There's actually some fantastic local roasters in Gainesville. We found one that we really like. Honestly, I love food. I really love food. I also love coffee, but the food thing goes outwards into a love of gardening and other things. I am fascinated by finding out how good food is made and ideally figuring out how to make it in my house.

[00:18:50] Antonio: Like bread maybe?

[00:18:52] Jennifer: I do. I really love to bake. One of my goals for winter that I'm hoping to accomplish is to make croissants from scratch for the first time. I've been digging into learning how to stir fry really well and a few other things, and it's been a lot of fun. Moving from a really big city like Phoenix, which had actually a really phenomenal food scene, there's some great food to be had in Gainesville, but it's a little bit smaller place and it's a little bit more limited so I've just learned how to make things myself instead.

[00:19:26] Antonio: Yes, no. I appreciate it. I know you put me on to some grains because I started flubbing around on making my own bread and I appreciate that. My daughter just came home for the holidays and I think I baked about six loaves and I think I ate five of those loaves.

[00:19:45] Jennifer: I don't see anything wrong with that. ... baking bread is then eating the bread.

[00:19:50] Antonio: You have to eat it that's the whole point, but I was baking it just to see the wow-ness of getting my hands wet in the dough and then seeing the crust and everything else, and then I realized exactly as you said, who's going to eat all of this bread? Of course, I had to step up and do my part.

[00:20:08] Jennifer: Well, if you need some marmalade for your bread, let me know because I went on a marmalade making kick. I got a lot of citrus from people over the winter break and I have quite a lot of marmalade in my house right now.

[00:20:20] Antonio: Really? I'm going to have to hit you up on that. Maybe we can do some trades.

[00:20:24] Jennifer: That would be nice. I've been baking mostly sandwich loaves lately because my daughter's on a sandwich kick.

[00:20:31] Antonio: Excellent. Thank you, Jennifer Setlow, Associate Dean in the College of the Arts. It's incredible to talk to you on the podcast and to learn a little bit more about you, about your background, and the excellent work you're doing here. I know you call yourself a funnel, but I think more that you're a beacon in this environment and the work that we're doing towards creating a more inclusive and community of belonging here at UF. Thank you.


[00:20:59] Jennifer: Thanks, Antonio.

[00:21:03] Antonio: Thanks for joining me, Antonio Farias, for another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. If you enjoyed this episode, please like the track and share on social media. We welcome your comments and suggestions for future programs. You can find more episodes of Level Up and contact information for the Office of the Chief Diversity Officer at


[00:21:30] [END OF AUDIO]

17:54 Minutes
Podcast Guest Image

Episode 073: Twanna Hodge

In this week’s episode, Antonio talks with Twanna Hodge, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Librarian for the Smathers Libraries. Antonio and Twanna talk about how research and facts are the basis for any inclusion project, how being a lifelong learner helps create belonging for others and how educating oneself is a powerful act. Twanna shares that her core value of leaving the world a better place than she found it fuels her passion for her work.


[00:00:00] Antonio Farias: Welcome to season five of Level Up podcast where we explore how students, faculty and staff at the University of Florida create presence and belonging. I'm your host, Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida. Welcome to another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. Today we are super fortunate to have Twanna Hodge who is the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Librarian in Smathers libraries.

She is also one of the campus diversity liaisons, and we are poised to get a lot of information and really a lot of understanding of what goes on in the libraries, and the kind of work that Twanna does to help us all. Twanna was hired in 2020, that magical year that is no longer with us anymore, and prior to UF, Twanna was the academic research librarian in the SUNY system in Syracuse. Maybe she'll give us a chance to talk about Dinosaur Bar-B-Que if she actually stopped by. That's how we know if you're really part of Syracuse, is if you actually stopped by Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. Welcome to the podcast, Twanna.

[00:01:12] Twanna Hodge: Thank you. It is a pleasure to be here.

[00:01:15] Antonio: Likewise. I know we've been bouncing back and forth, lots of meetings. I know wherever I land that I see you that we're in good hands. You're newish to UF but you've had an incredible impact, which means you're getting around and people know you by your name, which means they know you by reputation and what you bring to the table. We're incredibly grateful that you left Syracuse in order to come here.

Your travels to Syracuse, or even to UF were circuitous, because you came out of the Virgin Islands, that's why you got your BA, and then and then you ended up in Washington, the University of Washington for your masters and now you're here. Maybe we'll get into a little bit of that, but what I want to get to is the start of the starting question, which is, what is your story of belonging?

[00:02:05] Twanna: Thank you, Antonio. I'm excited to be here and to be able to answer this question. In terms of my story of belonging, it starts on the Island of Saint Thomas, which is like 32 square miles. It's very, very tiny. You can't see it on a regular map, like on a Google map. You have to zoom in several times to see it. That's how small it is. For me, it was finding people who accepted me for me, with all of my different interests, with me deciding from middle school that I wanted to become a librarian, which was very unusual.

Ever since then, being able to find people who supported me, from middle school to high school, to undergrad, graduate school, even now. I have a lot of those people in my life and people that I've met at different stages who have allowed me to explore the different aspects of what makes up Twanna and to explore and aid me in becoming a librarian. For me, I've been in the profession for what, five and a half years now, and it's been unusual but amazing journey working, now this is my fourth institution that I'm working at. Started off at University of Washington out there, and then moving to University of the Virgin Islands in Saint Thomas, and then moving up to Syracuse, where I worked at SUNY upstate, worked in a medical university, and then I was recruited to apply for this position, which was very happy about, and then I got, and then I moved down here. I pretty much touched the four corners, if you like.

[00:03:50] Antonio: You have. That's a significant road trip.

[00:03:57] Twanna: Yes. Let's just say I did rack up some mileage on the different airlines traveling all over the place.

[00:04:04] Antonio: Saint Thomas has a warm spot in my heart because one of the-- I think I might have shared this story with you, but one of the most influential mentors in my life was Dr. Barbara Christian who was part of a Christian family on the island, Judge Christian was was was her father, and she was a beautiful soul, an intellectual of the highest caliber and she was a faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley, in the African American Studies Department, and that's where I met her in a class where she really took me to task and she really taught me everything I needed to know about higher education and how to move things, and that's really what got me on this journey.

I never would have been on this journey had not been for Dr. Christians' love and wisdom and rigor and to this day, I'm still rewriting one paper that she just would not let me get away with. I'm still writing in my head even though she's passed. Big shout out to the island and the intellectual rigor which you're a part of, that intellectual tradition of the diaspora. Welcome home to UF.

[00:05:19] Twanna: Thank you. Thank you. Happy to be here. Almost a year being a part of the Gator Nation family.

[00:05:26] Antonio: It's an interesting thing, this Gator Nation. It's everywhere. I sold something on Craigslist, and the guy was like, "Go Gators," and I was like, "Dude, how do you even know that I'm a Gator?" It's like, just because I'm in Gainesville-- Anyway, they are everywhere, or I should say we are everywhere now. Tell me about what excites you? What really impassions you about the work you do here at UF?

[00:05:53] Twanna: Well, I think for me, I'm allowed to and have the capacity to further diversity, equity, and inclusion, to imbue it into-- well, interweave it into essentially everything that happens in the libraries. That's not to say that that hadn't happened, but I am the person who helps people weave it into their day-to-day, week, monthly, yearly goals and plans and the things that they do, and I didn't have to, in this position, I don't have to choose between doing my normal duties and doing things that are IDEA, it's everything.

The work that I do 40 hours a week, more, it feels at times, the things that I'm writing and researching and publishing on, the service that I do, the committees that I am on, all of it is interconnected and intertwined, and this is the first time that I've had anything like that being in librarianship. At UF, I have the opportunity to do a multitude of things that I would have never been able to do in my other positions. I'm able to grow myself. I tell people that I have expertise, I have lived experiences, but I'm not an expert, and in through working with people, I'm able to learn so much, and being able to help them grow.

I think, for me, it's been two things that allow me to get really enthusiastic about this work. The one was, I was in undergrad, I had a art professor and they said that one of the things that they wanted to do was leave the world better than how they found it, and that was just a core thing that just hit me in my soul and I was like, "Yes, that is one of the things that I want to do."

Second, for me, I see things as kind of a information or lack of information, maybe not understanding what information is out there and hoping that people can have the right information at the right time so that they can make informed decisions that would hopefully influence their lives for the better. Those two things carried me through high school, undergrad, grad school, even now, and I'm able to simultaneously work on making it better for people currently here and coming after. Also being able to aid people in whatever it is that they're doing, personally, professionally.

[00:08:33] Antonio: Yes, all of that. I really sense that Caribbean humility coming out of you, because you are an expert, and I love the reality that we're always becoming and we never arrive there. I dig that about your philosophy on that, and I also I see you in action. I see you just constantly putting out fact information into conversations, into the chats. It's incredibly important in this era of misinformation to get real research down and in the dirt real facts about what we do.

We're an educational organization and that's where-- I think that's one of the things that I think mostly undergrads don't understand the power of research librarians, that you're really the core of how our faculty and everybody else does their work. It's like you understand how to access information and you make it seem, from my perspective, you make it seem easy, but I know it's not easy. This is art and science and skill and learned the ability, and it's also this large treasure house of information that you have around issues of inclusion, diversity, equity, and access.

I have seen you in action and again, I am so glad that you are here because you do, you're constantly uping people's game by giving us a foundation that is based off research, which is the core of what we're trying to do. with this inclusion project at UF, so thank you.

[00:10:04] Twanna: There's the quote, I can't remember who it is, and usually come in like, "Attribution, cite your sources." I can't remember at the moment, but essentially goes that a library is the soul of a campus and that a library really isn't a library unless it has something that offends everyone. One of our core goals is being able to provide, collect, organize, disseminate and provide access to information, and allowing people to gain access to that to get to their own perspective.

Libraries are a reflection of the societies that they live in, so they're not free of biases, or isms, or phobias, or anything like that, and there's things that still needs to be worked on, but I think being able to go into some place and see, who you are represented it's so important.

[00:11:09] Antonio: So much so. Can you share one actionable thing that others can do to create a sense of belonging, whether it's at UF, or in Gainesville, or in their community, wherever that community might be.

[00:11:24] Twanna: What initially comes to mind when I think about this question is learning about others, learning about others. Is accepting people for who they are unless the philosophy or ideology conflicts with your right to exist, as Mackenzie Mac would say. Being able to understand that people have a multitude of lifestyles and experiencing the world differently, and not dismissing or minimizing them, and getting to that point where you're like, "Accepting them is learning about people." Taking on that role of being a lifelong learner, because we're all works in progress, as people constantly remind me.

Being able to cultivate a sense of belonging, creating that one action someone can do was never stop learning. Never stop learning about other people, about other cultures, even about yourself, even just thinking about how you got where you are. I've had a lot of people who like, "What are the things that we can do to change this and dismantle, eradicate, fill in the blank." I would be like, "In order for us to get there, we have to work on ourselves first."

We have to educate ourselves first, and educating is an action, it's part of doing. We are doing something. It may not seem flashy or out there, but just learning and seeing people as human beings is the first and most important step.

[00:13:03] Antonio: That's it. It gets that simple, right? Dignity and respect. Give it and don't tolerate people that try to take away your dignity and respect, because that, in some way, dehumanizes you and it dehumanizes them, so thank you. We always end the podcast with a question of what brings you joy. We've gone through a lot. You've gone through a lot in your first year, which has become a virtual year for you at UF. We've all gone through a lot in this country, in this city, in this world, but we never can forget that we have to find joy, so what is it for you?

[00:13:48] Twanna: A multitude of things. Sometimes what brings me joy depends on the day, depends on a moment, the hour, at times, because we're going through, still going through, essentially this very traumatic and horrific time, collectively, and then you have your own personal traumas that you've had to deal with. For me it's been finding my communities. I have different groups of people where I meet up with them weekly or meet up with them monthly and we just catch up, and it's amazing.

For me, it is helping people. That's one of the reasons why I became a librarian and to be able to help my mentees, my friends, my family members, the people that I work with, brings me joy, but also just being able to do the things that I enjoy. I love watching anime. People would not think that I watch anime, but I love watching anime. I'm a geek and a nerd, and I claim that. I'm also a Potterhead as well. My house is Hufflepuff.

[00:14:57] Antonio: Is that right?

[00:15:00] Twanna: Yes. Just being able to enjoy these things particularly with my friends brings me joy. I think for me just joy is being able to do what I want to do with the people that I want to do it, and just knowing that I think I'm here doing my life's purpose as well. A lot of things, and depending on the moment, it changes, but all of those things bring me joy.

[00:15:30] Antonio: I love that situational joy. Depends on the context, depends on the communities, as you said. There's not one community, we all belong to lots and lots of different communities. Thank you for sharing some of that things we don't see about you, like the anime. It's super important for us to claim these things, otherwise, people think, "Well, that only belongs to one part of the population." It's like, "No, we're everywhere."

[00:15:54] Twanna: I'm going to get on my soapbox for two seconds about being a Blerd, a Black Nerd. It is important to be able to claim these things and feeling like you belong is people not saying that, oh, this is White interest only or why do you like this type of music or this particular genre and x, y, z, and the list goes on, and being able to just like what you like without feeling that guilt or shame that's associated with it. That people have this prescribed sense of like, this is-- that your Black card would be revoked because you like x y, z or insert x race card will be revoked.

I think it's just figuring out what brings you joy can change temporarily or permanently and just being okay with that, being okay with that.

[00:16:48] Antonio: That's it Blerd on.

[00:16:54] Twanna: Yes, and not judging ourselves about what brings us joy.

[00:17:00] Antonio: No. Why? Why would we judge us? The world judges us enough, why do we pile on to ourselves? It's a bad learning that we learned early on. Thank you. Twanna Hodge, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Librarian at Smathers libraries, influencer, definitely part of multiple communities, so grateful to have you on the podcast and to have to share with us today.

[00:17:25] Twanna: Thank you, Antonio.

[00:17:28] Antonio: Thanks for joining me, Antonio Farias, for another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. If you enjoyed this episode, please like the track and share on social media. We welcome your comments and suggestions for future programs. You can find more episodes of Level Up and contact information for the Office of the Chief Diversity officer at

[00:17:55] [END OF AUDIO]

36:40 Minutes
Podcast Guest Image

Episode 072: David Julian

In this week’s episode, Antonio speaks with Dr. David Julian, Associate Professor of Biology and Director of the SF2UF Bridge Program and the MARC GatorStar Program. David and Antonio discuss how the institutional deficit perspective encourages administrators to change policies and practices so all students succeed, and how data can help us understand where we have deficits. Learn how innovation in IDEA can help UF get to the Top 5 in this week’s episode!


[00:00:02] Antonio Farias: Welcome to season five of Level Up, a podcast where we explore how students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida create presence of belonging. I'm your host, Antonio Farias, chief diversity officer at the University of Florida. Welcome to another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. Today I am honored to have David Julian, who is an associate professor in the department of biology.

He is also director of the X-Lab project, the Bioscience Scholars Program, Science for Life Program, and the Santa Fe to UF Bridge Program on top of all those things, and you might wonder how he has all the time to do this. He is also an incredibly trusted and key advisor in a grant that UF receives from the Association for Public Land Grant Universities called UF Aspire IChange grant, which is designed to diversify STEM faculty at UF.

Welcome, David. It's an honor to have you here in a more formal setting, I guess, as opposed to in our regular meetings that we usually engage in.

[00:01:06] David Julian: Thank you. I'm glad to be here. At the risk of, ruining your intro, the Science for Life Program actually hasn't existed for about six or seven years but I'm happy to talk about what that was but the MARC program would be another important thing that we could talk about.

[00:01:24] Antonio: Excellent. No, and I appreciate that. As I found in the two and a half years that I've been here, we've been doing some amazing things that for some reason or another, have gone away and we need to think about doing a forensics as to why things that have gone away that have actually helped in our diversity efforts, why they've gone away and how do we resuscitate them and make sure that they don't keep going in and out of cycle. I appreciate you bringing that up because that is an important point.

[00:01:51] David: Well, the Science for Life Program would have been interesting to discuss in that regard, but, like many programs that appear to have gone away, the programs themselves in a formal sense in the whole sense that they existed before may be gone, but many times we learn things through those programs that do become incorporated into other programs. There are many aspects of the Science for Life Program itself that continue and that informed how we do things and how other programs have done things.

I think all of these, they are all bricks that go into the foundation and we no longer see them anymore but they're there and I guess that's really- we tease each other sometimes about me always trying to introduce evolution into the conversation and that's an example. There's a natural selection process that occurs where some things work and some things don't. Ideally, we have a process set up where we can select and continue the things that work and jettison or revise the things that don't work and then continue building from there.

[00:02:56] Antonio: Yes. That's that's perfect. Although you're sounding more like an engineer with this foundational structure that you're talking about now.

[00:03:02] David: There are foundations in biology, too.

[00:03:05] Antonio: Very true. Very true. We always start the podcast by asking the question, what is your story of belonging?

[00:03:12] David: Since I knew I was going to be on this, I've been dreading that question. I've been trying to think about and I'm going to turn it around and ask you really, what do you mean by that? I've listened to a few of the other people you've talked to and I need to understand better what that means because I don't think I have a sense of belonging to anything in the, sense that other people seem to have. So what do you mean by that?

[00:03:35] Antonio: Oh, you're a very bad interviewee and a master of the craft though because you turn it back on me. I really leave it as open as possible. It's a word and a concept that has really intrigued me for a number of years. That's why the podcast really focuses, not on diversity, not equity, not inclusion words that we already have in some way or another become, I don't know, just either tone-deaf to, or we think we know what they are.

This concept of belonging really puzzles me because at the end of the day, to me, that is the end goal of all the projects and the programs that we have is how do you have people show up at a place of work, at a place of learning at a place of research and feel like they actually belong in their full selves as human beings. What is it? There is no magic bullet to this, there isn't one thing that makes this happen but what amalgamation of policies, practices, procedures, do we get to put in place messaging that gives people a sense that this is a place where they can show up and be seen.

If you had to nail me down to it, it would be that sense of how do you show up, how are you seen, and do you feel like you can like fully accomplish everything that you want to do?

[00:04:59] David: Yes, so with that perspective, then I would say that I would interpret that to be more for myself as this sense of purpose. I think I do have a sense of purpose but I don't have a sense of belonging in that I don't feel like UF for example, is the only place where I could conduct that or try to achieve that.

It's not the only place where I do even now, but, it is a place where I can and try to do my best work or try to do the best I can to achieve the goals. Yes, I would interpret that to be in, in all the same ways that you said that, the sense of belonging is the sense of purpose to try to achieve change, to try to affect positive outcomes, and to basically not to sound sappy, but just try to make the world a little bit better place. I think that--

[00:05:57] Antonio: We could use more of that right now, can't we?

[00:05:59] David: Yes, I think so. Yes. I think largely, the old saying, life can only be understood backwards, but it has to be lived forward if I look back, there's been a desire to try to help people who can need some help or provide opportunities to people who don't have opportunities or to try and make the system work better. I think that that is, although I've never really had that as a prospective goal, that this is something I'm going to commit my life to.

It turns out that in looking backward, except for brief periods where I was worried about other things I've fairly consistently found the most reward in trying to help people get opportunities to help people achieve their potential, help, minimize inequities, and, provide opportunities that I was given. I'm not disadvantaged in most ways, at least not in the ways that are important now.

I had every opportunity and took advantage of some, I didn't take advantage of others but I think that there are a lot of opportunities at UF and nationally and internationally that are available to students, and people who aren't yet students and people who have graduated in the broader community that they aren't aware of, opportunities, to make a difference opportunities to fulfill their own potential that I think we can do a better job of facilitating access to.

[00:07:32] Antonio: Yes. Well said. It speaks, if I could put you in a box, to really selfless service. How do you service and how do you provide service to those, to which this place has been for longer periods of time than not, exclusionary to them.

[00:07:54] David: To a certain extent you could say that UF is a good place to do that. There are probably places that are even better. Most disadvantaged, underrepresented students in STEM are at community colleges in the United States. I think that the community colleges are tremendously under-resourced. Certainly by the time we see the students here at UF, they've already made their way through a number of gauntlets, and there are many students who would benefit from even more opportunities.

One of the programs that you mentioned that I direct is the SF2UF program, which helps provide opportunities to underrepresented students at Santa Fe College, who aspire to go into biomedical research and that's an NIH funded program and Talline Martins works on that with me here at UF and Vertigo Moody who is the chair of natural sciences at Santa Fe College and formerly worked a lot with Beatrice Gonzalez.

That's trying to provide opportunities for students to come here. I think that we find that the students from Santa Fe have a very different experience as college students in their first year or two than students do at UF. Of course, even though they may have come from similar backgrounds and even the same high schools, it's a very different experience.

Then those students, those that we work with that are successful in transferring to UF, it's a culture shock again because they come to UF as transfer students and they have to adapt to the different pace of the classes, the size of the classes, the expectations for homework or out of class work, which are different, and they don't have the opportunities that our incoming freshmen do to participate in all of the cohort building and spirit building activities.

Those largely don't exist for transfer students. They're brought in and they're just on their own. They are already at a disadvantage and then tend to feel a little bit more marginalized. It's harder for them to find their place or their sense of belonging to UF. We're largely successful, but there are things we could do better. I know that there are people who are in CALS and CLAS and elsewhere that are working very hard to improve the experience of transfer students.

That's an example of providing opportunities, but it's a tiny fraction of the total community college population that's served. I, myself, did my first two years at a community college. I was a non-traditional student. I didn't start college till I was 22 or so.

[00:10:48] Antonio: We share a common background then. You were in California that time, right?

[00:10:53] David: I was, yes.

[00:10:55] Antonio: What was your community college?

[00:10:58] David: I attended three actually. Diablo Valley College and Los Medanos Community College, these are in Contra Costa County, which is in San Francisco Bay Area.

[00:11:06] Antonio: Okay. I was at Mesa Community College in San Diego County. Then I ended up bizarrely at Berkeley. We probably crossed each other on the street at some point.

[00:11:20] David: I lived in Berkeley for a while.

[00:11:22] Antonio: Did you?

[00:11:23] David: Yes. I only took one class at Berkeley. That was while I was going to college, at San Francisco State University. I lived in Berkeley, for reasons that aren't clear to me now. I can't remember why that was the right thing to do at the time, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

[00:11:38] Antonio: Probably because of the Cheeseboard. Did you visit the Cheeseboard?

[00:11:43] David: I think it was just that the rents were cheaper.

[00:11:45] Antonio: Not anymore. Now, it's insanely expensive. It's interesting how our inception into or our trajectories into higher education come back and mirror themselves in many ways. You came out of the community college system, and now you're paying it forward in many ways with a lot of these programs that you're with. I find myself doing the same thing, of always looking at access and making sure that we don't forget that there's an incredible amount of talent.

It's just that there's this logjam, and we can't seem to figure out as a nation, or as an academy, how to do this well, in a way that captures millions of individuals that have the potential to change everybody's lives, and we just give them the opportunity to have the same kind of access here. Your point about community college students dropping in, it's true. I remember dropping in into Berkeley, and it felt like I just had teleported into an alien land and always feeling like an imposter up until the very end, where I was like, "Did I really graduate from here?"

You're right. I've had the same conversation with Santa Fe students, for all the support we do give them, they still feel in many ways like they're lost because they don't have the same kind of traction. You're right. That whole sense of the first two years of creating that level of community, or belonging, going back to that word, is vitally interesting.

Let me switch real quickly because you already answered part of this question because the second one I ask is what about your work really excites you and accelerates you and makes you feel really passionate about what you do? You had talked about the MARC Program earlier and some of the other programs. I want to let you go anywhere you want to go on that. What really excites you about the work you're doing?

[00:13:41] David: Of course, the work I'm doing, I think we can focus primarily or solely on the work that I'm doing with regard to trying to increase inclusion and diversity and training students for research careers. Of course, I also nominally conduct research. Of course, as far as I can remember, I have a lab and I have students who are doing research. Of course, I teach and all of those things are very rewarding.

I think I've been at the university long enough that I have the luxury of largely being able to focus on the things that I do find rewarding. I think that partially comes from recognizing that the things I find rewarding, I tend to be better at. People aren't as likely to ask me to do things that I'm bad at as they used to. People around me have learned the things that I'm not very good at, and don't ask me to do those things anymore.

The question of what do I find rewarding or exciting. I think all of these programs are things that you and I work on together, that I try to help you with, where we are focusing on

things that the university can do better and things that we already do well that we can do more of, that helps to level the playing field and helps to make sure that all students have access.

There's a shift now from a student-deficit model to an institutional-deficit model. We used to always have the student-deficit model, being that our goal as an institution, as educators, was to help students who are disadvantaged catch-up, provide them the things that they missed. Although functionally, what you do when you have an institutional-deficit model may not look much different.

It's a different mindset, which is to say that it's not the student's fault. It's not up to us to correct the student, it's up to us to correct the way that we structure our courses or the way that we structure our majors or the way that we structure and provide resources outside the classroom that makes us better address the fact that we have a diversity of students coming to the institution.

It's an institutional-deficit if we're not able to help all the students be successful, as we become even more selective as an institution. I've been here 20 years now. Our selectivity has gone up. We've seen shifts in the racial and ethnic demographics at the university, in some ways, positive, in other ways, negative. As you know, the proportion of students who identify as Black or African American has been declining, while at the same time, the proportion that identifies as Latinx or Hispanic has been rising. The overall proportion of students who are underrepresented has been increasing.

We need to make sure that we are, as we get diverse students in here, but if they get to UF, they have proven themselves able to handle the high school curriculum. They're good at taking standardized tests. They do reasonably well at taking the SAT. They do the other things that our colleagues in admissions look for. If they're not successful at UF, it's not a student deficit, it's the institutional deficit.

As you know, I'm a big proponent of trying to get more data to make sure that the decisions that we make are evidence-based. I think I'm excited right now at the things we're working on to try to come up with better ways to understand where are the students having different experiences? What are we doing well? Can we leverage that to make up for institutional deficits in places that we're not doing as well? Where are we losing students? Where are the students not doing as well as they could?

A big problem right now is student mental health. It was a big problem before and it's only made worse now because of the pandemic. We don't have enough data on that. We could be getting more data on the mental health of the students, the wellness of the students. We have programs in place that can help students but we need to be better at helping students access those programs and helping them be aware of it and helping them recognize when they should access them, helping the students understand that there are a lot of differences between racial and ethnic groups and cultural groups in the perception of mental illness and what it means to need help with mental wellness.

I shouldn't say mental illness but with wellness. Is it okay to seek help? What does it mean if you seek help? Sometimes it's just pointing out that 30%, 40% of students nationally can be classified as having clinical depression at some point during any academic year. Many students come here having a history of having to deal with mental health issues. A large number of students have taken medication for mental health.

I think that we don't have the structure in place to support those students. Estimates said 30% of students have a disability of some type, diagnosed or undiagnosed, sometimes physical, sometimes learning disabilities. Many of these disabilities are what we call invisible disabilities. I think the institution is much more diverse, and it even is more diverse than we realize because of these issues that we aren't measuring.

I had a conversation recently with somebody who was from outside the US, she came from a South American country. She commented that she found it strange that when she applied for UF that she was asked to identify her race and ethnicity. Her initial perception was that, well, that's part of the problem is that we are labeling everybody. I said, "Actually, the reason to do that is that if we don't know what the diversity is of the people we hire, then you don't know that you have a lot of room to grow, that you have a lot to makeup and you don't know where there are problems." I guess I'm sounding like a scientist, but you can't fix it unless you measure it.

[00:20:12] Antonio: Well, you are a scientist. Well, that's what I love about you, David is you are a scientist and you bring your scholarship to these vexing social issues that we face here in academia. Your point about mindset shift is spot on. This concept of our liberal mindset, feel-good mindset has always been about helping these poor at-risk students when that has never been the proper approach. It really hasn't been about institutionally, how do we put students at risk?

Unintentionally. Oftentimes, but still because of the way we were structured from the very beginning. The diversity that we have now has now caught up with us. Now we have to have diverse operations about how we engage with these diverse populations. I think that really hits the key about having to do a mind shift. I see this happening across the nation. I don't know if you're seeing in your field in biology across the nation.

I know when we gathered some of our colleagues from math and physics and chem, there was the sense that we were starting to go around the corner on this issue and starting to be more proactive than we have in the past.

[00:21:25] David: I think that's definitely true and I think there are national efforts. They may have stalled a bit, over the past four years, but I think they're going to pick up again, national efforts to help faculty and institutions become better at doing this. Part of that stems from, of course, the recognition that having diverse groups working on problems, isn't just good ethically. It helps you solve problems. The greater the diversity you have in a group, that's working on a tough problem, the more likely you are to find the solution.

Diversity doesn't just mean racial, ethnic diversity, it can be, all the other axes of diversity that we need to worry about and think about and try to support, but there's a motivation to do that in terms of whether you have to phrase these things in terms of national competitiveness or trying to make sure that we are serving the population appropriately or giving everybody the opportunity to excel?

I think you're absolutely right. We see this, for example, APLU and AAU and, AAAS and all these other groups and HHMI and other groups that are really investing time, effort, and money into finding what works and then figuring out, just simply knowing what works at one institution doesn't mean it's going to work at another institution. We look frequently at, we might look at UC Davis or institutions in Texas to try to understand what are they doing that's good that we can do?

But that doesn't necessarily work. UC Davis is a land-grant institution, but it's a different student population. For example, there, the California population, as you know is very different than the Florida Hispanic, Latinx population. Some of those differences are important in terms of how we approach the way we teach our courses or the way we structure our majors or the institutional support that we provide. Some of those things are universal. They're good for everybody.

A rising tide raises all boats, but you do need to be thoughtful and we need to be thoughtful about this. Fortunately, there are very good people, who are thinking about this and are trying to get groups focused on finding what works and what doesn't work, and how do you implement that? I chair a panel, an NIH panel for reviewing proposals like the MARC and SF2UF and training workforce development proposals.

We spent a lot of time thinking about and talking about how can institutions take what works at one place and make that work at another one? What sort of evidence do you need and what sort of evidence needs to be collected? You have to have pre and post data. You have to be intentional about collecting the data and there's not always money for that, and it sometimes takes an institutional commitment to do that.

[00:24:34] Antonio: Yes. Spot on. I think we're getting there. Part of the reason I think UF is getting there is because of faculty like you, you keep pressing that button, and eventually that button becomes a nerve and then eventually we feel it. I think we are feeling it.

[00:24:52] David: Yes, well, sometimes the response is not positive, but then you just withdraw and you try to take a different strategy.

[00:25:03] Antonio: That's the key, that's the key.

[00:25:04] David: You have to find allies, right. Which I think it was important that the university created your position and appointed you to it because that is both a strong signal, but also it means that there's a person to go to and a person who can coordinate these activities. As we've discovered in the various committees, there are a lot of things that are going on at the institution that are good but aren't being shared.

Many colleges are doing things that are really innovative both in terms of, the faculty hiring and faculty support and class structure and evaluating their courses and promoting diversity and just promoting equity and inclusion and it already works at UF in one department or in one college. That makes it much more likely that it's going to be something that we can disseminate throughout the institution.

[00:25:54] Antonio: That's it, and particularly as you said, it's homegrown. It's not a best practice or an effective practice that let's say Michigan is putting in place and it won't transfer or will have organ rejection here at UF. We already have proof of concept here. You're absolutely right. It's one of those things that I've fallen behind on, nd one of the things that I'm committed to in 2021 is really focusing on highlighting.

Un-baring, if you will, all of these things that are happening in small pockets, but once we start looking at them as a collective, we see that we have a lot more assets here than we actually before remembered. Everyone's looking for the big change, all those big changes happened because there's enough momentum. Then once people realize they're not working in isolation, all of a sudden, we're actually going to get a lot more momentum on that.

[00:26:46] David: You raise an important point. Studies show that institutional change is most effective when it's grassroots and it has to be a combination of being initiated by the faculty or the students or the staff then having the support of the higher administration, but things that come top down, people who've studied institutional change show that these things that are top down are much less likely to work.

These things that, like you say, things that we've found that are effective in various units on campus, many of those were stimulated by grassroots efforts and then they're supported within the college. Then those can be supported throughout the institution. The advantages that you have the ear of the president and the provost, and can help send a signal that, well, this is something that's valued.

The signals that come from the higher institution are important. People look to what the president says and what the provost says and what the provost does and there are people who are trying to parse those things out. Is this something that's going to be supported or is it not? I think that now that we're top 10 and even higher. What are we? Top six or top seven institution?

[00:27:50] Antonio: Something like that six.

[00:27:52] David: Yes, and I think it's extremely important that this is among the large public institutions because on these kinds of things we're talking about, we can learn some things from private universities, but what we really need to learn from what's working at the publics, but we're now at a stage now, as we get in, as we get towards the top five, where we have to set the pace, we have to set the tone.

I think there's been in my own observation up until very recently, and maybe still in some quarters, there's the idea that, well, let's look to see what our peers are doing and then let's do that. I think that you can't break into the top five and hold that position by looking around, you have to drive forward. We need to be the innovators now because none of those institutions in the top five are willingly going to give up their place.

[00:28:50] Antonio: No, they're not asleep at the wheel. That's for sure. I completely agree with you. Where I see that now emerging, I think we're finally growing into our national chops because what I see with this AI initiative, the way that the provost and the president and the board has put it out, really sends a ripple effect throughout higher education. Because it's not just AI for AI's sake, it's really married into this equitable AI, which to me is music to my ear because those are the key things.

Ethics and equity, and how you put them into this massive power engine. Going back to what you were talking about, data and how we share that data. One of the other things that I see as a benefit is our ability to share some of those resources with other universities. I'm with you on that. I should say at this point, what I'm seeing is that we're shifting away from the new kids on the block to now staking our own, and I think it's powerful that we're using equitable AI as that flag that we put up.

[00:29:55] David: I think that's true. I think the signal that was sent that that the initiatives for hiring in AI should come from all the colleges including humanities and the arts and that there's a clear emphasis on equity and ethics in AI, I think that that will be important. It'll be interesting to see how we do in terms of moving forward. Part of the reason why we've seen some things improve as we've moved into the top 10 I think in teaching and in helping students.

We've seen improvements in some teaching practices and in faculty to student ratios and things like that that do benefit students in many cases as we try to move into the top 10 but in many cases, these are because the metrics demanded it. We knew what the metrics were that these ranking agencies used and the ranking agencies not for nothing have set those up to value things that are correlated with quality education.

They're not necessarily predictive but they're correlated. Class size, whether you're helping students who are socio-economically disadvantaged, how much do you increase their socio-economic level after graduation, these kinds of factors. The rarefied air in the top five, the differences are smaller. I think those things are going to have to come from inside. We can't just simply gain the metrics, we're going to have to really make fundamental changes.

I agree with you that we're growing into our own, people are paying attention to UF now nationally whereas before, I don't think when I told people when I go to national meetings that I was from UF, they wouldn't necessarily know what city that was in, they weren't sure what that was, now that's not the case. We can trade on that and we can build on that. I hope as you do that it's going to benefit the students as well as the faculty and the departments, and the institution as a whole.

[00:31:56] Antonio: Yes, that's the key, it's got to help the students. Let me shift the question to this past year has been an incredibly volatile year, to say the least. One of the things that I want to know is, is there something that you've changed your mind about in this past year that has surprised you?

[00:32:17] David: Yes, I just received my first pair of slippers.

[00:32:21] Antonio: Slippers? [laughs]

[00:32:22] David: Yes, I'm in my late 50s and I haven't had any slippers since I was six or seven, I think I just had a moral disgust for them. As I pad around my house in bare feet and the floor was starting to get colder, I had to change my mind and so I'm wearing slippers right now for the first time. I have to say they're pretty good.

[00:32:44] Antonio: I love that. Are they cartoon characters or they pretty standard [crosstalk] ?

[00:32:48] David: No, sadly I'm also a cheapskate, so, they're just the cheapest, simplest slippers that I thought would do the job and so far they are but [crosstalk] the answer you're looking for though.

[00:32:59] Antonio: No, that's it. I'm looking for an honest answer and that's about as honest that I can get. From a scientist, you're way over the safety age right now, David, so I appreciate your vulnerability on there. We end the podcast with the question though of what brings you joy?

[00:33:20] David: I think that it's tied in with what I said was-- My sense of belonging is really a sense of purpose, so, I get joy when I feel like I was able to be successful in changing some practice that I think was not equitable or wasn't effective or in providing opportunities that didn't exist. The MARC program for students who want to go to biomedical research, the SF2UF program we talked about and Bioscience Scholars' Program.

These are the things that helping individual students become more successful and then as I teach, students come to me, and if they come to me and they say, "Well, I found this topic really intimidating or confusing but now I went to a seminar on this, a research seminar and I understood what they were talking about and that was really exciting." These are the things that are rewarding.

Also scientific discoveries, of course, these things are always fun. Yes, it's just I'm fortunate that most of the things that I do on a daily basis have the potential to produce rewards. Usually, there are frequently hard problems, so, they frequently don't, but that doesn't mean you stop trying.

[00:34:41] Antonio: That's it as you bring up the next generation. Thank you for the work that you do.

[00:34:46] David: Thank you.

[00:34:47] Antonio: It doesn't go unnoticed

[00:34:48] David: It's nice to have you here to have somebody who's got our backs when we try to do these things.

[00:34:55] Antonio: Thank you. David Julian, associate professor at the department of biology, really a catalyst for change here for inclusion, for diversity issues, for big data, you really are someone that I look up to and that I always feel like you have my back when we're doing these projects that are really asking us to do some tough work around where I'm proving that these things matter.

Thank you for the work you do here. You've been doing it for 20 years. I'm so grateful that you're here. I'm so grateful that you actually are a catalyst for exciting other people as well. I've seen that in the rooms where we've been in, where you really electrify the room and get people to really think in a very precise scientific way I think to your point about the things that actually have to matter to us. [crosstalk]

[00:35:46] David: Catalysts only work if they have a substrate they can act on so. Thank you for providing the substrate that we can affect change using catalysts.

[00:35:58] Antonio: I'll make sure I mention that to my daughter today. Like, "I was called a substrate today, honey."

[00:36:04] David: [laughs] Yes, maybe that didn't come up quite the way I'd intended it.

[00:36:07] Antonio: [laughs] Thanks, David. You have a good day.

[00:36:11] David: Bye-bye.

[00:36:14] Antonio: Thanks for joining me, Antonio Farias for another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. If you enjoyed this episode, please like the track and share on social media.

We welcome your comments and suggestions for future programs. You can find more episodes of Level Up and contact information for the office of the chief diversity officer at


[00:36:53] [END OF AUDIO]

35:07 Minutes
Podcast Guest Image

Episode 071: David Canton

As we begin the celebration of Black History Month, Antonio speaks with Dr. David Canton, the newly arrived Director of UF’s African American Studies Program. Dr. Canton is a renowned historian who brings to UF his rigorous eye for research and passion for the history of Black Studies, the commonalities across the African diaspora and for connecting the academy with the community. He talks about his vision for building a department of African American Studies at UF on the shoulders of the program’s storied 50-year history.



[00:00:01] Antonio Farias: Welcome to season five of Level Up podcast, where we explore how students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida create presence and belonging. I'm your host, Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida.

Welcome to another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. Today, we are incredibly fortunate to have Dr. David Canton. He is the director of the African American Studies Program at the University of Florida, and associate professor of history, and a real thought leader and historian on the national scene.

Prior to UF, Dr. Canton was the director of Africana Studies Program and an associate professor of history at Connecticut College. He also served as the school's interim dean of institutional equity and inclusion, the chair of the department of history, and the director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equality.

Welcome to the podcast, Dr. Canton. First, I got to ask, how did you do all of that and still be who you are, which is everywhere all the time?

[00:01:07] Canton: Well, thank you for inviting me, Antonio. Antonio and I go back to Connecticut, his partner worked at Connecticut College with me for years. Pretty much, it's that passion, the passion of equity, the passion of justice, the passion of sharing African American history with not only white American, but also with African Americans and other communities that this is what I'm here for, I'm excited about. That's really what it is.

I tell my students, passion is the key and then that will drive you to be the best that you can be. Not saying it's not difficult, but it's like people say, when it's not work, that means it's your passion.

[00:01:44] Antonio: That's it. That's it. It's like you jump out of bed and you're like, "I need to get to it, get on it." You have a really storied trajectory. Hopefully, we can get into it because you got your bachelor's at Morehouse, so you're a Morehouse man. That means something in this country. You got your MA in Black studies at the Ohio State University, and your PhD at another storied institution, Temple University.

Maybe as we go through this, we can talk about how- going back to that question of passion, how your intellectual trajectory kept being ignited through these various places, and also the scholars and the colleagues that you ran into that obviously now continue to be part of your expanded network.

[00:02:25] Canton: That's a great question. Obviously, as one who studies history, I got to go back and contextualize. It really is my father. He was a high school dropout, born in the US Virgin Islands. My mother was born in Anguilla. He always had a fascination with history, African American history. He used to read the Pittsburgh Courier, a Black newspaper. Remember seeing Emmett Till's photo and Jet magazine. When the sailors would come in to St. Thomas from the United States, he would go talk to Black sailors. He just had this interest about African American history and African history.

He joined the army, '58 to '62, come to the United States and saw Jim Crow, continued reading Black newspapers. In my household, you can talk about Marcus Garvey and all these other individuals that you were not getting into school. That laid the foundation.

However, when I get to Morehouse College, I want to be a medical doctor like most first-gen African American, Latino American students. It's a great profession, secure income, and you can help people, i.e., donate some time to a clinic, and that's what you're thinking, and you could buy your parents a home.

[00:03:33] Antonio: That's it.

[00:03:34] Dr. Canton: Obviously, my passion was social studies. I remember in high school, because my dad, they used to call me encyclopedia. I was into facts and trivia about African Americans. I was just good at stuff like that. They bring up apartheid, I'm the only one who knew about it, and the '80s and stuff of that nature.

All I thought I could be with a background like that is a high school teacher. I'm not knocking it, but I just- my high school I went to just didn't look ideal. No Black teachers, one Black male teacher, just how they treated Black students. This is not for me.

I get to Morehouse College, I'm biology major. To be honest with you, I was a four-year biology major with eight biology credits. I was just a disaster. When it came to history and the social sciences, B's and A's, no problem. When I met my wife, who was an honor student at Spelman College, we just always behind, she said, "Dave, major in history." I'm like, "I'll have to take another year-and-a-half to get out of Morehouse. I'll be 23 years old."

Again, that whole type of this program of life, 21, college, all these numbers that we're supposed to hit. I try to tell my students don't worry about all that. Life is a marathon. It's a marathon. I go see my advisor, Dr. Alton Hornsby, rest in peace. He was African American historian at Morehouse. He says, "Dave, you can graduate in a year-and-a-half." I'm like, "What?" However, the last three semesters at Morehouse, I had all A's and B's in history.

Then I met Dr. Joseph Wyndham, rest in peace. He got his PhD from Howard. I was in the office the day his PhD came in, big thick document. "What is that? You wrote that?" Again, I'm first-gen. That stuff ... You're working class from the Bronx. Your parents just work all day. You just don't see stuff like that. It doesn't even- even thinking about it.

He said, "Dave, go to Ohio State." "What? Ohio who?" "Get a master's." I'm like, "Masters of what?" I had no clue what he's talking about. It's a one-year program.

Antonio: I need a job.

Canton: Right. It's a one-year program. I went to Black studies there. I met people like Nick Nelson, rest in peace. All these early Black scholars who played a role in Black Studies, I came through those traditions, John Henry Clark, Dr. ... , Leonard Jeffries, all those folks, you remember the '90s, Molefi Asante. I've spoken to all of those folks.

After I finished a Black Studies at Ohio S tate, I went to do my PhD in history at Temple. As we know, Molefi Asante's program PhD in African Studies started '87, '88. That's before the Ivy League. Again, African Americans come up with something. Once it starts being profitable, that's when what, Skip Gates and the Ivy League, "Oh, now we can do it." You see how that goes? Then [crosstalk] resources, get the access to the white media. You see what I mean?

Pretty much my intellectual trajectory started at home, and then all these years through Morehouse, through Ohio State, through Temple and all these colleges and all these years has really helped put me in a position where, as you mature, really understanding the focus of Africana studies, African American studies. That's why I'm glad I'm here.

[00:06:42] Antonio: Thank you. That is a rollercoaster ride of a journey for what you are, which is, in my mind, you're a public intellectual. I've seen you in work. I've seen you in the community. Obviously, now it makes sense. This started in the home front as it almost always does. To your point, all of these guides and these mentors along the way, God bless them because they eventually passed, but they passed the torch to you. They pass the torch to us to say, "Now it's up to you. It's your responsibility to keep this alive."

[00:07:16] Dr. Canton: That's a great point, passing the torch. As my friend, Joe Madison, said, "Don't put the torch out. We both carry the torch." I think if you understand Black community tradition, Latino traditions, elders- all this matters. When I go out to a community, I speak to older people. "You ain't got to call me doctor you 80 years old. None of all that. You survive 80 years in America. You good with me." Those are the types of things, understanding the community that you're working with.

Like you said, when you say public intellectual, how do you do what we do and make it plain as Malcolm said to the mass of folks who, through their work, through their sacrifice, got folks here. I try not just to speak to academic folks. You can do that, but also how do you bring it out to the community where we all can figure it out? As we know, it's not a top-down or what I can do. It's how we work together.

I think that's what sometimes we try to teach younger scholars that ultimately, you don't have all the answers. You don't know more than a person who lived in that neighborhood for 45 years. It's impossible. If you don't figure that out from the get, don't be upset when community members look at you side-eye. I don't care what school you went to. [laughs]

[00:08:25] Antonio: That's it. That's it, and they're not impressed because that's the whole point. It's like, places like this alienate you from the communities from which we came from, and then we don't know how to translate back, or we figure that somehow we're beyond them. We forget that they are the shoulders that brought us to where we are today. Well-pointed, well-taken. I start the podcast with the question of what is your story of belonging.

[00:08:53] Dr. Canton: That's a great question. I think my story of belonging is ... I'm a big Pan-Africanist, this diaspora thing. As I get older, you really start to see-- Again, it starts with my parents from the West Indies. Of course, we used to go to carnival every spring, [crosstalk] Puerto Rico. My dad's dad did a baseball game for Roberto Clemente as an umpire, [crosstalk] those type of stories. My dad met all these famous African Americans.

I got that from him and then for him, it's like, if you Black in London, Legos, the Bronx, I don't care what people tell you, you extend a hand. Don't get caught up on what church, or those other divisive stuff. Understand this diaspora. It's powerful, it's informative and it's very self-affirming.

For me, growing up in a West Indian background, I get to Atlanta. That's why I introduced the Black Southern culture. This is why I always tell people it's Black experiences. There's no monolith. I get down to Atlanta. First time I had grits, first time I had salmon croquettes, Baptist Church. I didn't know any of that stuff. I'm from the Bronx with West Indian parents. You see the food differences, but ultimately you see the connections.

When I go to Ghana, you can see the connections. There's a show by Steve McQueen on Prime Video called Small Axe. There's one scene, it's a hour show on a Black British party, house party, in London. There's one song, it's like Frankie Beverly and Maze song Before I Let Go. You drop the music and the people sing to the song.

For me, I lock into the commonality. I lock into that. You drop the music, I show students here, it's a house party in Chicago, the Bronx, Atlanta, LA. My sense, I belong to this wide diaspora of scholars, working class people, who in the lie of Western civ, been told Black people can't do this, can't do that, can't do this.

When I look at the history and what's going on, whether it's Afro beats, culture, scholars, all the stuff, that's totally false. My job is to share these experience. Particularly at University of Florida, where we have a diverse Black population, how do we create that recognition of that diaspora and stop focusing on these differences? They're so minor in the large scheme of world history.

[00:11:20] Antonio: That's it. That's key, and stop having that mindset that we're minorities in some way. We are connected to a global change process that has always been going on.

[00:11:31] Dr. Canton: It's a great point. The global majority, those thinking like that. Hopefully, here at UF, getting students to go abroad and that feeling, when I saw the movie, when I see Afrobeats, when I look at that, there's a guy named Sam Speedy. He does these things on YouTube, like him and his mother, how Nigerian moms-- That's like my grandmother. That's like my mother, all these little natural rules that I just lock into.

Rather than how I'm not like that, I'm looking like there is more commonality there. Just sit down and recognize that and not be so narrow about what a true monolithic-- There's multiple experiences, like whether it's Obama's experience, Kamala Harris and everybody gets into all that, who's more African American, but that's that global diaspora that people should belong to and look forward to belong to.

[00:12:22] Antonio: It refuses the categorization, refuses to get in the box. That's what people want. It's an easy cookie cutter, and now I know I don't have to talk to you. I don't have to get deep with you. I can just put you in the box and then figure you out.

[00:12:38] Dr. Canton: We watch the World Cup Soccer when the Ghanaian team and Nigerian team. Hey, d on't feel guilty, that's fine because they recognize that you have these nations that under-resourced because of global capitalism. If you want to fly a Ghanaian flag for World Cup, that's the theory of American society.

Again, you see that when Ghanaian soccer or Nigerians and these teams play United States for World Cup, you get like, hey, why not? People talk about dual citizenship or [crosstalk] that stuff. That's part of it, but again, it starts with the education and a lot of it is because what you do at home, and that's the energy I want to bring to this program, it's a step-by-step process, not overnight.

[00:13:25] Antonio: No, it's not. You just gave a big tell , David, as to why you are so diasporic to the core because you talked about soccer and not football. That, shows your West Indies background there just coming all out.

[00:13:38] Dr. Canton: My mother was a cricket fan. We used to go to Randall Island, cricket. You know what I mean? [laughs]

[00:13:43] Antonio: Oh yes, I remember those by the lights. Randall Stadium.

[00:13:47] Dr. Canton: They were in all white. That's my mom, the British background, the cricket, and the respectability, and speak properly, but it's a synthesis . My dad was "the race man". My mother was the straight British- West Indian . We put these traditions together, and that's what I grew up in. Then I add in the Morehouse, you see what I mean?

I can understand students who come from the West Indian background, what their parents expect. Again, I bounce it off with, "Don't be so critical, African American that thing." The same time, the racial consciousness, from my father's side, particularly going to Morehouse, Atlanta, the Black Mecca, so you get that balance, that synthesis in terms of how I was socialized.

[00:14:31] Antonio: That's it. Tell me, what excites you about the work that you have before here at the University of Florida? You are the core of this new development which is a continuation of 50, 60 years of in the makes. You bring a certain sauce to this project to revitalize African American studies. Maybe talk a little bit about that and also your scholarship, because it's both, you're an administrator and you're a deep scholar. What really excites you about what you're doing here?

[00:15:02] Dr. Canton: When I saw the position, a chance to build a department, obviously we know we have a program. Like you said, there's a 50-year history. Again, I'm on top of the shoulders of Dr. Foreman and Dr. Simmons and all the others, the community members, tons of names who lays the foundation, who sacrifice, who wrote the letters, wrote the grants.

My thing is this long history of Black studies. I was born '68, the year Black studies as a discipline was created. So whether we talk about the hip-hop generation or the Black studies generation, there's 50 years of scholarship, best practices, mistakes, errors, interpretations. Now I have the opportunity to put all this together and build a department with a 50-year legacy behind it.

How do we learn from that? We don't just dismiss it. I don't care how cutting edge you think you are; most stuff you say is not new. We got to start from that premise. I don't care how, what school you gone to , who you are, who you think you are, you have to build from that history. You start from there.

Next, it's in terms of bringing in five full-time tenure lines and a lecturer. That's the excitement. Now we can sit down, build a department, understanding university culture. That's the key to understanding how this university works, what I call the game. You have initiatives, you have different-- How do you latch on?

What people don't understand is, you stay true to your mission and values but when you hook up to an initiative in a university, you make sure that's based on your missions and values. So that doesn't mean ... selling out or giving up. We agree to it, but it's going to be done this way, interpreted this way. It's not a total rejection because we know we're part of the university.

I think we have the administrative knowledge now because of the long training. We have the elders who can sit down, the Asantes, I reach out to all these folks to get their wisdom. Again, humility is key. You can't come in here and not ask the old school folks, "Hey, I got an issue." You just can't do it. Whether they got 30 books or no books, they can help.

That's my dad always taught me I got to be humble. End of the day is you got 50 books or one book, you're ending up in the same grave, six feet under when the state ball ends. It doesn't matter. For me, having a lot of colleagues who in my age, I'm 52, we're at the same place, we've seen a lot, and we still have connections to these folks that have been before us, I want to bring all that, get that wisdom but also how do we integrate that, University of Florida understanding it's Gainesville and these other contextual realities.

Fortunately, right now, the dean's on board, the resources are there, but we also have to remain vigilant. You have to keep pushing just like with the democratic majority we have, you can't take your foot off the gas, which means we have to continue to push, continue to ensure that we keep building. Don't settle. Do the work, send those emails, alumni getting involved. Do not take your foot off the gas.

As a historian, we know that. We know, oh, we made it now, and that's when it hits. It's the same thing here. I'm excited about building a department that hopefully a graduate program-- Again, it's what, 30 years of PhD programs? Again, we can see curriculum. How many students should we bring in? How many we can fund? Let's be real strategic. We don't have to take those leaps of faith and make decisions and hope. We can do it based on facts.

For instance, how about a master's program for teachers for African American study where we can, one-year program, distance learning, where they can get a foundation in African American history so they have these courses.

[00:18:51] Antonio: I love that.

[00:18:51] Dr. Canton: It's not sanitized, surface. It's in-depth. Those are the things we can think about with the technology we know now, the distance learning. Again, because our fees are reasonable here in the State of Florida, that can be something that can be well, for many teachers in this State, with a 17% African population. It's now just anybody because we know Black history. It shouldn't just be in Black schools. It should be in a suburban school in Dade County. You see what I mean? You can come and get that one-year masters.

We know with public schools, those resumes are going to get bumped to the top. There's no way you're going to be a successful high school teacher with Black, Latino ... , You just can't. Your resume, I don't care if you have a 4.0 in American history, if I don't see any Black, Latino courses. I'm telling you, there's no way the public school system in this State, you're going to be hired. It's just not. It's not going to work because as you know, the students recognize when teachers feel some type of way.

[00:19:53] Antonio: Oh, real quick. If your scholarship is off of Google and not off of deep scholarship by being in the library and in the grind, yes, you get smelled out real quick.

[00:20:01] Dr. Canton: Your attitude or some, what's wrong with ... you're done; it's over. Then you're mad at the kids. You don't look at yourself. MaybeI should have gone to those workshops, taken those classes that we told you to take you years ago. You didn't believe because you didn't realize that, you see the country demographics. That's what January 6th was, but rather than embrace that, how to get health care, you're still holding on to this past that was fraud in the first place rather than see what it is.

That's my part, the joy of building a department in terms of, with all this memory and using that to create something with-- Are there going to be mistakes on the way? Of course, but we know there's enough out there to decrease the mistakes because we understand university culture. We understand how the economy works in this thing now. We understand universities aren't-- there's a relationship between a good economy, with the state legislators. We understand that now.

It's not this idea which we probably thought back, come in on ideas and all this other stuff. It's like any other institution. You have to be forward-thinking. You have to be practical. You have to be optimistic, all these at one time.

[00:21:15] Antonio: All of it. You bring all of that sauce there, David. To your point, it's the context, and it's the history, and it's navigation. I love your approach, not just internally to UF, but also to giving back. In this state, we have a mandate, K through 12 to teach African American history, and yet we don't do it, and we don't do it well. I love the sense of getting the knowledge out of this ivory tower and into communities and into our populations so that everyone can understand that Black history is American history and it is foundational.

[00:21:53] Dr. Canton: Correct. That's part of this as well. That's forming those relationships with community school boards and that's what Carter G. Woodson do, Negro history. Black history month was part of not only academic. How do I popularize this? If I'm only talking to 12 Black people or a thousand academics, we're not doing our job. We can't get mad when the students don't know the history. It's our fault for not going out there and providing a structure where teachers can come in and we can share knowledge, not all elitist because you didn't go here and you like some type of food or you're some-- All that's nonsense.

You come to an association with study of African American life history conference, there's teachers, academics, community folks. It's like we're family. There's none of this ... stuff. Nobody cares where your degree is from. No one's going to be crying and spilling the beans where we see and we look at mainstream, white culture, that's a big deal. If you went to Harvard and you're this and you're that, everybody bows down. Not with African American, and Latino organizations. That has no merit.

It's character, what are you doing and your authenticity? All these credentials, I've seen it, nobody cares. They're like, "Okay." [chuckles]

[00:23:09] Antonio: That's it. It's how you show up.

[00:23:11] Dr. Canton: That's it. I like how you show up. I think that's what, again, studying the history. Obviously trying to bring what Woodson did to this department, and that same type of relationship. How do we get all this stuff from what we do here out there to popularize it so we don't have myth history like Tuskegee syphilis? Those men had syphilis. They were denied treatment based on the assumption that Black men and white men are different biologically and they'll respond differently. You see what I mean? We don't have to put out myths or conspiracy theories.

Racism is no conspiracy. There's enough history there. You don't have to do exaggerated. You don't need that. You don't need to make up different conspiracy theories. It's right there. There's nothing that's being hidden in the prison industrial complex. Our job is to get that out there and have these conversations using the history, then coming up with strategies on how to improve.

As you know, not just the Black-- It's going to improve everybody. That's just the reality that people don't understand. That's why this has given me excitement. Also, I'm an empty-nester now, so I got the administration time, 9:00 to 5:00, Monday through Friday.

My wife's going to be down here in the summer, extraordinary filmmaker. Something like a redo now. I think we both have this energy to really institutional change, but also community change, really putting real-time, the time that we can to really get this thing going, so we're excited, or I'm excited.

[00:24:44] Antonio: You mentioned strategy. What would you say is one actionable thing that people can do to create a sense of belonging at UF?

[00:24:52] Dr. Canton: Oh, that's a good question. One thing? When I was in college, I met Willie Ricks Mukasa. He's on the Eyes on The Prize and he was on the Black Power episode. He used to be in our dorm on campus. He would come in Morehouse in our cafeteria. He would show videos of lynchings. I'm like, "What?"

To be honest, I never knew of lynchings till I got to Morehouse, and I was an honor student. I was just so frustrated. I was considered smart, but didn't know there were 3,000 Black people lynched in America? Anyway, he said, I was 19, I'm ready to protest. "Dave started study group." "What? That's not radical. I want to do something."

Study groups or engaging with each other, I think that's the key. We talk about networking with professors, office hours. We brought Anthony Jack. Whatever organization you're in, be part, be active in it. I think that's the key. I think college is not just what's in the classroom as we know. It's what's outside of the classroom. You will feel more belonging when you are belonging, part of something outside of the classroom, and are committed to it.

Not just signing up, put on your resume, but being engaged in it, running for office, doing programs. That gives you a belonging because you're going to find in that area more so than these classrooms, that can be hostile. That stuff outside is what balances you out. When you go to that discipline where there's one Black person, one Latino, microaggressions. You have that organization, that club that you're committed to, not just on paper, that you sacrifice, you go to the meetings. Oh, I got to ... No. You can't wait to go.

That's what I tell students. Once you have that there centered, this stuff that goes on in class, it just goes over your head.

When you don't have that, now you're caught by yourself. You're isolated and we know in African communities, isolation was considered slavery, not belonging to a community. Western Civ, you want to be free of a community, you just want to be you. In those societies, you got to be part of a group. That's belonging. Part of that group to a university sometimes can be isolating to an individual in those classrooms. Where an individual. You see, that's why you feel that type of hostility, but it's that group, that belonging, as you said, is what makes this experience enjoyable.

[00:27:22] Antonio: I love it. I love that, all around. It goes back to the if you don't find it ready-made, and we're not providing it for you, then start creating your own. That was the whole genesis of the Black Power and the Black Arts Movement. It's like, it's not in the curriculum. A circle of three will get together and we'll learn about our history. We're not going to wait for White institutions to feed us a history that is going to come in a way that we're not going to appreciate it. We will get together and we will find our own histories.

[00:27:56] Dr. Canton: Correct. That's a good point. Black Power, Black Arts Movement, Harlem Renaissance. It just makes sense. You have intellectual tradition that was based on racism, whether the European enlightenment thinkers, what they talk about African people, and the list goes on. It doesn't make sense to wait for them to say, "Hey." No. You start your own. That's what they did. They didn't wait. These were young people, whether it's SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Harlem Renaissance, these folks were in their 20s.

This whole waiting, you don't have to wait. Young people, look at the elections, Tiananmen Square in China, young people, they got the energy. They can stay up all night, no children most of them, enthusiasm. I tell them, "Listen, I can't do all night anymore. I can sign a petition. I'll give you two hours, but I'm in bed at ten o'clock." That's what they do. They create these. You don't wait. If you're here at UF, y ou have a passion.

If you're, Anime or, I don't know, Black skateboarding, whatever, find some other folks. That's your group of belonging. It's that little skateboard group, the reading group, the crochet group. I don't care what you call it, when you graduate, you're going to notice it's those organizations you see--

The classroom experience, there'll be professors depending on your major, but you'll look back and say, "There was some moments, whether it's a student, the dorm can be a tough situation," but that group of belonging, that's what's going to carry your memories for the next 30, 40, 50 years.

Here at UF, what I want to do in this department is create a culture like at a Morehouse where when you leave-- I still have relationships with students at Connecticut College giving me updates. "Hey, Dr. Canton, how's everything going?" That's what I want to create here.

When you have that advisor type of liberal arts, we have a long-term relationship because that's the ideal of Black studies, HBCUs, Latino Serving Institutions. This notion of mentorship is not just four years. It can be a lifetime. still call my professors, doctor, he's 80 years old. I could have nine books. I'm still calling him Dr. Barks, I don't care. When we go to homecoming, I make sure I run into him, check on him on Facebook.

Those relationships are valuable to help you not thinking about the hostile ones you may encounter because you have more of those. When you graduate, you'll feel much better than anger and hostile because you didn't create those belonging communities. You had all tied into the major, the classes, the major club and the marginalization. I'm saying shift that paradigm.

[00:30:39] Antonio: And that is so key. It's like don't allow organizations to create the world for you. Innovate and create your own community to protect you and to nourish you and to lead you. I love that concept. We come to the end. I always ask the question, what brings you joy?

[00:30:58] Dr. Canton: [chuckles] What brings me joy? You know what, to be honest , my family or my kids' success. You have children in school and you look back, it was a struggle. There's no doubt there's ups and downs, but when they stand-- My daughter is a third-year PhD student in kinesiology at University of Illinois. My son is in New York, does podcasting. He's my social media expert. My youngest is applying to college now.

When you see, you're like, "How did that happen?" We were grad students and we were broke. C oming through with these three kids, and you looking back and you see that our parenting style, you see that the older folk, "You should do this and do that," but you allow students to have a conversation, plot their own path. It's a sense of joy.

I think that's when you see the-- Your daughter is at Colorado College. You look up, you're like, "Where does time go?" You laid some sort of foundation that they're going to continue. That's really exciting to me, I'm not going to lie to you. When they steps forward, you're like, wow, it's those children.

Obviously, we need to find some other hobbies, but those right now have been a super joy. I think this opportunity, I'm not going to lie, this Florida weather too, I'm not going to lie.


You told me when we spoke months ago, your whole personality changes.

[00:32:25] Antonio: It did. It did. Not having to dig out a three feet of snow every winter for 15 winters, this is a blessing.

[00:32:32] Dr. Canton: My biggest thought, I wear short sleeve or long sleeve. Come on, I don't even think about what's the weather. I don't even think about it. It's just amazing things. I think that's a sense of joy.

Overall, the opportunity, and obviously coming in with you here, your wife here, I have family here, it's a great experience and a great time. I think we see like I said, the national context, this is a great opportune time at University of Florida. I know we have the history, but I teach the past but don't live in the past. I think the key is to continue what's been started, don't get comfortable, and just keep going. Remain vigilant.

It's what I'm telling alumni, what I'm telling community folks because they'll see us on Facebook. Whatever I say, just keep going. Be critical of me, whatever, keep me honest and let's keep moving. That's how we grow. That's just the nature of the history of this country.

That's why as a historian, it's one of those things where it's like, "Can you ever be happy?" It's not that I'm not happy. It's my spidey sense, that historian sense tingles. It tingles. [crosstalk] , "Oh, oh, we've been down this road before, I'm just saying. I'm not trying to be a party pooper, but all I'm saying keep this in mind."

[00:33:47] Antonio: That's perfect ending, Dr. Canton. Know your history, but don't live there. It's a wellspring. It's also our front forward radar. It's like our past tells us what potentially our future might be if we don't do a course correction.

I love what you do. Thank you so much, Dr. David Canton, director of African American studies here at the University of Florida, phenomenal historian, a phenomenal public intellectual. I think you and I both can agree that we have better halves that bring us joy and keep us in check. I know your wife, Roxanne, is a phenomenal filmmaker. We can't wait to have her here. She's going to be a game-changer as well. Welcome to UF.

[00:34:34] Dr. Canton: Appreciate the opportunity and looking forward to working with you. Thank you. Thank you very much.


[00:34:41] Antonio: Thanks for joining me, Antonio Farias, for another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. If you enjoyed this episode, please like the track and share on social media. We welcome your comments and suggestions for future programs. You can find more episodes of level up and contact information for the office of the chief diversity officer at

[00:35:08] [END OF AUDIO]

19:05 Minutes
Podcast Guest Image

Episode 070: Karissa Raskin

In this week’s episode, Antonio talks with Karissa Raskin, Civic Collaboration Specialist for the City of Gainesville. Find out how the stars aligned for Karissa after an admission’s error led her to a career she would not change for anything. Karissa also discusses how finding mutual benefit and reciprocity in community engagement is where the magic happens.



[00:00:00] Antonio Farias: Welcome to season five of Level Up, a podcast where we explore how students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida create presence and belonging. I'm your host, Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida.


Welcome to another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. Today, we have a real treat. We have Karissa Raskin, who is the Civic Collaboration Specialist for the great City of Gainesville. Karissa is doing phenomenal work, and she's working with the University of Florida and the community. She's also a Gator and also, I just found out, went to UConn for her undergrad. Maybe we can get a chance to talk about the Dairy Bar, at some point, in the great town of Storrs.

I don't think it's a city. It's not going to be a city, right? [laughs]

[00:00:51] Karissa Raskin: Yes, I don't think it quite qualifies as a city.


[00:00:56] Antonio: You also got your master's here at UF in Agricultural Education and Communications and also worked here as a research assistant, right? You've got some deep ties to UF. I'm also curious how you ended up in Connecticut or if you were in Connecticut first and then you ended up in Florida.

[00:01:15] Karissa: Yes. I was born and raised in Connecticut my whole life, and how I got down here is it just kept snowing up there, and I just kept not liking it.

[00:01:23] Antonio: What is it with that-- I spent 15 years in Connecticut, and I could just not get used to the snow.

[00:01:29] Karissa: I can't handle it. My father, opposite of me, recently asked if they could move further North, and I said, "Dad, are you crazy, it's not cold enough? You want more snow? Not my thing."

[00:01:43] Antonio: Storrs really got a ton of storm. We were closer to the shoreline in Old Saybrook. During the worst, I think we got three feet, but if we got three feet, that means that Storrs was just completely up to eyeball level, right?

[00:01:57] Karissa: Oh, yes. Those are some bitter-cold winters walking from class where the tears freeze on your face.

[00:02:07] Antonio: Now my wife is still nostalgic for it, but that's because she got to sit inside with the fireplace on and the hot cocoa while I was outside shoveling snow usually because the damn snow blower went out on me.

[00:02:20] Karissa: Not my cup of tea. My husband has kindly informed me, as a native Floridian, that that will not happen in our future. That's fine.


[00:02:32] Antonio: Welcome to the podcast, and we always start the podcast by asking the question, what is your story of belonging?

[00:02:38] Karissa: My story of belonging? I guess it would actually go back to my days in Connecticut. I'm one of eight kids, and I'm the second oldest of eight kids.

[00:02:49] Antonio: Oh, wow.

[00:02:50] Karissa: Yes. A feeling of belonging, being a part of something greater than yourself, and figuring out your own personal position within that larger system, figuring out how you have individuality in a group really taught me that belonging doesn't need to look the same for everyone. It doesn't mean that it has to be consistent, it just means that it has to be open and a sense of trust and a sense of real community and caring for one another, which really is exemplified in my experience of belonging in Gainesville as well. I guess my parents did it right. They allowed me to carry on my childhood lessons into my work.

[00:03:38] Antonio: It's like that's paying dividends. Did you say thank you at some point because I'm still waiting for the thank yous from my 20-year-old? I think it's too early to tell at this point whether she's going to thank us for anything at this point.

[00:03:52] Karissa: I try to thank them, probably not enough, as probably most parents aren't thanked enough, but yes, they set me up well for life.

[00:04:01] Antonio: Maybe we could talk about that, that transition at Gainesville because the second question we always ask is, what excites you and really empowers you about the work you do? You do a lot of work in the community. Tell us about what really excites you about the work you do now here in Gainesville.

[00:04:19] Karissa: Being the Civic Collaboration Specialist, I get to work across so many different agencies, institutions, and neighborhoods, and then sectors. I touch so many different areas, whether it be workforce development, whether it be food systems, whether it be health, equity, arts. I think the thing that excites me the most is no matter where I am engaged physically or the genre of topic that I'm engaged around, the sense of community, the sense of engagement from individuals who are passionate about finding ways to put our collective resources together, to truly make a greater benefit for our community as a whole, that is what is so exciting to me.

Gainesville is wonderful in that I find there to be less ego. It's very much the feeling of wanting to do good not only for oneself but for the community as a whole and just figuring out the best way to work collectively to do that. That's amazing to me.

[00:05:28] Antonio: Egos tend to get in the way, don't they, of people doing things that are selfless and for the greater good, don't they?

[00:05:37] Karissa: They do, and I think that there's a balance. I think we all do have to take care of ourselves, so it's fine to have intrinsic motivation. I don't think doing things that are completely selfless, I don't even know if that's within the human condition, but finding a way to align our own expectations and the benefit that we seek to gain out of an experience and not necessarily putting that above the benefit that others receive, finding that mutual benefit and the reciprocity, that core social capital when people are willing to come to the table to have those discussions, that's where the magic happens.

[00:06:19] Antonio: That's key. Mission first and then it drives everything else. You got your master's here in Ag. Education and Communications. You're the second person this week that we interviewed that had this degree, and they were also an IFAS extension officer. Tell us about what that program does. Actually, what drew you there? How has it benefited you, if it has, in the work that you're doing right now?

[00:06:50] Karissa: My experience is probably unique and a little bit funny. I actually had applied to the University for my master's degree, not in Agricultural Education and Communication. I applied for another program, was accepted, moved to Gainesville from Miami, where I was originally living, signed my lease, and then found out, unfortunately, that there was a bit of an error in the admissions process, and the funding that had been allocated for my assistantship was not actually there.

That was a shock, considering I had just signed my lease and I no longer had a job or a position at the University, but people, in the community spirit, put their heads together to figure out what we might be able to do and the interests that I had in this sense of community engagement. A little bit of the food system and more of a social-sciences-driven perspective actually led me to my faculty advisor, Dr. Paul Monaghan, and he happened to be within the Department of Agricultural Education and Communication.

Paul is a phenomenal human being and also happens to be a specialist in community-based social marketing, which is really this philosophy of being able to leverage the marketing communication outreach strategies of the corporate sector for the public good. It's used a lot in public health and in extension work as well. The stars aligned for me because had I not met Paul, I would not have been introduced to the type of work that I'm embedded in.

In fact, one of the first days that I lived here in Gainesville and I had just met Paul, he invited me out to a community meeting in East Gainesville, where they were working on a neighborhood revitalization initiative, and those community partners whom I met however many years ago, five years ago or so, are whom I consider my family now. That wouldn't have happened had the sequence of events not taken the course that they did. Yes, a little bit different, that goes to show there don't get discouraged if things don't go exactly as planned, there's probably a way to figure it out.

[00:09:25] Antonio: Although I can imagine you were probably hyperventilating at the moment when it actually occurred.

[00:09:32] Karissa: Just a little, I was a little distraught. My fiancé at the time was rather distraught, but like I said, I don't think I would change anything about the way things happened, being where I am now.

[00:09:46] Antonio: That's interesting how paths cross and then you get nudged into what actually is your zone, right?

[00:09:53] Karissa: Yes, exactly. Honestly, I fully expected to be in Central Africa right now working on small-scale artisanal mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is still very, very valid. Who knows, maybe later in life that's where I'll be, but right now I'm in Gainesville working on community development, and I wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

[00:10:17] Antonio: I love that. I'm glad you're here. What caused the City of Gainesville? Is this a new position that was created and if so, why did Gainesville do this now? What's their long-term vision here?

[00:10:31] Karissa: My position and actually Andrew Telles at the University of Florida, who is the Director of Collaborative Initiatives there, our positions came about really at the same time. It was at the end of 2018 into early 2019 when we were both hired. The impetus for these positions came out of Dr. Charlie Lane's efforts around the strategic development plan at the University and in concert with the strategic plan that the City of Gainesville was engaging in around 2016/2017.

Our Mayor Poe, and Dr. Lane, at the time, they like to tell the story of on Valentine's Day, they signed the MoU or a partnership agreement. That really spurred this greater work from both of our institutions to figure out, how do we be more community-engaged? How do we take the resources at our institutions to help support the community in a way the community wants to be supported? There's a lot of dialogue and conversations and iterations of what that could look like, in between, but eventually, we're still figuring it out. We definitely don't have all the answers, but that's where our positions came from.

[00:11:55] Antonio: Okay, that makes a lot of sense. I didn't know the backend to that. I appreciate that. Also, I appreciate the work you and Andrew are doing here within the UF ecosystem. Just so the listeners know, both you and Andrew came and have been now facilitating two sessions, pretty intense sessions with our Campus Diversity Liaison cadre , in order to get us really aligned in the mindset to understand, what does it mean to be collaborative with the City of Gainesville but more importantly, with the community of Gainesville? Thank you for the work that you're doing and thank you for the work that Andrew-- Andrew has also been on the podcast.

[00:12:34] Karissa: Great.

[00:12:36] Antonio: We ask the question also about, we're in times when people think, well, there's all this polarization and people are locked into their worldviews, and nobody wants to change their mind. I ask a question that in the past year, what is something that you've changed your mind about that has actually surprised you?

[00:12:53] Karissa: That's a great question. Actually, at the very beginning of the pandemic, on February 22, my first and only child was born.

[00:13:04] Antonio: Congratulations. A Pisces, and February 22 is my birthday, so I think that that is a blessed child that you have.

[00:13:12] Karissa: Really? Oh, wow, look at that. Well, I think she is the light and the joy of my life. I could talk about her forever, as I'm sure most parents could. Being of eight kids growing up, I had visions of what this year would look like, being the first of my family to have a child myself, and was pretty confident that I had it laid out how it was going to go, who was going to visit, all of the visions of family communing and laughter and excitement and celebration.

Then the pandemic happened. Actually, six of my seven siblings have not even met my daughter at this point. I bring this up as an example of why my mindset has changed because I never thought that I would be able to weather a storm like this by myself. Having a new daughter and something that I have really looked forward to since I was a young girl myself and having my own child.

It just shows the resilience that humans have, and sometimes we don't give ourselves enough credit for we can get through things that are bigger than ourselves. I never knew how much of an affinity I would have for Zoom.


That is something else that has changed.

[00:14:42] Antonio: That certainly has, although I think by the end of this year, we're all going to be zoomed out. We'll probably go back to writing letters or carrier pigeon or something. Congratulations on your daughter. Ours is 20 years old, but in my head, she's still that 3-year-old that's bouncing around the house, so she's precious, enjoy her. I'm sure you've been told a thousand times, enjoy it because it flies by. We were told that, and we didn't believe it. All of a sudden, I was like, "Wow, if we could just anchor in one place for just another second," so enjoy.

[00:15:21] Karissa: I'm grateful for the smartphones, as much as I hate it, sometimes; the power of those videos, come 20 years from now, glad to have that documentation.

[00:15:31] Antonio: She's a Pisces, so get her some brushes, some colored pencils, and let her go at it.

[00:15:38] Karissa: All right, will do. I'll do let her have the walls.


[00:15:42] Antonio: That's what mine did. We close the podcast by asking, what brings you joy?

[00:15:53] Karissa: My daughter and my husband and just the simple things in life, just being able after work to go out on a walk with them in our neighborhood and have the people who matter the most right next to me.

[00:16:08] Antonio: That's beautiful. It doesn't get any better than that.

[00:16:10] Karissa: Sure doesn't.

[00:16:12] Antonio: I do have to ask the question, which might get both of us in trouble, but it has to be asked. UConn and UF Dairy, who has the best ice cream?

[00:16:22] Karissa: You know, I'm a vegan.

[00:16:23] Antonio: You, too? No kidding.

[00:16:26] Karissa: I am.

[00:16:27] Antonio: Always been a vegan?

[00:16:29] Karissa: No. As of, what, the last 10-ish years. I had a Dairy Bar ice cream from UConn, which was phenomenal, [crosstalk] but I never had any from UF because I've been a vegan since. Really, I think I went vegan when I was at UConn.

[00:16:51] Antonio: Okay. It was all that Dairy Bar visitation that probably drove you.

[00:16:56] Karissa: It's probably the case. Yes, I have them to blame. Are you vegan as well?

[00:17:03] Antonio: I am. I've been vegan now for five years. My daughter converted me. She went vegan early when she was 13, and at first, she was making food and letting me try it, and I was like, "That's disgusting." It got better and better, and vegan options got better. Now it's fantastic, so yes, I'm with you on that. Every now and then, I'll grab a Ben and Jerry's vegan pint, so I'll still do the same gorging. I'll just gorge on non-dairy at this point.

Well, thank you. Thank you very much for being on the podcast, Karissa Raskin, Civic Collaboration Specialist for the great City of Gainesville. It's been a pleasure to have you, especially since you came from Connecticut. We have a lot of connectivity there, and I'm with you. If I don't see snow again in my life, I'm good to go.

[00:18:05] Karissa: [laughs] Well, then we will enjoy our Florida sunshine and vegan ice cream together. How's that?

[00:18:11] Antonio: Yes, especially since it's winter now and it was scathing 33 degrees this morning.

[00:18:18] Karissa: It's a good reminder of, I don't need to be up in the teens up there where they are.

[00:18:22] Antonio: No, and that's where they'll end up. They'll end up at -5, and we'll be here freezing in 30s, so I'm good with that.

[00:18:31] Karissa: Me, too. All right. Thank you so much for having me. This was so fun.

[00:18:36] Antonio: Thank you.


Thanks for joining me, Antonio Farias, for another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. If you enjoyed this episode, please like the track and share on social media. We welcome your comments and suggestions for future programs. You can find more episodes of Level Up and contact information for the Office of the Chief Diversity Officer at


[00:19:06] [END OF AUDIO]

32:21 Minutes
Podcast Guest Image

Episode 069: Rachel Carrico

In this episode, Antonio speaks with Dr. Rachel Carrico, an assistant professor of dance studies in the School of Theatre + Dance. Rachel shares her varied path to her “dream job” at UF and talks about what it means to have the freedom to belong. She also talks about her revolutionary experience with the Faculty Success Program, which she calls a “gift of support” for first-year faculty members.



[00:00:01] Antonio Farias: Welcome to season five of Level Up, a podcast where we explore how students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida create presence and belonging. I'm your host, Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida. Welcome to another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. Today, we are fortunate to have Dr. Rachel Carrico, who is an assistant professor in the School of Theatre and Dance and dance studies. Welcome, Dr. Carrico. How are you?

[00:00:41] Rachel Carrico: I'm great. Thank you so much for having me.

[00:00:43] Antonio: This is great. Looking through your bio and if we have touched points all along the way, and there's serious curiosities that I have lots of interest in--- UC Riverside, you did your PhD in critical dance studies there. Something about Goat in the Road Productions that I am super interested in. Also, you were at Reed College, and you were also at Colorado College. My daughter is at Colorado College right now, I'm texting back and forth, she's a junior. She's over there right now. Reed is interesting because when we were doing our college tours, we went to Reed and I had a conference on the campus at the time with other chief diversity officers and she and my wife went looking around. Five minutes later, she turned around, she's like, "Dad I'm done." I was like, "What happened?" She's like, "Dad, there's naked students in trees smoking dope." It's like, "I'm not coming here." My question to you before you even start, is that true because we got it that apparently, there is a tree where Reed students get up, take off their clothes and smoke something?

[00:01:51] Rachel: Yes, I'm sure that's true. I never encountered that. I tried real hard to stay very clear of any situation in which I might encounter anything like that, but it's slightly-- Reed has such allure of being this, I don't know, Mecca of just social liberalism. I only spent a year there, I was a visiting professor there for a year. I think there's a lot of that that really lives on. A lot of that is a performance of an ideal of itself. That also can be very real as a performance gallery, and everything performance if something isn't real. It was a really fascinating place to spend a year. I always used to tell my students, I felt like I was a visitor on planet Reed for the year because there is a very strong center of gravity. I just got to orbit its atmosphere for a year and soak it up. I moved on but it was a wonderful place to teach for a year.

[00:02:59] Antonio: They're all incredible places. I only poke fun of it because like anything else, who knows what a young student is interested in until they actually experience it? Let me start how I start all the podcast by asking what is your story of belonging?

[00:03:15] Rachel: Oh, I love this question. Ever since I learned that that was the question that really grounds this podcast, I've been thinking about it, even writing out some thoughts, oh gosh, and I have so many thoughts. I'm not even sure where to begin. I guess the first thing I thought of was, when I think of belonging, I think of home where someone grew up with their family, that being this anchor of belonging and that may be the thing as we move through life if we, as I have, no longer live in that place, or live with those people, that that might be the reference point. As I'm trying to find belonging, I'm always trying to measuring it against this experience I had as a child or in a home community. For me, I think I'm still trying to figure out how my family of origin and my community of origin have shaped who I am because certainly, they have in a lot of really positive ways, but I've really spent my adult life getting far away from my family of origin and from my community. I grew up outside of St. Louis, in Southern Illinois in a very Catholic family, went to Catholic school, 13 years. I'm the first person in my family to go to a four-year institution of higher ed. I'm definitely the first person to pursue graduate school. My longings, my desires, and now, it's very clear, my political beliefs and my religious beliefs or lack thereof are so different from my immediate family and for the community I was raised in. I found belongings in other places in graduate school, with other artists, and other cities. I've spent ever since I left the St. Louis area in 2006, I've been moving constantly, either for study, for research, for love, or for art, something. It's been, well, you read the list of places I've taught just in the last few years, it's pretty clear I haven't been paying rent in any one location for any significant period of time. That also impacts this feeling of not really belonging anywhere, but everywhere at the same time. What I feel like I've-- The beauty of this nomadic lifestyle that I had the privilege to pursue is creating communities wherever I am. Now, I have these the nodes of chosen families, of close friends, of like-minded individuals, of compatriots in these different cities around the country and even in other countries too who I feel like I belong to. I suppose belonging for me, even though I think of place as the first thing for me, it's really been about who. Who the people are. The other thing that your question really got me thinking about too was how my whiteness figures into that story, my story of belonging because something I've been learning about for some years now is the way in which for white folks, we have both a privilege of ability to move in and out of communities more or less at will, and that there are some permission of mobility, whether that be in terms of access, economic privilege, or just this unspoken social rules that allow for that mobility. To have the freedom to find belonging where we choose, maybe more so than other folks, non-white people. At the same time, something I've also been learning about in recent years, and the specific comes out of my training and learning with an anti racist organization in New Orleans called The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, who really teach about how entrance into whiteness, as people who have not always been identified as or called white, entrance into the privileges of whiteness can come at the expense of a connection to ethnicity or culture or history. At the very beginning, for example, you asked me how my last name was pronounced. Is it Carrico? I'm like, "Well, probably at some point it was, but I don't know. I don't know where that history is. I don't know that lineage. I'm not connected to whatever culture my name is from." I don't mean to simplify, that's a one to one trade, but I think there's some wisdom in that and I'm still working this out. This isn't a fully formed position, but something about the way that whiteness has worked in my life and this question of belonging is both about being able to belong anywhere, and also nowhere at the same time.

[00:07:55] Antonio: That's really super interesting. This sense of, what did you call it? You said the freedom to belong, right? To belong anywhere and everywhere. It's curious because I'm reading through-- I just started reading Isabel Wilkerson's Caste, it just came out. She's talking about-- She's trying to reframe this American project as a caste system. She talks about that, that certain people have the privilege of moving up and down and across passing, but others don't. The markers are very visible markers and we are very visual creatures. At the same time, you talk about these anchors. It's a really complex thing. Most people get caught up on the physical or the lineage part, but your point is right. There are certain things that tag our memory to certain places, certain beginning points, but I love your concept of chosen. You choose at some point also to figure out who your chosen family are, your chosen friends, your chosen community. Can you say a little bit more about how-- You called it a nomadic life, right? As an academic-- Well, first of all, we hope that you lay down deep roots into the University of Florida because-

[00:09:07] Rachel: Me too.

[00:09:07] Antonio: - [crosstalk] amazing talent. Anyway, glad you're here, and we're really hopeful that you stick around. If things don't feel sticky, let us know as well because that is also the other side of belonging, is it's not just an individual journey, it's also whatever the apparatus is, whether it's the family or the city or the university that also has a stake in creating belonging.

[00:09:33] Rachel: That's right. This is the first time in a long time I've had a job for more than one year. I'm starting my second year now as an assistant professor and that feels amazing to get to return and there be some continuity to not have to plan everything all over again. I guess I've been out of the PhD now. Well, it was five years when I started this job. That was a lot of time of-- They were amazing experiences and I was always employed, I always had a paycheck [laughs] as an academic. Not everyone can say that, I don't mean to dismiss the incredible opportunities I had either and that I chose but it feels really nice to settle into a place and to be able to participate in the vision of what's happening and in the College of the Arts specifically at this moment. I just am so excited and feel so fortunate to be in the beginning of what really feels like some momentum, of really building something. I'm really invested in that. I'm just so grateful that the place I'm putting down roots is here with these people, with this vision to get to be a part of building this. When I saw the call for this job, my first thought was, "That's my dream job. I could never get that job." I was so at once dazzled by it and felt so intimidated by it that I thought, "Oh, this is going to be the job everyone wants, it's going to be so competitive. There's no way." The fact that I'm here, I still pinch myself.

[00:11:00] Antonio: It was competitive and you outcompeted everyone else. We're glad for that. Tell us about your experience. You went through the NCFPD FSP program. Tell us a little bit about that experience for you.

[00:11:13] Rachel: Oh my gosh, it was a major character in my summer in terms of how I experienced it. It was a lot of joy. I went into it with this expectation that, "Okay, I need to write my book this summer." I had all these plans to send it to the publisher by August, I had plans, I had so many plans and I thought, "All right, this is going to be the perfect thing to light the fire and just boost me past the finish line." I had no idea that the whole point of the program is the exact opposite. It is ridding us of those unrealistic expectations, of breaking the cycle of boom and bust productivity, of setting up a life that is sustainable both as a human being and as a productive scholar and as an engaged teacher. I very, very, very slowly and reluctantly let go of my fierce grip on my plans and learned to go with the flow, accept what was happening, be present with what's going on in the world and how it was turning my plans upside down and really being okay with that and trusting that the work may be better in the end for it but it really forced me to take a hard look at my habits, at my resistances, at my beliefs attached to writing, teaching, being of service to the university. None of these were things that I thought I had problems with going into it. It was a deep dive into all of this base layer stuff and I'm going into this fall with I feel like such a clear head and a clear vision and a plan, but this time the plan isn't this rigid finish line that if I don't finish, if I don't cross it, I will somehow feel like a failure. Right now, I understand that it's a blueprint, it's a scaffold, and I have to approach it with the spirit of experimentation but I also have tools to make more realistic plans.

[00:13:21] Antonio: That's key, right?

[00:13:22] Rachel: It's so key. Really fine, really specific tools, but then also a mindset that supports them. It was really revolutionary.

[00:13:34] Antonio: It sounds like you might be recommending it to other faculty, right?

[00:13:37] Rachel: [laughs] Oh my gosh. The end of my first year was an amazing time to do it. I imagine at multiple points of one's career, you'd get different things out of it but coming into a place new and being given that as a gift of support, I wish everyone could have that. I wish it could just come with the offer letter because I really think it can make an enormous difference not only in the output, in the amount of productivity that people are able to achieve, but how we feel about ourselves as humans and our relationships both within the workplace and out, I think would just be much healthier.

[00:14:27] Antonio: After listening to this, I'm sure some faculty will be like, "No, I want to renegotiate my offer letter."

[00:14:32] Rachel: Do it.

[00:14:33] Antonio: Exactly. You mentioned something about constructing also. There is an interesting experiment going on in College of the Arts that Dean Ozuzu is taking you all through. You mentioned The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience and what it was like because that was a collective experience that you went through as a college, wasn't it?

[00:14:55] Rachel: Well, I didn't participate. Yes, there were people in the college that participated in the training with that organization this year, but I actually got introduced to The People's Institute in 2006, I think, was my first time interacting with them. They've been around since the '60s, they've been around a long time. My first introduction was in 2006 and it was during a summer leadership institute that's run by a dance company called Urban Bush Women that's based in Brooklyn. They do a 10-day leadership institute every summer and 2 of those 10 days is devoted to the work with The People's Institute. That was my first experience, was embedded within this Arts Leadership Institute. Then I moved to New Orleans shortly after that. New Orleans is where my research is based. I'm currently working on a book about dance culture there. The first time when I had decided to move there from New York was shortly after doing this training with Urban Bush Women in the New York and People's Institute is a part of that. People's Institute is based in New Orleans and once I got to New Orleans, I was fortunate enough to keep working with them in different capacities because they train worldwide but they're very active with local communities on the ground as part of non-profit work, arts education, arts organizing with Urban Bush Women included because they moved their institute to New Orleans for about nine years shortly after Katrina. I got to continue participating in learning from those individuals there. An important part of that work as well was participating in a racial affinity group for white folks working to undo racism called European Dissent, D-I-S-S-E-N-T. That's an outgrowth or a satellite to the main core of the work that happens there. By the virtue of living there, I was able to meet with that group on a regular basis and continue that group, both with the wider work of The People's Institute and specifically with the organizing for/ by white people as well.

[00:17:02] Antonio: Thank you. I didn't know that. That helps, and yes, you're right. You were in New Orleans right around Katrina, right?

[00:17:10] Rachel: Shortly afterwards. It was the post-Katrina rebuilding that brought me there initially to work with a group of artists who were putting on a huge site-specific performance to memorialize and revivify one of the flooded neighborhoods. They were artists that I had gotten to know through my professors at NYU when I was doing my master's there. I wound up just going to New Orleans for a summer to sleep on an artist's couch and volunteer with this collective for a summer. After that, I was really convinced that this is where I needed to be. I'd always seen my work in some amorphous -- I never really thought I'd get a PhD and be a professor. I had a really circuitous route to this. At this point in time, I definitely didn't know that's what I would wind up doing but I knew that my work would be somewhere at the intersection of arts education and social justice and that's what I was working on as best I could in New York, put all those pieces together and gig enough to pay the rent. When I went to New Orleans for that summer and really saw the way in which artists and culture bearers were leading the rebuilding of that city, that arts and culture wasn't an afterthought that got plastered on once the bricks were built, they were the bricks of the rebuilding. This is the bread and butter, the lifeblood of the city. This is not to dismiss people's material needs in any way, but just to say that I was so moved by the way in which arts and culture were sustenance and at the forefront of rebuilding plans, not necessarily with the city or the power brokers or business leaders but from artists and culture barriers themselves. About a year after that volunteering experience, I, without a plan, had to quit my jobs, plural, in New York and packed up everything and drove to New Orleans and started to figure out a way to learn from people doing the work on the ground and to be of service with whatever skills I had. I was working there as an arts administrator and an arts educator in public schools, what was left of them at the time. As you may know, New Orleans has been almost completely overtaken by charter schools at this point. It was a huge learning experience for me to have all of the consequences and repercussions of that. There were a lot of white people from New York and from other metropolitan places moving into New Orleans with good intentions, to be of help, to be of service. It doesn't always mean that our good intentions spelled beneficial outcomes for local residents, for people who were still displaced, specifically for foreign people of color. There was a lot of my own learning that happened in those two years that I lived there right after Katrina.

[00:20:00] Antonio: That's incredibly deep. Let me ask you. You have many strands and many roads that you follow and interests. What really excites you about the work you're doing now?

[00:20:14] Rachel: I was a very late bloomer in terms of understanding that dance was more than pretty people in sparkly costumes. I had danced my whole life, and really, when I got serious and went to college and I was going to be a serious person, I really set dance to the side because I didn't understand that it could be a tool for social justice. That it could be poetic and a form of keeping history. All the things that I understand about it now, I didn't when I was an undergraduate. I studied theater and English, and I really thought that that's where all the intellectual, heart and soulful stuff, and important stuff in the world was happening and that dance was fun, I enjoyed it, but I didn't really interrogate it until much later in life. What excites me about the work I do now is sharing that with my students and also with any people who encounter my work through reading it or through other means, through this podcast maybe, that every culture throughout the time across the globe, people dance. Primarily not in studios and on stages. The dance that I get the most excited about, the dance that I write about and study mostly is dances done by people who don't consider themselves professionals, who dance to form community, to improve their health, to claim a stake in the place where they live, to share values with the next generation. All of this incredibly important work that happens through something that looks like maybe it's just a party, maybe it's just fun. Dance can be a window into anything we want to learn about the world, economics, history, sociology. Anything you want to want to learn about the world, you can start with dance and bridge out because it touches everything. That's what I love about teaching dance studies and dance history, specifically in general education classes. I'm teaching a quest one course this fall called Dance, Race, Gender. That's really the approach that it takes. You might not think of yourself as a dancer but you might like to have a dance party with your friends or your family in the backyard. You certainly watch it in commercials, music videos, and all of this. Let's just get smart about what we're already doing. That is a way to, not not enjoy it any more, but enjoy it more deeply and maybe to make more informed choices or choices that align with our own values and desires and visions of the world about what kind of dancing we do or how we participate or don't, or what we choose to watch or don't, to deepen our appreciation. That's what I love about the dance classes that aren't necessarily for people who consider themselves dance artists. Then teaching the dance majors who really do envision themselves having a career making dance. I love nourishing their artistic practice with a historical grounding, with just giving them tools for what they already know and want to say and are curious about in the world. Just to give them permission to not leave their intellectual selves or critical selves, their activist selves at the door, and that all of that could come in the studio and it all belongs there. They know this but I'm just there to support that journey.

[00:23:40] Antonio: Yes, and to validate it, right, because otherwise, we don't. We're privilege as you mentioned, we privileged the mind, the written word, and the body is just going along for the ride, which it's never been that way, right?

[00:23:53] Rachel: Yes, that's right.

[00:23:54] Antonio: What's your thought in terms of technology? Things like TikTok or Fortnite where dances become a different type of performance in different spaces or in virtual spaces.

[00:24:04] Rachel: I have total respect for people who understand all of that and think about that. [laughs] I'm a little bit of a technophobe and a little bit of a social media-phobe, a little bit. Not entirely, I don't have negative judgments about it. It's not my thing. I don't participate a lot, but I have come to rely on, not maybe TikTok or Fortnite specifically, but other kinds of technological and digital social media platforms, of course, in online teaching which I did before COVID-19 required it, and in in-person teaching. What was dance history like before YouTube? [laughs] I mean, how you can just show videos of anything. It' s amazing. I learn a lot from my students in terms of those things that you're mentioning now. I learned a lot from them and the way they're using them and thinking about them. I look forward to continue learning from them.

[00:24:59] Antonio: Speaking of that, of learning, you brought up the virtual environment, in terms of Zoom. How are you going into the semester? You said you had experience before in teaching on the virtual. Usually, you think of dance as something that's visceral and you have to be in person and live in order to do the motions and to critique and to teach. What's your philosophy and experience in this? Obviously, there's difference but are there benefits to it as well?

[00:25:32] Rachel: Yes. The classes that I teach, by and large, are more on the history/cultural studies end of things. I'm not teaching technique, I can't really speak to that. That's a whole other animal. In terms of a dance studies course is a lot like a literature course, or a theater history course where a lot of what we do is watch and read and discuss and write. However, dance studies is different from our cousin disciplines in that we really do believe in the, what you mentioned earlier, the wisdom of the body and its knowing, and the benefit of doing to know. Even in a class that might be purely dance history, or another dance studies class, media studies, I won't say all dance study professionals, but I certainly-- We will always be dancing. No matter if we just have to go outside to the atrium or we have to push the desks aside or in this case, we all got to carve out a little space in our bedroom and turn our cameras on, [laughs] we will always be dancing as a way to know the material, to express ourselves. Just to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. The body is wise and it knows and it's a way of knowing, so we dance. That's different then, you really have to maintain or build your technique because it is your instrument. That's a different thing that my colleagues are having to contend with right now.

[00:27:00] Antonio: At any given point, your class may break out into spontaneous dance.

[00:27:05] Rachel: I don't know about spontaneous. I do plan a little more than that but I do try to leave space for the teachable moment, for sure.

[00:27:14] Antonio: I love it. Tell me about something that in the last six months-- We've become such a polarized nation given any subject. Right now, it's about race or masking. You name a subject, people will draw a bright line. Tell me about something that in the past six months or so you've changed your mind about.

[00:27:36] Rachel: I changed my mind about what I consider is within my comfort zone for being in the world during this pandemic. I change my mind about that all the time as new information is revealed, as different social behaviors become more normalized within my circles. One really concrete example is, I have a two-year-old child, and my husband and I were home with him from mid-March. We pulled him out of daycare and we just traded all day every day, taking care of him and working until today. He started pre-school today.

[00:28:11] Antonio: Wow.

[00:28:12] Rachel: Yes. [laughs] Eventually, I changed my mind about, I guess, the risk-reward benefit of sending him to school. That's something that's very concrete and on my mind today.

[00:28:27] Antonio: Who cried the most, Mom or Dad?

[00:28:30] Rachel: Oh, well. [laughs] Dad didn't go to drop-off, just me. My child was a little sad that I wasn't going in with him. He's just been in our house with us for five or six months or something. So I was a little worried, but as soon as he understood that there were new toys to be discovered in this building, he didn't even look back. He just walked, he didn't even look back.

[00:28:54] Antonio: That was ours, a million years ago. We kept waving and shouting her name. No, she found a friend and heard about-- For ours, it was snacks. She heard about snacks, really interesting snacks, and that was it, gone.

[00:29:10] Rachel: He was like, "Bye, Mom and Dad. I'm good." [chuckles]

[00:29:13] Antonio: "When's pick-up?"

[00:29:15] Rachel: Yes, I know. [laughs] I think today we're going to pick up a little early. I think for us more than him. [chuckles]

[00:29:22] Antonio: Tell us, we always end the podcast with the question of, especially nowadays, what brings you joy?

[00:29:30] Rachel: These past, has it been six months since mid-March when we went, something like that?

[00:29:34] Antonio: I have no idea. I think it's been at least five years.

[00:29:37] Rachel: Time is just bending. I don't even know. There has actually been, amidst all of the suffering and confusion happening in the world, and all of the agony and turmoil of making these decisions, a million a day, t here has been so much joy and so much beauty of just shrinking life down to the barest and simplest daily needs. I'm actually grieving that a little bit. As we start the school year and my child goes off to daycare, that this period of life was so many things and I felt the scope of human emotions from one end to the other. It was definitely on both ends, there was a lot of joy. One of those moments that was a daily dose of joy were these daily dance parties that my two-year-old and I would have. This is honestly the most dancing I've been doing in quarantine, but we made a playlist that evolved over the months. We got these special scarves that became the dance party scarves. They were our costumes, we adorned ourselves with scarves and just rocked out in the living room. A blast.

[00:30:57] Antonio: Wow, I love that. That's not available on TikTok anywhere that we can go find?

[00:31:05] Rachel: No. [laughs] There's definitely no recording.

[00:31:09] Antonio: That's part of your private stock, I fully respect that. [chuckles] My daughter was trying to get my wife and I to do a TikTok dance thing. I was like, "You don't want to see your father dance at this point in his life."

[00:31:20] Rachel: [laughs] Maybe she does.

[00:31:22] Antonio: Maybe. Well, thank you, Dr. Rachel Carrico. This has been phenomenal. Assistant Professor, School of Theater and Dance, and Dance Studies. Beginning of your second year, laying down deep roots, very deep roots into the Florida system. We are so grateful that you're here and thank you for sharing your story.

[00:31:42] Rachel: Thank you. Thank you for the invitation and thank you for making the FSP possible this summer. It was an enormous experience. Thank you so much. [music]

[00:31:53] Antonio: Appreciate you and all you do. Thank you. [music]

[00:31:59] Antonio: Thanks for joining me, Antonio Farias, for another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. If you enjoyed this episode, please like the track and share on social media. I'd like to give a special thank you to Dr. Welson Tremura, Professor in UF's School of Music and the Center for Latin American Studies, for the original theme music. We welcome your comments and suggestions for future programs. You can find more episodes of Level Up and contact information for the Office of the Chief Diversity Officer at [music] [00:32:35] [END OF AUDIO]

23:23 Minutes
Podcast Guest Image

Episode 068: Lenny Urena Valerio

Welcome to Season 5 of Level Up! In this week’s episode, Antonio catches up with Dr. Lenny Urena Valerio, Associate Director of Administration for the Center for Latin American Studies and a scholar of European history. Lenny shares that learning from students is one of the best gifts she could receive and how, as a first-generation student, she gets joy from mentoring others to help clear their paths to success. Lenny also talks about her fascinating new book, Colonial Fantasies, Imperial Realities: Race Science and the Making of Polishness on the Fringes of the German Empire.



[00:00:02] Antonio Farias: Welcome to season five of Level Up, a podcast where we explore how students, faculty and staff at the University of Florida create presence and belonging. I'm your host, Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida.


Welcome to season five of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. Today, we are really lucky to have Dr. Lenny Urena Valerio, who is the Associate Director of Administrative Services in the Center for Latin American Studies. A very storied Latin American Studies Center. She is also on top of the many other hats that she wears, also a campus diversity liaison, and she is a distinguished scholar and recently published with her new book, Colonial Fantasies, Imperial Realities and hopefully we can get a chance to talk about that as well. Welcome to the podcast, Lenny.

[00:00:51] Lenny Urena Valerio: Thank you so much for having me, and I appreciate the opportunity to share my story with you.

[00:00:56] Antonio: We start the podcast by asking the question, what is your story of belonging? Also, you just shared earlier before we hit record that you are in the phenomenal island of Puerto Rico. Tell us about belonging both here and anywhere you want to take us on that journey.

[00:01:13] Lenny: That's an interesting question and it's a question that I've been grappling with my entire life, it's at the center of my intellectual productions because I consider myself double immigrant. When I was nine, I migrated from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico in the '80s where there were a lot of tensions between Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, and a lot of negative stereotypes.

For me, belonging meant assimilating to Puerto Rican culture and losing my accent, also dealing with the tensions in my family, where they wanted me to assert my Dominicanness. I always felt like I was bipolar in a way. Feeling Dominican at home and Puerto Rican outside, in school and with my friends. In my early 20s, I migrated to the United States to do my graduate studies at the University of Michigan.

Their belonging meant being a Latina, going back to, in a way, my roots, meeting different groups from Latin America and feeling at home in my Latinidad, my Latin American identity. Which was very interesting, but at the same time in Michigan, there wasn't enough diversity. In that sense, Latinidad there mainly meant Mexican-American or Central America.

When I finally moved to Gainesville in Florida, I'm finally finding myself more at home because of how close the state is, and the university is with the Caribbean and with Latin America as a whole. I feel a lot of comfort in finding Caribbean food here and more of a variety of Caribbean cultures.

[00:03:25] Antonio: We need more of that though.

[00:03:27] Lenny: Yes, we need more of that in Gainesville, but if you go to Ocala or down south, it's not that far off.

[00:03:36] Antonio: You're going to have to trade some secrets in Ocala because I haven't found it.

[00:03:40] Lenny: The interesting part is that in Florida, I'm reassessing my Dominicanness because precisely in Ocala, there's a Dominican supermarket and I've been going there to going back to taste that I tried when I was small and finding myself with all these cultural artifacts that I used to enjoy-- That I enjoy at home. It's interesting to find them here.

[00:04:10] Antonio: To find them here, right?

[00:04:12] Lenny: Yes, and it has helped me with the community and my friends here. It's okay to be Dominican, it's okay to be Puerto Rican at the same time. That's interesting.

[00:04:26] Antonio: Wherever there's a bodega or a tienda, a Dominican tienda, there's got to be a Dominican community. I had no idea there's a Dominican community in Ocala.

[00:04:36] Lenny: I didn't have an idea either, and I haven't found the community itself, but I found it's more than a bodega, it's a supermarket.

[00:04:49] Antonio: There's got to be some serious representation then in that area, which again, breaks-

[00:04:54] Lenny: Probably.

[00:04:54] Antonio: -the stereotype if you just drive through who the residents are. Fascinating. How's this renegotiation of your Dominicanness going?

[00:05:05] Lenny: It's going well. Also, whenever I go back to Puerto Rico, things have improved vastly with the Dominican community. It's more established now. Due to cultural developments, mainly through music and food, it's everywhere in Puerto Rico. I think the Dominican community is as much part of Puerto Rican society nowadays.

When I was a child, it was harsh to listen to negative stereotypes because the stereotypes that people had about a Dominican was dark skinned colored person, uneducated. When people will see me they will treat me. I pass as Puerto Rican, so it was sort of a trauma trying to adapt my-- To change my Dominican accent and adopt the Puerto Rican accent so that I could be accepted and not be exposed to negative stereotypes.

It's something that is has improved vastly, as I said, in the last few years. I consider Puerto Rico my home because I grew up here and I got my education here. I know more things about Puerto Rico than the Dominican Republic itself. Now, for a while, I wasn't visiting my relatives in the Dominican Republic. Now, before COVID, I tried to go at least once a year with my family, and that has been very rewarding too in a way find myself an go back to my roots.

[00:06:57] Antonio: That's fantastic. If I could go back to one thing you said. You said that when you left the island and you went to Michigan that you found flourishing there, or you found this community, or you opened up to this Latinidad because there was this big mezcla of different sorts of ethnic Latinos there.

Do you think your experience would've been different if you had arrived in Michigan and you found a really strong Dominican community there? Do you think you would've gone more into the identity as a Dominican or would you still have gone to a bigger umbrella term like Latinidad or Latina?

[00:07:38] Lenny: That's an interesting question. I honestly don't know, but I do appreciate the Latinidad because I feel sometimes very comfortable saying, "I'm Caribbean. I'm this diversity of cultures incarnated. I've been exposed to all these traditions growing up."

Probably if in Michigan there was like, let's say, Washington Heights in New York, a strong Dominican community, there would be things that I would have missed because overall, despite tensions, negative stereotypes, what I appreciate is this diversity that I was exposed. Even though Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic are very closely culturally, but I appreciate the two worlds that I was brought in.

[00:08:38] Antonio: No, thank you. It's something that I struggle with as well. I'm Ecuadorian, but I rarely identify as Ecuadorian. You ask me and I will always say, "I'm Latino, " because I do see it as bigger pan identity. We're killing each other, talking trash to each other, putting each other down based off what is really minor differences. That'll make people blow up.

The reality is, it's like if we can't get along as collective, whether we're Latin Americans or the extended Caribbean, then how are we ever going to rise up as a political and capital entity?

For me, it's like the whole conversation about, "Are you Hispanic? Are you Latino? What is your label?" I'm like, "Are you kidding? We've been having the same argument for 50 years. Can we move on beyond what the term is and move towards solidarity where we can actually take care of our people, and not put our people down?" It's a fascinating question.

[00:09:42] Lenny: Yes, and for many, many years I tried to escape, in a way, not to deal with these tensions between being Dominican, being Puerto Rican, who am I. I tried to escape that by studying Europe and moving away from Latin America. Then it's interesting that I ended up working at the Center for Latin American Studies where I'm going back to my roots and I'm learning more about the diversity of our cultures. It's very enriching.

[00:10:19] Antonio: That's it. The second question we ask is about, what really enriches and enlivens you about the work you do? You're a published scholar, you're also doing administrative work, you do teaching, you do cultural work here at the university. What really excites you about what you do at UF?

[00:10:39] Lenny: What excites me the most are the initiatives that we create with people in Latin America, with minority-serving institutions. I help with an initiative with the University of Puerto Rico and that's my passion. I try to find different missions and match them, how our colleagues at the University of Puerto Rico can enrich the University of Florida and vice versa. Being creative that way, it really excites me a lot.

I also find passion working with students. I'm fortunate to have graduate faculty status in the center and that allows me to work on students' thesis, projects, and internships. Learning from the students, it's the best gift that I could receive. Also, I find a lot of joy in mentoring them because I, myself, I'm a first-generation college student and the first one in my family to obtain a PhD.

I always had support of professors, advisors throughout my graduate studies and education. I always appreciated that, working with students gives me the satisfaction of paying it forward, of letting them know of things that I would have found better if I had the information. It's very satisfying.

[00:12:19] Antonio: Yes, and it shows. I want to probe a little bit because you said something that really picked my attention because I know your scholarship is really important to you. Your book, Colonial Fantasies, Imperial Realities, you mentioned it's oftentimes what we find in terms of identity formation, is that you have to go far from home in order to find home.

I think you alluded to something of that nature that you went into European studies and ironically, now you're back at your core, what it means to be you. Can you talk about that, how your research led you right back to the beginning in some ways?

[00:12:56] Lenny: I obtained my bachelor's degree from the University of Puerto Rico and when you get your education in Puerto Rico, colonialism is part of your everydayness. In a way, I opted to study European studies for personal reasons because I wanted to be different, everybody was studying Latin America. I thought I will leave a mark by studying Europe. I wanted to study the topic of colonialism but not in the usual places of Africa, Latin America, Asia, I wanted to problematize Europe itself.

It's interesting because that came from my experience with citizenship here in Puerto Rico, how you're a second class citizen. Well, in 19th century, Poles under the German empire were experiencing similar questions that Puerto Ricans have been asking themselves since 1898 when the US acquire Puerto Rico as a territory.

I felt very comfortable looking at those issues, as you say, in a distance place in Europe. I think because of that distance, it made me contribute to the field of European studies because it helped problematize and put race at the forefront of these issues.

Also, by studying Poles, I was studying them not only as colonized people, subject of German agenda of assimilation and all of that but also Poles themselves reacting to that discourse and they themselves in the 19th century having fantasies about acquiring colonies as a way to gain their European identity, which in the 19th century, was very much tied up with colonialism and having colonies far away.

I studied these two dynamics, Germans trying to see Prussian citizens as colonize. I call it a fantasy because in reality, they were citizen of the German empire and then Poles themselves having these fantasies of wanting colonies because that was the way they could assert their European identity.

[00:15:32] Antonio: That's super fascinating, how the macro plays out and the micro too. You can see the same thing playing out in individualized identities of how those that are marginalized often also marginalize others who have less as opposed to realizing the marginalization is the issue and not to find somebody to step on in order to move up the ladder, which is the old assimilation model.

[00:16:00] Lenny: That's something that I actually had seen or worked on in my honors thesis at the University of Puerto Rico because I was studying the ELA project, Estado Libre Asociado, which is free associated state that the people building the Puerto Rican nation in the 1950s and '60s saw it as solving the colonial question in Puerto Rico when, in fact, after Maria, everybody started realizing we're still a colony.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the builders of the Puerto Rican nation at the time they saw in the relationship with the US type of uniqueness, and when you look at their discourses regarding Latin America, they saw themselves as a type of colonizer, bringing democracy to Latin America, bringing progress because they saw themselves as part of the two worlds and the best translators of the progress of the US bringing it to the Latin American region. Not only the region, there was also talks about Africa, things like that. Working on that topic opened my eyes to these dynamics in the 19th century within Europe.

[00:17:37] Antonio: That's super fascinating. We're now asking the question about what is some book, movie, TV series that you would highly recommend to people that you are right now either binging on or that has really gotten you enthralled?

[00:17:53] Lenny: Since I usually have a very busy day at work, what I find enjoyment is actually binging on Korean soap operas.

[00:18:06] Antonio: Oh, wow. Say more, I'm super curious now.

[00:18:10] Lenny: [laughs] If I were to give you book titles, it will have to be related to the German empire/Polish studies and that's not so much fun for the general public. For quite a few years, I discovered the phenomenon of Korean soap operas. The way I discovered them was browsing through the Spanish channels and they were dubbed in Spanish, that caught my attention.

[00:18:42] Antonio: Hilarious. Really?

[00:18:44] Lenny: That caught my attention. There's a huge movement of K-pop in Latin America that it's very interesting to look at. Because of the Korean soap operas for a while, I tried to learn Korean. I was still in Michigan when I made that discovery, they had Saturday schools for heritage speakers and they also had an adult Korean classes.

I would join the Korean classes and I tried to learn for like six months until everybody in the class left the course and I tried to do some classes with the children but there were too advanced so I fail but still when I have time, I like to watch the Korean soap opera. I'm learning phrases here and there.

[00:19:46] Antonio: That's so deeply rich. This question might get us both in trouble but would you say Brazilian soap operas or Korean soap operas are better?

[00:19:58] Lenny: [laughs] There’s a tight competition there. It depends on what you’re looking for. What I like about the Korean soap operas, is that many of them are short. They are not like, 60 episodes of the Latin America soap operas. Also, I like to learn about other cultures, and it’s very interesting, the differences between a soap opera in Latin America and in Korea.

They tend to be short, they tend to be funny, and address certain taboos that we have in Latin America and vice versa. In a Korean soap opera, many of them that I’ve seen, you don’t see anybody kissing until the end. In the Latin American ones, that’s normal.

[00:20:48] Antonio: It starts that way.

[00:20:50] Lenny: It starts that way. It’s interesting to see what kind of sense of humor South Koreans have, and also the issues that they are able to approach freely, where in Latin America that might be a taboo or vice versa.

[00:21:08] Antonio: That’s incredibly wonderful, and enriching. Now, you’ve got my interest piqued. I’m going to go poke around and see if I can listen to Spanish-dubbed Korean soap operas. Thank you. We come to the end of the podcast by asking, what brings you joy?

[00:21:24] Lenny: What brings me joy is something that I’m not able to do during COVID. I love travelling, and learning about cultures. There are places in my bucket list that I’m just waiting for COVID vaccine. [laughs]

[00:21:42] Antonio: It’s coming.

[00:21:44] Lenny: Yes. Everybody here in Puerto Rico are excited about the vaccine. It’s interesting. I'm just hoping that we can overcome this situation that has been very challenging to all of us, and so that I can find joy in what I like to do most, which is travelling, and learning about cultures.

[00:22:05] Antonio: Thank you. Thank you for helping us travel as well, all the way to Korea, to the old Prussian empire, to Michigan. Frozen Michigan, right now in this weather, and to the island of Puerto Rico. Thank you, Dr. Lenny Urena Valerio, who is the Associate Director for Administrative Services in the Center for Latin American Studies. Also, a distinguished scholar in her own right, with her book. If you haven’t looked at it, please do. Colonial Fantasies, Imperial Realities. Thank you, Lenny, for being on the podcast. It’s been a real pleasure.

[00:22:42] Lenny: Thank you so much. Thank you for the opportunity.

[00:22:45] Antonio: Thanks for joining me, Antonio Farias, for another episode of Level Up on presence and belonging. If you enjoyed this episode, please like the track and share on social media. I’d like to give a special thank you to Dr. Welson Tremura, professor in UF’s School of Music, and the Center for Latin American Studies, for the original theme music.

We welcome your comments and suggestions and future programs. You can find more episodes of Level Up and content information for the office of the Chief Diversity Officer at


[00:23:24] [END OF AUDIO]

Season 4
17:49 Minutes
Podcast Guest Image

Episode 067: Lomaro Caldwell

We close out Season 4 of Level Up with our guest Lomaro Caldwell. Lomaro is a web developer with UFIT who has found a home here in Gainesville and credits his colleagues for his sense of belonging. Can you jerk vegetables? Tune in to find out!



[00:00:02] Antonio Farias: Welcome to the last episode of the fourth season of Level Up, a podcast where we explore how students, faculty, and staff of the University of Florida create presence and belonging. I'm your host Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida.


Welcome to another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. Today, we're fortunate to have Lomaro Caldwell who is a web developer for the Center for Instructional Technology and Training at UFIT. He's a graduate of Jacksonville University and Lomaro believes in honing his craft and also really taking advantage of hobbies and activities that also increase his exploration for innovation. I'm really curious about what these hobbies and these activities are. Welcome, Lomaro, to the podcast.

[00:00:49] Lomaro Caldwell: [laughs] Thanks for having me.

[00:00:51] Antonio: Right now, I'm in headset envy. I'm looking at people's headsets. I know you got really cool set right there. [laughs] I got to ask.

[00:00:59] Lomarol: I found that the gaming headset, the SteelSeries they work best. They're most comfortable because gamers wear them for a long period of time. Those are the kind of headsets that I usually get because they're made for comfort and then their mic quality is usually pretty good. [chuckles]

[00:01:17] Antonio: You got to because you never take them off of you. Are you a gamer?

[00:01:20] Lomaro: I do game but I'm not a gamer.


[00:01:24] Lomaro: I'm not as intense as most people, going to tournaments and stuff like that. I do occasionally dabble in it.

[00:01:33] Antonio: I follow the sibling of one of our faculty. I don't if you know Jeremy Waisome who is a faculty member in engineering?

[00:01:42] Lomaro: Okay.

[00:01:43] Antonio: Her brother is Scooter Magruder who is like an internet-- Has fandom.

[00:01:47] Lomaro: Streamer and a whole fandom, yes. [laughs]

[00:01:51] Antonio: He does this video like he's playing a game. It's hilarious beyond belief. It almost makes me want to go out and get an Xbox. I couldn't even figure it out at this point.


[00:02:05] Antonio: Welcome to the podcast. We always start the podcast with a question, which is, what is your story of belonging?

[00:02:11] Lomaro: That is a great question. I guess my story of belonging would be, originally I am from Jamaica. I was born and raised there for 13 years before I moved to the United States. Since I've been in the United States, I've lived in quite a few different places. I've lived in Boston, I've lived in Jacksonville, Florida. That's where I went to college. I've lived in South Florida which is a completely different kind of Florida. [laughs] I even lived in places like Ohio.

[00:02:42] Antonio: That it is.


[00:02:44] Lomaro: I even lived in a place like Ohio. I've been around quite a few places in the States. I settled down here in Gainesville about three years ago. I'm really enjoying it so far.

[00:02:59] Antonio: Tell me how you didn't enjoy Boston.

[00:03:01] Lomaro: I don't do well with the cold. I have some great friends there, my best friend lives there. I love to visit.


[00:03:08] Lomaro: I love the food. The food is great. It's just the cold, I can't do the cold.

[00:03:14] Antonio: I'm a New Yorker, I have eternal hatred for Boston .

[00:03:17] Lomaro: [laughs] Fair enough .


[00:03:23] Antonio: That's a demarcation. You have a wanderlust then, right? This is home? What makes this home? You travel a lot. It sounds like you're a seeker and an explorer. Why Gainesville?

[00:03:34] Lomaro: I just ended up here in Gainesville. The reason I call it home now is I really have no intention of moving or living anywhere anytime soon. I do eventually want to retire in North Carolina or South Carolina because I like a little bit of the cooler climate but not all the snow to the shoveling. I found some good people here in Gainesville. I really enjoy the folks that I work with, which is not all that of a common occurrence for most people. I enjoy my department, I enjoy my boss and my colleagues and it's been a good time so far.

[00:04:11] Antonio: Are you trying to find or catch the island vibe here or it's nonexistent?

[00:04:16] Lomaro: [laughs] It's nonexistent. I bring it with me wherever I go.


[00:04:23] Antonio: I love that. It's a traveling vibe.

[00:04:27] Lomaro: Yes. [laughs]

[00:04:29] Antonio: This restaurant, or island place . Yes, Reggae Shack. What do you think of the food?

[00:04:34] Lomaro: I do like it but I do like but I do make a better jerk myself.

[00:04:37] Antonio: Oh, okay.


[00:04:40] Antonio: All right, Lomaro is throwing down the gauntlet there.


[00:04:43] Antonio: You ever jerked vegetables?

[00:04:45] Lomaro: I have. I've jerked pretty much everything. Turkey, chicken, sea food, all of it.


[00:04:54] Antonio: All right. Post-COVID we got to get together.


[00:04:57] Lomaro: Sounds good.

[00:04:59] Antonio: Tell me about the work you do and what really drives you and makes you passionate about the work you're doing for UFIT right now.

[00:05:09] Lomaro: I work for UFIT as a web developer. It's a broad definition, but mostly what I do is I am the tier 1 webmaster. All the request that goes to UFIT webmaster usually comes to me first and then I'm responsible for distributing the workload throughout the team. I do handle more of the smaller stuff like adding users into different websites, making small changes on websites, but from time to time, I will do bigger projects like the redesign of the CDO podcast page [laughs] or-

[00:05:48] Antonio: Yes, thank you.

[00:05:49] Lomaro: -the home page that we're currently working on. It's always fun and exciting to me and I really like the role because coming into the office, I'm not exactly sure what I will be doing today. I know it's going to be web design or web development related but it's no set thing to do. It's whatever is asked for the day.

[00:06:12] Antonio: There's a lot asked, isn't there?

[00:06:13] Lomaro: Yes. [laughs]

[00:06:14] Antonio: This place is big. How many web pages do we have? I heard it was in the millions. Is that true?

[00:06:18] Lomaro: We have a lot. UF is decentralized for their IT. Different departments have their own web people but whenever they run into issues, they usually come to us. We do have a lot of different websites out there. One of our major projects is working with strategic marketing communication as we do the new redesign and branding to get pretty much everyone under the same umbrella. That one is a big project that's under the way and exciting stuff.

[00:06:57] Antonio: I was absolutely, completely excited by the work you did for our podcast page. You made it go from flat 1990s to, okay, this is modern this is hip, I like it. It's like it's new.

[00:07:09] Lomaro: I'm glad you liked it. [laughs]

[00:07:10] Antonio: Oh, yes, I do. I love it. Things that would drive me crazy, it's like you can play the episode right in the page, things I had no clue. This is the mastery that you bring to the table. Really, for the community, you were one of the prime shapers for the anti-racism website that went up, right?

[00:07:33] Lomaro: Yes. That was another fun project. It was again myself and another one of the web developers in the office. Just got drafted on there. A lot of meetings, a lot of talking. We designed and built what I thought is a pretty good site. It's always fun to do big projects like those that a lot of people get to see and interact with because it's very rewarding. It's not just some website that's sitting there and nobody is going to see. [laughs]

[00:08:15] Antonio: That's where I met you and Toni-Lee and Dana driving the team. I was really impressed with the creativity, the depth of knowledge, just the passion that was fueling everything. Every little detail. It wasn't just about-- You usually think about web pages like marketing or their PR. This was nothing like that. You all put some soul into that and I felt it. If people haven't gone to it yet, and right now, the way it's up it's not fully up. Right now, the educational parts of it aren't up yet right now but it was really was intense, thank you for that.

[00:08:55] Lomaro: It was a great project. I really enjoyed it. Again, when I get the chance to work on these bigger projects or the ones that don't necessarily have a set design or set things that they need, we get to do some more creative things and that's always exciting.

[00:09:16] Antonio: You mentioned hobbies and activities. Let me poke you on that. What takes you and drives you when you're not the "grand webmaster" for the University of Florida?

[00:09:30] Lomaro: My hobbies and activities varies from month to month, really. [laughs] [crosstalk] .

[00:09:35] Antonio: Are you an outdoor guy or an indoor guy?

[00:09:38] Lomaro: I'm both, really. Whatever I find interesting. I remember a couple of months ago, I got really into golf. I am not the best golfer there is but I do enjoy going out swinging a golf club. I'll even go on Groupon and find a coupon for-- like, you go out and get to race cars or something for the weekend?

[00:10:02] Antonio: Great, or skydive.

[00:10:04] Lomaro: Yes, or skydive. Whatever I find that's like, "Oh, that's interesting. I'll go try that." Those are my hobbies.


[00:10:13] Antonio: Are you a water guy ?

[00:10:17] Lomaro: I enjoy the water but I just don't enjoy the large fishes in the water that swim a lot faster than me.

[00:10:24] Antonio: You ain't trying to get eaten by an alligator , are you?

[00:10:26] Lomaro: No, I'm not trying to get eaten.


[00:10:30] Antonio: Same thing with me. I used to fish a lot up in the northeast. Down here, rare because there are dinosaurs underneath the water here there. It's no joke.

[00:10:42] Lomaro: I've been deep sea fishing with friends in the past. I'm like, "You guys are braver than I am." [laughs]

[00:10:51] Antonio: We were off the Keys last summer and we went diving. Right when we got on the station, the boat captain was like, "Well, I've got some news for you. There is a 17-foot nurse shark that always patrols along this reef but you ladies have nothing to worry about because it's a man-eater. Yuck, yuck, yuck, yuck, yuck." I'm like, "That ain't funny. That ain't funny whatsoever." My daughter thought it was hilarious. It was a mama shark. You know, don't get between mama and the babies.

We saw the babies, which weren't babies, they were six-foot-long. I was like, "Okay let's go." That's a big baby. I'm with you on that, full respect for the ocean. This has been the most upside-down year possible in known history right now, and people are polarized on everything. Tell me something that in the past year or so that you've actually changed your mind about that surprised you?

[00:12:01] Lomaro: The most recent thing that I changed my mind on, it's nothing super polarizing. A few months back, our boss sent us a job listing over at Santa Fe. Their IT department were looking for some adjunct professors to help them out with teaching a couple of courses. I had it for a week or so and I saw I was like, "I'm not really feeling it." Then my adventurous side kicked in because I haven't been able to do anything because of COVID, and I applied. I am currently lined up to be a professor at Santa Fe this next coming semester. It's pretty exciting. It's a new adventure for me.

[00:12:43] Antonio: That is exciting. Congratulations. What's the class?

[00:12:46] Lomaro: It is the advanced web development course.

[00:12:49] Antonio: Well, that's no joke, then. This is--

[00:12:50] Lomaro: I know.


[00:12:53] Lomaro: I've been reviewing some of the course material and I was like, "This is--" It's stuff that I do on a daily basis but I've never formally taught class or anyone. I am responsible or one of my responsibilities is teaching our part-time worker, or the new hires how to do some of the webmaster things and handle some of the requests. I have some experience teaching people how to do things but nothing formal as actually being a professor. That's pretty exciting.

[00:13:26] Antonio: That is super exciting. We had had a talk early on that you were thinking at some point, maybe going back for an advanced degree?

[00:13:32] Yes. I'm still working on getting up and going on that front. I think this is a step in the right direction. Eventually, I think it'll probably push me in the right direction to go and go get that advanced degree.

[00:13:49] Antonio: Well, you're at the right place. UF has one of the top computer science departments on the planet. Dr. Juan Gilbert, Dr. Jeremy Waisome, all of them are phenomenal and they're here, and people don't realize that. That's a big deal. That's excellent. Congratulations on that. That's going to be exciting. You got to get some butterflies too, right?

[00:14:15] Lomaro: Yes. [laughs] It's going to be an experience. Like I said, I haven't done anything like this before, it should be pretty fun.

[00:14:25] Is it going to be in person or is it going to be on Zoom?

[00:14:29] Lomaro: Currently, the course I'm teaching is in person once a week for a hour and a half. I'll be on Santa Fe's campus for an hour and a half, once a week teaching that course.

[00:14:43] Antonio: That's a great school. I love Santa Fe. I'm a product of community colleges, and I just really respect the whole faculty and staff that actually work at community colleges. They're the unsung heroes of education, really. Thank you for doing your part to lift up the next generation, right?

[00:15:04] Lomaro: No problem. [laughs]

[00:15:08] Antonio: We always end the podcast with the question of, what brings you joy?

[00:15:13] Lomaro: I am very simple. Things that bring me joy is spending time with friends and family, which I haven't gotten a lot of time with friends because of COVID. I find joy in the simple things, whether it be going to the gym early in the morning where there's no one so I can actually get a good workout [laughs] or just going on a trip with friends and family and going to a new place. Small things like that actually just brings me joy.

[00:15:46] Antonio: That's really the key, right? We make it too difficult at times, we make it complicated. We have to go someplace in order to find joy when at the end of the day-

[00:15:56] Lomaro: I am perfectly fine sitting in silence just listening to an audiobook or something. That is joy for me.

[00:16:04] Antonio: I hear you. I'm with you on that. It's like the number of times that we went to Disney as a family, I saw so many miserable people that were just not happy. They sell it as the happiest place, I was like, "I ain't seen happy here." I'm seeing a lot of people that are frustrated, angry, tense. They're just not.

[00:16:24] Lomaro: That's because people tend to-- I believe they tend to try to find joy outside of the simpler things. You can't necessarily put joy on Disney World to make you happy, you're going to be miserable. There's a lot of people there. It'd be a lot of people to fight through the crowds to get through all the amusements. It's a pain sometimes. [chuckles]

[00:16:47] Antonio: Well said. Very zen.


Thank you. Thank you, Lomaro Caldwell, web developer for the Center for Instructional Technology and Training at UFIT. Web developer extraordinaire. Thank you, again, for being part of that engine that created the anti-racism website, and really, selfishly, thank you for really boosting our podcast page and also helping us develop the bigger page to deliver better services.

[00:17:15] Lomaro: No problem. It's my pleasure.

[00:17:17] Antonio: It's been a pleasure talking to you. Stay away from those big underwater creatures.

[00:17:22] Lomaro: [laughs] Will do. You too.


[00:17:26] Antonio: Thank you for joining us for Season Four of Level up on Presence and Belonging. 2020 has been something. In spite of all the suffering and sorrow, the year brought, we have much to be thankful for. Join me, Antonio Farias, for a new season of Level Up in January. May you all have a peaceful and safe end of the year holiday break.

[00:17:50] [END OF AUDIO]

26:38 Minutes
Podcast Guest Image

Episode 066: Savanna Turner

In this episode, Antonio talks with Savanna Turner, PhD student in the Department of Agricultural Education and Communications and president of the Collegiate Veterans Society. Savanna shares how the Collegiate Veterans Society gave her a sense of belonging that she did not even know she was missing when she returned to UF as a graduate student. Learn more about this great resource for student veterans in this episode of Level Up!



[00:00:01] Antonio Farias: Welcome to season four of Level Up, a podcast where we explore how students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida are leading our community in presence and belonging. This season, as we learn to live with COVID-19 and fight racial injustice, being present, and understanding what makes belonging happen at UF is key. I'm your host Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida.

Welcome to another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. Today we are fortunate to have Savanna Turner who is a PhD student in the Department of Agricultural Education and Communications. She is also the president of the Collegiate Veterans Society, which we are super interested to learn more about. Welcome, Savanna.

[00:00:46] Savanna Turner: Thank you so much. I'm excited to be here.

[00:00:49] Antonio: Likewise. You're also a Coastie, right? You're a Coast Guard veteran. We were just talking a little bit before the mic started about how I get confused for being a coast guard vet because I worked at the Coast Guard Academy when actually I'm an army vet. I have this weird love-hate of I got to love my Coasties because I value everything that you all do on a 24/7 basis, and yet I can't give up my go-green attitude either.

[00:01:18] Savanna: Yes, definitely. [chuckles]

[00:01:20] Antonio: We always start the podcast with the question of, what is your story of belonging?

[00:01:26] Savanna: Well, if we want to go way back where I grew up, I actually grew up in Florida and I come from a, what at the time was a very rural community. Since then it's gotten a lot bigger because it's central Florida. It was a very unique experience growing up. When I moved to Gainesville to be an undergrad in 2009, Gainesville was a big city to me.

That was a little intimidating, kind of shocking, and then after college, I actually went and enlisted in the Coast Guard. I had this giant leap from being a small-town girl and growing up in a rural environment and thrown into a whole new lifestyle of a different culture and a different way of life and different people, diverse backgrounds, experiences. I traveled around all over the country and went to a couple of different countries during my time while I was active duty. It's funny because my humble upbringing was very, limited. Since then I've really been able to experience a lot in life.

I think that when it comes to my sense of belonging, you have your roots where you come from and that community and that sense of close relationships with people. That's one sense of belonging that I think I have. Then, going in the military, that's a huge part of my sense of belonging, and then being a woman veteran is a whole another little subset. To me, I look at it like a chameleon. You mold and shape your belonging based on what group you might be with. With Collegiate Veterans Society, I found my niche here as a PhD student now where I feel like I've been able to regain that sense of belonging here at the university, which is really great.

[00:03:29] Antonio: That's awesome. Tell me, why did you go Coast Guard versus any other place? Was it somewhere in the family DNA or was it you saw the white hull ships going up and down the coast or maybe the orange helicopters? What caused that?

[00:03:45] Savanna: [laughs] Well, I don't have any other Coasties in my family. I'm the first and only one so far. I do have some members of my family who have been in all the other branches. My aunt is actually retired Air Force, and so I talked at length with her about joining the military after I got my undergrad. I didn't know, at first I was like, oh, I'm going to go Air Force because that's what I understood. That's what I had experienced with my aunt and my cousin, they were both in the Air Force. Then I started looking at jobs and I said, "Oh, I don't know anything about air and flying and whatever else, and that just doesn't interest me. I was pursuing an undergrad degree in Agricultural Education and Communications at the time.

I started looking at different ROTC programs while I was in college, thinking I wanted to be an officer coming out with my bachelor's degree. Then the Coast Guard had an enlisted job that was a Marine science technician, and you got to go out and respond to oil spills. They had all these pictures where they're scrubbing sea turtles and helping ducks and stuff. I was, "Oh man, that sounds awesome." This is something I want to do. I want to go out and help Marine Life. Coming from Florida I love Marine Life. I applied for their CSPI Program, which is very similar to ROTC. I didn't get in the first time. I said, oh, I was really heartbroken. It was a devastating blow.

Then I got closer to graduating with my bachelor's and I decided that-- I talked to a recruiter again, I went back. He said, “Well, you could be a marine science technician, that's an enlisted job, or you can come in as an officer because you're about to get your bachelor's degree.” I'll never forget, as cheesy as this is going to sound, what really pushed me to make that decision was he told me, the recruiter said, “I will respect whichever decision you decide to make but when you go in as an enlisted member, you'll always be able to have the opportunity to become an officer later.

You'll have a chance to understand what it's like be at that bottom level, to do that grunt work, to stay up 20 hours and do work and watch and duty and all these other things you have to do. But if you come in as an officer, you'll never really be able to relate and create an environment of that sense of belonging with those other people. They won't really accept you in their group because you didn't experience what they did.”

I realize that sounds real cheesy, and I said that later on, which I'll talk about, I actually became an officer later, but that stuck with me. After I graduated my bachelor's degree, I enlisted in the Coast Guard, went through Bootcamp, got to my first unit, which is Coast Guard Cutter Eagle, which is actually a sailing ship. It's the only one.

[00:06:42] Antonio: Eagle.

[00:06:43] Savanna: Yes. [laughs] You know lots about Eagle. For those who don't know, it's the Coast Guard's training vessel, they take Coast Guard Academy cadets. They take officer candidates who were prior enlisted and are going through officer candidate school. They go out and sail on this giant sailboat. They train and they learn what it's like to be out at sea and team building and leadership and all these other things in a real-world setting.

That was a really fun first experience as an enlisted person, not at all scrubbing ducks or anything, but it was a great way to start. Eventually, I made it into being a marine science technician, never scrubbed a duck, never scrubbed a turtle, but I’ve experienced a lot of cool things. I enlisted, and now, I'm in the Coast Guard Reserve. Been in total, I was in active duty for five years and now I've been in the Reserve for four.

This past summer, I actually went to Officer Candidate School for the reserve. Now I'm an ensign in the Coast Guard reserve, which eight years later ended up going to the other side, but it's nice because the recruiter was right. I can relate to my enlisted members, which is really fantastic to be able to talk to them and understand what it's like to go through what they're going through.

[00:08:08] Antonio: It’s very much true, and more so than any other service. It's only 47,000 humans. What people don't realize is the Coast Guard has more college-educated enlisted folk than any other service because, for a time, it was so hard to get into Officer Candidate School that you had to actually enlist, and then from there hopefully get picked. Incredibly selective place.

Tell me what excites you. You didn't get a chance to scrub ducks or sea turtles, but the ocean called to you. Tell me what, maybe it's different now, but what really excites you about what you're doing now? You're a PhD student. You're also the president of the Collegiate Veterans Society. You're doing a lot of different things. What really excites you about the time that you're spending now in Florida and at the University of Florida?

[00:09:06] Savanna: My PhD I'm actually pursuing in Agricultural Education and Communications, which is what I got my undergrad in, but I actually have a master's in Global Sustainability. I wanted to pursue a PhD to learn more about sustainable food systems and how to make them better and improve it through an extension education lens. Before I became a PhD student, I actually worked in Jacksonville, Florida as an extension agent specializing in 4-H Youth Development.

That was a very unique experience being that there's almost a million people in Jacksonville. Being able to understand what it's like to see food systems working with youth in the urban core of Jacksonville was a very unique experience. It sparked these thoughts that I was like, wow, I really want to know more. I really want to understand the sustainability thing, "What is this?" Through my master's, I started to really understand the interconnectiveness of the world, and how everything's a system. If you pull on one piece of the system, something else is going to give, understanding that.

It doesn't entirely relate to the Coast Guard, but I also, in the Coast Guard, I'm still in the reserve. I deal a lot with foreign vessels and regulations, like environmental regulations, and understanding security and safety, working with these multimillion-dollar ships. I'm talking the big cargo ships you see-- If you happen to be in Jacksonville or any port city, it's got all the containers on it, they're hauling oil, they're hauling bulk things like different fertilizers, the containers have all of our Christmas presents and things in them, all the stuff for Amazon, and whatever else you're getting.

Understanding how systems like that have a play in the rest of the world was super interesting. I think by combining my Coast Guard experience, and seeing how people live in different places, understanding cultures, and just really-- Because I've lived five or six different places, and visited a lot of places on Eagle. Taking that experience for that social equity and understanding that component, and then taking and using the information I've learned from my master's degree and combine that together for a PhD, is really trying to figure out how can we better extension education that we're providing a more holistic approach to teaching communities about the social economic and environmental components of whatever activity, or whatever thing you're doing.

I'm very passionate about gardening. I really like gardening. I was able to get a plot over at the UF Organic Gardens a couple of months ago. I'm not super great at it, but I really enjoy it, and I love the satisfaction of knowing I grew my own food. That may not be ideal to everyone, but maybe you can recycle, maybe you can reduce your consumption. All of these experiences I've had have been little pieces and parts of things that have been brought together to create this concept or idea that I want to move forward with.

[00:12:32] Antonio: That's awesome, and you're living the land grant mission, right? Which is, how do you take all this knowledge and research that's happening inside in all of our laboratories here, and get it out to the communities where it makes the most sense, right?

[00:12:45] Savanna: Yes, definitely.

[00:12:48] Antonio: That's fantastic. You 've had quite a journeyed sort of trek . What year are you in the PhD journey at this point?

[00:12:58] Savanna: This fall started my second year.

[00:13:02] Antonio: Okay. Congratulations.

[00:13:04] Savanna: Thank you.

[00:13:06] Antonio: I know the other thing you're passionate about is the Collegiate Veteran Society. Tell us about that hat that you're wearing.

[00:13:14] Savanna: I actually started off when-- Last year, I was the secretary. I was asked to be the secretary which was a little overwhelming at first because I was a PhD student in my first year, and I didn't know what to expect, but it was really fun. I didn't realize how much I needed to reconnect with the veteran community until I did. That first year of my PhD last year, I was able to reconnect with people. I'm the only Coastie that I know of in the Collegiate Veteran Society, but still been able to connect with other people I had very similar experiences. We come from very similar backgrounds as far as our military service.

I've been put in the presidential role. Being able to take the knowledge and experience I learned as working as an extension agent. Being able to organize things, and recruit members, and help to create a positive nurturing environment that is needed for people who may not feel like they're part of another community. Veterans are-- We can mold anywhere we want to go because we can adapt and overcome any situation. Being able to help provide an environment where you can just sigh relief when you're with a group, and you're like, I can be myself. I can just lay it all out there, and no one's going to judge me for it. No one's going to think twice.

Being able to create that environment has been really rewarding so far. Hopefully, I intend to try and run again next year, but I love it. It's great. COVID's been a little complicated. That's added some complexities just because everyone's Zoomed out. No one wants to sit on virtual meetings, but we did have a very successful 9/11 stair climb virtual this year which was great. We've had some participation in the virtual happy hours, and different things that we've been able to modify for COVID. We're hoping next semester we'll have more in personal things. Creating that environment has been a blessing. It really has, and it's been a lot of fun so far.

[00:15:38] Antonio: That's awesome. I haven't heard the term adapt and overcome in quite awhile. [chuckles] Very true of veterans, right? At the same time, we also like to hide. Go really dark and quiet, and not be noticed. That's why I appreciate the work you're doing at CVS because vets also need support. Sometimes we don't know how to ask for support, or it feels weird because we've been autonomous for so long that we feel we can do it. There's nothing like being in the community of brothers and sisters in order to get people to realize, oh, there's more here in this power and strength, and actually coming together than it is and try to do this lone wolf thing.

[00:16:23] Savanna: It's true. It's very true. I think that I was guilty of that when I first got here and I was like, "I can do this on my own. I'm strong enough. I've got this." I've been at UF before, I've lived in Gainesville. I went to the Collegiate Veteran Society meeting last fall and I was like, "I don't know if this is for me." After a couple of meetings, I really started to feel that sense of belonging that I didn't realize I even needed until I got there.

Hopefully, myself and the executive board are creating an environment where others will feel encouraged to do the same thing and realize that it is better to be part of the group than to try and figure things out on your own, and there's more support available to you.

[00:17:11] Antonio: That's it. To any vets that are out there listening, just show up. Show up to a Zoom, show up when we get out of this COVID mess, show up to a meeting, and just take the sniff test. More likely than that, you'll stick around because there's value and you add value. I think that's really what I value most about veterans at UF, is that you're willing to give consistently. If there's one story about what a veteran is, it's someone that continues to give more of themselves than is asked of them. I really appreciate what you do for veterans here, Savanna.

Maybe one of the things you can help clarify is what's the difference between the CVS and the Collegiate Veterans Success Center because they're different, but at the same time, you're comingled together, right?

[00:17:59] Savanna: Yes. The Collegiate Veterans Success Center is a place that's on campus that's actually at the stadium, which if you follow us on Facebook, you can follow them on Facebook too. Just Google either Collegiate Veterans Society or the Collegiate Veterans Success Center. What they do is they provide a workspace. There's like a relaxing space, a workspace, a location on campus that is exclusive for veterans, dependents, military affiliates. They also help veterans with recertifying, getting their schooling together. There's a person that's there that's going to help you with your G.I. Bill or VA benefits. They can put you in connection with things like that.

They are more as a official capacity as a courtesy for veterans to help them through that process. That way, it's not one extra stress. I know when I became a PhD student, I hadn't used my post 9/11 G.I. Bill before. I contacted them. They were able to create a checklist for me on things I needed to get done, forms to fill out, whatever. They're really there more as a professional component to help veterans transition.

As far as the Collegiate Veterans Society, we're a student-led organization. We're creating more of an environment that is peer to peer environment. We're all students together, we all have part-time jobs, we all maybe moved here for school. We get together as a student organization, and put on fundraising events. We create social events to help people hanging out together. We're there more for emotional support if it's needed. We can even help put veterans in contact with resources that they don't even know is available

Recently, we've had some discussions because of Thanksgiving around the food pantry that's on campus and how can we make that more well-known within the veteran community that's available if you need it? Things like that. I think that our biggest distinction is that we're a Student-Led Organization where the CVSC is more of a physical location that veterans can go to, but also more of a professional team that's available to help.

[00:20:23] Antonio: Great. Thank you for making that distinction. Again, if you're a vet, get out there, go visit. You earned this, take advantage of it. Otherwise, it's just gathering dust and I know you're all not gathering dust because the events you put on together, my left knee is still feeling the 9/11 Stair Climb. It was virtual this year. I got called out because I hadn't started doing it even though I signed up and then I spent a couple of hours going up and down a four-story building here. Because it's not much elevation here in Gainesville.

[00:20:54] Savanna: No, there's definitely not. That was fun, I liked it. This was the fourth annual times. Years past, when it was in-person, they'd done it at the stadium, which has been awesome because the firefighters come out, the police come out, and all their families. I think it's you have to go up to the highest point in the stadium and back down, and it ends up being like 11 flights, but up and down is one. It takes you a little while. I know I went because it was virtual. I was like, okay, I'm going to go later on because normally, the in-person is one day out of the year, but the virtual, we were able to do it the month of November.

This year we had to do virtual, but that allowed us to be able to have the month-long thing. I went to the stadium on a weekday when I knew no one was going to be there to do that. Woo, my calves were on fire after we were done. That's for sure.

[00:21:52] Antonio: You got after that. What is something that you've changed your mind about in this past year? We live in this polarized society where people take-- They make embankments and then they hide behind them or they just won't move. One of the questions I'm really trying to get people to understand is that we change our minds all the time. What is one thing, one thing that surprised you about something that you changed your mind about this past year?

[00:22:18] Savanna: That's a great question. I think that I've become a little bit kinder and a little bit more understanding of people just because I pride myself on trying to understand. Like put yourself in other shoes right before you start to judge people, but this year, especially, working and doing schoolwork from home and being remote has really opened my eyes to how much social interaction that we get and how I think we take that for granted that we have that freedom and that capability to be able to do that.

I don't know if I've changed my mind about anything, but I've definitely altered the way that I think about things and understanding that not everyone's going to react the same way to certain things. The way that I was feeling this year may not be the way that you were feeling this year or someone else. Just exercising a little more patience with people because everyone's going through something different. I think that it's more of a mental state that I've shifted rather than changed my mind about something in particular.

I hope that a few years from now when we've gotten through this and things go back to somewhat normal, hopefully, I maintain that mindset of exercising more patience and being kinder to not only myself but to other people as well.

[00:23:46] Antonio: That's actually fantastic, and it's much more comprehensive. A mental mind shift towards more generosity and grace. I love that. We end the podcast by asking the question, what brings you joy, Savanna?

[00:24:00] Savanna: What brings me joy? [laughs] I'm actually a really simple person when it comes to enjoyment. I love riding my electric bike every day. I love going to the garden. I'm a person that at the end of the day, I try my best to do self-reflection every day, which is often a challenge, but it's really important that you reflect on things. Everything I do from working with the Collegiate Veterans Society is exciting and being able to converse with other PhD students that are passionate about their pursuits, playing with my dogs, things like that.

I don't know, I feel like everything I do really sparks joy in my life and I'm very grateful and humbled by the opportunities and things that have I've been able to pursue being in this country, been really awesome. I know that probably doesn't quite answer your question, but I try to be very optimistic and very-- I don't know, find joy in the simple things in life, I guess.

[00:25:09] Antonio: Listen, a better answer I could've come up with because, usually, we think about grandiose things that bring us joy is that in this COVID environment we can't take care of. Therefore, we end up being in a downward cycle, but exactly what you said, it's, find the joy around you. Whether it's your bike, your dog, the gardening, getting your hands dirty, getting yourself dirty. I think that's definitely something that I can relate to. [chuckles]

Thank you. Thank you, Savanna Turner, PhD student in the Department of Agricultural Education and Communications and also the president of the Collegiate Veterans Society. It's really been a pleasure to reconnect with you on the podcast and to learn some more about you and Ensign Turner and some of the other parts of you. Thank you again for being on the podcast.

[00:25:59] Savanna: Thank you.


[00:26:00] Antonio: Thanks for joining me, Antonio Farias, for another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. If you enjoyed this episode, please like the track and share on social media. I'd like to give a special thank you to Dr. Welson Tremura, professor in UF's School of Music, and the Center for Latin American Studies for the original theme music. We welcome your comments and suggestions for future programs. You can find more episodes of Level Up and contact information for the office of the Chief Diversity Officer


[00:26:39] [END OF AUDIO]


34:37 Minutes
Podcast Guest Image

Episode 065: Audrey Gainey

In this episode, Antonio talks with Audrey Gainey, Director of Talent Acquisition and Onboarding at UF. Audrey tells a story about how her 7th grade guidance counselor helped her find her identity through a language arts festival and Langston Hughes’ poem “Freedom Train.” You’ll also hear about Audrey’s amazing Gainesville non-profit Flourished, Inc. (


[00:00:01] Antonio Farias: Welcome to season four of Level Up, a podcast where we explore how students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida are leading our community in presence and belonging. This season, as we learn to live with COVID-19 and fight racial injustice, being present and understanding what makes belonging happen at UF is key. I'm your host, Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida.

Welcome everyone to another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. Today, we are super excited to have Audrey Gainey, who is the director of talent acquisition and onboarding at the University of Florida. Audrey comes to UF with amazing experience, not just in the field, but also as a Gainesvillian. She came to us from the City of Gainesville, where she was actually in this same concept in this role.

As the director of talent acquisition and onboarding, her role is really to work at the strategic level and make sure that we are actually identifying, attracting, and engaging the high caliber and diverse talent that is out there for us in our faculty and our staff. She serves as a very senior consultant to the colleges and the business units. Welcome, Audrey. It's a pleasure to have you on the show. I understand that you just returned from some time off, so much appreciated.

[00:01:26] Audrey Gainey: Thank you. Thank you. I actually am returning from a couple of days off, so I'm refreshed. I'm excited about being back and of course, facing tons of email, but we're working through it. Thank you. Thank you.

[00:01:40] Antonio: That's the way to do it. You were in the Smoky Mountains, I understand?

[00:01:44] Audrey: Smoky Mountains. Yes, full of anxiety, but the views were worth it. The trees are still vibrant. It was amazing. It was beautiful. I think the only thing that challenged me was those mountain views when you're looking down and you see no bottom. You just continue to look down and driving around those mountains, I think, really gave new meaning to embracing the speed limit. Definitely, definitely.

[00:02:16] Antonio: It's beautiful country up there.

[00:02:19] Audrey: It is gorgeous.

[00:02:19] Antonio: I was up there with my family a couple of years ago, maybe four years ago, I almost drowned. I was fishing. I was fishing up in the-- They're beautiful, but they're ice cold stream. I was really cold. I was navigating through a river and I just hit a hole and I went under and I was dragged down, finally got myself up. There was no cell service and my wife had left me there and we had a rendezvous and I was supposed to get picked up. She found me walking down the road, a country road, down the hill, completely drenched but with the biggest smile on my face, because it was well worth it.

[00:03:00] Audrey: The experience of it.

[00:03:03] Antonio: Yes, some really good people.

[00:03:03] Audrey: To be able to have good memories and the stories associated with that, I can only imagine.

[00:03:07] Antonio: Oh yes, and really good food, really good. The only regret I have is I didn't go to Dollywood.

[00:03:15] Audrey: We weren't able to make it to Dollywood, so we're going to do a round two, a phase two of our vacation plans for next year. There was just so much to do. Really just being fascinated with the sights and the greenery, the mountains. We actually had some bear sightings. Just the excitement of the nature and disconnecting was awesome with family. What more could you ask for going into the holiday season?

[00:03:43] Antonio: That's beautiful. Which starts us perfectly with what the podcast is about, and we always start the podcast with the same question which is what is your story of belonging?

[00:03:56] Audrey: Wow. Story of belonging, I can really think of several experiences that pivoted my life's journey, but the most that I think is vivid to me and really had an impact on me, Audrey as the person. I have a history, my mom, she was a single parent raising two kids in what we know as the project area, assisted living. We had some challenging times. My mom, she didn't have a high school diploma, we were struggling. During that time, it's very challenging.

I was probably in the seventh grade and not feeling as though I had a place carved out for me and struggling with my identity in a number of ways. I had a teacher that had taken interest in me. She was a guidance counselor. I think she saw my struggles and she saw the various roads or choices that I was making, which were not all favorable. She approached me in the hallway and she said, Audrey Mitchell," that was my name at the time. "Audrey Mitchell," she says, "I have an assignment for you, and you need to come to my office immediately after school." Of course, I thought I was in trouble, which was the norm at that time.

[00:05:16] Antonio: Especially if you're spoken to with your full name. You know you're in trouble.

[00:05:20] Audrey: Exactly. I thought she had been talking to my mom. "Audrey Mitchell." I did, I went to her office after school and she said, "I have this assignment for you." She said, "The Language Arts Festival was coming up and I have this poem and you're going to participate in this contest." I was not vocal at that time, again, I was struggling with my identity, finding my place in an area where I was feeling very disadvantaged for a number of reasons, but she gave me a piece of paper.

On that paper was a poem written by Langston Hughes called the "Freedom Train." My assignment was to learn it and to be prepared to present it in a Language Arts Festival contest.

That was my first exposure to anything that was public-facing. She really invested a lot of time in me. She really, through that experience, made me identify with a part of me that I didn't even know existed. I, not only embraced my dark skin, my full lips, and the features that I thought were not fascinating or not favorable for a young black girl growing up in settings that were challenging, but she made me really see the value.

I learned the "Freedom Train," I presented it in that Language Arts Festival. She even had outfit made for me, that was tailored for the slavery days or whatever. I was full part. I did that and I did it with a sense of confidence that I didn't know I had. From that point on, Antonio, it may sound very minute, but from that point on, I really started to identify with Audrey the person. Audrey, the person who has value, who contributes, who has a voice. I went on to participate in other contests, both county, tri-county, and I really started to find myself.

I really started to grow being a young Black female, coming out of poverty and certain other unfortunate circumstances. I think that, to me, was my story of belonging, because it catapulted me into a direction that was new, that was exciting. That really gave me a voice and value. Believe it or not, during most of the holidays, when family got together, I was always asked to, "Hey, recite the Freedom Train. Do the rendition of your Freedom Train." Even now, I find myself reminiscing on that moment.

[00:07:58] Antonio: That's incredibly powerful. Thank you for sharing. On all levels, to be a young teen, a young, Black teen, young, Black female teen, and living in poverty. All of the things, all the markers in our society that say, "You're not an individual." For this particular guidance counselor to reach out to you, it's almost like the hand of fate. Unfortunately, so many of our students don't get that experience, because there's not enough of these folks, these educators that really care and see right to us and actually call us.

It's so incredibly powerful that she called you by your full name. She individualized you. All of these systems that squash us, at some point, make us unhuman in some ways or make us feel like we're not individuals.

[00:08:50] Audrey: Right. You lose yourself, your identity in circumstances or in what you're experiencing either as a result of uprearing or unfortunate mishaps in life. For someone to give you a sense of attention or a feeling of belonging, it really changes the mindset or your outlook on life. That's what it was for me. I think that's why even when you talk about mentoring, and you talk about young adults, and you talk about certain settings, I think we all have a responsibility.

We talk about paying it forward but to also look back and make sure that we're pulling along others that we can identify with and we're not forgetting where we came from and the things that we overcame to get where we are, and we're making those needed contributions. Right?

[00:09:46] Antonio: That's incredibly powerful. It wasn't just good words. She could have just given you a pep talk, but what she did was she gave you purpose by giving you something that anchored you in a deeper culture of resiliency and self-preservation, and this deep, deep understanding that you are connected to something much greater than you ever could have imagined. That is so powerful.

[00:10:12] Audrey: I'm still tied to that experience. I think there are certain life experiences like that that are impactful. That regardless of what we go through or where we go, we are still tied to those and they still resonate within us to move us into positive places. That one was the one for me. Really when you talk about a story of belonging, it helped me to find again myself, my identity, my value, and how I contribute to a bigger thing, which is this world. We still connect today. She is still one of my most instrumental mentors today and I always believe in investing in those who invested in you so we do stay connected.

[00:10:56] Antonio: That's powerful. That's powerful. Let's shift a little bit to what drives you and excites you about the work you do. This concept of talent acquisition and onboarding, I've seen you in action. I've seen you engage with people. I've seen you get people to have a lightbulb light-up over their head literally, by the way you engage with them and you help them understand what the roadblocks are and how to remove the roadblocks. Tell me about why you're in this world and what really drives you to action.

[00:11:31] Audrey: Well, I really am passionate about the work that I do. I have been in talent acquisition, it was once known as staffing and recruiting. We retitled as we go to different stages I guess, so talent acquisition and onboarding. I've been in for 25 years and I'm very passionate about it because I do see the value in not only assisting individuals in career development and finding the right talent to meet the needs of our managers, but I do find joy in connecting the person with the right job. I do find a value and excitement in being innovative and creating methods for attracting top talent.

When we say attracting top talent, really looking at the value that an organization has that could really create opportunities for individuals, and making that match. There is a sense of fulfillment when you can walk away and say, "Hey, I was able not to just put a person in a job but to create a career opportunity for someone." Not only that, but do it in a fashion where it adds value to the entity. That kind of match and that kind of connection is always exciting. I think it's also exciting for me to be faced with unique and different challenges that the work provides day in and day out.

When you're dealing with people, one of the things I've noticed is that there are no two people the same. You get no two identical problems or challenges or opportunities to meet needs. They're all unique. They're all different in their own right. To be able to manage to something different every day is thrilling and exciting for me. Human resources, talent acquisition, and onboarding, it really gives you the opportunity to be innovative and think outside of the box, create new ways of doing things.

Even with that as you look at the changing times and the era in which we are living, you also have regulations, policies that change, laws that change and it gives you the opportunity to be impactful in different ways addressing the needs of not only organizations but people to align with those laws, rules, and regulations. You know even now facing what we're facing. When we talk about the D&I space or IDEA, it always allows you to-- that your practices, your policies-- to see if you are maximizing resources to be inclusive.

That within itself helps you or allows you to be innovative in its own right. I love the opportunity that it provides. Again, never a dull moment in talent acquisition and onboarding. You’re always able to do something new, something exciting and you're always able to make great connections and serve the greater needs of the people both employees and employers.

[00:14:28] Antonio: You definitely are a master craftsperson at that because you do bring the competency, the passion and the ability to really engage with human beings particularly in this field. Particularly, when we're talking about the constants of the diversity of equity and inclusion. People just in many ways, they put up either roadblocks intentionally or unintentionally and your ability to understand deeply the law and myths and also effective practices and really target the individual as a human being to get them to what they really want, which is what we all want.

We want talent, but we want to make sure that that talent and that opportunity is open to all. You said something that really caught my attention and I'm wondering if you can speak to it because it's more than just a job. We're trying to bring people into a career in many ways. What's your sense? How much is the local environment key to developing particularly with diverse talent bringing them on board?

How much of that is key to engaging with the community? We don't live in a bubble although it sometimes feels and sometimes we get accused of living in a UF bubble.

How important is the actual community that surrounds us to the ability for jobs to actually have the sticky factor to become careers so people actually stick around and actually thrive in this environment?

[00:15:52] Audrey: I've been in Gainesville for about eight years now. Having been in Gainesville, I've gotten an opportunity to see a lot. My husband is a pastor. He pastors the local church here and I've got to see a lot. I think to your question, one of the things that when we look at the local community, there are definitely gaps. I think we have a responsibility not only as an entity but even as individuals in various professions to ensure that we have extended the resources.

Whether those resources come through education, whether they come through mentorship, whether they come through professional development or coaching. We've got to definitely make those resources available to our community at all levels, at all stages, and in all areas. What I mean by that is you have students, you have secondary education, but you also have a segment of the population that are working in jobs that it doesn't allow them to meet their needs. There’re gaps for them as individuals.

I think we have a responsibility to educate, to develop, and to provide resources and opportunity for individuals who desire to do more and have the potential and the ability to do more. Whether we're directing them or steering them to training, through certification, or college level, if it's a state college or even if it's at the University of Florida. Directing them, gearing them, guiding them, providing them with opportunities, educating them on those opportunities so that they can grow and develop and actually pursue those careers that exist.

There is in some professions a shortage of employees, but I think we have a richness of culture and community right here in Gainesville, where if we can focus on that growth and development of talent. Whether again, if it's training, if it's education, creating educational opportunities for those individuals. We can really have a vital and rich talent pool right here in Gainesville to assist with some of our needs as employers. I do think we have a responsibility to stay connected to the community, to see where the gaps exist and to develop plans and strategies for helping to close those gaps.

I have some personal endeavors, a nonprofit that offers professional development and personal development to help individuals close gaps. Whether those gaps are economical through financial development and management of their resources, or whether it's individuals who might be interested in finding out what careers align with their passions and how to get the necessary certifications, how to fill out applications for education programs, and gain the skills needed to be competitive.

We talk in this world about highly competitive talent. Well, I think we have a responsibility ensuring that the resources are there to help people become competitive in those markets. I think there's a connection to developing talent right here within their community. Again, just being involved and engaged in the community in different settings. I think we do have great talent. It's just a matter of nurturing and giving guidance to that talent.

[00:19:24] Antonio: That's incredibly well said and spot on on so many levels, Audrey. It really reminds me that how we treat our community is a direct reflection of how we treat each other inside the UF community. That our very diverse faculty staff and students are always cognizant of that, and they see it. They see us or they see us not doing what we're supposed to be doing, which is-- I love your concept of talent.

We're always in many ways overly focused on this high talent as opposed to developing talent and understanding that all of us at some point in our journey had zero understanding of whatever it is our field was and somebody developed us either through mentorship, skill development. Why not take that same developmental approach with the place that we actually inhabit which is the City of Gainesville and Alachua County?

[00:20:22] Audrey: For sure. When we talk about career pathing, I actually started in human resources as what the state at that time called an O PS position. Someone gave me an opportunity coming out of college to just do some part-time temporary work. I started that temporary work. I learned a lot of the concepts, developed competencies that were relevant to this field, the human resources profession. I actually was presented with that opportunity to grow and develop. I did not come out with a lot of experience but the opportunity presented me with challenge of gaining the competencies needed to be successful in the role.

I took advantage of that and that's another thing. When we do have these opportunities, we have to encourage those who are being developed to take advantage of them. I think introducing the opportunity to our community, to our educational systems, "Hey, we have resources available. There is entry-level paths available. Here's how you take advantage of them and how you allow them to grow and develop you as an individual seeking a career in those professions." I started there and I grew and here I am. Plus, plus years later.

[00:21:41] Antonio: All the places you have yet to go. You're not there yet, Audrey. I absolutely know that in my heart and also in my head. Let me switch to a question on-- This has been a tumultuous year to say the very least and we've become hyperpolarized as a nation, even as a state. What is one thing that over the past year that has surprised you that you've actually changed your mind about?

[00:22:10] Audrey: I think one thing that has surprised me that I've actually changed my mind about is facing the situations that we face not only as individuals or community or a city but as a nation is the human factor. Sometimes we write people off for one reason or another. Sometimes we have misperceptions about individuals without really understanding people, understanding the human side of the decisions that are made.

Sometimes we jump to a lot of conclusions, but I've learned or what's changed for me is to take the time to actually get to know the individual, get to know the person, get to know the history of the individual making the decision or that you are engaging with. There was a period of time where I would just look at the facts of the matter or look at the circumstances and make an informed decision based on that.

I've now really started to embrace the people factor or the human factor and not allow myself to be cheated out of gaining great insights from individuals because of circumstances and situations but taking time and investing in learning more about that individual, about why they make the decisions that they make. I think if we do that, if we take time to really embrace the human factor associated with some of the decisions that we make and even the policies and even programs that we stand up.

If we learn the people that we're making those decisions on the behalf of or the people that will be impacted by the programs and we educate ourselves on the people factor, the human factor. Then sometimes we will change what we do simply because of that component, that equation. A lot of times we get so concerned with the bottom line, the financial aspect. Those things are important, but we can't take the people out of it and we can't take the human factor out of it. I think sometimes we don't do a good job at considering the people equation.

[00:24:25] Antonio: That's powerful. It feels at times that we are on this high-speed treadmill where we just have to get things done and we check box people at times. What's one factor that-- We all do. I end up doing this as well. What's one way that you find you're able to slow things down? That very counterintuitive to what we've become as a society where it's like do more with less as opposed to slowing it down so that we can actually think a little bit and overcome some of our fears.

[00:24:57] Audrey: With COVID-1 9, I've seen a lot of people and families and individuals impacted one way or the other whether it's through loss or just through not being able to connect with family. In my role, you have technology. You have a lot of administrative tasks where people can easily become paper. Again, sometimes just picking up the phone and having a conversation. Sometimes just reaching out to individuals. I have people that reach out to me on a daily basis about employment opportunities and careers. Some have lost jobs, some are just in situations that are not making ends meet for them.

Just sometimes just taking time and investing in having a conversation, putting a face to a name, showing people that they matter, again, that human factor. That’s one of the things. You have a resume, you have a piece of paper and that does not always tell the story. You have to really take time and be intentional about engaging in conversations and listening. I found that sometimes just listening to a person's story or their challenge or what they're faced with speaks volumes to them in reference to what they're going through.

[00:26:26] Antonio: That's powerful. I'm going to take that with me where I go. People are not paper. People are not paper and people are not numbers.

[00:26:33] Audrey: For sure, for sure.

[00:26:35] Antonio: I love that. I love that. We come to the close of the podcast with the question of what brings you joy. I know the smokies bring you joy, and being with family brings you joy.

[00:26:48] Audrey: Well, you said being with family brings me joy. I have an eight-month-old granddaughter and she is a delight, Nila Amour.

[00:27:00] Antonio: It’s a beautiful name.

[00:27:01] Audrey: She’s a beautiful eight-month-old. Of course, I'm a little biased there. Spending time with her brings me joy. Again, I have a non-profit. One of the impacts of the nonprofit is to be able to empower women to be successful whether it's through career development, whether it's through financial management. Implementing personal and emotional strategies to help them be successful and manage through things that they're encountering.

That really gives me joy, and I spend a lot of extra time just coaching and sharing insights with women who may be struggling, women who may be going through different challenges, single parents, individuals who are impacted by unfortunate circumstances in their family life or marriage arena, what have you. Just being able to give back in that sense and seeing people benefit from those workshops or those conversations or that engagement really brings me joy and fulfillment. I've seen a lot of positive responses.

I've embraced people who are in tears and they were just benefited by a conversation. Just having someone take time to invest in them and give them some level of guidance. That really brings me joy, and I spend a lot of extra time outside of work engaging in those arenas. I am a pastor's wife, so--

[00:28:36] Antonio: That’s a big responsibility too.

[00:28:37] Audrey: That within itself requires big shoes. Just being impactful with their congregation which involves the community. We are owners of the community, so we definitely provide counseling and resources to various individuals. Just making those connections and giving back and being instrumental, and the value that someone else can gain by just having a different outlook on life itself.

[00:29:07] Antonio: It sounds like that hallway conversation in high school where you were pulled aside as Audrey Mitchell continues to have an incredible impact on the world.

[00:29:22] Audrey: It really does. You can touch a person at the most critical point in their life and it will go on with them forever. I think at that moment, again, in my life was a critical time where someone stopped and really made an impact. They not only to your point called out my name but they actually invested in me and just that act of kindness and consideration has really developed me as an individual, as a person. It's the little things. There was a session that I-- I know we're closing. There was a session that I went to where Derreck, I don't know if you are familiar with Kayongo. Derreck Kayongo is from Uganda and he transitioned due to civil unrest from Uganda to Kenya, to Philadelphia and he is the founder of the Global Soap Project. When he reached Philadelphia, he was in a hotel and he was fascinated by the fact that the hotel took the soap that we take advantage of and they discarded the pieces.

He started the soap project and he took those small soaps from various hotels and he recycled hotel soap and he made that a million-dollar business to recycle. Recycle hotel soap, and use that to ship back to his home country, where there was issues dealing with bacteria, uncleanliness and just the hygiene factor that motivated him to take the little piece of soap have such a great impact was really a motivator for me to say, "Hey, if Derreck Kayongo can be motivated by a piece of soap, I can find my little place in the world and have a great impact."

I think that's what I do through my role as a pastor's wife, my nonprofit and even here at the University of Florida in this role as director of talent acquisition. If I can give back just a little, then I think I can have a great impact.

[00:31:38] Antonio: Well, Audrey Gainey, Director of Talent Acquisition and Onboarding.

[00:31:44] Audrey: Audrey Mitchell.


[00:31:48] Antonio: Once we get out of COVID, when I see you on the sidewalks, I'm going to call you out.

[00:31:55] Audrey: When you do that, I'll expect great things to happen.

[00:31:58] Antonio: I know my daughter gets triggered whenever I call her by her full name to this day. She's a 20-year-old. She stands up and that's generational. When my father called me, that was it.

[00:32:11] Audrey: I can relate to it. When the street lights went out and I was a young kid playing out in the field, my mom, "Audrey Michelle Mitchell."

[00:32:19] Antonio: When your middle name gets thrown in there then you know. You know you have to answer.

[00:32:22] Audrey: It escalates into a whole totally different level.

[00:32:26] Antonio: Oh yes. Well, Audrey Mitchell, Audrey Gainey, Director of Talent Acquisition and Onboarding at the University of Florida, you do so much for this university and obviously, now we know for the rest of the Gainesville community. Thank you very much for being on the podcast and we are so grateful that you are at the University of Florida. You are part of that change process that we're undergoing, and we can't do it without you. Thank you.

[00:32:56] Audrey: Well, thank you for the opportunity to share and I've been with UF for going into a year now. I've been here as we took the reins through COVID, through all of the changes and it's been very impactful. I've seen how we bond as a team and as a family as truly a One UF, and I couldn't be in a better place at a better time. Thank you.

[00:33:28] Antonio: You bring a lot. One last thing, what is the name and how do people find out about your nonprofit?

[00:33:34] Audrey: The name of it is Flourished, F- L- O- U- R- I -S -H- E- D. Flourished Incorporated. We do have a website, www

[00:33:47] Antonio: I love that. I'm going to go look it up.

[00:33:49] Audrey: They can go to the website and find out all of the information in reference to the nonprofit.

[00:33:55] Antonio: Okay. You heard it here. You need to go there, right? If you want to change, you want to be part of a change. You want to give back to Gainesville. This is one way to do it, so thank you. Thank you again, Audrey.

[00:34:05] Audrey: You're welcome. Thank you, Antonio.

[00:34:10] Antonio: Thanks for joining me, Antonio Fariasfor another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. If you enjoyed this episode, please like the track and share on social media. Like to give a special thank you to Dr. Welson Tremura, professor in UF's School of Music and the Center for Latin American studies for the original theme music. We welcome your comments and suggestions for future programs. You can find more episodes of Level Up and contact information for the office of the chief diversity officer at

[00:34:48] [END OF AUDIO]

40:12 Minutes
Podcast Guest Image

Episode 064: Ledora Brown and Amy Summers

In this episode, Antonio speaks with Ledora Brown, Senior Publicist at Pitch Publicity and Howard University alum, and Amy Summers, Owner/President of Pitch and UF alum. Ledora and Amy find a common thread in their stories of belonging in a sense of homecoming. They also talk about their exciting collaboration with UF and  Howard—a seminar series called Identifying the Elephant in the Room aimed at empowering future professionals to confront racism in communications career paths.



[00:00:01] Antonio Faras: Welcome to Season 4 of Level Up, a podcast where we explore how students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida are leading our community in presence and belonging. This season, as we learn to live with COVID-19 and fight racial injustice, being present and understanding what makes belonging happen in UF is key. I'm your host, Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida.


[00:00:29] Antonio: Welcome to another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. Today we have a dynamic duo, a real power pack of alumna, not just from the University of Florida, but also from the highly esteemed Howard University. It's my pleasure to have Amy Summers who is the owner, president of Pitch Publicity, adjunct lecturer at UF's College of Journalism and Communications, obviously a UF alumna. She also serves on the Alumni Association Board. We also have Ledora Brown, who is a senior publicist at Pitch Publicity, and also a Howard University alumna. For some reason, I'm not sure why, but Howard University seems to be buzzing right now. Welcome both of you to the podcast. It's great to have you both here.

[00:01:19] Amy: Thank you. Thank you for having us, Antonio.

[00:01:21] Ledora: Yes, I'm really excited to be here. Thank you.

[00:01:23] Antonio: We're going to get to a project that really excited me when I heard about it, but w e'll start the podcast the way we always started by asking the question of what is your story of belonging?

[00:01:36] Ledora: Amy, you go at first.

[00:01:37] Amy: Okay. I would say there's about three times in my adult life where I really felt like I belonged. Ironically, the small Florida town that I grew up in, I actually never felt like I belonged there, which is really odd. It was about 99.9% White, so everybody there looked like me, but I never really felt like I belonged there. I remember packing up my car, the day after I graduated from high school, and heading off to Gainesville. I just really upset my mother about it, because I was like, "I just had to get out of there." It wasn't because I didn't like my parents, it was just I didn't feel like I was in my place.

My first time I felt like I belonged somewhere was Gainesville, it was at the University of Florida, and being a Floridian and just going over to Gainesville, to me it was like going to this mecca, even though Gainesville is not a big town, but it was such a diverse area. For the first time, I had friends from all over the world. I was learning so much not just for my classes, but really from my friends and from being in a diverse atmosphere. That was my first sense I belonged somewhere.

Then I went on vacation one time in Ireland. I'm a little bit of a mix of Irish, Italian, English, just that European typical mix, but I have this red hair. I've always been teased for my red hair, especially when I was younger. When I went to Ireland, I wasn't expecting this at all, but the people there thought I was from there. They thought I was local. It was because of my red hair that they were recognizing me in that way and trying to talk to me in Gaelic and asking me what neighborhood I'm in. It was really cool. I felt like I belonged there. It was fun for me to see so many children with red hair because I wasn't used to seeing that. That was a second time.

Then I would say that the third time I really felt like I belonged somewhere was when I moved to New York City where I live now. Some people come to the city and it's a tough and hard experience, and other people come here and they just love it. From the moment I stepped into New York City to live here, I have felt like I just belong here. I feel like I should have always lived here. It's the weirdest thing. I have friends in Florida that says, "You're doing the reverse where you're supposed to retire in Florida and live in New York when you're younger." I've done the reverse, but I love it here. I always tell people, "If you don't have money to travel the world, just come to New York, because New York is a little bit of every piece of the world and it's such a diverse atmosphere here. There's such a great energy here. I feel like I belong here and New York City's really my home.

[00:04:22] Antonio: I got to ask you as a late-stage New Yorker, you didn't grow up there, are you a Yankee fan or a Mets fan? Because that's a dividing line there.

[00:04:30] Amy: I have to say, it is a good question, Antonio. I decided to go with the Mets because they were orange and blue, and being the fashionista that I am, I already have the wardrobe for that. Mets, Knicks, Gators, as long as they're orange and blue, it's my team. [chuckles]

[00:04:48] Antonio: I love that. You'll see from my still shot that I'm with you on there for the same reasons.

[00:04:56] Amy: Yes.

[00:04:57] Antonio: Thank you, thank you. Ledora, what about you? What's your story of belonging?

[00:05:02] Ledora: Well, my story of belonging is really steeped in education. My family has always been huge on education. It's actually rare, I would say in either the African-American community or even the White community, but my family goes back four generations of the college graduates, mostly from HBCUs. I always knew that I wanted to go to an HBCU. That was just part of my upbringing. I grew up in Newark, Delaware, in a White neighborhood. I went to fairly mixed schools my whole life, public schools, great school system in the area I was in. I always had friends of all races and creeds. I just blended in any and everywhere. I pride myself on that because I don't know if many people can do that. I always found it easy to fit in almost everywhere I went.

When I got to Howard, an HBCU, obviously, I felt I took on a whole new version of myself. It was still me, of course, but it was a version I didn't necessarily recognize immediately. I felt more at ease. I felt more confident, comfortable, and more open, I guess, “to be myself” I should with a little less judgment, although there is a lot of judgment, because there's lots of different people and with different personalities at any school. I really felt like I found a home that I hadn't had before, even though I had, again, previously felt comfortable, but I didn't realize how much I still needed that experience until I got there.

[00:06:42] Antonio: That's super interesting. This sense of arrival to this place. It's not that where you left was necessarily bad, but it's where you arrived, all of a sudden, things opened up for you. Both of you have talked about place, but it's more than just the place. It's the humans that inhabit it. Ledora, you said you're a fourth-generation HBCU grad. Everyone Howard alumn or was it some drama as to which HBCU you were going to pick?

[00:07:12] Ledora: There was no drama. I just knew I didn't want to go to Delaware State. I didn't want to be in Delaware anymore. I always had big city dreams like Amy. I wanted to be in New York. I wanted to be in a big city, a big environment. I knew where I didn't want to go regardless of whether an HBCU or not. No, actually, they mostly went to Southern HBCUs. I just want to stay relatively close to home. DC is an hour and a half from Delaware. My brother went to FAMU. My mother went to Fisk in Tennessee. My father went to Dillard and Xavier in Louisiana. Howard to me was the absolute-- the only choice really because it was in a big city, and it's known for its program and its graduates.

[00:07:53] Antonio: It's an amazing place. Hopefully, we'll get a little bit of a chance to talk about the power of HBCUs, which a lot of people don't know a lot about, and which we, at the University of Florida, are trying to be more involved with in terms of partnerships, because we know the absolute talent that is coming through the HBCU pipeline. One of the questions that I also ask is what excites you about the work you're doing? In particular, I'm curious about this seminar series that you've all created, The Elephant in the Room. Can you talk about that and specifically of how you came about creating that, and how it's going because this is really interesting in terms of you're bringing together the students and alumna from not just the University of Florida, but also Howard. What's the mesh and what's the pitch, and what's the outcome of what you're doing?

[00:08:49] Amy: Oh, I'll start out by saying that one of the things that personally excites me about what I do professionally, is communicating because we were in the PR business, my degree was in PR from UF. I'm one of those odd students that went off and did what I got my degree. One of the things that I really enjoy about my job is helping people articulate what they're so passionate about, but also giving a voice to people that are not often heard. Even within my own company, I'm very selective about the clients we choose. We pick clients that don't really have that voice.

How that Elephant Project came around, quite honestly was in the summer after the George Floyd killing. I remember waking up the morning of Black Tuesday, what's now known as Black Tuesday. We didn't know it at the time. We had some clients that had book releases happening on that day and different things that were going on. Obviously, everything changed on that day because it was impromptu decided that it was going to be a Blackout Tuesday. Being a communications company, we obviously a PR firm, we had a to counsel clients on what to do that week, but we ourselves, I got with Ledora and I said, “We need to do something here. What are we going to do?” Obviously, we participated with the company and personally I participated by just allowing other Black voices all that week to be elevated and just stepping back. When it was all over, I went to Ledora and I said, “how do you think that we did?” Because obviously we were going back and forth all week about this and I wanted her input, her input is very valuable to me.

She goes, “I think we did good.” I just felt like we are PR people, we are communication specialists. On one hand I was in awe of that social media impromptu that happened that week because people really responded to it in different ways, all kinds of different ways, but it was very powerful and I felt like we could do more. We're a small company, there's not a lot of red tape here.

I went to Ledora and I said, “You know what? I think that I would love to take this, what this felt like this week and take it to another level.” The cool thing about Ledora, Ledora has worked for me on and off but for every decade, her first job out of Howard was actually at Pitch and then she went off and worked for somebody else and came back. She's had other experiences that the funny thing is that I'm so involved with UF now that most of the people that I hire our students coming out of university of Florida.

Ledora is really my only Howard associate who works with me. I do all this fun stuff with all my Gator people that work with me at Pitch and Ledora are always gets left out because she didn't go to UF. If I'm doing something with Danny Wuerffel, I always pick somebody that went to school there. I told Ledora, “I said, you know what? I'm going to do a project with you. I think this is the project to do with you,” because she did come from Howard and that's really how it started. I really wanted to do this with Ledora.

We've worked together for so long, but we hadn't done a project that involved both of our universities together. I said, wouldn't it be cool if we did something with an HBCU and a PWI and brought that together, brought the passions of our own schools together on this topic of racism at this time and do what we're also known for, which is mentoring, work with people that are impressionable right now, which are students that will be going into jobs like we have now and that will have influence on communication. Let's work together on this and that's how it really started.

[00:12:50] Antonio: Ledora, how is it from your end?

[00:12:52] Ledora: I remember the conversation that week with Amy. I think she was looking for some feedback me just to see if I felt like we were on the right path as a company because she-- What's great about Amy is that she takes things very personally as a professional, because she cares so much about what she does. Everything's very personal to her. That's why we're so selective with our clients. That's why we give a one-on-one approach with them. She takes that approach with the people she hires and she takes that into consideration.

Since this was just such a sensitive topic, obviously as a Black person, you would expect me to have some type of feeling, personal feeling about this and she was certainly keen on that. She wanted my opinion to feel like, “Are we going in the right direction? What do you feel about this? What can we do as an agency?” I didn't really know how to answer that question initially, because in my mind, as a person who works for-- as employee, I'm like, what type of answer is she expecting from me?

What does she want me to say? What is she looking for? I had to ask her in that way, because I honestly didn't know what she was anticipating from me, but at the end of the day, we simply just had a conversation as two people and it was really pretty cathartic. This whole series by the way is a catharsis. In my opinion, there's a lot of important topics that I've never discussed professionally, let alone publicly, maybe amongst my friends, but not in a professional setting.

We'll get to that in a moment, but in developing this series, the thought is what are some key topics that aren't necessarily addressed that are obvious, that should be addressed, and how can we as communications professionals help bridge that gap between students and the career field they plan on going into, because those are the next generations of communicators. To implement any change, we need to start these conversations now so that when they get to the workforce, they know how to handle or they have an idea at least, they have an experience in having these conversations.

They have an idea of what to anticipate, what to expect and what they can do to implement change themselves.

[00:15:14] Antonio: That's it. They have an experience and off that experience, they have a little bit more courage to actually speak up and demand that wherever they go to be employees that they're seen as-- I love this relationship. I don't know if it's just part of the small company, but the sense of-- I can feel that Ledora, like it's your boss asking you and it's like what's the relationship. But if Amy is, as you say, about the field, there's empathy. The way I interpret that is the sense of like, “Look, if you are not happy, I'm not happy and then we're not going to be successful.” I love this concept. How does this play out in the series?

Walk us through how that works in terms of --you go live and you have the alumni and you have the students, what's it look like? What's the student's response really? Because sometimes students are-- we were all 18 at some point. At some point, we're like, “Look, you're 25, you're old and you don't get it.” How do they respond to alumna now that you're engaging on what they feel is survival for their lives and they somehow maybe are disconnected from you? How do you make, how do you bridge that connection and get them there?

[00:16:28] Amy: I think in a lot of ways the pandemic presented a great opportunity for us, because normally, Antonio, as you know, most universities, there's lots of speakers, alumni come back, they speak, you're in an auditorium. You hope students show up, you have this great alumnus or alumni come in and speak and then, poof, they're gone. Everything's gone. The content is gone. Everything's gone. What was cool about this was that we had an excuse this year. Of course, people can't meet in-person.

The universities didn't know what they were doing really. They were still trying to figure out classes and stuff. Ledora and I were like, “We can create the series, but put it all online and then bring together two different universities, totally different universities and expose these students.” That was one thing that we were excited about was that we know that there's not many Black students at UF, but at Howard University there's a lot and there's not many white students there.

Both groups of students that we're working with, the two different clubs that were working with at the respective colleges, it was funny because they were actually very interested in working with people that did not look like them. That was one layer and there were several layers to this but then to answer your question on the alumni thing, I think and also being on the board of the alumni association, I always see it from two sides and a lot of times you go to school, you leave, you do all this great stuff. You never get asked back to the school.

You feel like you're forgotten. Of course, there's like gazillion people that went to your school, asking someone to come back, not for their money, but for their time and for their mentorship, but allowing them to mentor in a way that is, “Hey, it's just an hour. Hey, we're all not traveling right now. Anyway, everyone's locked up in their homes basically, all you have to do is pop-up in this room.”

The superstar alumni we've gotten from both universities on this panel, I don't think we could have done this if we weren't in the middle of the pandemic, they would have been too busy. They would have not been available and there's no way that we would've gotten them to fly in somewhere. The whole thing has been very unique and we really created a community in the series, because there's six of them, where we're all coming together. We even have alumni coming back to, even if they're not on the panel, they'll come back to another session.

[00:18:48] Antonio: Yes, that's a really good point and rightfully so, hundreds of thousands of human beings have died because of this pandemic, and yet what you're pointing out also is that this pandemic has opened up a portal as well where change--- things that we weren't possible before are possible now. Ledora, how is it from the Howard student’s perspective in terms of engaging in this process?

[00:19:14] Ledora: What I found interesting is that a lot of the topics that we're discussing aren't new to Black students or Black people, but I think again, cathartic about this experience is actually talking about it. While it's known to us personally, we may not discuss it openly. I feel like this platform allows for that and allows for the students to hear the stories of alumni, what they've experienced either at the college level, when they were students, what has changed, what hasn't changed, what's different from the college experience versus the professional experience but the students at Howard PRSSA, which I was in when I was in college. Also, I have a PR degree from Howard as well, like Amy, actually working in my field. A lot of the students are very passionate about cultural issues. That's part of why you go to an HBCU, is because it's culturally inclined. These stories again, aren't new, these experiences aren't new, but what is refreshing. What is revealing in a way is that it gives an opportunity to discuss these stories. It's part of the healing process, it's part of the learning process. At the same time, you develop these communities, like Amy said, we've developed these communities, with students across the board, UF who may have shared experiences going to PWI. Their experience is going to be a lot different than going to the HBCU. How can we connect those students maybe as networking in the future, networking now to create some type of additional support system to that effect?

Amy: I'll just add to that, Antonio, and that was great, Ledora gave a great perspective from the Black student perspective. But from a white student perspective to we wanted white students to benefit from this. I think so many times we do programs like this and everybody does. It seems like the people that show up to the minority programming is the minorities. Who really needs to show up is the white students, and we wanted to make that accessible for them. One of the things that we did, and we promoted with this was that you can come into our virtual platform. It's not going to be a Zoom call, we use a different platform.

It's anonymous. You come in and you can just sit back watch and learn. We wanted to duplicate what happened in that Blackout Week, where you could just observe and read what was being posted on social media, we're not participating, right? We didn't want to force people into participating because some people aren't ready for that. They just need to learn. I think part of the process in all of this is we forget about that step that some people just need to observe for a while. Some people need to observe for years. Some people feel put on the spot when their video comes on and they're in a room and now some professional or faculty person's asking them, “What do you think?” It's very intimidating.

Unless they say anything in the chat, we don't even know that they're there, which was a really safe environment. Some of the feedback that we've been hearing from our white students has been great. They've said things like, "I didn't know what a microaggression was, but I was afraid to ask, and now that we've discussed it, and now we have examples, “I get that. I will be more cautious of that."

We talked about all these terms and stuff, but it doesn't mean that people understand what they mean, or that they get that empathy, because they don't hear those experiences. That was the other thing for that social media Blackout Week. People were becoming more empathetic because people were sharing their stories.

[00:22:53] Antonio: That's it. That's it, right? You have to you have to understand before you can take action. At times, we want people to take action without their hearts being in the right place. Leadership without heart is not real leadership. I love what you're doing. It's absolutely phenomenal. The fact that you're doing as alumna, I love this concept of the stickiness, of actually not just showing up dropping these amazing pearls of wisdom and then jetting out, because it's, it’s a one-time thing. That's what I have resistance around programming.

Programming is great, but to me, at times it's almost like-- it's performance, or it's a couple of balloons that we put up, but what's the residue after that, right? What's the entry point to what you're both doing, which is how do you bring communities together? How do you create a space that is really safe, right? We all need safety. There’s this misconstrued sense that safety is somehow just a generational thing and only Gen Z needs safety when it's like it doesn't matter if you're part of the greatest generation, you still need safety, psychological safety is always at threat, right? Especially when it comes to people that are educated that feel like somehow you're going to be made to feel stupid because you don't know something.

Of course, we don't ask questions. I'll take it as a male, that I am really resistant to asking questions like directions. There's lots of studies that show that I'd rather get lost and go in circles. I learned this from my father. That's how I learned it. Thank goodness for GPS, I don't have to ask for directions anymore. It's liberated men from having that that sense of unsafety there. I want to shift a little bit to, and you can go anywhere you want, whether with a project or just in terms of your life or the work you do, but this has been an upside down, backwards year to say the least.

We live in an increasingly polarized society and what you're doing is trying to depolarize that I see your project as part of that grassroots initiative, but also not just grassroots but also industry related, which I think is incredibly powerful. What is one thing that each of you has actually changed your mind about that has surprised you, let's say, in the past year?

[00:25:12] Ledora: I would say the importance of developing a good sleep care routine. I'm a person who have a definitely a type A personality so I like to get things done in a certain way in a certain order. However, I'm not a morning person, I gain speed throughout the day. By the end of the night, I'm on it, that's my go time. I got into this pattern of having all my work towards the end of the day and that's because that's my most productive but then I don't have a good turn off system to reset for the next day. That is vital to being productive for the morning time. That's this habit I've gotten into.

What changed my mind is I didn't realize how important that was. I thought I was doing fine in that cycle, but I've had to rethink how my mind and body and sleep pattern works and affects my body the next day, because to me my system was fine, but it could be so much better. I am really working towards developing a better sleep care routine so that I can be my most productive during the work hours of the day, I should say.

[00:26:32] Antonio: I love that concept, you pick up speed as you go along. Was that because of the topsy turvy world of COVID and zooming that caused that change?

[00:26:44] Ledora: It's partially COVID, but I also have three young kids. I have to deal with them a lot during the day. Then getting them situated and towards the end of last school year, I was actually doing the homeschooling with them while working throughout the day. It was just a lot to balance. Then summer came that summer break, thank God. Then we started school again, e-learning, but it was partially COVID, it was my skin was getting bad. I was starting to fall. I could see myself falling apart. I'm trying to get myself back together. I think again that whole late night insomnia mindset drove that.

[00:27:30] Antonio: You hit one of the keystone changes, sleep, we undervalue sleep. We take this bizarre pugilistic approach to sleep as if it's something for babies or that we don't need enough sleep, or we have too much sleep, when it actually allows our brains to actually grow in our bodies to regenerate, right?

[00:27:56] Ledora: Yes, it's a very American mindset, by the way. Other countries don't-- what's the term? Live to work and work to live. Americans are backwards in that way. I'm trying to develop more of a balanced approach.

[00:28:12] Speaker 3: That's great. That's fantastic, especially when you have kids, and family and everything else. Whether you have that or not, it's one of those core functions. There's a reason why we fall asleep. Amy, what about yourself? What flipped on you in terms of something that you've changed your mind about this past year?

[00:28:34] Amy: Well, I've changed my mind about being alone actually. I truly believe that we are all as human beings designed to be in relationships, and to have relationships that I changed my mind on that you have to be in a relationship. When I graduated from University of Florida, like Ledora, I'm type A personality, I was like, "Okay, I got my degree, I've started my career, and now I'm going to get married." That was the next thing. I did, I got married at a very young age, it was the wrong person. It was a wrong marriage and it was very difficult to get out of it. It was hard. I suffered through it.

Then once I got out of it immediately, exhausted from this relationship that I thought as an adult I was supposed to be in, immediately everybody wants to know who am I going to be with next. Then as an older adult, trying to go through that scene again, it was very exhausting. Every year one of the things that I do, I don't have a new year's resolution, but every year I pick a word and it's my word of the year, my mantra word. Ironically, this year before we knew anything about COVID really, I picked the words detach. A lot of people laughed at me because they're like, "You can't detach. You’re a publicist and you're always on social media it's going to be impossible for you to detach,” but I pick that, that was my mantra word for this year. Quite literally I have detached because I'm single again. I live alone but I really needed this forced detachment this year. I have an excuse. I'm not going on dates because it's not safe to go on dates right now, I don't have to do it. What I've discovered is that I actually really like being single and I like being independent. I like this and there's nothing wrong with that. I think that as a society we try to force this idea that either you have to be married or you have to have a partner, you have to live with someone or you're going to die and be old, and no one's going to care about you.

I think that that is a false thing. I think that some people do very well in partnerships and marriages and other people do very well just on their own. I think we look throughout history, we even see that. We see all kinds of great leaders that were never married. Then, of course, you do have some that were, so that's something I changed my mind on. I'm actually okay with it now. I think also being female, we get that extra pressure that we for some reason have to be with somebody. I don't think that that's true. I think relationships are important but you can be full of relationships in your life without having to be legally bound to somebody for the rest of your life.

[00:31:40] Antonio: Particularly if it's abusive in any way caustic. Again, I love what you said both of you because what you're talking is about in different ways, but in similar ways, about self-preservation. And this, if no other year is about self-preservation and self-preservation doesn't necessarily have to happen in isolation. That's not what either of you are talking about. It's like in order to be strong and to be successful for the rest of your communities, you have to take care of yourselves. That's incredibly powerful and strong. Thank you. Thank you both. We close off the podcast by asking the final question which is what brings you joy?

[00:32:25] Ledora: What brings me joy is definitely providing joy to others, particularly my children. Seeing them happy it's sacrifices I make for their benefit and to see that play out, that brings me joy. Without a doubt that is the biggest joy. Another joy of mine personally outside of bringing others joy, my children, would be ironically sleeping. Just because I find myself so busy, I'm involved in other projects outside of this. I learned this from my mother. She's a go getter. I never saw her take time for herself. Now as a mother I get that now. Now what brings me joy is being able to rest. Being able to rest and doing nothing. Again, that's self-preservation, because you're a busy person, you definitely need time to reboot. Doing nothing is my joy.

[00:33:25] Antonio: That's it. Doing nothing is doing a lot. What about yourself, Amy?

[00:33:29] Amy: I get a lot of joy out of mentoring students and young professionals. That's my sweet spot age. I really like that age. I think it's a very impressionable age for your profession. I've mentored tons and tons and tons of students and young professionals at this point. We had a big party in New York City last year that Ledora was at and I invited all my previous interns from UF or people that had ever worked for me. It was just amazing to see how all of them had grown up in different ways. It's a funny thing.

I've never had children of my own. I've had stepdaughters from my marriage, but I've never had children on my own. Another bias that women often get are they get that funny looks like, “Oh, have you ever had children?” If you haven't had children, you're not important as a woman, but now I just tell people, “I've had like 40 or 50 of them.” [crosstalk]

[00:34:31] Antonio: That'll stop the conversation.

[00:34:33] Amy: Now I get a lot of joy out of mentorship. When I was at UF, my first internship was at Shands hospital. That was the first time I had a mentor. I remember her name, Kimberly Jordan, and this was before social media so we weren't on LinkedIn and everything so I wasn't able to stay in touch with her. To me that was a great mentor. Now she probably looked at me as just one of the many people that she trained as students. To me that was very impressionable and it really shaped my career.

I'm very aware of that because I haven't had actually a lot of mentors in my professional career. I started my company when I was 26. I often grasp at trying to find people that have done things before I have done them to learn from them. I'm very aware of mentoring people that are coming up behind me and providing opportunities for others to mentor because I think that you can get a lot of joy out of that. I think that that's something that we've done with the Elephant Series even is that we've given alumni from both schools the opportunity to come back and share with these students their experiences and it's important.

We've had a lot of students say that it means the world to them that they would come back and say, “This is what I'm doing. This is how to do it. Here's the playbook,” and it's very meaningful. I think a lot of times when you're older in your career you don't realize how important it is to be a mentor. You just get too busy and you feel like, “Oh, my gosh, I have to go to coffee with a college kid. That's going to take up a lot of time,” but I just want to encourage everyone, even just being on a panel just spending an hour with somebody, it doesn't have to be a long relationship like Ledora and I have.

It can be a moment of mentorship and that moment could just change the whole trajectory of someone's path for the rest of their life. There might be somebody who participated in our Elephant Series that is going to grow up and be a big CEO. Maybe he'll remember all these stories and maybe he'll run his company in a way that we would all envision all companies to be run, because he was exposed to professionals and to these stories. Mentorship brings me a lot of joy because I feel like it's a way for you to have multiple impact on a lot of people.

[00:37:07] Antonio: That's it. It's the impact and it's really the impact that you never see necessarily. Someone mentioned that it's like we have to learn to plant the seeds for trees that will grow that we'll never get to sit on there. That's what you're doing. You're seeding the future in ways that are intentional and impactful. You're starting by bringing people into a room and acknowledging that you're seeing them and you're hearing them. Incredibly powerful what you do, not just in your professional work but also as alumna.

Also, in terms of bridging causeways that we don't necessarily think should be crossed. I want to thank you both. Amy Summers, owner and president of Pitch Publicity. Also, adjunct lecturer here at the highly esteemed UF College of journalism and communications, also alumni board member and Ledora Brown, phenomenal senior publicist at Pitch Publicity, and also, incredible alumna of the highly esteemed Howard University. I didn't even ask you if you're associated with a certain sorority that might be catching fire right now but.

[00:38:26] Ledora: No, I am not but I'm very proud of VP elect Harris.

[00:38:30] Antonio: Amazing, amazing at this point, and yet we still have to keep pushing on and the work that you're doing is exactly that. The changes that happen, they happen organically and because people are willing to listen and take action, so thank you both. It was fantastic to have you both on the podcast. I hope to hear more about the Elephant in the Room Series. I know that UF at this point really opening itself up to actually looking at HBCUs as powerhouses that we can actually partner with. One example is our vet med school is now partnering with Tuskegee.

Understanding that some of the best veterinarians, Black veterinarians are coming out at Tuskegee. Talent is always there. It's a question of understanding that we got to go fishing in the right fishing holes otherwise we're not going to catch fish. Thank you both for being on the podcast, I appreciate everything you do.

[00:39:29] Ledora: Thank you, Antonio.

[00:39:30] Amy: Thanks for having us, great talk.

[00:39:35] Antonio: Thanks for joining me, Antonio Farias, for another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. If you enjoyed this episode, please like the track and share on social media. I like to give a special thank you to Dr. Wilson Tremura professor in UF, school of music and the center for Latin American studies for the original theme music. We welcome your comments and suggestions future programs. You can find more episodes of Level Up and contact information for the office of the chief diversity officer at

[00:40:13] [END OF AUDIO]

35.17 Minutes
Podcast Guest Image

Episode 063: Andrew Telles

In this episode, Antonio is speaking with Andrew Telles, Director for Collaborative Initiatives at UF. Andrew describes his work as building capacity for the long-term benefit of the community and he talks about two innovative projects in East Gainesville that draw on the knowledge of community stakeholders to develop solutions.



[00:00:01] Antonio Farias: Welcome to season four of Level Up, a podcast where we explore how students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida are leading our community in presence and belonging. This season, as we learn to live with COVID-19 and fight racial injustice, being present and understanding what makes belonging happen at UF is key. I'm your host, Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida.


Welcome to another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. Today, we're fortunate to have Andrew Telles, who is the director for collaborative Initiatives at the University of Florida. Andrew, welcome. We've had a couple of conversations, and I'm super excited to have you on the podcast.

[00:00:43] Andrew Telles: Thanks for having me. I'm excited to be here.

[00:00:45] Antonio: We always start the podcast with the question of what is your story of belonging?

[00:00:50] Andrew: I have to reflect then on the time that I lived overseas. Honestly, I think that's an experience that every American should have if I'm being honest. Before I moved to Gainesville, almost two years ago now, I spent about 15 years living in Sweden. It was for the first time after growing up in New Mexico and going to college and working in Silicon Valley.

I would say both of those areas were very diverse, and places where I felt very accepted. Never thought about whether I belonged or not. it wasn't until moving to Sweden, that I think I really experienced what that meant, and how important that was. Just as an example. Moving to Sweden, of course, everything that goes along with moving to a foreign country, you're learning a new culture, you're learning a new system of bureaucracy, and social skills and social acceptance, as well as a new language.

I moved there at a time when much of Europe had been experiencing an increase in immigration. As I was learning the language, I actually studied the language before I had moved there. As part of my practice, I would go into-- I lived in a small town outside of a large city. I would go into the city and go downtown and walk around to the shops and practice my Swedish.

It was very interesting. My Swedish wasn't horrible, but of course, it wasn't great. I'm in the early stages of picking it up and learning it. When I would go in and start speaking to somebody, a customer assistance person in the store, I was usually forced myself to start out in Swedish. In Sweden, many Swedes are quite adept at English, right?

They start studying and learning English when they're very young in school. When I would go in, and I would start in Swedish and they hear my broken Swedish and my mispronunciations, it was interesting because I would get a look. It took me a little while to figure out what that look was. At first, I thought it was the look of misunderstanding. Like, they didn't understand what I was trying to say and communicate.

After a while, I understood that I started to get that look of, "Oh, you're one of them." Meaning an immigrant. You're not a Swede. I understood this by virtue of I would start in Swedish and usually, I would get to a point where I would get a little frustrated and I would switch to English. The reaction I got when I switched to English and they heard I was American was dramatic.

When they heard that I could speak fluent English, and I was American, their reaction was, "Oh my gosh, your Swedish is so good." Because most English-speaking natives from the UK and from America, they don't bother to learn any Swedish. They just get by with their English. Even if they lived there for 10 years. I met some Americans that lived there for 10 years, hardly knew any Swedish whatsoever.

I started to understand and appreciate that for Swedes, their language was a sense of identity. If you could not speak fluent English without error and conjugation and pronunciation, in some sense, you were considered not only an outsider but also the immediate snap judgment was you were stupid. You weren't bright because you couldn't speak English fluently.

A language that's not the easiest to learn and not the easiest to pronounce 100%. It was through that, that I started to understand. I switched up my tactic. I would go into a store, I would start speaking English and then I would start into my Swedish. Inevitably, every single time they were more than happy to go along with me and to help guide me and walk me through either mispronunciation or conjugation that I had messed up.

It really flipped the switch in the sense that I became accepted not because I was living there and I was trying to fit in, but because I was showing that I was respecting their culture and trying to learn their language and doing what I could, even though I didn't have any real obligation to do that, because they got used to that.

I also got this sense of what it meant to not belong. Being seen as a foreigner coming into their country, being different from them, not understanding their culture. It was a real eye-opener for me and started to make me realize some of the good things that we have living here in the United States, in America and some of the things that we really need to improve on.

Living there for so long I would come back over time. Sometimes it'd be a year, sometimes be a few years in between trips back to the United States. Every time I came back I start to feel a little bit less and less like I did belong in America. I started to get a different perspective of what it meant to be a loud American.

To be standing in line at the grocery store, talking about whatever is going on in your life, or whatever you think about politics at the top of your lungs, practically. In Sweden, it's not taboo, but it's socially not accepted to essentially talk about politics in everyday polite society. It really, it really broadened my perspective and gave me an appreciation of how important a sense of belonging is, and how important it is to work at that sometimes, and not just take it for granted.

[00:06:27] Antonio: That's super interesting. How you have to negotiate both identity, through language, culture. When you mentioned that about you switch your tactics from Swedish to English, reminds me when I traveled throughout Latin America, or to Spain, so any Spanish-speaking country, I used to speak Spanish because I'm bilingual.

The level of treatment that I get when I present as a native speaker, is radically different than when I present as an English speaker. The interesting thing is, if I start with English, there's a level of respect that comes with it or deference to authority, as opposed to if I start as a native speaker where I'm just one of these native sons that left and somehow is back and we really are judging you in a bad way.

It's super curious. You talk about you felt less. Are you living in the in-between life that you were moving between two cultures in two countries? Or were you just rebalancing as you dropped in and re-acclimated when you went from Sweden to the US?

[00:07:40] Andrew: In the beginning, I tried to navigate it as living in two cultures. The interesting thing that, again, that's why I think Americans should strive to have this living abroad experience. It's so difficult to have perspective when you grow up somewhere, and you see things all around you, and you don't know anything else. You don't know that things can be different and if they're different, what does that mean?

People throw out labels and throw out words as if they're negative. I sit there and say, "Have you ever experienced what that's like?" After a while, I started to appreciate that. There's a lot of cultural influence in Sweden from America; music, movies, television programs, books. They all come there. Mass media is as prevalent there and some of the things that you can see in the US are as readily accessible there.

If you look at some of their traditions, like at two o'clock on Christmas Eve, everybody in Sweden basically stops what they're doing and there's a set program that comes on every year that everybody watches. What's interesting is, it's actually based on some of the Disney cartoons. They have the same set of Disney cartoons that run over this Christmas Eve period. It's very American, but they've also made it very Swedish.

I think I started to appreciate that there doesn't have to be such a stark distinction between cultures that they are really interwoven, but if you've never experienced anything other than what you've grown up, it's difficult to appreciate what that is, what that entails, right? What parts are woven, and where do they come from, and why are they the way they are?

[00:09:29] Antonio: That's so incredibly true. Even our language, speaking English or US English, is so interwoven with so many different cultural nuances, but we forget it. We take ownership of it in this us versus them that we don't understand the cultural influences that have impacted even the language that we speak that we think somehow is unique to this nation. That's super fantastic.

Tell me about the work you do and what excites you about it? You're doing some really interesting collaborative work. When I say collaborative, it's more than just your title. This is something that's really deeply embedded in your ethos, and also the kinds of partnerships and engagements that you're doing. Tell me about what excites you about that and how this experience of being an outsider/insider helped you in this process?

[00:10:18] Andrew: That's a great question. I love my job and I left Sweden and moved back to US for this job. In one sense, it was almost time, parents are getting older, and it's hard to be so far away and to be there. This opportunity to come in and really understand what role does an institution like University of Florida have for its community.

Gainesville is a relatively small community with a relatively large institution like the University of Florida in it. The potential for great things to happen and positive impact take place are substantial. The challenge is that, academic institutions-- and I worked at one in Europe. Europe is seeing very much the same challenge for academic institutions and that is to say, what role do they play in our modern society?

They've had such a long tradition in higher education learning, and then in research. That evolution took many, many years just to even transform into research institutions. Now, we're looking at these as being drivers of our economy and solvers of our social issues and problems. Some of the most important ones, whether we're talking about the environment, or racial and social justice, or immigration or economic development, there's so much knowledge that's generated there.

For me, I worked in a similar role in Sweden, and I come here to see what does that responsibility and that new responsibility look like? To me that the biggest point in all of that has been around this idea of collaboration and partnership. These large institutions have conducted themselves in a very stringent and rigid way for so long that true partnership and collaboration is really very limited.

Treating each other as equals, treating each other in the sense that you get some mutual benefit, that's a measure and a sign of respect. You look in the business world, business deals are done on the basis of mutual benefit. Somebody getting something out of a deal. Somebody values some aspect of that transaction more than something else.

I have a background in working with transactions and I think that led me into this idea of how we look at and value knowledge and how knowledge can be distributed and packaged and delivered to benefit society in some way. It's not about the financial aspect of it necessarily, it's about getting this mutual benefit and that's I think, a very difficult thing for academic institutions that haven't functioned in that way to work.

For me, the exciting thing is the work that I am trying to do, and that I am doing on a daily basis has the potential to not only, at the end of the day, create partnerships and collaborations that can be beneficial for our community and the stakeholders in that community but it truly has the ability to transform some of the major and most important institutions that we have in our country and around the world, to have a real impact in the development of our culture, of our society, of our understanding.

[00:13:39] Antonio: Super interesting. Given your experience, working both private sector and academia, also internationally, maybe it's my own fault assumption, but I have the assumption that corporate America gets this better in the sense of they understand what community outreach and community investment is. As something where it could be a loss leader, but it's a gainer at some point.

Social responsibility, right? Is academia behind, or is it just that we haven't labeled it as such, and we don't have a concentrated nexus for that engagement?

[00:14:20] Andrew: I think to some degree, it's a function of the incentives that are built into the academic system. If you look at it from a business perspective, you can look at it in some sense, exactly as you're saying a return on investment. If we invest, maybe even heavily, like you said upfront, that we see the long term benefits of improved quality of our workforce or reduced turnover, so we're reducing the cost of having to train new people to do things that people have been doing for many, many years.

We're improving our quality or our reputation, which means that we are able to increase our margins. There's a sense of, we can analyze that from many different perspectives and all those are incentives for that investment. From an academic perspective, the incentives are really very little. You got to publish, and you got get grant funding and then you have to make sure that all those things fit within your tenure and promotion track as an academic.

Having a long term perspective on an individual basis is hard, as opposed to a company that has the opposite. They have the long term perspective on an organizational basis. They can justify investing in a few people or in a handful of initiatives and see that that will generate value for the organization. In the academic perspective, the individuals, the professors, the faculty, staff have to understand they're investing their time, and that's going to have a direct impact on their ability to develop their career.

That long term perspective is very difficult to have from an individual point of view in an organization as large as a university. I think the incentive system is I don't want to say broken, but it's not conducive to this type of long term collaboration and partnership.

[00:16:09] Antonio: If you were to give us say one or two pathways, what's the translational bridge that we need to cross in order to make that journey?

[00:16:23] Andrew: I think there's two things that I've seen are essential. I've worked in some settings where you have purely a bottom up perspective. You have a group of people, or even many groups of people within a university that believe that having an impact in the community, that seeing their research affecting people, or affecting society, in some way is really important. They work and dedicate all of their energy to that.

That's a bottom up perspective, right? This is something they believe, and this is their own responsibility as academics getting funding and utilizing that funding in an effective way. The problem is, is that if you don't have top down support-- If top leadership or if there's a governing body for that organization, if they don't also hold that principle, there's only so far that group of people can go.

At the same time, universities don't work like companies. You can have a president that says, "This is the most important thing," but because many faculty have funding from many other sources, their salary may be paid by the university, but they bring in many more times their salary in funding. It's not like they take orders from the President or from the leadership of the university.

This is not a CEO giving marching orders to his or her staff. If you don't have top down support, there's only so far that bottom up support and go. If you don't have bottom up support, you can't dictate where the universities going to go. You really have to have a coming together where there are clear goals and objectives for the university to be aiming for.

These are important for our institution to be accomplishing. Then you have to have the incentives, you need to have the skills and the tools and the support for your faculty, staff, students to be working in that way. If you don't have both, then at some point, it's going to all just run out of steam.

That's the main one. Then, the second one is I think the most challenging thing for these institutions, again, is to look long term.

So much of the funding that comes into the universities is project related. There's a start and a stop. The problem is, if during that start and stop period, there's a tremendous amount of benefit that's created, how do you continue that? There's not the funding and the resources there to sustain that. If you don't have an effective strategy for doing that--

A lot of the projects that I'm working on are looking at, how do we translate that into capacity building so that when we create that benefit, that benefit is created in the community together with the communities that when that project will inevitably end and now those resources have to go somewhere else, there's still some capacity to continue that in the community because universities aren't built to support long- term services or programs or initiatives in that way.

[00:19:17] Antonio: Very true and that's a key phrase, right? Capacity building. I struggle with that and I've been struggling with that for quite some time. People are into action. We have a bias towards action, but in many ways we shoot and then we aim. Whereas, if capacity building requires a level of patience and growing organic change.

The projects that you're working on right now, specifically with East Gainesville, are there any that you can give us some insight? I know, they're still in the build process, but are there any that give the community some insight as to where we are in that capacity building?

[00:19:51] Andrew: I think there's two main projects that I think are maybe most relevant to bring up now. One of them is in relation to a project that I became involved with, probably about a little over a year ago. This was a project that was ongoing. It's based on a community partnership school model. The focus of the effort is around education. There's a statewide community partnership school program, which brings together institutions to partner around specific schools.

In this case, we're a community partner in Howard W. Bishop Middle School. The way they build that partnership is we have the University of Florida, Santa Fe College, of course, the School Board of Alachua County, but we also have the department of health and Children's Home Society as part of that partnership. The idea is to come at, trying to develop students, families, and communities around those schools.

Bringing not just educational support and academic achievement, but bringing in things like health and dental services, mental health services, other social services, so that you're not just focused on the academic component, but you're looking at the broad needs of the person. That's, I think one of the first instances where we have our university being a long-term partner.

That's a 5, 10-year partnership. I think the benefit of that arrangement is that because we have that long-term view, we're able to identify and be part of the process on a more regular basis to understand what the needs of the school are. We're there, sitting there, seeing with the principal, with the director, and with the staff that's on-site, what are the specific needs, and then my role. This goes back to our earlier discussion, being an insider, or being an outsider.

When I'm there, I'm a UF representative. I'm representing our university in that context, but I'm there to understand exactly what those needs are. Then, when I come back to the university, I'm a community advocate. I'm there to say, "I know there's a need here. Do we have resources in the university that I can link up, draw and motivate, cajole, convince, bribe, or whatever I need to do to get them to come along and work with that school to help address that need?"

When that happens over time, pretty soon after a while, you see we've addressed need after need after need. Then the gaps in academic achievement, the frequency of behavioral problems, the decrease in attendance. Those benefits start to really materialize. That's one project that we've been in for a while. We're looking now to expand because we're dealing with sixth graders.

By the time they get to us, if they already have a deficit, we're trying to play catch up. Now, we're trying to push that into elementary school.

Then we're in conversation with a local initiative who wants to start an early learning center to see, can we already start before, when kids are born with that type of support and effort so that when they get to be in sixth grade, they're not behind, maybe they're even ahead.

That's where we're looking at really trying to make an impact in East Gainesville on some of the disparities, inequities, and educational outcomes which of course leads to inequities and disparities in workforce opportunities later on in life.

[00:23:25] Antonio: I love the work you're doing. What you're talking about fundamentally is going upstream and fixing the problem there, as opposed to fishing people out, right where we see them. That's like, we're putting people on life support, we're grabbing people, and then we're blaming them for somehow having deficiencies that were created by structures that were built to actually norm those inequities. I love what you're doing. I love this concept of moving the needle and doing it organically.

[00:23:57] Andrew: That's exactly right. There's one other project if we have time. The way that universities often will do community-engaged work is, it's often research-driven. It's always institutional-driven so that we understand that there's a problem, we have research and data about that problem. Therefore, we know how to come in and solve your problem.

Well, I want to say that's a horrible way to conduct research. I think it's not the most effective-- actually looking to address an issue locally in our own backyard and make things better for people to mitigate a problem or reduce the impact of challenges that people are experiencing. What we're putting in place is a new platform for collaboration and partnership called Partnership for Re-imagining Gainesville.

We're doing this together with the city of Gainesville, together with the community foundation of North Central, Florida, and other stakeholders in our community, like the United Way, where we see the opportunity to flip that model a little bit. Instead of it being research led and institutional led, we feel that there are many ideas for how to solve problems in our communities that are not being heard.

The people who probably have the best ideas and the best understanding of what those problems are, are the people who are in the community experiencing these on a daily basis. They know, see, and have lived with these for many years, maybe even for generations. They understand what those challenges and what those problems are innately.

They also happen to have a very good experience of what's been done, what has not worked, and why, more importantly, that has not worked. This platform and this model is intended to try and bring those people and bring those ideas in. We want to locate the people who have these ideas, and then equip them with resources from our institutions, the university, the city, county, and, others that have the ability to support them.

They don't have to know how to write a proposal or a project plan. They don't have to know how to write a grant, a proposal for funding. They just need to have an idea. That idea can be the seed that we can start to build partnerships and collaborations around that together with others who also either are working in those areas or have expertise in those areas.

Maybe bringing in people and time resources, bringing in some financial resources, building a network around that, so that whether or not they're successful in actually solving that problem, which we hope with that will be the case in many instances. At the very least, we're building a new way of coming together. Again, going back to what's the challenge that we have here to bring, collaborate, and partner on equal terms.

Well, you have to value each other and work together. Just working across the aisle or working across town, that's no way to build a relationship. You have to do stuff together. Even if you fail together, that is inherently a success, because you've gone through something together, learned from each other. Maybe you'll be better equipped to next time, actually come up with a solution to that problem, because now you have a new way of working, if you a new skillset, you have a new network. Right?

[00:27:11] Antonio: Yes. That's really the key. The collaborative partnerships. We use those words a lot, but what you're talking about is radically different. You're talking about changing the locus of power, putting it back in the community, and giving real voice, as opposed to pretending that we give voice to people that somehow don't have the right degrees or don't have the right pedigree, or don't have what we think is a strategic vision.

What you're doing is you're locating it back into a community that for generations knows exactly what it needs. It just hasn't been heard.

[00:27:44] Andrew: That's exactly right, and giving them the resources to help solve the problem themselves, rather than somebody from outside the community coming to solve it for them, which rarely, if ever, really works.

[00:27:56] Antonio: Especially if the government's involved in some way. One way or another. We are the government in one way or another. To shift a little bit, Andrew, tell me about something that over the past year-- and this has been a wild year just on many levels. That's an understatement. Tell me something that you've changed your mind about that surprised you this past year.

[00:28:25] Andrew: I would say, specific to the community of Gainesville, again, a community that I'm new to. I moved here in January of 2019. One of the things that I heard when I moved here and saw-- Again, this is not unique to Gainesville. It's not unique to University of Florida, but it was that there were the silos.

People working in silos, instances of on-campus, researchers working in the same area, doing similar projects, and having no idea about the work that each other are doing. Same thing in the community, you have organizations who are working towards similar objectives, delivering similar services, and often end up having to compete.

That's, I think a function of the system that we have that provide these types of grant funding opportunities that these organizations end up having to compete for those same funds. Therefore, there's actually a disincentive for them to collaborate because each of them has to stand out and show what they're doing for their community, constituents, or for their customers, so to speak.

That creates an environment that is dis-incentivizing collaboration. When I moved here, it was very much-- well, everybody does their own thing and people aren't very good at collaborating. I think with the pandemic, all of the challenges and issues that have come out, what's been clear to me is that's absolutely not true.

In fact, people have realized more than ever that they simply don't have the resources in the midst of a pandemic, the scope and nature of the challenges that our community is experiencing were exacerbated. They were front and center and they overwhelmed our organizations that were out there trying to serve the community. They realized that they can't go it alone.

There is a will and an interest to collaborate and I've seen that time and again. We just have to find the right bridge, the right glue to bring them together so that they're not competing, so that they don't see each other as a threat, so they're not fighting for the same resources or for the same people to serve. There's plenty of room for that if people are just given the opportunity and given the time.

[00:30:45] Antonio: Yes. That's really powerful. What you're getting at is that moving away from the scarcity mindset that the pie is only-- we have the thin-slice the last slice, as opposed to, "You know what? Why don't we just bake another pie?" And think about it that way. We're innovators, we're creators. Why don't we think about it in that way? We close out the podcast by asking, what brings you joy? It's 2020, but what brings you joy?

[00:31:15] Andrew: It's reflected in the work that I did before I moved here. It's reflected in the work that I'm doing now, where I get the most satisfaction and enjoyment, and I can go to bed and feel that I've done something of value in the world. It's to help people accomplish what they maybe even dream that they couldn't do, helping people to understand the potential that they have, and not just that, but helping them to also realize that.

That's the thing that is the most rewarding. Whether that's in relation to my family, my kids, or my wife. Helping to be a support and encouragement and helping to pave the way or whether it's strangers that I've never met before, and I show up at a meeting and then we see an issue in a problem, and we end up finding a path forward that they never thought was even realistic or feasible. But now, they're excited and I'm excited.

Of course, the people who stand to benefit the most are the ones that are going to receive the product of that type of effort. That's what gives me a tremendous amount of joy. It's what drives me to work every day, to not just do it in my work-life, but in my personal life. I feel like that's the most rewarding aspect to feel that, you've helped people and not just by giving them a handout, but by helping them to realize something that is important for them and how they value their own selves and their own life.

[00:32:51] Antonio: That's it, creating lasting value, that then generationally can be moved on. Thank you. Thank you for being here. Thank you for coming back. I gotta ask one final question. Is IKEA Sweden's practical joke on the United States and on Americans, is that what it's meant to be? Because I'm just really curious. I was an IKEA fanatic until I overdosed on the stuff. Now just driving by the store, sends shivers through me.

[00:33:23] Andrew: [laughs] I don't know if it's a practical joke, but I think it shows the power of cultural influence. There's 10 million people in Sweden. There's 10 million people in Sweden, and yet the design influence and the business influence of a country that small, it's not just in the US, it's throughout Europe. You drive through Europe, but you can't miss an IKEA store.

The distinctive colors and the flags and all that stuff, they're all over. They've done an amazing job of invading the world. More than anything, it shows you that if you understand who your customers are, if you understand what they value, whether they like to admit it or not, people are reluctantly sometimes drawn in and, and have no choice.

[00:34:18] Antonio: Very much so, very much so. Thank you again for being on the podcast. Andrew Telles, Director of Collaborative Initiatives at the University of Florida. Welcome home and glad to be here with you and the work you're doing. I appreciate everything you’re doing.

[00:34:35] Andrew: Thanks, Antonio. I'm so glad to be here and thank you for everything.

[00:34:40] Antonio: Thanks for joining me, Antonio Farias, for another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. If you enjoyed this episode, please like the track and share on social media. I’d like to give a special thank you for Dr. Welsom Tremura, professor in UF's School of Music and the Center for Latin American studies for the original theme music .

We welcome your comments and suggestions for future programs. You can find more episodes of Level Up and contact information for the office of the chief diversity officer at

[00:35:18] [END OF AUDIO]

22.40 Minutes
Podcast Guest Image

Episode 062: Maria Leite

In this episode, Antonio talks with Dr. Maria Leite, Coordinator for College Assessment and Diversity Initiatives in the College of Education, as well as a Campus Diversity Liaison and Crucial Conversations Trainer. Hear how Maria has found belonging by reconnecting with colleagues from her work in a theater school in Brazil and finding connections with the work she does today advancing IDEA at UF.


[background music]

[00:00:01] Antonio: Welcome to Season 4 of Level Up, a podcast where we explore how students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida are leading our community in presence and belonging. This season, as we learn to live with COVID-19 and fight racial injustice, being present and understanding what makes belonging happen at UF is key. I'm your host, Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida.

So, welcome to another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. Today, we're really super excited to have Dr. Maria Leite, who is the Coordinator of College Assessment and Diversity Initiatives in the amazing College of Education here at the University of Florida. We're going to talk about a lot of things. Maria is like phenomenal on all levels. She's also an amazing artist, and she drives a really cool sports car. O n top of which, she is a yoga practitioner. That has me just amazed every time she does it handstands or headstands actually is, or if there's an actual term for it, I don't know what it is, but welcome Maria to the podcast.

[00:01:07] Maria: Thank you very much, Antonio, for having me here. I feel honored as I said before. I don't know if I'm all of that, but I try to pretend I practice yoga. I try to pretend I'm an artist, [laughs] but thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here.

[00:01:25] Antonio: You're very humble. I haven't seen you on the road, so I don't know how much of a leadfoot you have on that eight cylinder, but I know in your art. It is pretty amazing, and it very much ties into, I think, a long Brazilian tradition of art and social movement. So I'm always sort of amazed and impressed when I see it, when you actually put it out there on social media. So thank you.

[00:01:47] Maria: Thank you. I am a good driver though.

[00:01:50] Antonio: You are a good driver.

[00:01:53] Antonio: We always start the podcast by asking the question. What is your story of belonging?

[00:01:58] Maria: Okay. My story of belonging I think it's actually happening very intensely right now. As you mentioned, I was born and raised in Brazil, and I worked in Brazil as a set designer. I am by- my initial career was as an artist, as a set designer, which I was very disconnected for 15 years. I recently reconnected with teachers I used to work with in the theater school I used to teach in Rio and. We have been talking a lot about the work that we did, and I'm seeing so many connections to the work I'm doing today.

23 years ago, we established a theater school within the public school system in Brazil. We were all recently graduated from Fine Arts School. So, we got together, we went through a selective exam to get the job in the public education. Then, we met in this like campus with a lot of different technical schools. The theater school did not exist at this point, so we established it when we were in our early twenties.

[00:03:14] Antonio: Amazing.

[00:03:15] Maria: Yes. That was really amazing because the work we've done, we did a lot of work using Augusto Boal, which is the Theater of the Oppressed. Focusing on the needs and characteristics of that particular community but still bringing the Shakespeare, bringing Molière, bringing the Brazilian authors, classics and mixing everything with the cultural aspects, local aspects, the popular culture. We had folklore classes that were very focused on African legends and African stories, African mythology. So we mixed all these classics with these elements of popular culture, and we didn't even know that we were already decolonizing theater education in the public system.

Going back and analyzing my story with my friends and we formed a group now, we meet every two weeks to talk about the academic part of our work in Brazil, we submitted a book proposal together. We wrote about this work that we did 23 years ago, and they are still doing. So we are meeting and we are talking about all the work that we have been doing. It's helping me so much to understand the work that I'm doing today.

Then, going back to your question, you asked me about the sense of my story of belonging. I feel that I belong to the work in the area of diversity and inclusion today more than I felt when I started doing this work like two years ago in the United States, because I'm now connecting that-- Okay, wait a minute. I've done it before, just like I didn't have enough foundation to understand that what we were doing was already working with diverse populations and understanding their needs and tailoring our programs to meet the populations we were serving.

[00:05:31] Antonio: That's pretty amazing and 23 years afterwards, you're still this collective. Do you have a name for the collective, or is this--?

[00:05:40] Maria: Oh, we do. We do, and you're going to laugh because we are framing all this conversation. We are calling the space, the theater school space as our backyard and using the Third Space Theory to frame that because-- It's within a school, they go there, they have their classes. There are these other courses that they choose to be, so they chose to be in the theater school. So it was not the school, it was not their house. It was this third space that we negotiated their identities and the classics that we wanted to bring to them. We mixed everything. Now, we are what we call our backyard in Portuguese, we call nosso quintal. That's where everything happens, in our backyard,

[00:06:29] Antonio: I love it. That's like familial, artistic, performative. At the end of the day, it's about bringing people together and thinking ways through. I love this concept that you're talking about, which is this Third Space. Maybe we'll get into it a little bit more, because I know you you've opened my eyes to that process. Tell me maybe about- maybe riffing off of that, tell me what really excites you about the work you're doing, whether it's at UF or still in combination with this collective that's very international, down to Brazil still, or in the community. What really drives your passion right now in terms of this work around inclusion and diversity?

[00:07:13] Maria: I think the collective aspect of it, the collaboration, the fact that we are working together. Just going back to my previous experience, that's what we did. Now, what I'm doing in the College of Education is so similar in a way that we are having the collective action towards the goals, support our Black students, and ensure they are successful in their programs and Black faculty as well. It is just this huge group of people when we form some committees and everybody's working together towards the same goal. That excites me. I feel that having the opportunity to work in collaboration again, in a way that I had never done since I moved to the United States, it's very exciting for me at this point.

[00:08:06] Antonio: That's awesome. Do you find parallels between the level of collectivism or collective work that happens in the United States versus what you experienced in Brazil or what goes on in Brazil?

[00:08:20] Maria: I need to be very careful because what I'm about to say is going to be completely the opposite of everything that relates to the work in the area of diversity and inclusion. So, I don't want to generalize, like, ''This is how we work in Brazil. This is all we work in the United States.'' I think the context I was immersed was very collaborative because I came from the arts, I came from communications and that happened very naturally. I think personality- the combination of personalities was very conductive to having work that focused on collaboration. It was never perfect. We fought a lot, and we were talking about it the other day we met and we cried. It became a family thing. We fought like brothers and sisters. It was very personal. So I think that's the difference.

I think we can get more personal in Brazil. Culturally, people get more personal in the professional environment compared to the United States, at least, from my personal experience, I don't want to generalize to the whole American culture versus the Brazilian culture, but from my experience.

[00:09:44] Antonio: I appreciate it when-- You're absolutely right. We don't over stereotype anyone. What we're really talking about is time specific, place specific and even sort of collective specific, but you mentioned something about emotions. You fought, you cried, you feel that making it person-- And you said it was also very personal? Do you feel that making it personal gives you more latitude when you have those? Because it's not like the emotions don't happen in every space, this wild fluctuation, but do you think because it's personal, there's a better ability to recuperate from those emotional highs and lows, as opposed to, let's say, in a collaborative relationship which is strictly professional?

[00:10:34] Maria: I feel that today, I changed a little bit. I'm still very emotional with things, and I'm constantly like self-regulating. The crucial conversations are helping me so much to question myself, ''Okay. Am I reacting to that?" So, I'm becoming very aware of certain things. I think it is both good and bad. It can be good in a way that when you know someone at the personal level and you work with this person, you have some levels of safety that are different.

On the other hand, it might be complicated when you have to share something that might not be working well with somebody who has a personal relationship with you, and then, the person will not take it very well. That happened a lot among all of us in Brazil. I think I'm now more proficient in how to address problems without emotions but not 100%. Once again, it's never set in stone or something, "Oh, yes. It's like this here. It's better, or it's worse there." It's a combination of different factors. It's always bad when you have an argument with a friend about a professional issue, that there is a lot of misunderstandings that you didn't have the opportunity to clarify, because both of you were very emotional about it. So, I think that's the bad part, but it's also good to know that in the next day, you will sit and there is a relationship that you want to save, that you care about, that is a person that you care about. I think that's the difference.

[00:12:43] Antonio: That's it, right? The relationship. I'd love that how you say, it is the relationship you want to save.

[00:12:50] Maria: Yes, this is not even coming to me. I was talking to the Crucial Conversations Group, yesterday, two days ago, and Michelle mentioned something about that, that really came across my mind as, "Absolutely." It only works if you care, if you have a relationship, and that's what you're fighting for. That's basically what I was thinking about based on what she said, that connected to the Crucial Conversations.

[00:13:23] Antonio: Excellent. Yes, the Crucial Conversations stuff just doesn't go away. We'll talk a little bit about that. Tell me about something that maybe in the last six months, or a year that you've actually changed your mind about that surprised you?

[00:13:42] Maria: I think I constantly change my mind about a lot of things, but this year, it's been challenging for all of us. Basically, a whole year that I have been working from home, and I think that was a big thing that I changed my mind about. I always said, "Oh, I think I would have a hard time working from home. I think I would eat everything in the refrigerator."

[00:14:08] Antonio: I have.

[00:14:09] Maria: [laughs] Yes, I know a lot of people, but I'm so surprised on how I'm working well from home. I'm very disciplined. I'm not disciplined with myself, I have a hard time turning off the computer and stopping every day, because I just say, "Okay, I'm going to work for 30 min- I'm going to finish just that. Yes, I just need to finish this spreadsheet." Then, when I look, it's like nine o'clock, eight o'clock. It's just me not paying attention to that, but I'm very surprised about that. So I changed my mind about that and I think I changed my mind about how I'm dealing with problems.

Even going back to drawing which was something that I didn't do for a long time, I always do something that connects to art, but drawing was something that-- It was in the back of my priorities, and then, I started experimenting with oil pastels. Drawing is such a meditative activity for me, it's like a filter. At the end of my day, it doesn't matter if I turn off the computer at ten o'clock at night and if I go to bed and I still want you to draw, I turn on the TV just to have a sound and I start drawing. It's like my way out, how I filter everything that is not going well in my body, in my mind. That's something else, I changed my mind about drawing and said, "Okay, I can improve my drawing skills." I was never great-very good in drawing, but I can definitely improve that.

[00:15:59] Antonio: I'm thoroughly impressed by your artistic skills. I rarely share it with you, but it brings me a level of joy and calmness when I actually see it because it really makes me happy. I was like, "I know Maria and this is a side of her I don't see, and it's incredibly creative, and it changes all the time." The other thing I didn't mention is, you also do really cool furniture like remodeling. You take some pieces, and I'm like, ''Wow." It's like, "What else is she doing?"

[00:16:29] Maria: [laughs] Oh, I'm going to tell you now. You're talking about that chair. So I got that chair--

[00:16:33] Antonio: That chair is amazing. Where is that chair?

[00:16:38] Maria: That chair, which is right next to me, that chair-- I used to work with a set designer, very famous, well known set designer in Brazil. He would make me crazy, trying to find-- I was his assistant, so I was the one who would go to the antique stores to get the furniture for his sets. He always wanted like a Thonet style chair. Thonet was a family from the 1800s, and they created a technology of bending the wood, to make furniture with the curve. He always wanted a Thonet chair that cost a fortune, that I could never find anywhere. So I was just like driving all over here to different antique stores trying to get in consignation, "Now, we're going to use it for this production." I started talking about the famous artists- actors and actresses who would be working in the play. Anyways, years passed and then, I got this chair. When I flipped, it was a Thonet chair [laughs] .

[00:17:45] Antonio: Oh my.

[00:17:47] Maria: I said, "I cannot believe that," and it had the original label in it. I said, "I cannot lose it. I need to remodel it." It's a team. My parents are very into doing projects together as a family. So, I think that's probably where my collaboration excitement comes from. We always work like that, as a family. That was like an end-of-the-year holiday project, I took the chair. Then, my husband-- Obviously, he would be the one who would know how to pull the chair apart, so we could remodel it safely. It was a team work.

[00:18:32] Antonio: Thonet. Well, that's great to know. You know what? After an entire season, this has been the most bizarre upside-down world of a year, but I've just been tired of seeing people baking bread, including myself. It was refreshing to see wood, and something coming alive, with soul, with love, and caring. Knowing that it was a family affair makes it even better. Again, another side of what makes you a really amazing human being is the kind of work that you do, which gets me to my final question. What brings you joy, Maria?

[00:19:09] Maria: I think any sort of art, any type of arts brings me joy. It doesn't matter if I'm producing it. It doesn't matter if I'm in the museum looking at things or watching a performance. It brings me joy to see beautiful things, to see any manifestation of creativity. It brings me a lot of joy to see-- Just going back to my folks in Brazil, I also had the chance to reconnect to some of our students, who are now in-- Some of them are finishing their doctoral degree, some others are starting their doctoral degree, some others are working as actresses and actors.

Some others just formed their families, and they are stay-at-home moms and dads, but they are all very successful human beings. That brings me a lot of joy, sit and engage in a conversation with them and listening to their stories, remembering us when we were young. They were a little bit younger than us. We were in our early 20s. They were 16-18 years old. We were very close in age. So they tell funny stories that we didn't even remember.

This inter-, human interaction brings me a lot of joy. That's probably why this year has been so difficult, but it has been good on the other side because I'm being able to reconnect to people in Brazil, just because of the distance. Like I'm having a lot of parties via Zoom and happy hours with my friends in Brazil. That's been amazing.

[00:21:02] Antonio: Well, you're an amazing human being, Maria. We're grateful to have you here at the University of Florida. This closes out this episode with Dr. Maria Leite who is the coordinator for the College of Education, and her work is in the College Assessment and Diversity Initiatives, but on top of everything else, you're also a Campus Diversity Liaison, and you're also an amazing facilitator for this Crucial Conversations, sort of project that we have undergoing here to do exactly the kind of things that you're talking about, ''How do we get people to come together to have emotions, and yet be able to control these emotions in order to create community?"

Thank you very much for everything you do, Maria. It's always a pleasure to engage with you and even from afar just to understand the artistic background, but thank you very much for everything you do again. It's been a pleasure, Dr. Maria Leite. Thank you for being on the podcast.

[00:21:58] Maria: Thank you very much for having me.

[00:22:03] Antonio: Thanks for joining me, Antonio Farias, for another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. If you enjoyed this episode, please like to track and share on social media. I'd to give a special 'thank you' to Dr. Welson Tremura, professor in UF, School of Music and the Center for Latin American Studies, for the original theme music. We welcome your comments and suggestions for future programs. You can find more episodes of Level Up and contact information for the office of the Chief Diversity Officer at


[00:22:41] [END OF AUDIO]

18:40 Minutes
Podcast Guest Image

Episode 061: Virginia Grant

In this episode, Antonio speaks with Virginia Grant, Executive Director of Gainesville Black Professionals and Publisher of Synergy magazine. Virginia talks about her role in breaking stereotypes about the Black community and shaping the landscape for those coming behind her.


[00:00:00] Antonio: Welcome to season four of Level Up, a podcast where we explore how students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida are leading our community in presence and belonging. This season, as we learn to live with COVID19 and fight racial injustice, being present and understanding what makes belonging happen at UF is key.

I'm your host, Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida. Welcome to another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. Today we're fortunate to have a real powerhouse in the local Gainesville community, Virginia Grant. She is the Executive Director of Gainesville Black Professionals Incorporated.

She's also the publisher of Synergy, a Collaborative Guide to Economic Discovery, which I was fortunate enough to get a piece in, to talk about some of the really interesting things that we're doing for the African-American community based on our leadership here. Again, Virginia, it's always a pleasure to run into you and meet you, even in COVID world. I always appreciate your guidance and your wisdom. Thank you for being on the podcast.

[00:01:05] Virginia: Thank you, Antonio, for having me. You're right, we always enjoy each other's company. I have definitely missed being able to interact and join you for lunch, but you're right. Somehow we're surviving through all of this with the Zoom, huh.

[00:01:19] Antonio: We are. I always start the podcast by asking, what is your story of belonging?

[00:01:25] Virginia: It's funny because you sent these questions over early, so I had a chance to think about that. I realize, I guess now that I'm older, I've been spending some time reflecting on my childhood. It's funny because I realized I literally spent, I think the greater part of my childhood trying to belong and really feeling like I did not belong. It was funny because as a young person born in 1970, right after the civil rights movement and growing up in the South, the South is always takes so much longer to catch up to anywhere else in the nation.

Even though the civil rights movement had happened for the little rural town that I grew up in, we were still experiencing a lot of that stuff. The signs were down, but the stigma was still there. The rules were still in place. The boundaries were still there. Then also, even within the Black community, I am a darker shade of Black. At that time there was a preference towards lighter skin, Black people. I didn't belong there either. Then as I grew up through school, I was extremely smart and did very well on tests. I was always placed in honor classes and that wasn't acceptable either. [laughs]

I realize as I reflect, I did not really feel a true sense of belonging until I graduated high school and went off to Florida A&M University, which was a historically Black college, which is still a historically Black college. There, I think I finally found my place where it was okay to be intelligent, it was okay to be dark. My world finally began to come together, but by that time I was already 17, 18 years old before I really truly found a sense of belonging. I think that's how I got there. [chuckles]

[00:03:23] Antonio: That's an incredible journey. Unfortunately, it's still indicative of today's world. What used to be the past is really prologue to what's the current state and potentially even the future, which is really scary. You talked about a lot of key concepts: colorism within our communities, the sense of like smart means somehow that you're acting white. Then the sense that even when you're at the pinnacle of excellence, still people will look at you through a stereotypical lens and their own bias and somehow figure that you somehow must have gotten there for some other reason, than you worked your tail off just like everybody else, right?

[00:04:02] Virginia: Yes. It's funny, Antonio, that you've mentioned that because I was talking to my grandson over the weekend, and he said that someone told him he acts white. I truly thought we was beyond that, but here it is this seven-year-old kid, because he's so intelligent and he speaks so well, people are already telling him he's white. To have that conversation, is like, "You don't have to be white to be who you are. You are who you are, even as a Black person, you can exist as an intelligent person." It's disheartening that we're still experiencing that today. You're right.

[00:04:37] Antonio: That's so true. One of the things, especially that I try to break stereotypes in is around the outdoors. The sense that people of color and nature and fishing, all these things are somehow only, there's a certain group that goes there, and there's this wonderful. The beauty of it is, like your nephew, t his new generation is just bucking all those trends.

You look at it on social media, there's just like Black people in nature. We saw a lot of movements around that. We've always been there. It's just, we haven't been visible to the majority and now that we are becoming visible, it becomes like, "Oh, okay. Black and brown people do hike. They do fish. They do things that are stereotypically supposedly not ours," and yet, we've always been.

[00:05:21] Virginia: Yes. In those spaces. [chuckles]

[00:05:25] Antonio: Yes. Tell me what excites you about the work you do? You do a lot of work. You hold many leadership positions, you're a publisher. You just do a lot, what really excites you. If I could ask you to do like one thing about everything that Virginia Grant does, what is one thing that really excites you, particularly right now in this world that we're in?

[00:05:45] Virginia: I think the thing that is most exciting and you just alluded to it is the fact that through the magazine Synergy, we get to help break those stereotypes. We get to showcase Black professionals in arenas that stereotypically, they are not thought to be in. We get to host events where we bring six-figure producing Black people together in a room. For the first time white people who are joining us are seeing a room full of Black money, Black wealth.

That is not typically what you see in the Black community. I think that's what excites me most. The second thing that's exciting to me is just to be a part because a part of what I feel is going to be a major shift in our community, I really believe the nation is about to pivot. When I say about to pivot, I hope that's not 100 years from now. I'm hoping that's in the next 5 to 10 years, but I really think that we're getting ready to pivot. I'm excited that I get to be a part of that pivoting.

[00:06:49] Antonio: I completely agree. There's a lot of reason to be pessimistic and there's also a lot of reason to be not pessimistic. There's an old Caribbean song. I forget the actual group, but it was talking about the dangerous crossroads. We all know from our own mythologies and everything else that the crossroads are both opportunity and also danger because you don't know what's coming, you don't know which way to go, and yet, I always like I think like you, always see this as like there's opportunity here.

We have to be ready for that opportunity because there's always going to be the no, so it becomes a question of, how do we get to, yes, and how do we drive our own yes? Which is all about empowerment. That's what I see the work that you're doing both locally and regionally in terms of not just gathering up--

The story that you told me, but I think it was about a year or two years ago, it was within the Black professional community that you helped one of our young students get on the pathway to becoming a faculty member. You would think that we would have been that internally to our UF community. Yet it was the Gainesville Black Professionals that actually launched this young woman into her career in academia. Again, I think it's incredibly important, particularly right now for us as a university to make sure that we're in complete lockstep with the Black community and also with Black professionals, and to see the Black community, as more than just one monolithic point of view.

[00:08:18] Virginia: Yes. That is so true. I'm so glad that you're there at the college because I think that those new perspectives need to be shared and they need to be talked about. I think that you definitely bring a new perspective to the college. I know there's still a lot of work that needs to be done, but I'm so excited about the collaborations that are beginning to happen and the new conversations that are beginning to happen. Yes, I agree. Totally.

[00:08:45] Antonio: We're in this world right now, extreme polarization. People are in their own camps. I ask this question, what is one thing that you've changed your mind about in the past six months or a year? It's really hard to change people's minds, but what is one thing that you've had a "aha" moment that you've actually pivoted and changed your point of view on?

[00:09:09] Virginia: Yes, so this year, I had the horrible opportunity of watching George Floyd be murdered. That was such a huge emotional thing for me. It hit me so deeply and it cut and I didn't understand why. As I began to process it and as I went through the healing process, I realized it was so personal because the things that I thought happened to my ancestors during slavery, I realized are still happening to my brothers and sisters today. All of the things that I had done as a Black professional to pay homage to my ancestors, I realized, "Wait you're still in that same little world." We have not progressed much further than that. I know it sounds harsh, but it's the reality. I think the thing that I changed my mind about is that I understood, and I understand now that my parents taught me how to navigate racism. They taught me to go to school. They taught me to get a job, a nice job.

They taught me just the spirit of excellence and to just always strive to be the very best, so I can go into any room and I can have a conversation with anybody, and I never used the Black card. I'm always just doing the best that I can, and I'm always being optimistic. That's not enough because the system of racism is so entrenched in our America, that it is debilitating to so many people, and not just Black people and not just people of color. It's debilitating to the entire nation, because white people are suffering at the hand of racism as well.

I think the thing that I've changed my mind about, is that I no longer want to navigate the system of racism. I want to be a part of dismantling the system of racism, because it cannot be navigated. No matter how hard I work, no matter how hard I strive, no matter how positive, how optimistic, all of those things. No matter how hopeful I am, racism can not be defeated. It has to be dismantled.

[00:11:30] Antonio: That's incredibly powerful, and so, so spot on. I think as a nation, 8 minutes and 46 seconds is always going to be indelibly marked on us in the same way 9/11 was marked on us. It was. It was the shocking wake up call to many, to many of us it wasn't. This was the norm. It's just that it was caught in the callousness of it. Now we're in this moment where we shifted, and now we're shifting again.

I just had a conversation over the weekend because students wanted to know, it's like, "How do you have difficult conversations?" Which is, if we can't even have these conversations with each other, in a way that is meaningful, that is respectful, that gets us to mutual purpose, understanding that we're not going to get rid of these biases overnight. Just because we tweet something out or we read an article or we read a book, doesn't mean that we just get rid of a lifetime. To your point, it's multigenerational.

It isn't just one's lifetime. It's multi-generational. It gets passed on. This is this concept of racial trauma. In the same way institutional poverty, right, generations of poverty, generations of trauma that we can't imagine. We can't imagine what it is to have been enslaved for 400 years. Then all of a sudden to say well, now you're free to compete on an open playing field as if nothing happened.

[00:12:57] Virginia: Exactly.

[00:12:58] Antonio: This is why I think it's incredibly powerful what you're doing because what you're saying is, we need to have these conversations, and we need to do it from a position of strength. Again, if you're talking about Black capital and power, you're talking from a position of peers and equal. That I think is incredibly important if you're going to have a conversation, because otherwise it's always seen as people are sympathetic. It's like they, in some way, they have pity on us, and we don't want pity. We just want to run the race just like everyone else.

[00:13:31] Virginia: Yes, so true. So true.

[00:13:35] Antonio: Tell me, we always close the podcast with the question, what brings you joy? Particularly nowadays. We're at the tail end of 2020, even the other day, it's like somebody pointed it out, even the term is symbolic. 2020. We have clarity of vision. In many ways, we do have clarity of vision of exactly who we are as a people and as a nation.

At the same time, it's like this question of, I was just having a conversation with my wife about, has Halloween been canceled? We have Thanksgiving coming up and all of these other traditions. Then usually these are the times when we come together, but at the same time, we still come together. What does bring you joy, Virginia?

[00:14:21] Virginia: This is going to sound cliché, but everything brings me joy. I have reached a place in my life where I'm just so tremendously happy, even in spite of all of the chaos that's going on and all of the negativity that's going on. I am joyful. I am happy internally. I think that I know I have an opportunity to make a difference. Now, do I get to make a difference that on the national level? No, probably not.

I can't probably sit down and have a conversation with Trump or Biden gets elected. I know I can't go to the White House and sit down and talk to Biden. In my space, I get to make a difference. I'm excited about what that difference looks like and just to have the opportunity. I think that as I said before, to pay homage to my ancestors.

Now I'm in a position where not only am I paying homage to them, I'm also setting a landscape for those that are coming behind me and that's so important. At the same time right there in the middle, we're creating happier days right now in the present. I'm just joyful that I get to be a part of all of that, as it happens together.

[00:15:37] Antonio: I love that. I love that. That's the only spirit that'll get us through here. It doesn't mean that you're always 100% joyful. It means we have to keep reminding ourselves that if we don't, if we go down into the drain, then they win.

[00:15:51] Virginia: Yes. There's been a lot of tears this year. Antonio, there's been a lot of tears, there's been a lot of anger. There's been grief. I mean I have experienced every emotion that there is. I probably experienced some emotions that there are not even names for yet. Through all of that, I think you just have to be positive and you just have to look, where can I make a difference?

[00:16:16] Antonio: That's it and keep moving. Keep on moving. That's the goal. To your point, bring others with us. That I think what you said is so incredibly important, in terms of-- and that's what they see you as. The way I see you and the work that you're doing, it's not the Virginia Grant show. It really is about creating a movement where you're actually empowering the next generation. That's so incredibly important because not only do you serve as a role model, but you also serve as a mentor. I think that's even more powerful.

[00:16:47] Virginia: Just bringing people together because when you bring people together, there are things that could potentially happen that I can't even imagine. I never wanted it to be about Virginia Grant because I'm just this small little girl from a small little town in rural Florida. I know there's such a greatness in our community, and I'm not speaking of the Black community. I'm speaking of our community as a whole. The more that we come together as one community, I think the greater we're going to be.

[00:17:19] Antonio: I could never have said it better than that, so thank you.

[00:17:22] Virginia: [laughs]

[00:17:24] Antonio: Thank you very much.

[00:17:25] Virginia: Thank you Antonio. As always, it has been a pleasure. I enjoy talking to you always.

[00:17:31] Antonio: Always, always. Virginia Grant, the Executive Director of Gainesville Black Professionals Incorporated and incredible publisher of this amazing-- If you haven't seen Synergy. If you haven't read it, if you haven't written for it, this is a great opportunity. It's a collaborative guide to economic discovery in the larger Gainesville region. Again, thank you, Virginia Grant. This has been a pleasure. I definitely do look forward to having lunch with you once we get the all clear signal.

[00:17:57] Virginia: Definitely, looking forward to it, Antonio. Thank you.


[00:18:03] Antonio: Thanks for joining me, Antonio Farias for another episode of Level Up on presence and belonging. If you enjoyed this episode, please like the track and share on social media. I'd like to give a special thank you to Dr. Welson Tremura, Professor at UF's School of Music, and the Center for Latin American Studies for the original theme music. We welcome your comments and suggestions for future programs. You can find more episodes of Level Up and contact information for the Office of the Chief Diversity Officer at


[00:18:41] [END OF AUDIO]

40:11 Minutes
Podcast Guest Image

Episode 060: Osubi Craig

In this episode, Antonio speaks with Osubi Craig, Director of the Center for Arts, Migration and Entrepreneurship in UF’s College of the Arts. Osubi talks about belonging as showing up, digging in and becoming part of your community. He brings this open spirit to CAME, which he calls a “think and do” center. Tune in to find out how this center is contributing to culture as a key economic driver in Florida.



[00:00:01] Antonio Farias: Welcome to Season 4 of Level Up, a podcast where we explore how students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida are leading our community in Presence and Belonging. This season, as we learn to live with COVID19 and fight racial injustice, being present and understanding what makes belonging happen at UF is key. I'm your host, Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida. Welcome to another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. Today, we are super excited to have Osubi Craig who is the Director for the Center for Arts Migration and Entrepreneurship in the College of the Arts. This is a really exciting new center and this is a phenomenal new talent that is here at UF. Welcome, Osubi. This is a fantastic to finally get you. I know you've been traveling a lot even in the COVID though. It's good to see you even if it's a 2-D space here.

[00:00:55] Osubi Craig: It is great to see you. I'm thankful to be here, Antonio. I have checked out Level Up a few times and glad to grace the microphone and/or the zoom for today.

[00:01:05] Antonio: [laughs] We always start off the podcast by asking the question, what is your story of belonging?

[00:01:12] Osubi: My story of belonging? I've heard that before. It's interesting. For me, there are a lot of communities and places and spaces that I belong to. I would first say that I'm a New Yorker. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and was there right before I started high school. We actually moved to Gainesville, ironically, so I'm returning back home to my high school roots into a community that I belong to, in many ways.

[00:01:41] Antonio: Did not know that.

[00:01:43] Osubi: Yes.

[00:01:44] Antonio: I got to pause you there. New Yorker, so Met fan or Yankee fan?

[00:01:48] Osubi: Oh, man, I'm a Yankee fan. My father is from the Bronx. It's one of those things you come out the womb and they hand you a Yankees hat, "This is what you're doing."

[00:01:58] Antonio: We can keep talking about it. We are on the same page. No Boston love here.

[00:02:04] Osubi: No, not at all. Not at all. My brother-in-law is from Dorchester and is a Boston sports fan. We have for years and years going back and forth about how terrible the Red Sox and how terrible the New England Patriots are no matter how much they win it. In many ways, my time in New York when I was there, specifically in Brooklyn, is one of the things that I carry with me. I belong to that community in so many ways because it informed me artistically, informed myself, my identity, my cultural understanding. Just one of the things that's really incredible about New York and then Brooklyn is its own place. It has its own thing. I've literally gotten off the plane all over the world and somebody will inevitably say, "Where's Brooklyn at," and somebody has to respond because that's just how it is. That is one of the first things. Then obviously, I've spent a lot of time in Florida. Being from and a part of the Gainesville community, and then spending a lot of time in Tallahassee, Florida, both at Florida A&M and Florida State, and being a part of the arts communities that are there and then going to South Florida and then being in Central Florida, that I've showed up in a lot of places and been able to make roots and connections and relationships with people. In the same time, after undergrad, I was living in Philadelphia for a while. I'm an adopted son in Philadelphia because Philadelphia is a place where belonging, being from Philadelphia, is very important.

[00:03:50] Antonio: Oh, Yes. Almost as much as New York.

[00:03:55] Osubi: Almost. Most definitely. The Philadelphians they'll be like, "Oh, he's from New York. He might be okay. We'll see." Those are the places that I'm from. Then I also think about, on my mother's side, the Meherrin Indian Nation that is represented in that lineage, which is very important to me, to my family. On my father's side, the Trinidadian and Nigerian Yoruba lineage that is there that is very important to me and my family. Then the combination of all of those things of being an African American and recognizing how special and magical that is. I think that one of the greatest things that my mother imparted to me early on is that no one can ever take away your experiences. Go out and experience and see things and travel and open your eyes and eat the food and listen to the languages. Even though I can't speak anything except some really broken Spanglish, I can negotiate my way to a bathroom in Portuguese, but I show up regardless. I show up regardless. I think about belonging in that way. Then, from a career standpoint, I've straddled this line between an artist between really being a problem solver. My undergrad degree in engineering has really allowed me to be a great problem solver and put me in places that I never really thought was possible. In many ways, my love and passion for math and science, I couldn't ever really shake it. Then at the same time, I've been playing drums my entire life. I grew up in the African drum and dance communities in Brooklyn, really at the genesis of the Pan African drum and dance movement that has really seeded itself in the 1960s in New York. Representing all of those things, at the same time, I have from a lot of my mentors try to perfect the skill of being able to show up and soon become a part of a community to belong. In my last career stop, I was in Virginia. I have just had a phone call with a colleague the other day about, "Did I miss being up here?" I was like, "Of course, I miss." I miss all of the relationships and the people in many ways and to have people, when I was leaving there to come back to Florida, say that we're going to miss you because you belong to us, no matter where you go. We're going to claim you. To me, that speaks a lot about being able to really dig in and become a part of your community. To me, that's really what belong for me is all about.

[00:06:46] Antonio: Yes. That's really tight. This concept of roots and digging in, at the same time, being part of all of these vibrant diasporas.

[00:06:55] Osubi: Yes, it is.

[00:06:56] Antonio: I love this concept of you being an engineer and an artist and not a conflict, it's a confluence. Can you talk a little bit about that, because this is really key. We need more people in STEM, but it's not an either/or. You don't have to choose. You can nourish the soul and the curiosity of like taking things apart and like trying to rebuild them, right?

[00:07:17] Osubi: Most definitely. It's interesting because this epiphany that has happened, especially in the educational world, that suddenly the fusing of STEM and arts is this like a magical busting, like, "We're going to do STEAM and it's going to be incredible." Then I look at my family, I look at my community, I look at the artists, the engineers, the lawyers, the architects. Everybody in my family is an artist, even though lawyers and medical professionals and TV producers and professors, and all of these folks that are doing all of these things that are artists that dance and sing and create music and paint and sculpt and do all of these things, and also have very much STEM-focused careers and training. That line that magical and imaginary line that people will have between the two I don't think exists. In my time when I was in Polk County, we did a meeting where we brought together business leaders and folks in the arts community to really have this conversation about the role of the creative in spurring the economy, and how important that was. One of the conversations that happened was talking about Georgia Tech University started to look back at their most productive alumni. Like who are the people that are out there changing the world? They started to find one of the main common threads was it was everyone who was also an artist. Everyone who was also into music, or into poetry, or sculpting, or dancing or doing these other things, and they realize, "Okay, we might need to adjust our focus on not just having these kids sit in the room and focus only on math and science, we need to do something else so that their full brain is awake." This is not to say that the people who are engineers, I'm not at all throwing cold water on my engineering friends, but the ones that I know that are doing incredible work are also artists. As you said, it's not an either/or, it is really the ability to imagine to not be confined to linear thinking, the abilities to create and see past whatever the tools that you have in space, to have a decision-making process that is a little bit bigger and brighter. Some of the freedom that we have in music and, I'll talk personally, playing jazz music, which in many ways is just a grandchild of the West African and Afro Cuban percussionist I've spent my life playing is all about you actually having to focus in with everyone in the space to understand what's going on, and then together, make something that's hopefully going to move the people. That is such an important skill in leading people in coming together to work together. For me, I'm a proud product of Gainesville High School Marching Band, the music program over there, and all of the people that I know that were in band with me that are not teaching music. I know folks that are band directors and doing great things in education. Then I also know a whole bunch of executives and a whole bunch of engineers and a whole bunch of doctors who all say those experiences, that level of thinking, the ability for you to create is such an important skill-set in life. It is not an either/or, it is the same thing. It is the cultivation of imagination, the cultivation of intelligence, the cultivation of problem-solving, and more so than anything else, the cultivation of critical thinking, which is such an important tool in this world.

[00:11:07] Antonio: That's it. Tell me more about what excites you about this new position, this new center, talking about experience and exposure and migrations, lots of things that are there, that people can think, "Where's the there there?" Right?

[00:11:25] Osubi: Most definitely.

[00:11:26] Antonio: We're not looking at it the way you're looking at it. Walk us through why this is so critical and why Gainesville is the epicenter.

[00:11:34] Osubi: It is really the confluence of so many different factors. First off, we are at a really magical time in the history of our state, in the history of this part of the country. You and I share the fact that we have roots to New York. For generations upon generations, people came from all over the world and specifically all over Latin America and the Caribbean and showed up in New York and said, "I'm going to stay at Cousin Joey's house and we're going to do it. I'll get on my feet and then I'll get a place. Then I'll bring my aunt. Then after that, I'll bring the kids. Then we're going to make it happen." We have seen a trend that has had that same type of thing happening at a higher rate in Florida. Center for Arts, Migration, and Entrepreneurship is really this amazing manifestation of all of these factors coming together. I have to give the credit of, I was merely the person that was picked to carry the vision forward. The vision really starts with our Dean Onye Ozuzu, the Associate Dean Tony Kolenic, really looking around the College of the Arts and realizing we had so many scholars that were doing work specifically in the Latin American context, but would have a thing where one faculty member is looking at one side of the perspective and another is looking at the other side of the perspective, but not having any conversation of collaboration together, and then are not going one building over on campus to talk to someone else who's an economist who's looking at the exact same thing. Then going across the way and looking at somebody who's studying the precolonial aspects of what is going on in that area and said, "Okay, we need to connect the dots with this because it is so important." For us in Florida, Florida is such a large state for people who were outside of Florida. You say, "Oh, you're going to Florida," and that means a couple of places that you know. If you have some connections to the University of Florida, you know where Gainesville is in central Florida, you know that we're north of Orlando. Then after that, it's a little bit hard to understand that if you're in the Keys and then you drive to Pensacola, you've been in the car for about 13 hours drive. It is incredibly large, and then the cultural diversity. South Florida is what we call the cultural capital of the Caribbean and Latin American basin. When I say that, I say that you have representation from every country happening in South Florida. In many ways, if I'm an artist and I'm in Brazil, if I'm in Haiti, if I'm in Trinidad, if I'm in Ecuador, if I'm in Peru, I haven't really arrived until I go and do present my work in South Florida. If I get a show and it's in Miami, I have arrived and people will say, "Okay, now this artist is on the map. They're doing things." Then for us here in Florida, culture is at the core of economic development of driving our economy at a high level. People get off the plane to South Florida and they're like, "All right. I want some Cuban food. I want to go and see the artwork that people have on the walls in Wynwood. I want to go and dance, listen to some live music. I want to have these cultural experiences that are the things that are attracting people continuously to get off the plane," preCOVID, of course. We hope that when things clear up, you come back because we need you. When we start to look at all of these factors, we're talking about arts at the core and arts in a very, very broad sense, entrepreneurship, which is, as I said before, people show up here and they're like, "I'm ready to get to work." What are the skills that I have that I can translate and connect to build opportunity for me and my family? That core and that seed is such an important thing and it is one of the things that is at the core of the American dream. People show up here chasing that. As soon as they arrive, they're like, "Okay, let's make it happen." Then the migration part is such in many ways, a charged word, but migration in this instance is really about diaspora. When we talk about diaspora, we're talking about the Caribbean diaspora, we're talking about the Latin American diaspora. We're talking about the African diaspora that you have these people who were showing up here, and when they show up, they bring their food, they bring their music, they bring their dance, they bring their artwork. That is such an important piece and a contribution to our communities, to our economy, to the cultural capital of everyone in place. One of the first things that I do when I have been offered opportunities is I look around to figure out, "Where am I going to find food? Where's the good Thai restaurant? Where's the good Indian restaurant? "Where are the places where I can get something that is specific to this place?" Me having been in Gainesville before, I get off the plane and I'm like, "Okay, while I'm here, I'm going to go get me some Satchel's Pizza." I understand some of the places that I need to go to. I want to go and catch some Leonardo's. I want to go to Bahn Thai. I want to go and get the things that are special to this place but are also representative of the culture that is there. CAME is looking at this very, very complicated intersection of these places and recognize that in many ways it is the next frontier, but the frontier has been in front of us. We just are now intentionally saying, "Let's look at it, let's begin to cultivate it." This model is incredible. The amazing vision of our dean was to then say, "Okay, how do we bring another element in?" That was bringing in a Maker in Residence. You'll hear people say, "Oh, you have an artist in residence." We don't have an artist in residence. Our Maker in Residence Qudus Onikeku is an artist. He has so many more things than just an artist, and not just him arriving here to be here for a semester or two semesters and come in and do a couple of classes and present some work and then go back to Lagos and that's it, but for three years. Now we're talking about really beginning to build a body of work, to have connections to our faculty, to work with our students, to develop some work that will have a lasting impact, not only on him and his organization, but also our center, our college, and our university. It's really incredible. Why here and now? This to me was an opportunity that I literally could not pass up to have in many ways in my career be bringing me to this point to seize this opportunity for me as an artist, as an entrepreneur, as a higher ed administrator over the last 12, 15 years. All of these things come together and then it's also happening at the University of Florida. This is not some school on the side. This is the University of Florida saying, "Okay, we're going to invest in this, we're going to support it, and we're going to provide the space so that we can develop not just scholarship." One of the things that we say is want to be a think-and-do center that we want to bring people together to think about the concepts that we're talking about and then we want to actually do some things. We're working on projects right now that are actually going to generate outputs. Qudus is working on a project called Latunda which in a broad sense, we believe is going to revolutionize how we look at some of the intellectual property rights around dance movement. We have a project about one of our faculty members, Dr. Dionne Champion, and the Center for Arts in Medicine called The Virtual Creative Arts Academy, which is really all about, and a response specifically to COVID, how do we deliver quality arts experiences to students when they're sitting at home? The folks at Howard Bishop Middle School reached out to us and say, "We need some help because our kids are home, everything is stopped, and we need something to get them engaged. There are these challenge videos on Tik-Tok, and people are all excited, but we want something that is focused and positive in developing some skills for them." You can check that out online, that's It's up right now. We've had some success. We ran a pilot this summer for some students, went incredibly well. There's so much buzz about this project that people are like, “Yes, sign me up. Build me a module as well.” We're like, “Hey, let's get through the first testing, let's get some feedback, let's refine it.” We're looking for some additional research, dollars, as well as investment to flush that type of project out. We just had 37 affiliate faculty members from across campus: the College of Law, College of Business, obviously the College of the Arts, the university libraries, Center for Latin American Studies, Center for African Studies, representation from a broad spectrum across campus all now as affiliates to the center. You have this think and do concept around this space that I think is going to really inform where we go when we're talking about the creative economy that exists in Florida. In many ways, we look in popular culture recently, one of the examples that really spurred on the grounding of what would be the center was Black Panther. Black Panther comes out, and at the time, it was the most profitable movie in the history of the world.

[00:21:43] Antonio: Imagine that

[00:21:44] Osubi: Just incredible. What is important, it is representation of the African diaspora, of Afrofuturism very well packaged for you by the Disney Corporation, billions of dollars transacted. When we look at that, we say, “This is interesting,” that this moment of information, moment of representation, moment of me providing a platform to show you culture in a way, got people that excited that they were like, “Yes. I want to buy the t-shirts. I want to buy the posters for my wall. I want to dress up like the Black Panther. I want to put on some of the garb that I see. I want to take in the music. I want to dive further in this elevation and conversation around afro-beat.” All of these things, then say, “Okay, we need to be looking at this because the world is definitely looking at it and recognizes the value.” All of these things are the spaces that we hope to be at the center of, in the side of, as the wave begins to crest to have our faculty, to have our affiliates connected to that work. Then, I’m going to bring it back to our maker, Qudus, who is based in Lagos but is here in Gainesville with us during this time period, is at the forefront with his organization, the QDance Center, of the afrobeat movement, which is afro-beats dancing that has literally swept the world. His team, what he calls the QTribe of artists, are in all of the videos that you're seeing. They are helping and teaching classes in Europe, coming to the States, and doing these things worldwide. In many ways, having their information. This is really one of the things when we talk about entrepreneurship, we're not just talking about, “All right, I want you to invest in something,” and then you come back, and here's a return, and that's what happens. I've also recognized-- [crosstalk] .

[00:23:46] Antonio: That’s the old model. That's the model that drives people away of saying, “That's not me.”

[00:23:51] Osubi: It's one of the important things that we talked about is that we don't want our artist to say that now this means that everything is just merely free economy. There's no responsibility for the value that artists provide to us for us to say that we're going to invest in artists, which is very important. We invest in so many things, and we put our money into so many things that if you get into a community and there's no arts, people will get in their car, and they will drive 45 minutes to the place where there are artists. This is just how it happens, especially in a place like Florida where you see suburban areas where the people in the suburban areas drive into the urban centers to be around the artist, to go to the live music events, to go to the art show, to go to the festivals because they want to be around that energy. When we're talking about entrepreneurship, we're talking about new ways and new creations of value. Also, developing models that allow that value to come back to the content creators. The easy example is hip-hop was started in the Bronx, is a multi-billion dollar business. In many ways, the people who are the first movers in creating an entire context, an entire culture, a platform that has made people billions and billions of dollars, in many ways the first movers of those are not rich.

[00:25:19] Antonio: No, they're not.

[00:25:20] Osubi: They are not well off. They are not reaping their residuals in many ways of if I invented something today, and I register it and I patent it, hopefully, if that becomes the biggest thing to sell this holiday season, I’m going to reap some benefit from them. We want to look at developing models that disrupt that cycle that we have here that have the content creators not reaping the benefits from the information that they're putting out, which is such a valuable thing. That's what we mean when we're talking about entrepreneurship. It is this very broad but then very much aspirational perspective on looking at where these things come together. I’m going to touch on one thing with Gainesville. One of the things that excited me about Gainesville is its location. Gainesville is six hours, depending on who's driving, to South Florida. It is in the range of six hours, depending on who's driving, to Atlanta. It is two hours to Orlando, an hour and 30 minutes to Jacksonville, two hours to Tampa. It is in the center of all of these things. Our ability to have somebody get in the car and show up here in Gainesville, or for us to get in the car and show up in somewhere else where all of these things are happening, to me positions us here at the University of Florida in an incredible way. That's, to me, one of the reasons that I was excited about this particular opportunity.

[00:26:54] Antonio: This is amazing. I love this. This concept of thinking, doing, this maker, and you are. Your embodiment of this like creator. Let me ask you a question about-- We live in a very, at times, polarizing world, where we take sides, and then we fortify around those sides. Tell us about something that in the past six months or so that you've changed your mind about that surprised you.

[00:27:20] Osubi: Something that I changed my mind about that surprised me? That's a powerful question. I think one of the things for me was working with the college our strategic planning process for the next five years. In many ways, one of the things that, again, attracted me towards what we had happening in the College of the Arts was this meta-strategy, which was really this broad statement of attracting a new type of thinker, a new type of scholar, a new type of administrator, a new type of team member to the college. When I arrive in this process, there were different committees, and I was asked to be the person that led, at the time, the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee that was going to be one of the working groups for the strategic planning process. In that conversation, what was interesting for me is that I’ve done a little bit of work in that spaces, but the majority of my career I’ve been at HBCUs. The work that I’ve done has not been internal as much as it's been external of making the case and having the conversation with people out saying how important these institutions are for not just black and brown folks, but for the community, and economic drivers, and all of these things. Now, being at UF, being at PWI, having these conversations, and having conversations about representation, access, equity, and inclusion was fascinating because it's work that I’ve done, but not packaged in this way. We're in the middle of the process and I’m having these conversations and we move to a space where it's just language, just trying to unpack a language for us to be able to communicate out to the college broadly. In the middle of that, one of the things that comes up is talking about diversity, and really diving into what that is, and how for many people, many black and brown people who are in majority-white situations, it becomes uncomfortable to have the diversity conversation. One of the faculty members, we start talking about access. In this conversation beginning to move away from the concept of diversity and move to a concept of access. To me, it was really a powerful moment because it reshaped the perspective that we were approaching. For me, it made the shift in my mind. The entire process was starting to unpack some of the language that is used to start to look at how we integrate that language into our lexicon to share it together. Then to fully embrace the fact that it was going to be an uncomfortable process. My evolution, so we end up moving from diversity, we end up with access. We changed the name of our workgroup to Access, Equity, and Inclusion, which is so centrally powerful because it's not just saying that, "Yes, Antonio I want you to come to my meeting." You come and then you're there, but I don't give you an opportunity to speak. I don't give you opportunity to weigh in, you're just at the table. You are muted because I have not provided you the access to arrive fully and to show up. Not just be Antonio who is an administrator at UF but to show up as Antonio who is someone who is from the Bronx to bring your full self to the place and to be comfortable enough to open up in it. That shift had me go back in a lot of my conversations with people over the course of my career to go back and think about that, and not just in terms of the polarization that we see in the social justice conversation, in the conversation around black lives matter, just in access for everyone in what is happening when we're talking about women coming into the space and being able to have a voice at the table? When we’re talking about representation of LGBTQIA folks, how are we doing that and what is the access that we're providing to them so that their full selves can arrive and have a voice? To me, that is one of the things that had me go back for myself and think about some of the conversations, think about some of the moments where maybe I had an opportunity to advocate for someone else. Maybe I fell short just not thinking about how important that was not reaching out, and in many ways demanding people allow themselves to say, "No, come into the conversation. You have something to say. What you have to contribute is so important." For us, in the inside of the center, this being our first active year, this last 19-20 academic year, which was one that no one will ever forget, everybody will talk about, where were you when all of this took place? The conversation around social justice, in many ways, this seemingly racial reckoning that's going on, for us, we felt like as a center, we don't have the full space to do that. We have centers here at UF but that is their focus. That is exactly where they are. For us as the Center for Arts, Migration, and Entrepreneurship, we want our conversation to centralize and be focused on economic justice. As I talked about earlier, this concept of the content creators somehow being separated from the value in which they're creating that we assist the communities of creatives that we are engaged with, that we are partnering with, that we hope to be attracting to the work that we have in the center to make sure that that they are recipients of economic justice. That they are getting their fair share, that they are getting the returns on the value that they are putting into our communities, they are putting into our societies. That to me is where we do our work. With this, the complexities of what is happening in our country, in our communities, on our campuses, these things didn't arrive overnight. We're not going to fix them overnight. We can throw every program that we want at it, we can have all the town halls and meanings, but it's going to take individual commitments and reflection. Even for folks like me to say, "Maybe we could have approached that differently. What can we do to improve ourselves? What shift can I make based on the new information that I have?" It’s interesting because we've been in the midst of moving and when you do that, you have to pack books up and move books around. Ta-Nehisi Coates, his book Between the World and Me fell out of one of the boxes and I picked it up. In a flash, it took me back to such an important conversation that he was having about black bodies and how important they are for the economy of our country and how their entire industries built on black and brown bodies. That dialogue is going on in so many ways. All things that we are talking about today, he was talking about four or five years ago. Those are the things for me when I talk about the changes, is redefining the conversation that we're having, and also holding space for people to grow by not being in a spot where you're like, "I know. I'm informed because I'm an artist and I've moved in a lot of cultural spaces, so I know best. I know a lot. Then there's a whole bunch of stuff that I don't know that I'm not ever going to know." I think that when we come together, we collectively can know as opposed to me-- [crosstalk] .

[00:35:31] Antonio: Yes, I love it. You're blowing up this whole concept of entrepreneurship and bringing it to a different communal level that this isn't the sole individual heroic that creates a new widget. This is about someone that opens up the gates and allows people to do this concept that you talked about. Just thinking and doing as a collective in space. I love that. We end the podcast with the question which is, what brings you joy?

[00:36:03] Osubi: Oh, man. What brings me joy? One of the things that I miss is that I have not been able to play live music with other people nearly at the level that I should. What brings me joy is music and having music in my house on every possible level, but then going out and making music with other people, playing drums with other people. I've done it a couple of times outside, but it's not the same where the ritual of gathering once a week, twice a week, every two weeks coming together no matter what's going on and being able to make music together, something that I definitely have missed. It’s something that brings me immense joy. What also brings me joy are my daughters. They are to me some of my greatest teachers ever because you get to see the world in a brand-new way. All of the things that you thought you knew, you realize that you don't know. I try to be, as much as I can, a playful father. I love to play with my daughters. I love the things that they invent. That brings me so much incredible joy. When I can convince them to also make music with me, that really brings me joy. When I can convince them to dance while I'm making music, that really brings me joy. One of the reasons that I'm so thankful is that I'm thankful to be back in Florida to be back in a place that is so green and luscious and with beautiful beaches. For us, one of the things that happened with COVID is we spend a lot of time going on nightly walks as a family. Like, "Get up. You've been sitting in front of the computer all day. Let’s get outside and walk." It has brought me joy to be back in a community that is such a vibrant place full of trees and creeks and walking paths and biking paths. That has brought me so much joy and has grounded me in the midst of all of this craziness to be able to get outside. It’s about to be October and I'm still wearing shorts and that brings me immense joy again.

[00:38:27] Antonio: Oh, yes. I’m with you. I am with you on that.

[00:38:30] Osubi: Those are some of the things that definitely bring me joy.

[00:38:35] Antonio: Thank you. Thank you. Osubi Craig, Director, Center for Arts Migration and Entrepreneurship in the College of the Arts. You brought all of us joy. You've got me all like jazzed up about Florida. I’m like, "This Florida, I got to get to Gainesville. This smells like amazing place." Thank you for coming back.

[00:38:57] Osubi: Thank you, Antonio. Thank you.

[00:38:58] Antonio: Thank you, and everything you do. Good luck and let us know how we can help you and let’s know how the community can help you.

[00:39:05] Osubi: Yes. Definitely check us out online. We are on all of the social media that you can think of. You can find us at UF_CAME on most of them or UFCAME on the other ones. Our website online is or, Thank you so much, Antonio. Greatly appreciated.

[00:39:31] Antonio: I love it. With that, it's a wrap.

[00:39:33] Osubi: All right.

[00:39:34] Antonio: Thanks for joining me, Antonio Farias, for another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. If you enjoyed this episode, please like the track and share it on social media. I'd like to give a special thank you to Dr. Welson Tremura, professor in UF's School of Music and the Center for Latin American Studies for the original theme music. We welcome your comments and suggestions for future programs. You can find more episodes of Level Up and contact information for the Office of the Chief Diversity Officer at

[music] [00:40:12] [END OF AUDIO]

23:11 Minutes
Podcast Guest Image

Episode 059: InBetweenUF

In this episode, Antonio catches up with students Stefanie Assakawa and Gabby Whitler. Stefanie and Gabby are officers in the new student organization In Between UF, and they talk about how this student organization allows them to express all parts of their rich heritages and find belonging in difference. They also share how they are making the most of this time in quarantine through the power of habit and saying yes to things that bring joy.



[00:00:01] Antonio Farias: Welcome to season four of Level Up, a podcast, where we explore how students, faculty and staff at the University of Florida are leading our community in presence and belonging. This season, as we learn to live with COVID19 and fight racial injustice, being present and understanding what makes belonging happen at UF, is key. I'm your host, Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida. [music] Welcome to another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. Today we have a real awesome dynamic duo of students who we're going to have a good conversation with. One is Stefanie Assakawa, who is a Second Year Pre-professional Bio Major, with a Minor in Tourism, and Gabby Whitler, who is a Third Year, Psychology Major with a Minor in Anthropology. Welcome, Gabby and Stefanie.

[00:00:52] Stefanie: Hello.

[00:00:52] Gabby: Hey.

[00:00:53] Antonio: We always start the podcast with the question of what is your story of belonging? Maybe Stefanie, you want to kick us off?

[00:00:59] Stefanie Assakawa: Yes, of course. My story of belonging. Well, I'll take you back to Brazil, I guess. Both my parents are Brazilian. I was born in Brazil, but I have Japanese heritage from my dad's side. He was born in Brazil, my grandparents were born in Brazil. Pre World War II, my great grandparents fled from Japan, came to Brazil to be farmers. There's a large population of Japanese people that live in Brazil. I never really lived in Brazil. I was born there, but I came to the United States at a very young age. I lived in Texas. You can just imagine the faces that I used to get when I used to tell my Texan friends that I'm Brazilian. No one would believe me. They would say, "No, but you're Asian-looking. You don't look like what a Brazilian is supposed to look like." It was always that dynamic of, "Well, I don't look the part." Then I moved back to Brazil. When I moved back to Brazil, I was now too American. I only spoke English, I didn't speak Portuguese. Now I wasn't Brazilian enough to be where I'm from. Then I moved to Florida after I lived in Brazil, and then I just told people that I was Latin. I lived in South Florida in Fort Lauderdale. If I told people I was Latin, then I told myself, "This is how I'm going to fit in, so this is what I'm just going to tell people." That's what InBetween, the organization that me and Gabby are a part of, is what we're trying to stray away from. InBetween is having a place where you don't have to fit in, you don't have to change who you are, in order to get people to like you more. InBetween is just an organization where you can be exactly who you are, and not have anyone judge or comment on it.

[00:02:59] Antonio: I love that. I love that. We'll definitely get deep into InBetween, I'm super curious about it. Gabby, what about you? What's your story of belonging?

[00:03:07] Gabby Whitler: I'll also take you back to, I guess, just me living in Miami. My mom is Chinese Jamaican, and my dad is French American. I had always grown up in a very mixed household in general. I just was so used to the notion that, yes, "I'm all of these things, and that is completely who I am, and I don't have to try and move around that. I'll just tell people that. For the most part when I would tell people that in Miami, since we're such a diverse city, most of the people are like, "Oh my gosh, that's so cool. Can you tell me more about it." That made me really appreciate, "Yes, I'm all of these things, and I love being all of these things." As that went on, I had visited some of my family in Toronto, and I could kind of see the disparity between myself and my family that was there. They're all very influenced by Jamaican culture, but also very influenced by Chinese culture. I just noticed the differences between how I was, how Americanized I was, and how close to their Jamaican and Chinese cultures they were. After noticing that, I came back home, and I was still fine with who I was. Like I was a part of that and a part of my American culture, along with my mom and my dad. When I went to Gainesville, I realized after a year that I had been there, that wow, I really don't have anyone to share my experiences with anymore. It was a very isolating thought process that I went through when I had this realization. My roommate who's white, she suggested this club to me that she saw on Facebook, and I was like, "Wow, this is great." I signed up, and I realized that, yes, I can find other people that have these shared experiences with me even though Stephanie is Japanese Brazilian and I'm Chinese Jamaican. It's different, but we still have shared experiences of being in that in between phase of do I belong here or there? No, we don't have to pick either or, we could say that we're in between both of them. We have aspects of both of those beautiful cultures that we get to be a part of, and blend uniquely into our own way.

[00:05:44] Antonio: Thank you. That's incredibly insightful. The old model, it was as similation that we came from multiple cultures and backgrounds, and we became one or pretended to become one thing, right? Some people can do that, and others can't, right. Some people can blend in and others can't blend in, right? Stefanie, your point about even in Latin America, there's a huge diaspora of Asians, and Lebanese and Arabs, and get the sense of what does it mean to be Latin American is somehow very stereotypically typed, right? In the same way, what does it mean to be an American, right? I love this concept that you're refusing to choose, right? It's like why would you choose? Why would you be forced into that dichotomy? Tell me more about InBetween, and what excites you about this new student organization and your roles in it, particularly here at Gainesville? That's what I'm really curious about, is what is the role that this is playing for not just you, but for this emerging community that's always been there, but I think you're attracting them, because you've raised the flag saying, "Hey, we're here. We're here to support you, right?"

[00:06:58] Stefanie: Yes. Well, let's take it I'm a second year. Last year, I told myself that I was going to get out of my comfort zone and join organizations that I never really thought about joining in South Florida. In South Florida, there wasn't really an Asian American organizations, because there just wasn't a great Asian American population. When I got into UF, and I decided that I was going to go, I told myself, "Hey, why not try it out?" Me and my other friend, he's Korean Brazilian, we went to the AASU, Asian American Student Union gathering that they have at the very beginning of the year. It's like one of the biggest gatherings that an organization has that is offered at UF. Me and Daniel Minn, that's his name, we both went. When we went, we hated it. [chuckles] We just didn't feel like this was meant to be. We didn't feel like we belonged, because me and Danny, we both speak Portuguese, which is in Latin America. He's Korean, but he doesn't speak Korean. I'm half Japanese, but I don't speak any Japanese. Having to connect with these people that are from the Motherland, I guess, is very difficult. We don't have the shared values that they do, so it was very interesting trying to force something that just wasn't there. Whenever Izzy Weiss, she's the creator of InBetween, she is a rising sophomore at UC Berkeley. She is a Chinese adoptee. Even though she's adopted, she had those same feelings. She made this organization because she went to UC Berkeley that has a 40% Asian American population, which is insane. Her Asian friends told her that she was too whitewashed. How could she act any other way when she was raised by white parents, and she grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood. How was she supposed to act as an Asian American? InBetween is kind of a lifesaver for a lot of Asian Americans that just don't culturally assimilate, but want to be like they have some type of belonging.

[00:09:28] Antonio: That's fantastic. Why assimilate when you can draw from multiple cultures, right? Yours is the generation that is going to be the most global, the most connected of any generation of humans, and yet we're asking you to in some way, discard part of yourselves, right, when it's that complexity that everybody's looking for. At some, point it's like it's all what you're doing is exactly what the future is. It's resisting this sense of putting people in boxes. There is no box for you because you choose not to have a box. Gabby, what about you? Give me more about your sense of where InBetween is here at UF and what do you think is the future?

[00:10:16] Gabby: Well, I think InBetween is just a great idea that had come up by Izzy Weiss. It's just so refreshing to have a community where people like Stefanie and I can feel supported and feel like, "Yes, we do belong to something, even though we have completely different backgrounds." I think that's such an incredible notion that even though me and her are completely different, we're also different from our President, Susan and different from Michelle Yagami, who is also an Executive Board in the Club. Where it's just a beautiful thing that we're all so different, but we can come together under the same notion that like, "Yes, we're the mutt or the mix." We can come together and have these shared experiences and sharing our own individual experiences about how our mixed race has affected us or how our adoptedness has affected us, and I think it's such a needed community. Because I feel like it's been so glazed over in the past. I've been used to it since my family is extremely mixed anyway and so I just felt like, "Yes, I belong there, too." When I detached myself from my family and moved to become my own individual person, I found out there's not many communities like this where I can really thrive and share my experiences with other people. I just feel like InBetween is such an important organization and I hope more people that are mixed or adopted or whatever it may be would look at this organization and be like, "Yes, I feel like I could probably belong there, too."

[00:12:19] Antonio: That's awesome. Big shout out to Izzy Weiss out at Cal Berkeley. I'm a Berkeley alum, so Go Bears. I know I'm supposed to say Go Gators, but it's like, underneath this shirt, I have a Go Bears shirt on. [laughter]

[00:12:35] Antonio: One of the questions we always ask is, tell us about something that-- We're living in the most bizarro, upside downtimes. Tell us something about what you've changed your mind about in the past six months or a year that surprised you?

[00:12:53] Stephanie: I can go if you want to think about it, Gabby.

[00:12:55] Gabby: Yes, I definitely need some time to think about it. Yes, of course.

[00:12:58] Stephanie: I'll try to make it as long-winded as possible. [chuckles] I think one thing that recently I've changed my mind on is that, we can really make time to do anything that we need. I think that my boyfriend taught me that, "You never have to compromise anything." I used to tell myself, let's say it was 10:30 at night and I would say like, "Oh, it's too late to work out, I'm just not going to do it. I'll just leave it for tomorrow." Really, you only need 20 minutes, to jog, to run, to do something, you really only need 20 to 30 minutes to just get out and do something. Learning that little lesson has taught me that you can make time to do anything, you just have to have the discipline to actually do it. During this whole quarantine time, it was so easy to just say, "Okay, I'll leave that for tomorrow." I have plenty of time to just leave it off. It was affecting my schoolwork because I would just tell myself, "I'll watch the lecture later. I don't have to do it right now, the exam is not until two weeks from now." Having that mindset is so dangerous because when you procrastinate like that and it comes to the time where the exam is tomorrow, what was I doing this entire time? Nothing. When in reality, I should have been watching the lectures the day that he posted it. You have the time to make all these plans. You just have the discipline to go through with it. I think that's one of the things that these past couple of months have taught me.

[00:14:46] Antonio: I like that. I like that you chunked it down from this big just overwhelming thing, exercise, I have to work out, which people think, "Oh, is that an hour, is it two hours to just?" Hey, if I can do 20 minutes. Even the science says, if you chunk it down even smaller like just say, "I'm going to work out for a minute, I'm going to do one pushup." You start getting into this habit, which is what you did, and you get into a routine and all of a sudden it feels good and you accomplish something.

[00:15:17] Stephanie: Exactly.

[00:15:17] Antonio: That's a great turnaround. What about you, Gabby?

[00:15:22] Gabby: I have something similar to Stephanie, I guess, where I guess this past summer in isolation taught me I just have to go for whatever it is I'm wanting to do. I can't let like, "Oh, I'm going to be too busy, and what if I don't have enough time for X, Y, and Z?" I can't let those thoughts invade my head too much, because they will keep me from doing things that I want to do. For example, with this club, I was afraid that since I'm taking more credits than last year, and everything is online, that I wouldn't really have time to do this club but my boyfriend was like, "No, you definitely should do this club because this is something that you really enjoy, and that you really love talking about." I sat back and thought to myself like, "Yes, this is something I love to do and this is something I love to talk about. Why should I be held by the fear of, maybe I won't have enough time for something?" I feel like that was something that-- a mindset of mine that has changed completely, because, in freshman and sophomore year of college, I was very much in that like, "Oh, I don't want to overload myself." Because, I guess this is a little tangent, but in high school, my counselors would always be like, "You don't want to overload yourself, you shouldn't take this class because this might overload you or you shouldn't do this, or you shouldn't do that." I was so tired of thinking to myself, "I shouldn't be doing it." I was so ready to just take it all on and if it was too much, it's okay. I just have to organize my time better I guess that's one thing that I have learned over the summer is to just go for it and don't let anything hold you back from being involved in something that you might like.

[00:17:14] Antonio: Yes. That's a great strategy. My daughter went through almost similar to what you did in high school, where counselors were like, "Well, you're taking one too many AP ."

[00:17:23] Stephanie: Yes.

[00:17:23] Antonio: It was interesting they were only saying that to the girls, is what she found out and not to the boys. This sense of they were doing it in a good sense of like, "Don't overload yourself." At the same time, it's like, "Why not? Why not try and self diagnose? You're adults and then figure out, well, is it a load? Or is it maybe that I'm doing other things with my time that I should maybe re chunk ?"

[00:17:49] Stephanie: Exactly.

[00:17:49] Antonio: Good for you. We have a podcast by asking the question, what brings you joy? Maybe Gabby, you want to start us off this time?

[00:17:58] Gabby: Sure. I think a lot of things bring me joy, honestly. One of them is this club. I guess I'm self-promoting the club, but one of them is this club. I feel so overjoyed that I have a community that I can relate to like this and that we can have shared experiences and do events and just meet new people. I love meeting new people. That's one of the things that also brings me joy. I guess that would be one aspect currently. Some of the other things that make me extremely happy are I really love outdoor activities, I love hiking, backpacking, surfing, anything that involves being outside, I really love it. Especially in the quarantine, it's made me really want to be outside. All of those things. I also really love music, I play guitar. Any of those things that I get to share with my friends or people that I'm just meeting makes it all the more better.

[00:19:02] Antonio: Nice. I got to ask the question, longboard or shortboard on the surfing?

[00:19:06] Gabby: Oh, definitely longboard right now. I am not that good at the moment. I'm just starting out, so I definitely need a foam, a longer foam board to not fall off.

[00:19:17] Antonio: Good for you. Keep at it. Stefanie, what about you?

[00:19:23] Stephanie: Probably going off to what Gabby said about meeting new people. I think what brings me joy is the relationships that I've made recently. Now, I've realized in college is the time where you're not forced to do anything that you don't want to do. If someone doesn't bring you joy in your life, drop them. You have the autonomy to make the decisions that you want to make, so why would you keep hanging out with someone if it feels forced? Now's the time where you can just hang out with your friends that make you happy, that make you laugh, that bring joy in your life. I think a lot of the things that bring me joy are the people that I surround myself with because if everyone's having a good time, then I'm having a good time. It's just like that meeting new people and those anxious jitters of meeting new people, and getting along with them. I'm already smiling so much just talking about it. That's the thing that brings me joy. [chuckles]

[00:20:30] Antonio: I love it. I love your attitudes about it. I was talking about it earlier to some more seasoned UFers, staff. I was telling them, I'm so impressed with your generation because in the middle of a crazy upside-down world, you still can find the energy, the joy, the grit. It's not to say it's always that way, but you find community and you make it work. That's what I really appreciate about this new emerging generation. You bring me joy and whether we believe, whether we tell you or not, you actually do bring a lot of joy to us older folks. Thank you when you're doing. How do people find InBetween? Are you on social? Are you on Facebook? Where can they find you?

[00:21:20] Gabby: We're on Facebook, Instagram, I think we even have a GroupMe. I if they want to DM us on Instagram to get involved in that, they should definitely do that. Our Instagram is just InBetweenUF with no underscores, or like periods, or anything, it's just that. I think our Facebook is also just InBetweenUF, right, Stefanie?

[00:21:44] Stephanie: Yes.

[00:21:45] Antonio: Great. Are you on Twitter?

[00:21:47] Gabby: Actually, don't think so. Maybe we should think of Twitter. [

00:21:53] Antonio: That's for us older folks, right. [laughter]

[00:21:58] Antonio: Well, thank you again. Thank you, Stefanie Assakawa, who is a second-year Pre-professional Bio, with a Minor in Tourism, and Gabby Whitler, thirdyear Psychology Major with a Minor in Anthropology. Thank you for being on Level Up UF. You've been a pleasure to talk with. I am so grateful that you both found community and that you're emerging, and you're leaving a legacy for others that also feel the sense of being InBetween and not having to choose. [music]

[00:22:28] Stephanie: Thank you so much for having us.

[00:22:30] Gabby: Yes, thank you. It was such a pleasure. [background music]

[00:22:34] Antonio: Thanks for joining me, Antonio Farias for another episode of Level Up on presence and belonging. If you enjoyed this episode, please like the track and share on social media. I'd like to give a special thank you to Dr. Welson Tremura, Professor in UF School of Music and the Center for Latin American Studies for the original theme music. We welcome your comments and suggestions for future programs. You can find more episodes of Level Up and content information for the Office of the Chief Diversity Officer at

[00:23:12] [END OF AUDIO]

21:19 Minutes
Podcast Guest Image

Episode 058: Talline Martins

In this episode, Antonio talks with Dr. Talline Martins, Director of the Office of Graduate Professional Development. Talline shares how her experience emigrating from Brazil as a teenager helped her find belonging with others who made similar journeys. She also talks about her exciting work breaking down barriers to success for UF graduate students and busting myths about graduate school for underrepresented undergraduates.



[00:00:01] Antonio Farias: Welcome to season four of Level Up, a podcast where we explore how students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida are leading our community in presence and belonging. This season, as we learn to live with COVID-19 and fight racial injustice, being present and understanding what makes belonging happen at UF is key. I'm your host Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida. Welcome to another episode of Level Up on presence and belonging. Today, we are fortunate to have Dr. Talline Martins, who is the Director in the Graduate Professional Development part of the University of Florida's Graduate Division. Welcome, Dr. Martins, how are you?

[00:00:43] Talline Martins: I'm doing very well. How are you doing?

[00:00:45] Antonio: Great, nothing to complain. We're in the middle of a pandemic and all I keep seeing is phenomenal UF faculty and staff that are every day doing the work that makes us amazing. Thank you for the work you’re doing.

[00:00:59] Dr. Martins: No problem. Thank you.

[00:01:01] Antonio: We always start the podcast with the question of what is your story of belonging?

[00:01:08] Dr. Martins: If I think about my past and -- it has evolved. I'm from Brazil originally, I don't know if a lot of people know that. I moved to the US when I was 16. Living in Brazil, I'd never thought about that.

[00:01:25] Antonio: Was it sudden or was it something that family had been talking about for a while?

[00:01:29] Dr. Martins: It was my mother moved before I did, when I was 13. From 13 to 16, it was just myself and my sisters. Before I moved, I had a little bit of time. I guess I had been thinking about it, but I hadn't considered the difference in culture that much. I was just super excited.

[00:01:50] Antonio: Wow, a super excited teenager. That’s impressive .

[00:01:54] Dr. Martins: [laughs] Very rare. When I moved here, that's when it was the first time that I was in a way seen as other, or different. It was a surprise. I know many people grow up that way, and I didn't have that growing up. It was only after being a teenager already.

[00:02:18] Antonio: Was there one incident that you remember, one thing that sticks in your head about how you all of a sudden felt like that other?

[00:02:27] Dr. Martins: There were -- and I think it was not meant poorly at all, but people just didn't know. I was coming from a city of 500,000 people or so and I moved to a small town in Michigan of 7,000. Of course, I knew a lot about the US, because it's the superpower and, of course, people didn't know about Brazil. [laughs] People would ask me things like, do we live in trees?

[00:02:55] Antonio: Do you live in trees?

[00:02:56] Dr. Martins: Yes, or, do we have televisions? Do we celebrate Independence Day? Things like that were like, “You really have no idea where I'm coming from.”

[00:03:07] Antonio: How do you respond? Were these your peers, these were other teenagers or-

[00:03:10] Dr. Martins: Peers. Although when I was in college, there was one person, an instructor who asked me, he asked where I was from. I'm like, “I'm from Brazil.” He's like, “Is that the same thing as Columbia?” I'm like, “No,” [laughs] “It's a different country.” There were a lot of events like that. I guess the one that really took me by surprise the first time happened -- because it happened a few times -- was someone told me, and this was in Michigan the first time, “You look very light for a Brazilian.” I'm like, “Really?” Because I never got that when they lived there. I kept getting those comments. I don't know if people were just what they, things they would see in the media and not seeing how diverse the country is.

[00:04:04] Antonio: Incredibly so. I was there in '95, '96 for a conference on AfroLatinoism. Like most Latin America, you find that there's this gradation of race. We talk about race in every single way except the way we should be talking about it.

[00:04:26] Dr. Martins: Yes, exactly. The whole concept of race is very different.

[00:04:31] Antonio: Completely.

[00:04:32] Dr. Martins: All of that was all a learning experience.

[00:04:35] Antonio: Wow. Tell me a little bit more about that sense of -- you grew up in Brazil, felt the sense of belonging or not belonging. Because at any given day, regardless of where you are, you feel that you belong or you don't. Then, you go to Michigan. Radically different temperature, culture, size, language, how is that -- because this is very much -- I don't want to say typical, but this is very much like an immigrant journey in the sense that, at some point, you're in between cultures and then, you code-switch back and forth. How did that work for you and then, at some point, did you long for one versus the other or did you make peace with that?

[00:05:19] Dr. Martins: I think you hit on a great point there. It's not a unique journey at all. Talk to any immigrant, and they'll tell you basically the same stages. First, you’re really excited and then, you're really upset about things being different. Then, it's this acceptance and start seeing both sides. That's exactly what happened with me. In Michigan, was a little more difficult just because it was a very small town. Once I went to college, that was quite a bit better, because then, you're exposed to a lot more people from a lot of different places, but really, I became more comfortable and felt like I belonged. It was more in graduate school and it was in Wisconsin. Not a super diverse [laughs] place, but there’re people coming from everywhere there. I made a lot of friends that were from different countries. They had also been in the US for a long time. That's the connection. Very different backgrounds, but we had the same journeys. We didn't feel like we had to talk much about that, or we did and we kind of understood. That was how I started feeling like, “It's common. So many people have this type of journey.”

[00:06:36] Antonio: That's interesting. That becomes almost your shorthand. You went through some crucible experience of cultural shock or just dislocation, yearning at times, nostalgia, every emotion possible that you go through.

[00:06:53] Dr. Martins: [laughs] Yes, absolutely. Then, there's the other side, going back to your home country and then, “No, you're not Brazilian enough,” whatever that means.”

[00:07:03] Antonio: Okay. You experienced that as well. Say a little bit about that.

[00:07:08] Dr. Martins: I think it's not necessarily like -- well, no, I do have a concrete example. I was going to say, it's not necessarily that you change, but the perception -- but I do have something that I've definitely adopted that's a more American thing that I've been called out on, is being direct, very direct. When you mean something, you just say it; not very done in Brazil as much.

[00:07:33] Antonio: Okay, yes. [laughs] Tell me more about -- you do a lot at UF, but what excites you about the work you do? On top of everything else, you also have a PhD in Genetics, right?

[00:07:48] Dr. Martins: Yes.

[00:07:51] Antonio: Tell me more about the work you do here and what really drives you.

[00:07:55] Dr. Martins: I'm trained as a geneticist, but I don't do any research in the area anymore. Now, I work with professional development of graduate students mostly in the Division of Graduate Student Affairs. I also work with a small group of undergraduate students and similarly with professional development. These are NIH and NSF-funded students. I work with David Julian, he's a professor in Biology.

[00:08:23] Antonio: Yes. I know him well.

[00:08:25] Dr. Martins: Yes. Those are the populations that I work with mostly. I think what I really like is for me, the graduate school opens so many opportunities. I can get more into that later. But sometimes, the students will spend so much time on their acquiring all these technical skills, which they should, of course, but then they don't leverage all their other skills to ensure that they're actually using everything they learned in the most effective way. They may not communicate very well or maybe they finally get that position and they’re a leader, and they don't know how to lead a team. What we try to do is make sure that they have all of the resources and skills that are needed for them to succeed, and for both populations. For undergraduate students, our focus is really in helping them learn about research and do a lot of research and then, get into a graduate school, focusing on PhD programs. These are underrepresented students, a lot of them are first gen. Having been through that journey myself, I love that part of seeing those students that didn't know how far they could go. Things they never thought was possible like, “I can never afford to go to graduate school. Then, just telling them simple things like, “Well, actually, you probably wouldn't have to pay to get a PhD, and you'll get paid to do it,” and just helping to connect them to these avenues that before were not available to them.

[00:10:09] Antonio: That's so true. Especially breaking down these myths that you shouldn't apply to the top schools, the Ivys, because somehow, they're too expensive. They don't correlate that, because nobody's made that pathway for them yet. They're the first generation and their sense is, “I'll do it,” or the other myth that, “I'll get my master's first and then I'll go to a PhD.” Right?

[00:10:31] Dr. Martins: Exactly. We talk about all of those things and just getting them to believe in themselves so they can do it. One of our students is brilliant, very good at her research, wonderful grades, but incredibly shy. She fainted once when she had to speak to a professor, but then she worked so hard and we helped her. She went on to win a first place for an oral presentation. It's just helping students really be as successful as they can be.

[00:11:04] Antonio: That's amazing. That's the key. If we're really going to fix the issue of how do we diversify the professoriate, then we've got to have researchers and scholars like you in place to make sure that that pipeline actually remains open, and the sense of belonging. Because what you mentioned earlier, that really comes up -- isn't that what we call imposter syndrome in the sense of, “ I'm not worthy,” or, “I don't belong here,” or, “I must have snuck through.” Right?

[00:11:33] Dr. Martins: Yes. I think that imposter syndrome is probably felt by 100% [laughs] of the students I work with and some faculty.

[00:11:42] Antonio: Yes. I get it. Believe me, I still suffer from it.

[00:11:46] Dr. Martins: I believe you. [laughter] It's amazing, in academia, it seems pervasive.

[00:11:52] Antonio: Tell me about something that in the past six months or a year -- I have lost track of what time means anymore -- but in the recent past that you've changed your mind about?

[00:12:04] Dr. Martins: I can't guarantee the timeline, [laughs] and it's not something that I've changed my mind necessarily, but really drove home a point that for me, was more of an abstract thing. This topic of mental health, I always understood it in terms of I know this is a real thing. It can be a medical condition for a lot of people, and I know it was real and present. I just didn't know -- and this is more recently -- how huge of an issue this is. The magnitude and how pervasive it is. I think there are just so many factors happening all around me that made it very, very real. I hate to put this on people, and I don't think it's anyone's duty to inform others of, “This is what I'm feeling,” but I am appreciative of the people that have been very open about it, because it has made it very clear to me. Especially people that are very close, that I've known for decades, in some cases, that had never spoken about it before, but now talk about it more openly. That's been a real revelation to me.

[00:13:24] Antonio: Thank you for sharing that. That's something that we in academia need to do a lot better job of making, that normalizing the whole process of -- we should already bake into our processes that this is something that doesn't make you -- because there's a level of shame and embarrassment around these issues. We create this level of perfectionism that somehow you're supposed to have it all together. If you don't then it's the individual's issue where we don't provide the services proactively until somebody asks for it. I ncredibly big challenge. I think has always been there, in many ways, but the good thing is that I think the courage of this young generation actually come forward is making us wake up to it.

[00:14:13] Dr. Martins: Yes, I know, exactly. It's been really informative to hear from people that feel comfortable now coming forward. I think this is a really positive development. We have a new mental health working group in the graduate school to see how we can best address these issues and help students in this area.

[00:14:42] Antonio: I just went through a workshop by the Disability Resource Center. They're doing some incredible and excellent work in terms of demystifying it and taking away this aura that this is somehow indicative of a few people. This is pervasive and it comes in different forms, and we need to be open to that and understanding that it's not just our students, but it's also our faculty and staff that have come before us.

[00:15:09] Dr. Martins: Yes, exactly. Absolutely. I know UF has access to this Kognito training that it helps you to identify in others if they could use some help.

[00:15:24] Antonio: Thank you. We close the podcast by asking the question, what brings you joy?

[00:15:28] Dr. Martins: I think professionally, it’s seeing that growth or seeing something finally click for somebody. One example that I have is this is in the previous position when I was at the University of Nevada and I was in a faculty search committee. This person interviewed, and she was great. She was our second-place candidate, and she didn't get the job. She contacted me later and like, “Why didn't I get the job?” I told her, “Well, your presentation was really dry. No one had any questions about your abilities as a scientist; you're fantastic. Your publication and everything, your record looks amazing, but you couldn't connect with your audience.” I gave her all of the issues with her presentation, and she's like, “Great, thank you so much.” Then a few months later, she sent me an email and she said, “Thank you so much for doing that. I found someone in my institution to help me with that. They told me that you're right; I'm horrible.” She’s like, “Now, I have my position, and I think that was the missing thing.” I think it's those things; she had everything, just didn't have those soft skills that we talk about. That really makes me happy. It's removing a lot of the barriers or helping to remove some of the barriers for people to be able to accomplish what they want to accomplish.

[00:16:57] Antonio: That's so important. That's what you really do. A great deal of service to our students here is this 360 holistic approach to getting them into graduate school and then, making them succeed at graduate school. It's not just about the grades, it's not just about getting through. What I love about what you do is you're setting them up for success, not just for what they're doing here but what they're going to do after here. It's almost like you're giving them a vision of, “This is just one lily pad. You're going to have to go to the next one, and let me tell you what that jump is about.

[00:17:31] Dr. Martins: [laughs] Yes, exactly. That's what we try to do. [laughs]

[00:17:35] Antonio: It also helps that you went through the entire process. It's no small feat to get a PhD in Genetics. Especially at Wisconsin, Madison, they're incredibly rigorous. The fact that you went through that discipline and you went through all the struggles that it requires to get through a PhD in STEM, I think lends a level of credibility, but also the ability for you to show them the way.

[00:18:00] Dr. Martins: I think it definitely helps, and especially having the experience of doing it without that guidance. I'm also first-generation and was able to make it all the way through only because I had wonderful mentors. Seeing all the obstacles that people will face, I know already what they're going to see, and try to remove them or help them to overcome that. That is really helpful. I draw a lot on my own experiences.

[00:18:30] Antonio: Here’s a pop quiz. Do you still have some good mentors?

[00:18:35] Dr. Martins: Do I still have some good mentors? Yes. [laughs]

[00:18:37] Antonio: Okay. Because you've never stopped needing them.

[00:18:41] Dr. Martins: No, no.

[00:18:43] Antonio: Especially in academia, right?

[00:18:45] Dr. Martins: That's right. Yes.

[00:18:47] Antonio: Before we say goodbye, we're asking the question of, is there a really good book or podcast that you're reading or listening to that you would recommend to folks? It doesn't have to be work-related. Just anything that has to do with keeping your sanity and making sense of either UF or the world?

[00:19:07] Dr. Martins: Yes. Once we moved to Gainesville, my husband and I, we didn't like the commute. We thought it was a little bit long at 25 minutes. [laughs] We used to have like a seven-minute commute. We were like, “We need to do something about it,” so we got into audiobooks. We've listened to a bunch of audiobooks recently. One, I was looking at my library what kind of audiobooks I've had recently that I really like. This book’s called Educated, a memoir by Tara Westover. This is someone who grew up in this survivalist, very religious family. She never graduated high school, but she went on, she started learning and she developed this passion for learning. She went on to get a PhD from Cambridge University.

[00:19:59] Antonio: Not too shabby.

[00:20:00] Dr. Martins: Yes. It's just fascinating to see how much drive and how much you can accomplish under the circumstances that she had. It was just incredible so I highly recommend that.

[00:20:15] Antonio: Okay. I’m all into anything audio right now, so I'll definitely download it. Thank you.

[00:20:22] Dr. Martins: [laughs] No problem.

[00:20:24] Antonio: Thank you, Talline Martins, Director of the Graduate Professional Development Office in the Graduate Division. It's been a pleasure speaking with you today. Thank you very much.

[00:20:35] Dr. Martins: Thank you for having me. [music]

[00:20:41] Antonio: Thanks for joining me, Antonio Farias for another episode of Level Up, on presence and belonging. If you enjoyed this episode, please like the track and share it on social media. Like to give a special thank you to Dr. Welson Tremura a professor in UF’s School of Music and the Center for Latin American studies for the original theme music. We welcome your comments and suggestions for future programs. You can find more episodes of Level Up and contact information for the Office of the Chief Diversity Officer at

33:55 Minutes
Podcast Guest Image

Episode 057: Brittany and Carl Southern

In this episode, Antonio speaks with Dr. Brittany Southern, a research regulatory analyst with UF Research, and Dr. Carl Southern, a resident with the Department of Small Animal Clinical Science in UF’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Brittany and Carl talk about their formative years at Tuskegee University, where faculty are like family and where the culture of love and rigor helped them to thrive. Join Antonio for this deep dive into the mechanics of culture change with these rising stars at UF.



Antonio Farias: Welcome to Season 4 of Level Up, a p odcast where we explore how students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida are leading our community in presence and belonging. This season, as we learn to live with COVID19, and fight racial injustice, being present, and understanding what makes belonging happen at UF is key. I'm your host, Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida. Welcome to another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. Today we are really super fortunate. We have a power couple. We have Dr. Carl Southern and Dr. Brittany Southern who are amongst other things new to UF and not so new to UF. Carl is down in the college of veterinary medicine and is a resident in the emergency and critical care. Brittany is here in UF research. She is a research regulatory analyst which she will tell us a little bit about, but t hey both have some really prestigious backgrounds and they both came from and got their veterinary medicine degrees from Tuskegee, the famed Tuskegee. Welcome to the podcast both of you.

Dr. Carl Southern: Thank you.

Dr. Brittany Southern: Yes, thank you for having us.

Antonio: We always start the podcast with a question which is what is your story of belonging?

Dr. Carl: Brittany, you want to go first?

Dr. Brittany: Sure, yes, I think that's a great question. I would say for me, my story of belonging, growing up I knew I wanted to be a veterinarian. I grew up in a somewhat diverse area, but I never saw anyone who was a veterinarian that looks like me. It was hard for me to really find my place and to find my way to this field. It took a little bit of struggle. Thankfully, I had parents that supported and encouraged me, but I didn't really feel a sense of belonging when it comes to veterinary medicine until I finished college really and started applying for veterinary schools. When I learned about Tuskegee and visited Tuskegee I knew that's where I wanted to attend that school. That's really where I found my sense of belonging. I had my Tuskegee family, I was surrounded by a very diverse community. There were plenty of veterinarians who looked like me. I was able to just be in a great family of friends, and peers, and colleagues, and mentors who I still contact today, and friends who I still have today. For me, that's really when I finally felt a sense of belonging and after school, leaving Tuskegee and coming into the real world and being surrounded by different people again, was a little bit of a struggle, but I'm still able to have that sense of belonging because I know who to reach out to. I still have my Tuskegee family at any point when I need them. Of course, I met my husband there as well.

Antonio: Literally, it became family in a very visceral way.

Dr. Brittany: Yes, it did.

Dr. Carl: Sure. 

Antonio: Maybe Carl you could also speak a little bit about since you both went there. Most people don't know what Tuskegee is, unfortunately. Maybe give us a sense of what is Tuskegee versus what is UF?

Dr. Carl: Sure, yes, Tuskegee, I'll give you a tiny bit of a background. Tuskegee was first Tuskegee Normal School if I remember correctly they called it. It was formed for us, us African Americans who didn't have the same opportunities to get an education and everyone else at different universities. I'll answer both your questions in the same sentence. I found my sense of belonging because I had a mentor, unlike Brittany, who was a Tuskegee graduate, who's a veterinarian that I worked for and he introduced me to the university. Once I found out and read up on Tuskegee and why it was there and why it was built and it's the only HBCU that has a vet school, I, like Brittany, also knew I wanted to go there. I went there for undergrad and for vet school. I spent almost a decade in Tuskegee from getting my undergraduate training and then staying there for vet school, but it really is a place where-- Compared to UF, UF class size, let's just say, if their class size is 200 students, Tuskegee's class size would be around 60 to 70 students. You can just imagine the student-to-teacher ratio is a little bit different so you have a different interaction. Brittany spoke on being able to connect with her teachers and all of us. I still have all of my teachers' cell phone number. I can call them today and we can just talk about sports, or life, or what's happening here in the profession, what's going on with me, what's going on with them. We call the dean on her cell phone on a regular basis. We text message her on a regular basis. Teachers that have passed away and who had died, we still were talking to them. I have a lady that I talk to all the time. She's battling some illness right now so we just talk. That's just the family orientation we have there at Tuskegee. I can't speak to it here. I wasn't a student here at UF. I am a resident here and the faculty have all been supportive and are very kind and welcoming, but I can tell you that they have numerous, and numerous of students, and residents, and interns that you can't get that close to them. It's not a bad thing. It's just a different dynamic. Tuskegee is really supportive in that area because they just have a different dynamic their class size. It's a great nurturing place, you learn a lot. You might not have all the gadgets, and bells, and whistles, but you can be taught those things. You can be taught that later on. Tuskegee was just a great experience, a fun place, and a great time for both of our lives. Like Brittany said I met my wife there. I grew up in Tuskegee. It's a place where you definitely will feel like you're welcomed whether you're-- There is plenty of non-African American students there. Plenty of them. I can list every culture, every race, they are all represented at Tuskegee.

Antonio: Most people have a misconception. They think that HBCUs are only for African Americans when in fact, they're incredibly diverse. They're just founded with a different mission but they're also foundational with this culture of rigor and love and understanding of centering black culture which is a lot of what you are talking about. The sense of-- I had some experience with Morgan State in their engineering folks years and years ago when we were trying to do some collaboration with them. What was absolutely clear about the faculty is that they kept the standards incredibly high and at the same time there was this sense of rigor and love about if you fail this engineering class, you're going to get yourself -- You're going to be in my house being tutored and you will pass.

Dr. Carl: Exactly. 

Antonio: That's why the success of HBCUs is in terms of they put out more doctors, and scientists than all PWIs combined because of that. It's this culture that you will not fail.

Dr. Brittany: Absolutely, yes.

Dr. Carl: Yes. I remember one of the mottos we had was "No Student Left Behind." That's the very thing you just spoke on. I remember Dr. Webster, I spent so much time in his office. He's deceased now, but Dr. James Webster, I spent numerous hours in his office. Just numerous hours and part of the time we were talking about physiology. He taught physiology, part of it was physiology and where he went to study for it, and lecture, and all that, and other times we just talking about sports. Talking about just regular old stuff. We actually had a real true relationship.

Antonio: Yes, powerful, powerful. Tell us about what excites you about the work you do here at UF.

Dr. Carl: Brittany, mind if I go first or you want to take it?

Dr. Brittany: No, go for it.

Dr. Carl: Yes, what excites me, honestly, is the fact that I can impart the knowledge that I've been given from both institutions, from Tuskegee and here. I learned a ton since being here, that I impart it on the students that I interact with on a daily basis. I really like to teach. I really like the aspect of giving back and as you can probably tell we didn't have all these things here at UF that we had at Tuskegee. When I learn something new, I try and teach to the students, try and teach to the students who are not here. Students that are classmates I know that might be in the same field that I'm in. I like to honestly just teach and give back, and that's what excites me most. It's not actually doing the medicine or seeing the cases, that's all fun and great, but it's the part of really teaching and seeing the interns learn it and figure it out. Then the students in the same aspect, they're all in different planes of their education and training, and if I can help them understand in a simpler way, or a dumbed down version until that light bulb clicks off, they are like, "Oh, that's what that is." That's what really excites me, when I can make them understand this real complicated process. We just dumb it down to enough and they're like, "Oh, that makes sense now." That's what excites me.

Antonio: Thank you.

Dr. Brittany: It's awesome. For me, it's very similar to Carl. I also love to teach. I'm a laboratory animal medicine veterinarian. I work with research animals. A lot of my job is to provide care for animals that are used in research. A big part of that includes working with scientists and researchers who are creating new things and finding new answers to different questions. Even with this pandemic, trying to make new vaccines for COVID. A lot of what I do is interact with those scientists and try and find a balance of caring for their animals and also helping them with their research. A lot of that is teaching and communicating with them and expressing how important their science is but at the same time taking care of these animals is important as well and how do we find that balance in between. I spent a lot of time working with animals but a ton of time working with people. That ranges from students to undergrads, to postdocs and faculty. I have lots of opportunity to do hands-on activities with individuals. It's amazing to be able to see their reactions when I explain something to them and how it could potentially affect their science. Again, like Carl said, lightbulbs go off. Once I'm able to connect with them in that way, it's amazing to see what we can do together and how we can collaborate. That definitely excites me about my work and that's why I do what I do every day.

Antonio: That's awesome. I got to ask you both because you both work in this field. Who do you trust more, animals or humans?

Dr. Carl: I don't trust humans for anything. [laughter] Definitely. Animals don't fail you like-- even when they're labeled as aggressive or mean, they're just scared. Animals will never do you wrong like a human will.

Antonio: I'm with you on that. I have a dog. I'm thinking I can teach him how to drive. [laughter] He might get lost but I think I trust him more than my daughter at times. [laughter] What's coming out is these concepts of caring and mentorship. Obviously, you both were steeped in this and you're providing this here for the UF community. At the same time, one of the things that I'm seeing that's a national trend is that particularly for faculty of color, this drive for teaching and for giving back at times pushes up against what places like giant UF- type organizations that are Research 1s, what their expectation of is. They end up in places like-- They're not less than because I came from a small liberal arts college before this. You can do research and everything else, but there are these biases about what is R1 versus what is a small liberal arts college where you have a lot more of that engagement, or an HBCU and an HSI. How do we do this at a place like UF where we take that sense of creating that really personal mentorship and transference of more than just knowledge, but of people's humanity and difference at a place like UF so that it doesn't become an either or . If I really want to be really passionate about my teaching because that really is something that was foundational to my becoming who I am as a professional, then I have to go someplace else. What do we need to do to make sure that we're sending the right vibe and also creating the right culture? Because it's more than just window dressing, you have to create that so when you all arrive here that it's like, "Whoa, this is not what I expected."

Dr. Brittany: So many things that you just said.

Dr. Carl: Exactly.

Dr. Brittany: Yes. It's a lot. This is a huge institution with a huge number of faculty and students. As a person of color that is in our type of profession, and we do have responsibilities to help teach and connect with those who are coming behind us, it's hard because you have to find that space where you have the opportunity to do that. That's one. You have to be granted that. If you're not then you have to find opportunities for it on your own. If you don't have the resources and the support and the encouragement from your colleagues, then it can be difficult. Two, I feel like as a person of color, we have this internal battle with, "Hey, do I go to a PWI and help the minority students there? Or do I go to an HBCU or a similar institution where I know I'm going to receive support and encouragement and resources?" It's not going to be the same battle.

Dr. Carl: It's a tough thing because, you hit on it, initially, it's the culture. You have to change the culture. To be 100% honest, it's going to take several generations of people trying to change the culture before it actually happens. Let's just talk about UF. If it's going to take someone who's invested in changing the culture of UF for it to happen. Brittany and I came from Tuskegee. We're here at University of Florida now. We don't know if we'll be here after my residency or not. We don't know what opportunity we'll have when I finish. But, if we were given the opportunity to stay here, for me, I have to be given some type of control where I can say, "Okay, you can help with the admissions committee or you can be on the Diversity Committee." Not just be on that committee but given the keys to make change and not just words like, "We'll interview more students or we'll bring in more to visit." Actually, bring in African-American faculty. Actually making them faculty, bring in students. Increasing the number of the minority students in the vet school. I have to be given those things. I don't know what's written into a contract. I really need be given those keys to do that, because it's a constant battle and then you end up so burnt out. You don't enjoy your work anymore, you don't enjoy coming to work. It's always just-- You want to have an idea and it gets shut down. You say, "If I was at Tuskegee or another HBCU, I'd be welcomed with open arms and given those keys to make those change." It really is a true thing that Brittany said. Where do you go? You go somewhere where you know you're going to be welcomed, but it's on a smaller stage? If you come to, like you said, a large PWI, where you say, "Okay, I can filter some students through here. Hopefully, get them on to an internship. Maybe a residency. Have them jump into a faculty position." Do that a couple of times, then you've built up this dynamic of a group of people who now you say, "Okay, it's been 10 years and we got five diverse faculty members when there was none 10 years ago." It's really about what you're invested in and how hard you want to fight. Because they're going to fight you back. That's just the honest truth about it. They're going to fight you back. How determined are you before you get burnt out and say, "Okay, I'm out of here--" because people have come before us. This is not the first thing. People have come before us. There's plenty of others who have fought the same fight. They made some change. Changes have been made for sure. It's just that sustained change and how long can you do it. It's doable, it's possible. This is going to take to change that culture though.

Antonio: That's so spot-on. To your point, resources and sustainability, that's the key, right?

Dr. Carl: Yes.

Antonio: We're willing to continue to struggle and grind as long as we see progress and not lip service, and not that we move one step forward, and four steps back as leaders hip changes. At the end of the day, you hit it spot-on. Especially when you're talking about Tuskegee. The culture is made up of the individuals that make up the organization. It's not rocket science. If you get people to understand what it means to be a full and thriving human being who can belong and feel like they can belong in the space, so they're not being burnt out or being unjustly given more or less, then you can start building this sense of-- Because we all want to compete. You both got PhDs and MDs. You didn't do this without this drive. It's not that faculty of color don't have drive. It's that, at a certain point, you hit so many walls that you say, "Why?" Particularly right now, we're under double pandemic of COVID-19 and racism and people across the globe are reconsidering like, "Why am I doing the kind of work that I'm doing?" Let me switch to a question about mindset, tell me one thing that over the last six months or year that you've changed your mind about.

Dr. Brittany: This is interesting because it goes along with what we were just talking about. I was actually talking to Carl about this this week, but I've recently had a change with expectations. Like we were saying, I think as a person of color, we are very accustomed to going 200% all the time. Knowing that we have this pressure to be equal to our brothers and sisters at the majority group, we know that we have to work harder all the time. I recently have started to change my mindset and to realize that we need to rest, we need to find time to take care of ourselves. This culture of continuous grinding and nonstop work is not healthy. I think just recently I've been resetting my expectations and changing my mind about what's important. As a professional and as a parent to two young children, it's important for me and for Carl to make sure that we have time for ourselves to rest and re-energize and recuperate in order for us to continue this battle that we do every single day when we get out of the bed. That's something that I've been struggling with recently, trying to figure out how to incorporate rest into my daily life. I think it's important for all of us to find that balance, regardless of your beliefs, your race and your background.

Antonio: Incredibly so, particularly with families and particularly with the academic couples that're at the same institution. You come home and-- I do the same thing. My wife teaches here and we go home and all we talk about is-- we're in the UF community bubble and then at home, what are we talking about? UF. There's no escape out of that sense. How do you find that? The sense of rest because that's really key. Stress, we know stress and race are negatively correlated for some of our populations, and while stress is a good thing because it drives us, overstress drives us into the grave.

Dr. Brittany: Exactly. It's a hard concept because we're used to just going and going. It's funny because my mom sends Carl and I text messages all the time. She'll say, "I hope you got a nap today." [laughter] Carl and I just laugh at her, but she has so much wisdom because that's true. We do need to find time to rest and it might not be a nap, but if it's 20 minutes for ourselves to do something, it's very important.

Antonio: Incredibly so.

Dr. Carl: I've recently changed my mind on-- Like Brittany said, we have two young children. Before we had children, it was all career-driven. Now, I'm ready to take our daughter to play softball and soccer and see our children in sports and after school activities. That's what the last six months has changed for me. I'm just thinking like, man, she's three now, our son is seven months. The next couple of years they're going to be in activities, they're going to be going to school. I think how that is going to change things for us and as far as our career goals, I won't be wanting to spend 14, 15 hours a day at work. I'll be wanting to leave as soon as I can to go spend time with them, their activities, go on field trips with them. Just thinking about things with our families is what has really changed for me. It used to all just be career-driven, pass boards, become a specialist, change the world. No, I just want to get to actually spend time with our family.

Antonio: That's powerful more so now than ever before. Especially with young kids, so congratulations.

Dr. Carl: Thank you.

Antonio: Which I think blends into the final question that I always ask, which is what brings you joy?

Dr. Carl: For me, it's actually seeing Brittany happy and that might sound like a cliche, but it really is. I'm a very simple person, very laid back, very simple, and if Brittany is happy and pleased and satisfied, then so am I, and it's the same for my family. When my daughter's having a meltdown and she's throwing a tantrum and kicking and screaming and doing whatever three-year-olds do when their tantrums happen, if she's not happy and not playing and laughing and giggling and enjoying time with me then I'm not. What brings me joy is my family. Yes, I love the work that I do. I love actually being here with the students and learning and teaching. I couple that into my family as well, too. I think the joy I get is when the people around me are happy and my family is happy. That's what really honestly brings me joy. I love coming into work, when I can leave work and go home and see that Brittany's happy and smiling and not frustrated or had a long stressful day. The same for our children, if my son is giggling and laughing and he can't even talk yet but if he's giggling, laughing and has food all over his face and still smiling, it's a great day for me.

Antonio: That's fantastic.

Dr. Brittany: Carl's a very unselfish, loving person and he definitely is able to make an impact with his job and show love to the people around him which is just super important, but being able to come home and be with our family, it's very apparent to me that he enjoys being a father and a husband. I as well, I love our family. Last night our daughter, she got in the bed and she said, "I want some socks." I went to her drawer and pulled out some socks and she said, "no, I don't want those. I want some different ones." We went through the routine of her stalling to not go to bed. I knew which socks she wanted and they were in the dryer. I went and got them and I brought them back to her and she wasn't expecting that and just to see her smile and to laugh was just amazing. That absolutely brings me joy as well and seeing our family grow and seeing what Carl and I will end up doing with our profession, I'm very excited for that. That's what brings me joy.

Antonio: Can't be anything better than that. I envy you at this point. My daughter is 19 years old. The socks thing brought something to mind. She wears mismatch socks on purpose because somehow that becomes a thing of like bad things will happen if I have matching socks and this started around that time of your daughter, where she would climb into bed with us and at some point I must've done something wrong and put on matching socks because that's more of a type I am, and something must have triggered in her head. I'm sure she'll write a memoir at some point about her father messed her up by putting the right socks on. That's a wonderful story. Final thoughts. Going back to de-stressing, or just outside of the bubble, any books or movies or music that you're into right now that you would recommend?

Dr. Brittany: We always have music on in our house. We listen to lots of different types of music. Of course our daughter, we have on Disney station for her, Carl and I listen to a lot of gospel music. I would say lately, we listen to a lot of Travis Green who's a gospel artist. I did join up a book club and I'm reading Ibram Kendi's, How to be an Anti-racist.

Antonio: Phenomenal book.

Dr. Brittany: Yes. I'm only a few chapters into it, but it's amazing. I would definitely recommend it. It's interesting because I told Carl that as I'm reading it, Kendi puts a lot of terminology in there, and actually defines concepts that we talk about. It's amazing when you're able to define a concept with a word or a phrase, it makes it so much more powerful. I would say that's what I've taken and I'm only a few chapters in, that I've taken that away and I think that's extremely powerful for a person of any race to read it. I definitely have been able to connect with his stories that he's mentioned. It's a great book, I would recommend it.

Antonio: I was surprised when I read it, it reads more of a memoir or it's got a mixed genre of academic memoir and deep theory and change management roadmap for what we need to do.

Dr. Brittany: Yes.

Dr. Carl: For me, as being a resident, there's no way I'm having any leisure reading right now. [laughter] I have a book club also when it's all books that I would prefer not to read and journals and extra reading. If I can de-stress before this pandemic hit, Tuesday nights, I will play softball at a coed softball league here in Gainesville. As of March or April, it's, of course, been discontinued so I'm losing my mind a little bit there. That's my outlet, it always been sports. Even before we had children, I would play basketball on Tuesday, softball on Sunday, just adult leagues. I've stuck with softball. I'm scared to get a knee injury playing football and basketball now being older, but softball is extremely fun. It's an outlet and I can still run and play and be competitive and talk trash and all those things that I love to do. That's my outlet is honestly being outside. I love the heat. Florida heat is great for me. When I play softball, I play in my hoodie, put my hood up, let's get a good sweat in. That's me, it's my de-stress is actually softball and I can't wait to get our children into it. Hopefully, they'll want to play. Maybe they won't but--

Antonio: At least you can teach them how to play catch if they-- [crosstalk]

Dr. Carl: Exactly. Yes.

Antonio: Yes.

Dr. Brittany: Our oldest is at that age where she's definitely all about what daddy is doing. She enjoys watching him play softball and she has her own glove and little league, bats and balls, and so she's definitely into it. 

Antonio: I love it. That was one of the joys of my life was being a T-ball coach and watching them. Once they stopped picking dandelions in the outfield and actually focused on the crack of the bat or the rounding bases not heading way off into the forest because they kept going. It was amazing.

Dr. Brittany: Nice.

Antonio: It's amazing. Thank you. Thank you both, Dr. Brittany Southern, UF research, Dr. Carl Southern, Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences, a resident here. We are so fortunate to have you in the UF community. Thank you so much for choosing UF. I hope that we can fulfill all of the expectations and that you stick around because you have an incredible amount of wealth, of wisdom, love, and community building that you bring to the table. Thank you. It's been absolutely fantastic having you on the podcast today.

Dr. Carl: You're very welcome. Thank you for doing it and having us on, we appreciate it.

Dr. Brittany: Yes, thank you so much, Antonio. This is awesome.

Antonio: Thank you. [music] Thanks for joining me, Antonio Farias, for another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. If you enjoyed this episode, please like the track and share on social media. I like to give a special thank you for Dr. Welson Tremura a professor in UF School of Music and the Center for Latin American Studies for the original theme music. We welcome your comments and suggestions for future programs. You can find more episodes of Level Up and contact information for the Office of the Chief Diversity Officer and

[00:33:56] [END OF AUDIO]

19:09 Minutes
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Episode 056: Wolfgang Bahr

In this episode, Antonio talks with Wolfgang Bahr, a fourth-year anthropology major from the Dominican Republic. Wolfgang shares how learning to be vulnerable has helped him find true belonging instead of just fitting in. He also talks about his meaningful experience with the Streetlight project and how avocados are a metaphor for personal growth.


[00:00:00] Antonio Farias: Welcome to season four of Level Up, a podcast where we explore how students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida are leading our community in presence and belonging. This season, as we learn to live with COVID-19 and fight racial injustice being present and understanding what makes belonging happen at UF is key. I'm your host, Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida. [music]

[00:00:28] Antonio: Welcome to another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. Today, we have Wolfgang Bahr, who is a fourth-year student here at UF. He is majoring in anthropology with a certificate in medical anthropology and a minor in health disparities. He is also an international student from the Dominican Republic and a Reitz Scholar. Welcome, Wolfgang.

[00:00:47] Wolfgang Bahr: Thank you for having me.

[00:00:48] Antonio: We always start the podcast with the question of, what is your story of belonging?

[00:00:54] Wolfgang: All right, that's a tough question, I'll admit that. From a very early age, I've always felt an outsider, admittedly. It's almost as if I've been the odd one out in every group, there's always been an aspect of my life that made me feel a little different, you could say, not really shunned necessarily but not included altogether. As a kid, I was always the blond, straight-haired white kid. Being the Dominican Republic, you stand out with a name like Wolfgang, it's not necessarily common. I was the gringo of the class, you could say. Later being a 17-year-old undergrad starting at the University of Florida, I'm already younger than most people in my classes. I always thought people saw me as a kid, compared to everybody else, not to mention I didn't even grow up in Florida or even in the United States, I'm from the Dominican Republic, probably so too. As years progressed, I did more things, I met more people, I got to know people from pretty much all walks of life, from all over the world, it seemed as if it was okay. I was okay at making friends to the point where I built a good amount of circle of friends wherever I went, but that feeling of being an outsider followed me everywhere I went. I pretty much convinced myself that feeling existed, pretty much depending on the situation, and involved everything from age, economic status, sexuality, gender interests. There might have been some truth to my argument, but it wasn't always the whole truth. I'm 20 now, I've come to realize that I'm a mix between extroverted and introverted. I can blend into pretty much any crowd and make friends relatively quickly, when I'm trying to at least, but there's a point that no one can get past even the people I consider the closest to me. I have this idea that fitting in is belonging when in reality, belonging comes from within, not necessarily from fitting in. I was always hiding pieces of myself to please other people, I wasn't even aware that I was doing it, but peoplepleasing seemed to be hardwired into me the longest of time. As many Hispanics, I didn't grow up managing my emotions, everybody in my life did their best, but there wasn't a whole lot of emotional talk in the Bahr household, you could say. Instead, I learned that feelings made people uncomfortable, and I learned to avoid them altogether. I shove anything pretty much anything too intense deep, deep down. This left pieces of me buried, pieces that are very important to who I am now. For a while, they were hard for me to get to. I definitely didn't expect other people to find them either. Hiding these parts let me fit in, but that feeling of aloneness didn't disappear either. I'm at the point now where I'm allowing myself to be a little more vulnerable and letting people see me for who I really am. That doesn't necessarily mean I'm wearing my deepest, darkest secrets on my sleeve or anything like that. I'm starting to be vulnerable in baby steps, I'm trying to be honest around the people I'm closest to. There's not really an exact science to being vulnerable, there's days where I definitely have the urge to fit in even though it's not necessarily me. I know now that choosing to fit in instead of owning to that I belong no matter what is likely to leave me feeling lonely, which makes choosing bravery a bit easier.

[00:04:32] Antonio: Yes. You hit on a lot of really good points. Belonging is an internal thing, I can't make you feel like you belong, you have to internally feel. It is a feel, it's a gut, mind, body understanding of the entire landscape that you live, work, and breathe in. A lot of people do confuse fitting in with belonging. For a 20-year-old, that's an incredibly good sort of self-diagnostic that you've gotten to at a very young age, so congratulations on that.

[00:05:09] Wolfgang: Thank you. I t took a while to get here.

[00:05:11] Antonio: Now you've only got like 60 years to now put it into effect. There's a whole bunch of 50-year-olds out there that don't know that. This concept of vulnerability is incredibly powerful, especially for Latinx communities and Latinx men, including myself. I have been on a lifelong journey about trying to be more vulnerable. I grew up in a probably a similar sort of household, where vulnerability and emotions were always there, but they weren't always front-of-mind. I always saw it in the movies of all of these folks, predominantly white movies with white actors where everyone's emotions were all out there, and they were just saying, "I love you," and that just wasn't the way I grew up. I felt this sense of, "Why are we different?" It wasn't a right or wrong. It was that, A, that was make-believe and every family is dysfunctional in some capacity. We just show it differently, and that's really important. I'm really curious about your international status in terms of how you see the US. We're in Northern Florida, but in many ways, Florida is seen as this extended Caribbean because of the flow back and forth between the islands and Florida. What do you think was one of the positive, really powerful things that this sense of not belonging initially, because you came here as an international student, what do you think helped you actually create more bridging with other people because you were an outsider, in many ways?

[00:06:54] Wolfgang: I guess, for me, I learned to embrace my nationality of being Dominican a lot more. I feel like before I was Dominican but I didn't wear it. I wasn't super proud of it because everybody was Dominican.

[00:07:08] Antonio: You weren't a flag-waver, then.

[00:07:09] Wolfgang: Yes, it wasn't important to be Dominican. I guess coming to the UF, I learned to embrace and be proud of my heritage and my culture. I think that, in turn, has helped me connect to other people. I'm able to express my culture to other individuals. I've met a lot of other international students as well, and just being able to share our different experiences has, in turn, connected us, which is, I guess, an odd thing to say.

[00:07:39] Antonio: Yes. That's how you build community, right? The really powerful community is the one where you're engaging with and you're bridging. That's why I think international students, in particular, bring a powerful understanding and a mindset to any organization but particularly to higher education because you understand what it means to bridge. You understand what it means to be on the inside and the outside, and you understand how to try to make connections across people. That's really the core where we get to like, "How do you create belonging?" You've got to get out of your in-group and have the courage, or drop the armor, be vulnerable, and reach out to some other people that you feel you have some issues with. I know in DR, that's a big issue with Haiti. It's like Haiti and DR, you serve on one island, and yet this issue of historical belonging is always there, right?

[00:08:35] Wolfgang: Yes.

[00:08:36] Antonio: Tell me more about the work you do, what excites you about the research that you're doing? I know we've had a bunch of conversations about health disparities. It seems like you're really passionate about it, you really locked into something that really gets you up in the morning. Tell me more about that.

[00:08:55] Wolfgang: All right. Yes, health disparity is something that I've always been interested in. I feel like since day one, although I didn't necessarily realize it until probably recent years, it all started pretty much with my work at Streetlight. I'm not sure if I've mentioned Streetlight to you, but it's [crosstalk] -

[00:09:10] Antonio: Yes, you have.

[00:09:10] Wolfgang: -support program for teenagers and young adults at Shand's Hospital. The patients I see there have various chronic illnesses such as cancer, sickle cell, cystic fibrosis, and other autoimmune diseases. From helping at Teen Lounge, sitting and hearing their own stories of belonging, my shifts at Streetlight have never failed to excite me. It's just amazing to see so many different patients from such different backgrounds come together and be connected after this one idea. It's created so many meaningful relationships for me, and it created a community of support that has personally changed my outlook and perspective on life in general and how healthcare should work. I can't go into specific examples due to the fact that I have to abide by the HIPAA regulations and all that, but every minute I spend at that hospital definitely makes me a better man, I would say, definitely.

[00:10:03] Antonio: That's a pretty powerful statement. Do you find that students at UF gravitate towards those kind of experiences outside of their proverbial UF campus, or do you think that there's something about your experiences that drove you in that direction?

[00:10:25] Wolfgang: I'm not 100% sure, to be honest. I personally joined Streetlight because I've always had a passion for helping others, I guess you can say, as cliché as it may sound. Growing up, I was always volunteering at clinics and orphanages. This was another opportunity for me that I was ready to take in. When I first took it in, I was like, "Okay, this is just going to be another volunteering experience." I didn't expect a lot from it, to be honest. As months progressed, I met more people and more patients, I realized this is such meaningful work to me. I was able to build such good relationships off of just talking. We were able to bond over such experiences. It's weird to think that I would be able to relate to a person who has cancer or a person who has other chronic illnesses, but you realize that they're more than their conditions. You realize that they're people, and they have experiences besides that. They might live life through a different lens, but at the end of the day, you do have experiences that you share with them. I feel like based off of those experiences, I was able to bond on such a real level with these patients. It's lacking, I guess you could say, in involvement culture at UF. Everybody is really focused on titles, getting all the titles to become a big name at UF when it comes to involvement. I'm more focused in just getting to know people than anything.

[00:11:53] Antonio: That's a really interesting point. You go into people's pain in order to understand them deeper, and in the process, you also understand more about yourself, right?

[00:12:03] Wolfgang: Yes.

[00:12:05] Antonio: It's a little counterintuitive. You have to give in order to get something back about who you are.

[00:12:11] Wolfgang: Yes, definitely and you can't expect them to be vulnerable if you're not vulnerable yourself. I feel like being a volunteer at Streetlight has taught me to be a lot more vulnerable than I was ever before.

[00:12:23] Antonio: It's a fantastic program. I met with their director, I think it was about a year ago. Yes, they understand how to help people most in need. I'm really grateful that you're part of that process. Tell me about something that you've changed your mind about in the past, I don't know, six months to a year.

[00:12:44] Wolfgang: The first thing that comes to mind right off the bat is avocados. Okay, I know this is like-- Listen to where I'm going with this. If you know anything about me is that vegetables and I aren't best friends at all. We really do have this love-hate relationship thing going on [crosstalk]

[00:13:01] Antonio: You're also becoming somewhat of a cook, aren't you, in terms of [crosstalk] ?

[00:13:04] Wolfgang: I'm trying to, I'm definitely trying to. Recently, I had the opportunity to try avocados again. My friend, Alex, he made me some avocado toast, to which I actually, absolutely adored, to my surprise. I guess I'm an avocado fan now or something.

[00:13:19] Antonio: What kind of avocado because there's like 36 different avocados.

[00:13:24] Wolfgang: I really don't know.

[00:13:26] Antonio: Is it the big Caribbean ones or the small Hass ones, they're green?

[00:13:29] Wolfgang: It was one of the small ones, for sure. The way he seasoned it really blew my mind. If anything, it's taught me how to look at things differently, I guess you could say, or in this case, food. I'm trying to do this new thing where I'm letting myself be open to new experiences that I currently claim to dislike. I'm trying to be more open and willing to try new things and try new experiences that in the past I used to hate.

[00:13:53] Antonio: That's really interesting because, in DR, isn't aguacate salad one of the prime staples or not?

[00:13:58] Wolfgang: It is. It is super common, and I hated it. I hated it and everybody made fun of me. Everybody was eating avocados with their rice and beans and here I'm like, "No, I don't want to have it, sorry." Who knows, maybe next time I go back home, I'll try it and I'll love it, we'll see.

[00:14:14] Antonio: I'm the same way. I grew up with them, and I love them. It's gotten to the point where my dog, I cut up an avocado and my dog is right there next to me just waiting. Now, it's like every time I even touch an avocado and he is right there just waiting for an avocado slice. Yes, I've had to start learning how to share. No, super important about how cultural things that we're immersed in sometimes we move away from them then they somehow sneak back into our lives.

[00:14:43] Wolfgang: That's so true. When I first moved away from the DR and moved to Florida, I remember not really missing Dominican food. It was like, "Ah." I used to have it all every day for who knows how long. The minute I didn't have it, I was like, "I need it."

[00:15:02] Antonio: Now you dream of sancocho, no, don't you?

[00:15:05] Wolfgang: I do. I do. Mangú and everything, I want all of it.

[00:15:09] Antonio: [laughs] Mangú. We can't get Mangú here in Gainesville , can we?

[00:15:13] Wolfgang: Platanos here aren't the same, but you can try. You can definitely try. They ripen at a weird pace here, though. I'm used to platanos ripening super fast, but here, it takes weeks and I'm like, "You're still not ripe? That's ridiculous to me."

[00:15:32] Antonio: What brings you joy?

[00:15:35] Wolfgang: Most recently, photography and poetry at this point. Since quarantine has happened and all that, I've taken appreciation for different forms of art, I guess you could say, and photography. That back wall is full of pictures and all that. I do a lot of my photography myself, but yes, I've been doing a lot of reading, checking out new poets, and all that. I find a lot of joy in it, to be honest.

[00:16:06] Antonio: Artistic expression is powerful, right? 

[00:16:09] Wolfgang: It really is.

[00:16:10] Antonio: What would you recommend in terms of-- Tell me about a poet that you're really enamored with, and who would you recommend to people in terms of poetry?

[00:16:21] Wolfgang: It really does depends on the mood, I guess you could say, but Hafez, his poetry focuses on spiritual and Godly look on poetry, I guess you could say. It really makes me think when I read his poems, I guess you could say.

[00:16:42] Antonio: I'm not familiar, tell us a little more. Is it not a contemporary?

[00:16:46] Wolfgang: I'm not super familiar with him, himself. I know his work, not himself, not him, but his work is very much about his experiences with the spirits or God, in general, and how his life is pretty much shaped. Something I like about poetry is that it tells a story in a very artistic way. I like getting to know someone by their story. I think that's how I connect with people the most when people are vulnerable about their own stories.

[00:17:16] Antonio: It takes some time to get there, right?

[00:17:20] Wolfgang: Yes, definitely. It's been harder to be vulnerable, just because of social media. Everybody is hiding behind the platform. Vulnerability has definitely had a very key role in my life.

[00:17:32] Antonio: Have you visited the island recently or?

[00:17:36] Wolfgang: It's been a while since I've gone back home. The last time I went was for Christmas break, winter break.

[00:17:44] Antonio: Does it help technology-wise to connect? It's always different, right? It's never the same in a flat-screen versus getting hugged, and loved, and fed.

[00:17:53] Wolfgang: It's definitely not the same, but my family is very active on social media. It's like almost I didn't leave. They're always constantly posting pictures, and they're calling me and texting me all the time. It's pretty nice, it's nice having this technology to still keep in touch.

[00:18:10] Antonio: It's different but still, it's valuable.

[00:18:13] Wolfgang: Yes, it definitely is.

[00:18:15] Antonio: Well, thank you. Thank you, Wolfgang Bahr, fourth-year student, anthropology major. Thank you very much for being on the podcast. I appreciate everything you shared and keep hitting those aguacates.

[00:18:27] Wolfgang: Thank you for having me it was a unique experience.

[00:18:32] Antonio: Thanks for joining me, Antonio Farias, for another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. If you enjoyed this episode, please like the track and share on social media. I'd like to give a special thank you to Dr. Welson Tremura, a professor in UF's School of Music and The Center for Latin American Studies for the original theme music. We welcome your comments and suggestions for future programs. You can find more episodes of Level Up and content information for the Office of the Chief Diversity Officer at

[music] [00:19:10] [END OF AUDIO]

24:53 Minutes
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Episode 055: Rich Conley

In this episode, Antonio talks with Dr. Rich Conley, Associate Professor in Political Science and incoming Director for the American, Indian, and Indigenous Studies Program at UF. Rich talks about the ways that scholarship intersects with community through an oral history project that may support the Isle de Jean Charles tribe’s bid for federal recognition.


[00:00:00] Antonio Farias: Welcome to season four of Level Up, a podcast where we explore how students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida are leading our community in presence and belonging. This season as we learn to live with COVID-19 and fight racial injustice being present and understanding what makes belonging happen at UF is key . I'm your host, Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida. Welcome to another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. Today we're fortunate to have Dr. Rich Conley, who is an Associate Professor in Political Science. He's also an affiliate faculty, and the incoming Director for the American, Indian, and Indigenous Studies Program at the University of Florida, among many research interests. He is also the Program Director for the Native-American Political Spring Break experiential learning course, which we hope to learn more about. Welcome to the podcast Rich.

[00:00:53] Rich: Thank you very much for having me.

[00:00:55] Antonio: Lots to talk about. I always start the podcast by asking, what is your story of belonging?

[00:01:01] Rich: Well, I grew up in Southern California about 100 miles from the Mexican border. I think for me, I spent a lot of time near Lake Mead out in Arizona at a cabin my grandfather built. It's a rugged place north of Kingman Arizona, right at the line. We spent a lot of time there fishing for bass on my uncle's boat. It's been part of the family for three generations, hopefully, four when my son inherits and we go out there as a family quite a lot and it brings back a lot of good memories. There are just things that I remember as a youngster, and I recall sitting out with my uncles as they were telling their tall tales from Texas. They were both born there. We'd sit out and watch the sunset and it would play shadows on the mountains with the clouds. My mother who was an artist would interpret things in a way that allowed me to see the world in a different frame. As someone who can only draw stick figures, having mom there was really wonderful and just such great memories. It's uncanny, sometimes I'm out there by myself, I go out sometimes to do some writing in the spring or the fall. I turn around, it's like I can see my grandmother, my Uncle Bill standing there. It's very much a sense of place and belonging for me.

[00:02:29] Antonio: Thank you. Tell us what excites you about the work you do? You do a lot of work. You're a scholar on the presidency, but you also do a lot of work with Indigenous tribes, not just in Florida, but also along the Southern Gulf.

[00:02:47] Rich: Well, my main field is the presidency, that's for sure. I just finished a book on Donald Trump and American populism. What I tried to do in that particular work was to place it in the longer sweep of history. There's a sense that Trump is a sui generis figure, that he's something new, novel, that we've never seen before. Actually, if you go back all the way to the 19th century in Andrew Jackson someone whom Trump tries to compare himself to frequently, but even beyond that to the Know-Nothings in the 1850s, William Jennings Bryan, as strange as that might sound, and then all the way on up into the modern period with figures like George Wallace, Barry Goldwater, Ross Perot, there's a narrative of populism, which is antielitism, support of the ordinary man, grassroots support, often infused with a kind of anti-intellectualism and a nativism that go together. This narrative that we see with Trump is very similar to what we've seen over the last several centuries. It's part and parcel of some elements of American political culture. It was interesting for me to work on this, it was tough because I've never written a book or even an article, generally speaking, on a sitting president. Trump was rather a moving target. You're quite right, I really have always been interested in Native peoples out in Arizona, just to the south of us, but about an hour or the Mojave Nation, the 'Aha Makhav people, and then just about 20 miles as the crow flies near my grandfather's cabin are the Hualapai Indians. They have been there for 1000 years at least. I think for me, it's funny, I talked to a friend of mine, a Lakota spiritual leader a couple of years ago, whom I interviewed and he asked me how I got interested in working with Native peoples and doing this kind of research. I told him, I said, well, I was sitting out one day looking at the mountain in Arizona, having a cup of coffee. It was so still and quiet. The only thing I could hear were the little quail out making their gurgling noises and the wind was blowing and there's pure silence. I thought, "Wouldn't it be neat to study these people? What do I know about them? I've lived around them all my life, but I don't know the history as well as I should." I thought, "Maybe I should put together a course." My Lakota friend said, "Well," he said, "That was the wind talking to you." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "You got to think outside the box professor." He said, "In Lakota, wind and spirit like the Holy Spirit or the great spirit are the same word." He said, "You had yourself the closest thing to a vision and you could hope for as a Wasi'chu or white guy. We laughed. I don't know how much of that is spirit moving me. It just seems to me as I looked at my career, I've been doing this going on 22 years, that there's a lot to study in terms of the presidency and Congress. I suppose I could keep doing things as I will on voting and so forth and in our national institutions but I think there's a real opportunity for scholars to look at our Native peoples. They're very resilient societies. That's the one thing I come away from whether it's going and doing field research myself or taking my students there. The things that they've overcome in American history, it's quite remarkable. I learn so much from going and talking with people. Oftentimes, as a professor, a faculty member, we're used to blowing all the hot air and teaching our students, writing things on the board. We're supposed to have a lot of the answers, it's an opportunity for me to go and actually ask questions, and listen. I've been blessed here recently, I've been working with a tribe down in Louisiana called the Isle de Jean Charles tribe. I got to know the chief, Albert, pretty well, last summer. I spent some time there and went back in December. I was actually supposed to be there this month but the COVID intervened there. It's a really interesting story, largely a Choctaw people who escaped the Trail of Tears. While many of the Choctaw under Andrew Jackson were forced northward to Oklahoma, a small band of the Choctaw went south. They went all the way down about 80 miles southwest of New Orleans, to a small island named for Jean Charles, a Frenchman. They lived there pretty much isolated for over a century, largely French-speaking still today the older folk speak a form of French Creole. They built a road back in the early 1950s, a causeway which finally linked the island to the mainland and opened up some opportunities for education and so forth. There again, the people have been through so much. They were forced out of Mississippi and Alabama, ended up in Louisiana, and then after reconstruction, faced the same kind of segregationist policies that African-Americans did. Listening to these stories, it certainly provided me with a view that I never understood about, in that case, Louisiana or larger Southern histories as it's affected Native Americans. Right now what we're working on down in Louisiana, Chief Albert has some videos that were done by a fellow, I guess, a grad student who never got funding for a documentary that he was doing. He gave all these oral history videos to Chief Albert last December. The chief, we're having coffee in the morning I was about ready to leave and he said, "Hey, I've got something for you." Three hours later after we downloaded all the videos, he said, "These are oral histories of some of our elders. Can you do something with this?" I said, "Well, I'll certainly give it the old college try." I'm not a historian, but we're working on that right now. We're trying to collaborate with Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. They have a nice oral history program and I have a colleague at the Samuel Proctor Program at UF, who's helping me with. Part of what, as a political scientist where I see this really helping, the Isle de Jean Charles tribe, like many down in Southeast Louisiana, are not federally recognized. They get no help from the federal government. There are no reservations in Louisiana. Chief Albert has tried several times to get federal recognition, but it's hard to recreate or even find documents that don't exist that the federal government requires like property, birth, marriage, death. Sometimes the Catholic Church has this and these people are very, very Catholic, but in most cases, it's not enough to be able to show the Office of Federal Acknowledgement where they came from, how they govern themselves. Oral histories can help that process and help otherwise convince skeptical bureaucrats that in fact, these people have been here for a long time and self-governing and so forth. We're hopeful that some of the oral history videos can complement the Chief's ongoing efforts to try to gain federal recognition, which would be wonderful. They're not looking to build a casino, not looking for that sort of thing. They really want so much the education for their children and grandchildren that they were denied under the pre-civil rights era. I'm proud to be part of that and I really hope we can do something positive.

[00:11:00] Antonio: That's really incredible, the span there that you just took us through. As you move into the position of Director for the University of Florida's American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program, what direction would you want to take the program? Also, what do you see is the university's role in engaging with Indigenous tribes? We have our own sordid history you mentioned Andrew Jackson, the Seminole Wars. Right now, you and I are having conversations about the Seminole Tribe. What would be the University of Florida's role as you see it because there's a lot of call right now for increased ethnic studies. American Indigenous Studies is something that is not necessarily validated across the board in higher education and yet the University of Florida is uniquely positioned. A, because it has a program, but B, are we doing enough, and should it just be relegated to the classroom or do we have a role and a responsibility given we're a land grant institution and we sit on Native lands to do more?

[00:12:09] Rich: Those are great questions. Obviously, if we were having this conversation back in January, I was very hopeful that our budget situation would look differently and we'd be able to do a lot more. In some sense, I think like any other program, and we're a small interdisciplinary program, we're not a center. I think one of the things as we look at the potential retrenchment of funding at UF more broadly, I've got a couple of students that I'm going to be working with in the fall. I think trying to network here in the Southeast is really important. I tend to go to the American Indian Studies Association Conference which is usually out West and even my Native friends and scholars out there, they don't really know much about the South Eastern tribes. I gave a presentation on Louisiana in February and they were all shocked that there are Native Americans who still speak French even on that side of the equation. I think we're going to try to put together a network, find out who's doing what here in the Southeast to connect UF to other places. The working relationship we've got right now with LSU is an important one. I think we could further that. There's some folks at Southern University. One of my students that took my course in the spring mentioned that her best friend is a law student of South Carolina, firstyear, second-year now and they're working on jurisdictional issues for a tribe in South Carolina We should find out what they're doing network with them. Maybe we can produce a newsletter not just to spotlight what we're doing here at UF, but to bring things together and maybe ultimately have a Southeastern Conference of Native studies. Again, that would bridge history, politics, anthropology, or linguistics, et cetera. I think that's something I'm hoping we're able to do going forward. I think in terms of UF's relationship they're two federally recognized Native American tribes here in Florida, the Seminole Tribe, which is largely down south and in the Miccosukee much smaller, more traditional tribe but of course, there's a larger history. The Poarch Creek Indians, the Timucua, the Apalachee, but those are peoples who are no longer here. I do know the land acknowledgment issue is something that you'll find a lot in Native American Studies conferences, there's even an application you can download. I have it on my phone so that wherever you go in North America, you can use your GPS locator. It'll tell you which peoples used to be on this land or maybe still are so that's a big issue. I think for UF going forward, I think the recognition of the complicated history of settler relations with Native people, particularly the Seminole because they're the largest in terms of the Seminole Tribe and Native peoples here in the States, you're right, we have an ongoing outreach effort. I think that that's going to be critical. I think there's always a little bit of mistrust sometimes more or less, and I find that here in Florida, as well as elsewhere until Native peoples figure that your motives are pure, and you're not out to exploit them. I think, the more that we can forge relationships with the tribe and have the tribe involved in these kinds of conversations. The other part of the equation that I've been working on and want to continue to do these next few years is to bring Seminole scholars, authors, spiritual folks, artists. We've been working with a Tribal Historic Preservation officer, he's an anthropologist called Paul Backhouse and he's great. We can work with the Harn Museum, we can work with Smathers, we can have some public events so that the people can become more educated about our own state's history. Obviously, I'm not a Florida Native, I wasn't born here. I'm learning along the way too just like everyone else, but I think that that can help us collectively come together and recognize the cultural and other contributions that these Native peoples have made to the state and also through our university. I look toward that as a very positive thing that relationship building. I think it's absolutely critical.

[00:16:46] Antonio: That's well said. We do. I'm guilty of that as much as the next person, of not understanding the deep histories of Florida and the Southeast. Rich, can you tell us and share one thing that you've recently changed your mind about maybe in the last six months or a year?

[00:17:05] Rich: I was thinking about that and it might sound strange, but maybe not. One thing about Donald Trump and as an American presidency scholar, the other hat I wear, I've always felt that his stance on energy independence was correct. As a boy, when back in the '70s. I remember the gas lines in Orange County, California, and my father throwing up his hands and driving home when the tanks were empty and there was no more. I always thought that was a good idea. I think in the last year or so, the combination of doing some fieldwork particularly in the Great Plains, meeting with some folks at the Standing Rock Reservation, for example, up in North Dakota long after the media had left and long after the protests. Then, most recently in February at a conference in Arizona, listening to an elder Apache woman in Arizona describe the destruction of one of the sacred mountains by strip mining in the view of the developers that, well, it's desert and there's nothing there. We can't find any archaeological remains so let's get the uranium or whatever it is, copper, or whatever it is they're mining. I think for me having that experience going out to these places and actually seeing some of the rather sordid politics, like at the North Dakota with the Dakota Access Pipeline where the tribe exposed where sacred site, a burial site was in federal documents, and someone under the cover of night weeks later went out with a bulldozer, destroyed the place so he could run this pipeline underneath the Missouri. Watching the tears stream down the Apache elder in February talking about the destruction of the place for natural resources. I think it's changed my view. We've got to do a better job as a nation and recognize again the varied history. I think I mention this because I think there's so much about the sense of place that most of us as non-Native people don't always get. We're a very mobile society. I'm Catholic, I can go to mass anywhere I want. As Americans, we tend not to have that deep, ingrained sense of place and I think that's where natural resource extraction and the pressures for that kind of development intersect with long-held Native beliefs about the sense of places being off-limits. As l look at that, I see the destruction whether it's in Arizona, North Dakota, et cetera, and it does really give me pause. I don't know, I don't have all the answers about what do we do, but I hope people will stop and understand there's a long history there. What would be lost? I guess that's what I come back to. It's made me really think about what are we losing for a barrel of oil that can never be replaced?

[00:20:25] Antonio: That's well said. Your approach, which is we need to understand our history but we also have to approach our history with a sense of humility and to listen to peoples that are not us. We're not necessarily the authors simply because we are in charge at this point in time. These are challenging times but I have to ask, what brings you joy?

[00:20:49] Rich: Well, I think you know in an academic sense, I love writing, I love researching. It sounds crazy, I suppose, but I'm working on a data set of legislation in Congress from the 1940s to the present on Native Americans. Nobody has looked at this. What has Congress actually done in the last 70 years for Native peoples? I love that. I love the fact that it's one of the greatest jobs you could possibly have in the world as I see it because I'm constantly learning and I'm under no particular mandate as to what I study. I find an interesting question and you run with it. It's the constant possibilities of researching something and maybe gaining some expertise and being able to share that with people. It's an ongoing thing. I never get tired of it. It's wonderful. On a personal note, I have a 10-year-old son who's going on 11, we like to go fishing, camp, we do a lot of barbecuing. I enjoy cooking a lot. I've got a little garden. I've got about 12 pepper plants, and I've just decided that you cannot get good Southern California Mexican salsa in Florida so I decided to make my own. I've got serranos and poblanos and about three other pepper varieties. I also have a little peach orchard I started and I planted about six peach trees. They're actually UF graft. I think for me getting outdoors and doing that kind of gardening again, it brings you, you were mentioning humility, what a magical thing. I love showing this to my son. In April I went out and got some morning glory seeds. You put those tiny seeds and you cover it, you water it carefully, take care of it, nurture it for a week or two, and suddenly it sprouts. I look out my window right now from my office the morning glories, they're now taller than I am on the trellis. You look at that and you can't help but feel a sense of humility about yourself, where you fit in, and all of this with nature. It's really quite amazing. Those are things that give me a lot of joy.

[00:23:02] Antonio: That's fantastic. It sounds like you might have a nice blend of maybe a spicy peach chutney that can be spread over some barbecue fillets of redfish there.

[00:23:14] Rich: Yes. I actually experimented last year with our peaches and some chipotle peppers. I've got a couple of cans or jars I think left which I probably need to eat. I may need to send you one and see what you think of it.

[00:23:30] Antonio: I may need to test it out in a very thorough way, so yes.

[00:23:34] Rich: Absolutely.

[00:23:36] Antonio: Thank you. Thank you very much, Dr. Rich Conley, Associate Professor of Political Science, and the incoming Director for the American Indian Indigenous Studies program at the University of Florida. A man of many talents and trades. I'm glad the wind spoke to you and I hope it keeps speaking to you. Thank you, Rich. I appreciate all you do for us.

[00:23:56] Rich: Thank you so much for having me. We appreciate everything that you do for the university to bring attention to the issues of diversity going forward. Thank you.

[00:24:06] Antonio: Thank you. Thanks for joining me Antonio Farias, for another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. If you enjoyed this episode, please like the track and share on social media. I'd like to give a special thanks to Dr. Welson Tremura, Professor in US School of Music, and the Center for Latin American Studies for the original theme music. We welcome your comments and suggestions for future programs. You can find more episodes of Level Up and contact information for the Office of the Chief Diversity Officer at

[00:24:46] [END OF AUDIO]

33:29 Minutes
Podcast Guest Image

Episode 054: Jonah Zinn

In this episode, Antonio speaks with Rabbi Jonah Zinn, Executive Director of UF Hillel, as we head into the Rosh Hashanah holiday. Rabbi Zinn talks about the role of community in helping people pursue values in ways that are transformative and bridge difference and how the strong bonds of the Gator Nation give UF the potential to tackle the tough issues facing society right now.


[00:00:01] Antonio Farias: Welcome to season four of Level Up, a podcast, where we explore how students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida are leading our community in presence and belonging. This season, as we learn to live with COVID-19 and fight racial injustice, being present and understanding what makes belonging happen at UF is key. I'm your host, Antonio Farias, chief diversity officer at the University of Florida. [music] Welcome to another episode of Level Up on presence and belonging. We find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic, economic freefall for some, for many of us, and racial and civil upheavals that are happening across the nation and across the world. Which makes me believe that these concepts of belonging and how we show up are all the more critical. Today, we're really fortunate to have Rabbi Jonah Zinn, who is the executive director of the University of Florida Hillel with us today, to talk about these questions and some of these issues. Welcome, Rabbi, good to have you on the podcast.

[00:01:03] Jonah Zinn: Thanks for having me. It's good to be here.

[00:01:05] Antonio: Yes, we always meet face-to-face, so it's a little bit disconcerting to see you even though I know you right across the street. All right, now you could be anywhere in the world, right?

[00:01:14] Jonah: Yes, I'm on an island somewhere maybe. Who knows.

[00:01:17] Antonio: [laughs] Okay. An island might be a good place to be right now.

[00:01:22] Jonah: Yes, it'd be interesting for sure.

[00:01:25] Antonio: We always start the podcast with this concept of and this question of what is your story of belonging?

[00:01:31] Jonah: I grew up in Jewish community. From my earliest memories are being part of Jewish community. From preschool and through a private Jewish elementary and middle school. My family's involvement in our congregation, and throughout that I really I would say up until I went off to college, it was central to my experience. My family, my parents were incredibly dedicated to our relatively small local Jewish community. I grew up in central Massachusetts, in a city called Worcester. Where at the time there were about 10,000 members of the Jewish community, so it relatively small, particularly compared to areas of South Florida, where you have hundreds of thousands. It was just central to who I was, and my identity. It was a place that I had virtually all of my social relationships, and my mentoring relationships in different forms existed in that context, and I didn't really know any different. Then I went away to college, and one of the beautiful things about going away is you have the opportunity to restart your life in many respects. I wasn't sure where I would land. I was interested in political activism, I had a lot of interests. Fairly quickly after I arrived, not really knowing anyone, I found myself back involved in Jewish community.

[00:03:12] Antonio: You were at UVA, right? That's where you--

[00:03:14] Jonah: I did my undergrad at GW.

[00:03:18] Antonio: GW, okay. 

[00:03:19] Jonah: Yes, and then I went to work at UVA for several years after that. When I went to GW, I think I knew two people. One of them happen to be heavily involved in Jewish community, and so much in life is about that personal relationship. I got there and I became very involved in lots of different things. It was meaningful for me, and I made some great friends and some amazing mentors, and it was a very, very meaningful experience. One that I think I just-- I didn't really spend that much time thinking about. I really just took it for granted. That's who I was, that's what I did. Then the fall of my junior year of college, my father got really sick with leukemia. Very, very sick. I was far away. I was several hundred miles from my mom, and my siblings. I would come home, I was fortunate that I was able to come home on a fairly regular basis, but I was apart. Through that experience, I saw very quickly how community leapt into action to care for myself, but probably more significantly at that point. Because my life was going on in many respects. I had that luxury not dealing with it every day, and I saw how community cared for my family, in like really simple but profound ways. How they would pick my siblings up at school. How they would take my grandmother who was frail at the time and drive her into Boston, a little over an hour away just to visit my dad at the hospital. How they'd provide meals for my family. Really not only physical needs but also I think emotional needs. Just being a source of constant support. Checking in and being there for people and what, and all the ways that we care for other human beings. Social support, emotional support, physical support, spiritual support. That experience for me was incredibly powerful. Understanding that, in my case, it was Jewish community, but I have every expectation that for other people in similar situations, different kinds of communities fill that role. For me, it was Jewish community, it instilled within me a tremendous commitment to making sure that other people had that same experience. It became particularly, I think profound for me because I saw how my father, in particular, had dedicated huge amounts of his volunteer time to building community, and to creating community for other people. He was president of a synagogue, president of a local Jewish social service agency, on the board of the federation. Very, very involved, board of the day school, lots of different communal involvements. He devoted much of his adult life to this work. Never expecting that it would come back to help him. Then he finds himself in this awful predicament, and it was there for him in a really powerful way. For me, that realization, I know he wasn't involved in the community because he believed it was something that was going to help him. He was involved because he felt like it was really important, and that was passed on to me. My involvement and my personal feeling of belonging I think is rooted in that experience. It's also like-- my father passed away at the end of my junior year of college, and I think it's also rooted in a realization that that's part of my now my responsibility. Is to continue on that those values that I was raised with. Which I've experienced knowing that people need this kind of experience, and this kind of support going through lots of different things. Mine happened to be an experience of illness and loss, but your trial, by that I mean your painful experience doesn't need to be one of illness and loss. We all go through stuff. We often use a different word for it, but we all go through stuff in life. This was my stuff, your stuff may be different but it's still stuff, and you need help.

[00:07:45] Antonio: You really touch upon what is that key element of belonging which is community, and community just doesn't show up, you have to work at it. You have to work at it in a very altruistic way. For you, as you took us through your journey, it was a fundamental value of your family, and you grew up marinating in this concept of giving without the sense that there's any reciprocity. Reciprocity comes when it's needed but it's not expected. Which is a different mindset than a transactional way, of like I'm going to do something but I expect something back from you. Which is I think is really important here. Particularly for our students, but also for the staff and the faculty and the Gainesville community. Of what happens when you show up at a place like Gainesville where you didn't grow up, and which is different thing. This part of Florida is different than other parts of Florida, and how do you find that sense of community now that you're feeling in some way alone. Then how do you build that? How do you find people that make you feel that this is a place where you can grab some roots, or reconnect to whatever those values were that you brought. How do you do that in a way that doesn't make people feel like you're somehow needy? Because we are in this atomistic individualist culture, where the mythology is that the rugged individual, and it's a myth. There is no such thing as the rugged individual, there is a community of people that get together in order to create better individuals. Yes, I think that's really powerful. Can you tell us about-- which I think aligns with where you're going. What excites you about the work you do at Hillel, and here in Gainesville?

[00:09:33] Jonah: Yes, I think you raise a really interesting point, which is when students come-- really all of us actually. Because very very few members of the university community were raised and grew up in Gainesville. Many of us come from other places. You and I being both examples of that. People are looking for places to connect. For me, the Jewish community and Hillel as the institution that's supporting the Jewish community is well-served, well-positioned to be potentially for a lot of our students to be one of those places that can help you find a sense of belonging and purpose and meaning. You talk about the individualistic nature of our culture right, which is definitely central to the ethos of America, but I also think that we have to recognize that it's different for this generation. There was a study maybe two years ago that was conducted by Cigna, the big health insurance company, the big health company. They found that the current generation of college students is the loneliest generation in American history. Fascinating. There's lots of reasons for that, some of which we probably know and some of which we may not fully understand. To me, it said that now more than ever, young people need a place to plugin. I think the Jewish community has the potential to be that place for many students. Look, ideally, you're going to plugin into multiple places. You're going to have multiple communities where you feel like you belong. Part of the reason I think Jewish community makes sense is, for me, is because I think there is something, just like it was for me, familiar for many students who are raised in it in different ways. You could be fully immersed in it like I was, but you don't need to be, because there's in order to feel comfortable, I hope you don't, because there are aspects of Jewish community. Not only Jewish religion but Jewish community that students can connect with no matter where they were raised. That's actually interestingly, one of the-- we find US undergraduate populations, it's 17% out of state. We find a disproportionate number of out of state students that get involved Jewish life because they're looking for community in different ways. I think being able to help them find that in ways that they feel like they feel welcome and plugged in and at home fairly quickly is central to our work. I think, to add one thing, I think it's about community belonging for sure, but I also think it's about what community and belonging enable us to do. As individuals and as a community. As a community, I mean as a collective. Now, on one hand, it creates a space where we often feel comfortable to engage in self-expression, exploration, and growth, and that's something that individuals need, but it also provides a forum through which the collective can pursue our values in ways that are transformative. A community is bigger than the sum of its parts. Whether it's working for social justice, or serving individuals in times of need or whatever it maybe, in terms of a broader values-based objective, I think community has that potential as well. That's part of why I think being part of it can be so powerful for students.

[00:13:07] Antonio: That's incredibly insightful. Because again, this sense of, and we see a lot of this happening right now in our country is where there is this bizarre sense of belonging where people are incredibly insular about that sense. We draw a circle around who us are and who them are and then we just inwardly focus and reify that sameness. What you're talking about is it something completely, radically different. It's belonging as bringing together a community of values that then breach out of that circle. It's always about others and bridging. I think that's incredibly important in this day and age, especially for our students, but all of us really who can get caught up in these echo chambers where we're really just focused on ourselves and creating our own space and not figuring out ways to bridge out of that, which I think is is incredibly important. Thank you for bringing up that point. Speaking a little bit to that issue of we've become a society where we're entrenched in our views and we defend them till all end. Can you share with us one issue over the past year that you've actually changed your mind about?

[00:14:26] Jonah: It's not so much an issue but I think something I'm working on. Let me share with you something I've been working on because I find myself far too often, I spend time ruminating on things and reflecting and pondering and reading and researching in all these things that we do, to try to come up with an idealized solution. I do, in my work all the time. I really want Hillel to be more engaged in a specific area. I want to push Jewish students to take ownership over whether antiracism work or any number of things. I allow that desire to get it right to paralyze me. I don't think I'm alone in this but I'm so caught up on achieving the perfect solution that--

[00:15:24] Antonio: If you've been working in higher education too long , rabbi.

[00:15:26] Jonah: Yes. I don't do anything. My desire for perfection leads to paralysis.

[00:15:31] Antonio: Right. Analysis paralysis, yes.

[00:15:34] Jonah: I just, I'm trying so hard to let go of that. We started this conversation, before we started recording, we were chatting a little bit about how UF is responding to the COVID-19 and reopening and you said something which I've heard you say many times, about a whole range of different subjects. We're going to do our best, we're not going to get it right. You were honestly going to get it perfectly right, we're going to make mistakes. I think that's a really helpful attitude that I've been trying to internalize because in action, at this hour is unacceptable. Now particularly in the area of racial justice but other areas as well that we have to recognize that sometimes doing it well, even if not perfect is okay and you're going to make mistakes. I think part of the way I've tried to overcome that paralysis that exists in me, let's say, is trying to be as open as I can about the struggle. Say to people, I think we should try this, we will make mistakes, I hope you'll be kind to us when we make mistakes but that I feel like this is what we need to be doing and moving towards.

[00:16:45] Antonio: I really appreciate that pathway that you help in teaching students but all of them in that way because it is about being forthright. If we come across as if we have the solution, we're bound to fail and we're bound to have gaps because we're imperfect beings. Therefore, and people are especially right now, we're right in the social media world, are just long really jabbering and anxious ridden to find holes. There's a sense of we've got all the answers. I think that's incredibly important nowadays what you said, which is the sense of getting to action. Particularly, what's happening right now in terms of racial and civil unrest in our nation. Trying to create the elegant solution as opposed to taking action that will get us to a more elegant solution I think is what we need to do. You're right, generationally, I think that has been. I hark back to that survey you quoted about this generation being the loneliest generation. I think that's incredibly powerful. That's one of those drivers that many of us-- I'm a Gen-Xer, so for me, it was like, "Yes, who cares? I want to be alone." That was the generational choice. We keep getting forgotten but this generation isn't that way. This generation actually is much more, has that need for connection, and the want for being included. I think there is some generational disconnect there that we assume or we infantilize them or we tell them it's not your turn yet as opposed to bringing them into the conversation.

[00:18:15] Jonah: I think that's right. I think when it comes to racial justice work, anti-racism work, I think that they have far better answers than certainly than I do. Part of it is about empowering them to lead.

[00:18:29] Antonio: That's it.

[00:18:29] Jonah: Look, it's challenging at this time because when it comes to, particularly as a campus Jewish community, there has not. At least in my-- Individuals are but as a collective has not been particularly engaged with other communities across campus. My sense is, and I've been the head of Hillel for just over a year now but that in general, UF is a community that UF groups tend to keep to themselves. I think it, my instinct is, you want to support work. It's important that people of color lead and that those of us, that see ourselves as white that we follow their lead and certainly I think a lot of young people are doing that. The part, when you haven't been in a long-term relationship, the strategy that core to my instinct and I think for a lot of people to show up, and that's tricky right now with COVID and the public health concerns. I think that part of it is figuring out how we're going to navigate these various-- what I would argue are competing values, on one hand, are really I think a heartfelt desire on behalf of many students to be present in this work and a realization that we also have to safeguard the health and safety of our community and finding that balance.

[00:19:49] Antonio: Right. That's really spot on. It's competing and it's the conundrum of what happens when you think in a way that isn't black and white or binary. How do we help students-- I remember being 18, 19, 20 years old and being very, sort of, you're either with us or against us in a very binary world, but how do we help students by mapping out exactly what we've learned through-- I don't want to call it wisdom, but just probably like hard knocks of stumbling through life, that the world is much more complicated. You can't hold to juxtaposing positions in tension, and that tension is what creates some of the creativity of finding solutions as opposed to saying, this solution is cleaner than that solution, and therefore, we're going to go with that and completely dismiss a different option. Which again, puts us potentially into a corner where we can't get ourselves out ideologically.

[00:20:49] Jonah: I would agree. I think part of what fuels us finding ourselves in those corners is the fact that we live in these echo chambers. One of the interesting results of this period has been people have been much more engaged in thinking about things more deeply online and whatnot. Also being online and having more time to read the news of your echo chambers is pushing you further into the corner. How do we break out of those in a world that doesn't lend itself to those? That's why I think being on campus not speaking specifically about reopening or whatnot, but the idea of being in a dynamic academic setting, where hopefully you're exposed to people who are different than you has the potential to open your eyes to the diversity of thought and diversity of experience. And at UF -- part of it is because of our size I think--t hat's just maybe harder than it is a lot of other places. What that means is that we, as people care about these issues just need to work harder to help make it happen.

[00:21:54] Antonio: Very true. We are micro-city. 80,000 human beings makeup UF. They say that there is one way to say you belong or one way to be a Gator is incredibly audacious. We would never say something like there is only one way to be a New Yorker or there's one way to be a Bostonian, other than like you're a Yankee or a Red Sox fan. I noticed you did rabbinical school in New York. I'm hoping you're a Yankee fan now and you left behind your Bostonian ways. [laughter]

[00:22:27] Jonah: It's interesting though, because that's part of why I think UF is so strong because we're able to find those communal rally points. From much of our country, it's around sports. You and I are of different generations. We grew up several hours from one another, but we share mutual animosity towards each other sports teams. For Gators, that's become core of who we are, too . The nation rallies behind the teams we put on the fields in the court and pool and all the different places that we play, but that feeling community transcends sports. That's actually one of the things that drew me to come to UF when they reached out to me about this opportunity. When I was in New York, I have a Red Sox hat or a T-shirt. I wear it fairly-- [crosstalk] Well, it was interesting, but no one ever said anything. It was fascinating. I would incredibly ever get comments. Interestingly, when I moved to St. Louis after I finished rabbinical school, I was at a congregation for five years, all of a sudden, everybody in St. Louis wanted to give me a hard time about my Red Sox hat, which is a fascinating conversation that we can have another time about how St. Louisans feel about themselves. Whenever I wore-- my wife is a Gator, so I also have had a Gator shirt for many years. In New York, whenever I wore my Gator shirt people would say, "Go Gators", everywhere. I remember I was passing through Grand Central walking into the restroom, and like I'm paying-- New Yorkers they look down. They don't engage, they look ahead of them. If someone say something to you, you think they're about to pick a fight with you. I remember and someone's like, "Go Gators." This is one of the first times it happened in New York. And I did a double-take, It was so counter to what you expect in New York, but there's something very powerful about being part of this particular community. That's part of why I think students here have so much potential to tackle some of these tough issues facing our society.

[00:24:29] Antonio: I completely agree. That is one of the powers I do see in the Gator Nation. I think the opportunity there is how do we build those bridges so that becomes a community of practice. To your earlier point, a community that always looks outward and not just internally to itself. Brings me to the last question I close the podcast out which is what brings you joy. We're living in a world where potentially we can just be racing to the bottom of the vortex, but in times like this, even more so we need to think about what brings us joy, what rejuvenates us so that we can get up in the morning and move forward and move others forward.

[00:25:10] Jonah: For me, it's when I witness people expand their horizons and realize some measure of their potential to see the world differently. One of the initiatives that I've been a part of this past year, and that I'm particularly proud of and excited about, is a Jewish learning fellowship. Something that a cohort-based program, 10 weeks students sign up for it, commit to being part of the program. They're part of a small group cohort that learns together over the course of this period and uses Jewish wisdom. 3,000 years of Jewish tradition to answer modern questions. Does it in a way that doesn't pretend to know the answers, but rather to help students engage in the dialogue. The dialogue that dates back to Biblical time and has been enriched by successive generations that have struggled in different ways, with the same core questions about what it means to be human and what it means to be in relationship with other humans. That experience is I think a good example. At the end of every session. much like you end this podcast with the same question I would end every session. I'd say, "What's one thing you're taking away from our time together?" For me, I think it's a good, humbly, I think it's a good processing question. I was amazed every time and it gave me tremendous joy to see how students would say that that conversation helped them see themselves or Jewish tradition differently and I think that's what we're all about, is helping students grow and creating a place. Look, they're doing the work, I'm not doing the work. They're doing all the work, I'm just creating the vehicle for them to do the internal work that's so core . When I'm able to see them do that work, which is really very challenging work for many of the reasons we've talked about, for me, that's an incredible experience and one that even now thinking back brings me joy.

[00:27:09] Antonio: That's so apropos and so why we're grateful to have you here in this community because you are fundamentally an educator. That's the joy of the educator. When you see the student, there's some spark in the eye, or they go through a metamorphosis where they wrestle, and you simply don't give them the easy answer. You allow them to struggle, and then they come up, it's almost like that light bulb pops up over their head. Let me ask you two questions. What's one book you hope to read? And what's one book that you would recommend others to read right now?

[00:27:46] Jonah: That's interesting. I just ordered last week from Amazon, and I'm sort of embarrassed , that it took me so long to read it, but How to Be and Anti-Racist .

[00:27:54] Antonio: Oh, Ibram Kendi's book.

[00:27:56] Jonah: Who I guess has roots in Florida.

[00:27:59] Antonio: He was a native son of the history department here . It was one of the reasons why I was really psyched to come to UF, I was like I read S tamped from the Beginning before I even applied for this position and then when I applied and I realized he was here, I was like this is going to be exciting. He's one of these fountainheads of knowledge here on this issue of anti-racism. When I got here, he had already left. He and his phenomenal wife had already left and right now he's actually up in Boston. He's at BU now, he continues to seed different organizations with this concept of anti-racism.

[00:28:37] Jonah: That's on the top of my book pile right now, it's interesting, what's something that I would encourage people to read right now. I t's a very thin book. It's like an afternoon read. It's called-- I misquote the title and I'm not in my office where I have several of these books, but it's called The 10 Best Jewish Ideas because I think one of the things that-- look, fundamentally I'm a Jewish. I'm a Jewish educator. I feel like I should use this as an opportunity to justify that . It's The 10 Best Jewish Ideas, it's literally an hour read if you're a fast reader, maybe less, almost like in the spirit of the pamphlets. What it does is I think it helps people hone in Jewish or otherwise, on what are some of the concepts that are central to Jewish community over time that have provided Jewish community with the fiber of resiliency. Because I think that that is one of the great meta lessons of Jewish tradition is that of bouncing back against adversity. Part of how I think we do that is both are being values focused, but also having internalized different structures within what I'll call our civilization that reinforce those values. When we think about traditions, Jewish traditions, or other traditions, my view is that one of the roles that tradition plays is it's an opportunity to reinforce values in a way that makes them real on an ongoing basis. This is sort of an aside, but I'll share it with you. I tell people that if you're engaged in Jewish ritual just because you think that's what you're supposed to be doing, that's fine. If I had my druthers, I want that ritual every time you do it for it to provide you with an opportunity to reflect on other things, on values-based approaches. When you light Shabbat candles, this tradition on Friday evening of lighting two candles, I want you to think about the joy that Shabbat has potential bring into your life, the light that Shabbat has potential bring into your life. I want you to feel a sense of connection potentially with your previous generations that have done this. I don't want you to just go through the motions. I think that so much of what we do not in Jewish tradition only, but in society today is go through the motions and follow. We're seeing it by the way with anti-racism work. People are in this performative role online, we're doing what we think we should be doing. My hope is that part of what I think this book offers, but I think more broadly, what I think we need to do as individuals is be much more focused on why we're doing this work. What is it within us that's calling us to be engaged in this? File name: 054_Jonah_Zinn.wav 9

[00:31:54] Antonio: That's pitch-perfectly said, Rabbi. Thank you again, Rabbi Jonah Zinn. Executive Director of University of Florida Hillel, it's been an honor again to talk with you into the educative process. I've learned a lot. I continue to learn a lot from you. I continue to enjoy our developing partnership and how do we-- I felt what you just said. It really struck home the sense of deepening. This is really what it's about, deepening. You talked about these words that are floating around almost like balloons, like resiliency, but resiliency means nothing if we don't anchor it in history and teach it. Those teachings become values and those values become actions, and those actions are about bridging. Thank you again, Rabbi. It's been a pleasure having you on the podcast.

[00:32:44] Jonah: Thanks for having me. It's been for me, and I've learned a lot.


[00:32:52] Antonio: Thanks for joining me, Antonio Farias for another episode of Level Up on presence and belonging. If you enjoyed this episode, please like the track and share it on social media. I'd like to give a special thank you to Dr. Wilson Tremura, professor in the UF School of Music and the Center for Latin American Studies, for the original theme music. We welcome your comments and suggestions for future programs. You can find more episodes of Level Up and content information for the Office of the Chief Diversity officer at

[00:33:30] [END OF AUDIO]

16:57 Minutes
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Episode 053: Chris Adin

In this episode, Antonio catches up with Chris Adin, Chair and Professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences. Chris talks about creating highly functional teams that are greater than the sum of their parts and some innovative solutions his department is taking to increase diversity.



[00:00:01] Antonio Farias: Welcome to Season 4 of Level Up, a podcast where we explore how students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida are leading our community in presence and belonging in the era of COVID-19 and the racial reckoning we're undergoing nationwide. I'm your host, Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida. [music] Welcome to another podcast of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. Today, we are fortunate to have Dr. Chris Adin, who is the chair and professor in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences. Welcome, Chris.

[00:00:37] Dr. Chris Adin: Thank you.

[00:00:38] Antonio: It's incredible to see you on Zoom here. You've been part-- I've met you a couple of times already. You've been in a couple of workshops that we both been in, so it's a pleasure to have you on the podcast. I just happened to follow you also on Twitter, so I love your Twitter feeds. You have a good sense of humor amongst other things that you have I suppose.

[00:00:56] Dr. Adin: Thank you. Same here. I miss seeing you in person.

[00:00:59] Antonio: We always start the podcast by asking what is your story of belonging?

[00:01:03] Dr. Adin: Well, my story of belonging, I probably would reflect back to high school. My father was from England and immigrants. When I grew up, I didn't learn to play football, basketball, baseball, those sports that are American until I was older actually. What I did was run. When I got to high school, I had always been the fastest kid in my class, but I went to a high school where they had a very good running team. It was quite competitive and I was not the top runner. That was good and humbling. Then, in my junior year of high school, I was approached by the coach as the summer was coming on. I remember I was sitting in the cafeteria. He was a portly little man named Bob Bradley. He did not look like a runner, but he was famous for his success in running coaching. He told me that he had an idea that he was going to assemble for runners from our team and we were going to win the National Championship in the 4 x 800-meter relay next year. He was going to call it Project X, which was a joke about a movie that was from the '80s in that time about a monkey that was made scientifically smarter, some kind of silly thing like that. So, he picked three other runners. Two of those runners were Division 1 athlete quality and really a huge class above me in terms of talent. I felt nervous being part of that team. I was clearly the weak link, which is why I'm telling the story. We practiced for a year and this coach sacrificed a lot. He took us to meets in Connecticut, Pennsylvania. We drove in surrounding states around New York where I had grown up. In the end, we actually won the National Championship, the State Championship. The important part about the story for me and belonging is that I was the slowest member of that team. I learned two big things. One is that even though you're not a top performer in an area, you can end up being an essential contributor to a national caliber team. The other thing I learned is from Coach Bradley, the number one people are not always what they seem. This portly English teacher from my boys Catholic High School ended up being a really strategic thinking motivational coach who thought to bring people together, to form a team, when I probably would have looked at those athletes and said, "I got three guys that can probably win events as individuals, so why would I have them waste some of their energy at a meet in a relay event?" What he saw is that they may not actually win at the national level because that was quite competitive, but if you combine people that are near top level in a relay team, you can actually be the top team. That has really been something that's transferred for me here as a leader. One of the things that I really find as one of the neat things in my job is to try to bring teams together in the same way, and to think strategically about how I can bring people together, and how I can be parts of teams still as not the top person, but as an important contributor. UF is a great place to do that because we have so much diverse talent here.

[00:04:34] Antonio: That's fantastic. Well, congratulations on the national title. That's amazing. It reminds me of a story I just read. I'm going to blank out on the name, but the famous coach out of California who brought together a ragtag group of runners and made them into a national powerhouse. Your point is spot on this issue of how do you bring diverse talent together and make it equal more than the sum total of the individuals? That's what the magic sauce is about. You could just go and get all top performers and yet, you'll still lose. That's the key is how do you blend as a leader, the difference that we bring to the table in order to create 1 + 1 = 3. That's the core issue, particularly in a place like UF where we do strive for excellence. I think sometimes we can get caught up in this vortex of, "Well, we must have the best people on the planet in order to make this team highly functional." As opposed to, "We need to make this team actually gel together. Otherwise, we're going to have a whole bunch of alphas in the room and no one's going to get any work done." Right?

[00:05:45] Dr. Adin: Yes. I think we need to value people who are consistent performers and who bring it to the table every time knowing that that's a super important part of a relay team. If you have one person run a bad leg, you lose, so everyone's got to show up every day.

[00:06:04] Antonio: Everyone's got to show up. That's true. Tell us, you've been here for-- is it a year or two years already?

[00:06:12] Dr. Adin: Two years.

[00:06:13] Antonio: Two years. Tell us about what excites you about the work you do and maybe a little bit about what excites you about the work you don't do here, sort of the extra-- it's not extracurricular because we're adults, but what happens then after work? I know you have a passion for more than just running, but tell us about what really excites you about Vet Med and what you're doing right now and the teams that you're bringing together.

[00:06:37] Dr. Adin: Well, this has been a really neat shift in my career. At this point, I've been a faculty member and a veterinarian that does surgery, teach surgery to veterinary students, and to resident trainees. Also, I did complicated surgeries on people's pets to try to help them while I teach those students and residents. What has changed now is that having been a faculty member, as you know, your job is to make yourself nationally and internationally recognized and to help your department and college to do the same. In transitioning into a leadership role, I now get to help other people become nationally and internationally recognized. That really makes me feel good. At the end of the day, I get to go home feeling like I get to do some unselfish things in order to help other people succeed and that's been really gratifying. I feel proud of what I do. I feel proud of the accomplishments of the people that I get to work with here. Out of work, Gainesville has been a wonderful place to live. My kids have enjoyed their transition here. Oddly, my children, I have two girls that were born here when I was a faculty member 2001 to 2006. Now, that we've come back to Gainesville, they have returned to the place they were born. It's really kind of an interesting circle of life thing. I recently brought my oldest daughter, who's 18, to do an externship at Shands, where I dropped her off in scrubs at the same entrance that I picked her up in a baby seat when we put her into the car and got all the straps checked 18 years before.

[00:08:11] Antonio: Wow. I'm sure that was one of those father moments where you just bawled out crying on both ends of that spectrum. Right?

[00:08:19] Dr. Adin: Yes. It's really-- Gainesville has a special place for us.

[00:08:23] Antonio: That's incredibly heartwarming. Thank you. Tell us one thing that, let's say, in the last six months to a year, it's been a rocky year to say the least, that you've actually changed your mind about.

[00:08:36] Dr. Adin: Well, recently, I have changed my mind about a lot of things, I guess. One thing that I've really opened my mind to is our ability to change things I guess. My profession, veterinary medicine, has very poor diversity. As a faculty member who helps to recruit people, to hire new people, it has been frustrating to have not a very diverse applicant pool. I have-- With the recent movements in our country and in our university, in our college, I have seen a huge opening of possibilities. I feel momentum and real possibility to make changes that will allow us to recruit new people into our profession that are going to make it much, much better 10 years from now. That's been kind of the most exciting thing over the last month that I've been seeing happen. I see the university coming behind that in real ways with a plan and I'm excited about it.

[00:09:45] Antonio: Yes. That's the main question we're all asking ourselves, "How do we do better at this?" We know as scientists, as faculty, as staff members we understand. We're educators so we understand the literature and it's always been there. Again, going back to your earlier point, diversity drives excellence. Yet, we seem to not be able to move the needle in any significant way. What do you think, based off of your introduction into this new leadership team that you're developing, what do you think are one or two key points that you think can transfer it over to other faculty members right now that are listening to this podcast thinking, "Okay. I love what Chris is saying. How do I do that? How do I get this team together? What are some really practical things that I can do to in order to change what has been the status quo for so long?"

[00:10:37] Dr. Adin: Well, some of the practical things that we have come up with is that I was contacted by a few Black veterinarians that work in our university and in our college with ideas on how we can recruit Black veterinary students and also, Black veterinary interns and residents in very practical ways from institutions that have more diversity than ours. Dr. Carl Southern and Dr. Brittany Southern are friends of mine who have connections to Tuskegee University that has a number of veterinary students who are from underrepresented minorities that are interested in specialty training that we offer here at the University of Florida. Through Carl and Brittany, all of a sudden, there's a real way that we can develop a relationship with Tuskegee, that I'm working on trying to help them establish in an official way with our administration at the College of Vet Medicine, so that we can try to have students from Tuskegee visit, open up opportunities for them to apply for internships and residencies here, hopefully, in new ways that that is a real step towards recruiting faculty because our faculty come from trainees, from our internship, and residency programs. I didn't see that possible connection until Carl and Brittany pointed out to me by their willingness to participate directly, they've made it possible by them reaching out to their alma mater where they have connections. I think that we can really make this happen. That's what I was saying that I'm excited because what seemed like a pipe dream in the past now has a real plan and real connections.

[00:12:35] Antonio: Real connections. Real people. Right?

[00:12:37] Dr. Adin: Yes.

[00:12:37] Antonio: Power couple it sounds like?

[00:12:39] Dr. Adin: Yes.

[00:12:39] Antonio: Incredible and good for you and good for Vet Med for doing that, to reaching out to HBCUs through our own internal contacts in order to move that needle where, in the past, we think, "Well, there's no pipeline." Well, the pipeline's always there. It's just sometimes we're blind to it. That's an incredibly key and also really concrete step that you're taking. So, kudos to Vet Med for-- and your leadership for moving in that direction.

[00:13:05] Dr. Adin: Well, just like in high school, I'm the slow guy on this team. I feel very lucky to have met these other talented people that are really the success story here. I don't want to take any credit for it. I'm just excited about it. That's really what I wanted to say.

[00:13:23] Antonio: Yes. It's also what leaders do. It's like you get out of the way of people that actually know that have the skill set and have the drive and allow them to flourish, which goes back to your point of what your role now is as a leader is to allow others to flourish as opposed to putting yourself first. Again, I would only put the mirror back on you and say it's a team effort. You're part of that team, Chris. So, thank you very much for what you're doing.

[00:13:50] Dr. Adin: Thank you.

[00:13:51] Antonio: We end the podcast by asking what brings you joy?

[00:13:57] Dr. Adin: Gosh, a lot of things bring me joy, my family, seeing the inspiring people here at work. You're certainly one of those honestly. There are just a lot of things to be excited about in our world. I do tend to be an optimist. I know there are a lot of things to be worried about in our world, but I feel strongly that there's a lot of power in humanity that you can see every day amidst all those struggles, too. I'm excited about what you and others are doing here at UF trying to move us forward every day.

[00:14:32] Antonio: Thank you. I'm excited about this new wave of leaders going into all these positions. I think the middle really moves organizations and I think it's really the chairs of the departments that are really opening their eyes and trying new things. That's what you're doing. You're tapping into your own talent, which-- I came here about two years ago. So, we must have landed at the same time. I will still hold firm to my commitment that I think all the talent and all the resources that we need in order to move the needle when it comes to creating better access here at UF are within our walls. We just have to be able to reopen our eyes and see that talent for what it is and then actualize it. That's the key point is the humility and the joy, but also what you mentioned, which is this optimism. It's like there is this sense of hope is just fleeting, but hope is the beginning of trying to see a future that is different from the past. Again, I commend you for-- with everything that we're struggling with right now, COVID-19, sort of the racial pandemic that we have issues with in this country. I think keeping hope and action together in the same space and creating these teams where you bring it together is spot on. I appreciate what you're doing in leadership there in Vet Med, Chris.

[00:15:52] Dr. Adin: Thank you.

[00:15:54] Antonio: So, that ends our podcast. Again, I want to thank Dr. Chris Adin, who is both the chair and a professor in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences in our College of Veterinary Medicine. Thank you for being on the podcast with us today.

[00:16:09] Dr. Adin: Thank you, Antonio.


[00:16:10] Antonio: Thanks for joining me, Antonio Farias, for another episode of Level Up on presence and belonging. If you enjoyed this episode, please like the track and share on social media. I'd like to give a special thanks to Dr. Welson Tremura, professor in UF's School of Music, and the Center for Latin American Studies for the original theme music. We welcome your comments and suggestions for future programs. You can find more episodes of Level Up and contact information for the Office of the Chief Diversity Officer Go, Gators!


16:20 Minutes
Podcast Guest Image

Episode 052: Alicer Andrew

Welcome to the first episode of Level Up Season 4! In this episode, Antonio talks with Alicer Andrew, a PhD student in infectious diseases and immunology. Alicer talks about finding her community through the Black Graduate Student Organization and her role as vice president. Find out how Alicer has been creating belonging in the pandemic through friendship and food. Find out more about the important work BGSO does @UF here:



[00:00:02] Antonio Farias: Welcome to Season 4 of Level Up podcast, where we explore how students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida are leading our community in presence and belonging. This season, as we learn to live with COVID19 and fight racial injustice being present and understanding what makes belonging happen at UF is key. I'm your host, Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida. Welcome to another episode of Level Up on presence and belonging. Today, we are really lucky, because we have Alicer Andrew, who is-- Among other things, she is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Infectious Diseases and Immunology. Am I getting that right?

[00:00:50] Alicer: [chuckles] I am officially enrolled at the University of Georgia, and so I'm in their Department of Infectious Diseases. However, in my second year of my program, the lab that I was in and my mentor, she took a position here at the University of Florida. She moved, and she's now a department chair of the Department of Infectious Diseases and Immunology in the College of Vet Med. That's where I am now. Like in between both places at once.

[00:01:14] Antonio Farias: You don't have to commute, though, right? This is a ... you're here ?

[00:01:23] Alicer: No, no. [chuckles] Luckily, no. The timing of it worked out great, because I had just finished all of the coursework that I needed for my degrees, all of the in-person coursework, and then I'd also just passed my qualifying exam. I was on the way to just focusing on the lab and not having to do anything in class. When we moved, it was like, “All right. I don't have classes. I don't want start over in a different lab, so I’ll just move with you.”

[00:01:51] Antonio: That's great. Hopefully, we'll get a little bit of a chance to talk about mentorship and the power of mentorship, because, obviously, that's the power of mentorship if you'll cross the lines to follow a mentor here. One of the many hats you also carry is the president of the BGSO, the Black Graduate Student Organization.

[00:02:08] Alicer: Yes, I'm the Vice President. I'm one of the two vice presidents of BGSO, second year in a row.

[00:02:14] Antonio: That's awesome. Again, it goes back to a very storied organization here, student organization, 1975. I just storied but really at the core of how we're going to change our culture going forward. That's really important. I hope we get to talk about that. We always begin the podcast by asking the question, what is your story of belonging?

[00:02:34] Alicer: The trend of existing between two different places has existed throughout my life, honestly. I was born in the Caribbean, a small island called Antigua, and then I moved to Georgia when I was about 13 years old. For a little while there, I was stuck between I feel Caribbean, but I'm not. This is interesting. Then, I finally made it through high school and started to assimilate into the culture. I was like, all right, great. Then, I made it to college, where I did my undergrad-- It was at University of Georgia. From there, I was like, I don’t know. It doesn't feel great, but then I found the Caribbean Student Organization there. Those are my people. I was like, all right, great. Then, I started my PhD at UGA. I was feeling good, pretty comfortable, and then, we decided to move to Gainesville, to University of Florida, [chuckles] and because I had decided not to apply to University of Florida and enroll as a student, I felt dropped into this huge pond with no connection, really, to the graduate student life. I didn't know anyone. I didn't know anything about Gainesville. I went from being super comfortable in Athens to completely off-balance in Gainesville. What I decided to do to find where I felt I belonged is, I simply did a Google search. I googled "Black Graduate Students" in Gainesville, University of Florida, [laughs] and that's how I found--

[00:04:03] Antonio: Wow. We need to do such a better job of putting the cookie crumb trails or something, so we can find ourselves, right?

[00:04:12] Alicer: Right. I got lucky, because it popped up. It was the first thing that popped up BGSO, Black Graduate Student Organization. I started going to events, and then, I really just bonded with the group. I was like, these are my people. I decided to become a leader in the group, and now, here I am.

[00:04:30] Antonio: That's awesome. Again, very much a tale of a lot of our black graduate students. T his sense of being in-between on so many levels, that we could spend hours and hours talking about the sense of in-betweeness. Tell me a little bit about the work that you do and how it excites you, your research and the work you're engaged with. It could be about your research and your BGSO. Again, we have multiple identities, and lots of things drive us and give us energy. Tell me about what excites you about what you're doing now?

[00:05:05] Alicer: Yes, that's certainly true for me. I'll start with the research. When I was an undergrad, that's when I met my mentor, my current mentor. She is interested in studying a disease called malaria that specifically impacts people that live in subtropical regions of the world. You're talking about Sub-Saharan Africa; you're talking about South America as well, parts of Asia. She was more so focused on pregnant women that become infected with malaria, the malaria parasite. She gave a presentation-- She was my professor for one of my public health classes. She gave a presentation about her research. I loved it. Ever since then, I was sold. I was like, okay, if I get accepted to this school, I'm going to try to get into her lab. That's what I study now. I study malaria infection in pregnant women. The way that I do it is by using mouse models to help us recreate some of the key characteristics of the disease in a laboratory setting. Then, that allows me to identify potential therapeutics that would help mitigate the impact of the disease on the mother, but especially on the developing fetus who, without treatment, sometimes will experience low birth weight, neonatal mortality, and all sorts of complications. That's what I work on in the lab, and I'm really excited about it. Even before I got into research, I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to be an OB-GYN. There was always this innate interest in pregnancy, women's health, neonatal health, that kind of thing. It all just fell into place in that aspect. While I was at UGA, I became president of a group called GRADS, which is Graduate Research Assistants Diversifying STEM. I found I had a lot of passion for that group, because what we really tried to do is reach out to Black students, underrepresented minorities, and pull them in, so they knew they had a community at the graduate level, because once I made it there from undergrad, transitioning into graduate school at the same university, I felt the difference. I felt the change, like there were more people that looked like me as undergrads. As soon as I transitioned into grad school, I was like, “Where is everybody?”

[00:07:24] Antonio: Then, we wonder why we can't find Black faculty. It’s because--

[00:07:28] Alicer: Right? It was just crazy. I was like, whoa, what happened? GRADS was my way of reaching out to graduate students, to undergrads as well, and to high school students, and trying to pull them in and let them know, "Hey, you're supported." That's what brings me a lot of passion right now through BGSO, because I get to do the exact same thing. It's nice, because I definitely enjoy my research, because I think that ultimately, it's going to lead to something greater. It's going to help a lot of people, but also, I can do something in the short term right now to help other graduate students and students who are thinking about grad school to feel comfortable and to have a resource in me.

[00:08:13] Antonio: That's incredibly important across the board. What you’re working on is not just science and medicine, but how to impact this on a global scale, the global south, and particularly with women. We normally don't model medicinal interventions with women in mind. It's always an after-effect.

[00:08:33] Alicer: Right, exactly.

[00:08:34] Antonio: Incredibly powerful. Share with us one thing that you've changed your mind about in the last, I don't know, six months, a year? This has been a tough year, so, [chuckles] --

[00:08:47] Alicer: Yes. One of the things that I've struggled with throughout my graduate career thus far is just deciding what I want to do after. Do I want to go into academia? Do I want to go into industry, that sort of thing? Recently, ever since the pandemic, I've been leaning more toward academia. One of the main reasons is because I got a sense of stability. Even though everything shut down for the most part, it was really, really scary that people were just losing their jobs and not able to take care of their family, not knowing when they're going to get a next paycheck, that sort of thing. I felt very fortunate that as a graduate student, I still had the stipend that I could rely on, even though I couldn't go into the lab. I see that as something very, very valuable. Now, moving forward, I think I'm going to lean more toward academia, because I can still do a lot of the same things that I'm passionate about, and there seems to be more stability.

[00:09:55] Antonio: Yes, and it doesn't block you from working in the private sector either, because with the new technology start ups, things that we are even trying here at UF in terms of these incubators, you can potentially do both. You can obviously influence and be part of it . I like that sense of having a stable platform from which you can do many things as opposed to having one platform. If that platform burns down, you're going down with it, right?

[00:10:25] Alicer: Exactly. 

[00:10:27] Antonio: That's a good one. I'm always happy when graduate students decide that they're going to stay. It's funny, because I was having this conversation with some students in NESB, and there was a similar split. There were students, Black grad students, that were thinking, "Well, I'm not thinking--" This was preCOVID. They were thinking the opposite. They were like, "I don't know about higher education. I think I'm going to go corporate." I'm wondering, I'll touch base with them again and see if there's been a shift for that same reason.

[00:10:58] Alicer: Yes, I was definitely leaning away from academia, and now, I'm like, well, I don't know. I really do like a lot of things about it, but specifically the stability that it seemed to offer during this time.

[00:11:13] Antonio: Thank you. We end the podcast with the question which is, what brings you joy? We need a lot of joy right now. [laughs] I know sometimes it's hard, but--

[00:11:26] Alicer: Actually, what really brings me joy is food. [laughs]

[00:11:31] Antonio: Now, I'm getting hungry.

[00:11:33] Alicer: [laughs] I love food. I love food from all different types of cultures, communities, locations. Wherever I can get it, I love it. Actually, during this pandemic, I've actually been cooking a lot more, because what I used to do a lot was take dinnertime as a time for fellowship and unwind to my friends. We usually would meet at least once a week, usually on a Friday, go to our favorite restaurant. We would just talk about the week, just talk about what's going on in lab, talk about what's going on in life, and really just decompress, and I really was missing that a lot during the pandemic, so I was like, "All right, I guess I'll cook." Actually, me and my friends would do FaceTime dinner dates together now. [laughs]

[00:12:21] Antonio: Oh, wow. [laughs]

[00:12:23] Antonio: What's your signature dish, then?

[00:12:26] Alicer: It's funny, because this is something I never thought I'd be good at, but I love oxtail, which is a Jamaican dish. I spent a lot of time during this pandemic perfecting my oxtail recipe.

[00:12:39] Antonio: How is oxtail, the recipe you learned in the Caribbean, different than, say, the Georgia recipes that you got exposed to?

[00:12:45] Alicer: I've actually never seen how it's done in Georgia. Every time I've had oxtail, it's through my family. My mom is Caribbean, so she makes it. Then, I would just go-- If I bought it somewhere, I'd go to a Caribbean restaurant. There are a couple in Gainesville that make really good oxtail. I've never had it. I've had friends tell me that it's completely different, though, from the way that it's made in the Caribbean. It's completely different than the way it's made in the south. I'm really eager to try it. I've never had it.

[00:13:14] Antonio: I've had both. It became a contest, where I was in the middle and I had to shut my mouth, because people we're asking, "Which one is better?" I was like, "This is a no win situation."

[00:13:24] Alicer: I really need to try that.

[00:13:27] Antonio: Well, thank you very much. It's been a pleasure to engage with you again. For our listeners, Alicer is also part of a bigger collective of affinity groups that work on representation and diversity in STEM fields, that we all get together on a semi-routine basis to do some sharing of knowledge, community building. I appreciate your leadership as one of the VPs for BGSO, for showing up all the time and bringing a lot of energy and also a lot of wisdom to the rest of the group. Thank you and continued success, Alicer Andrew.

[00:14:07] Alicer: Thank you.

[00:14:09] Antonio: The Department of Infectious Diseases and Immunology , as well as connected still to the University of Georgia. You're both-- Do you have a go Gators, go Bulldogs thing, or what's that?

[00:14:24] Alicer: The thing is, because I did my undergrad at UGA, it's pretty ingrained in me, the Georgia Bulldog. I think a lot of people have tried to convert me. I don't think it's going to happen. [laughs]

[00:14:35] Antonio: I think there's a lot of Gators that they wear the colors on the outside, and then underneath, they got a T-shirt or socks that have Bulldogs on them.

[00:14:44] Alicer: You know what? I will root for the Gators when they're not playing my team, but when it's UGA versus UF, I'm definitely going Dogs.

[00:14:53] Antonio: I'm the same way. When I saw the football schedule for the coming year-- Well, now, it may not happen, but I know we were playing University of California Berkeley, and I was like, "Well, this is going to be fun," because I can go, "Go Bears, and go Gators." Which one am I going to do, right? I already had my shirt ready. I was going to put it underneath my Gator shirt.

[00:15:13] Alicer: It's something in between two schools.

[00:15:15] Antonio: It is, right? That's how we started it, this in-betweeness. Well Alicer, thank you very much. I appreciate you making time. I'm glad you're well. You look healthy. Continue cooking, continue building community around food. At some point, when we all come back, now, you've given me an idea, so rather than buying you all lunch when we meet, then maybe I can just say, "Let's have a potluck and bring some food in."

[00:15:38] Alicer: That would be fun.

[00:15:39] Antonio: Yes, especially because we've got a kitchen over here now.

[00:15:41] Alicer: Oh, yes, perfect. Let's do that. 

[00:15:43] Antonio: All right. Well, thank you.

[00:15:44] Alicer: Thank you.


[00:15:46] Antonio: Thanks for joining me, Antonio Farias, for another episode of Level Up on presence and belonging. If you enjoyed this episode, please like the track and share on social media. I'd like just to give a special thanks to Dr. Welson Tremura, professor in UF's School of Music and the Center for Latin American Studies for the original theme music. We welcome your comments and suggestions for future programs. You can find more episodes of Level Up and contact information for the Office of the Chief Diversity Officer at

[music] [00:16:24] [END OF AUDIO]

Season 3
17:19 Minutes
Podcast Guest Image

Episode 051: Patty Xirau-Probert

In this last episode of Season 3, Antonio speaks with Patty Xirau-Probert, Assistant Dean for Student Advocacy and Inclusion in UF's College of Dentistry. Patty shares how storytelling has helped her find belonging through her life's journey and how she is finding a renewed sense of focus and intention during the current crisis. We look forward to bringing you Season 4 of Level Up in August!


[00:00:00] Antonio Farias: Welcome and goodbye as we end season three of Level Up on presence and belonging in the midst of a global pandemic which has shown both the resiliency and the tender underbelly of who we are as individuals, family members, University of Florida Gators, Americans, and citizens of this fragile global community. For the class of 2020, we wish you the very best and believe deeply in your ability to make lemonade out of these lemons.

Know the future is always uncertain, but our belief in you is unwavering and strong. To the rest of the Gator nation, summer plans up in the wind, we hope that you'll find grace in the small details we normally pass by without time to take notice. For the remainder of the summer, the podcast will re-broadcast some of the most insightful episodes, and I ask you to pay attention to the small details that make up our wonderfully interconnected lives.

In those details, find the common threads that bind us as Gators who care for each other and for those in need of our help. Find community here, so you can bridge to communities elsewhere, and remember, go Gators.

Welcome to another episode of Level Up on presence and belonging at the University of Florida. I'm Antonio Farias, your host, and today, we are privileged to have Dr. Patty Xirau-Probert, who is the Assistant Dean for Student Advocacy and Inclusion in the College of Dentistry. Patty, welcome to the episode.

[00:01:34] Patty: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

[00:01:36] Antonio: Great to have you, even if it's from afar.

[00:01:39] Patty: Absolutely.

[00:01:41] Antonio: We always start the podcast with a question, which is what is your story of belonging?

[00:01:46] Patty: That's an interesting question. My answer, actually, is in story. I was thinking about this, and I grew up in Miami in a big Cuban family, and so I'm what you call an ABC, American-born Cuban. What that meant growing up is that I never felt fully American, and I really didn't feel fully Cuban. I've never been to Cuba even through today. What was home for me was my big large family gathering together and telling stories-- stories of their time in Cuba, stories of coming to the United States, of all the adventures that they had here, and that became my heritage and who I am today.

Then, I went-- I did this crazy thing, and I went from Miami to Mobile, Alabama for college. It's a small Jesuit college there. I definitely felt like a fish out of water. When I started getting to know people, I found my comfort zone again in that storytelling, swapping stories from all these different walks of life. That's followed me through my whole life.

I worked at the crisis center-- no surprise that I became a counselor wanting to collect those stories. I worked at the crisis center, and I would thrive on listening to not only the stories of my clients, but as volunteers and staff members, we would gather and tell stories of people who were changing our lives, and then I ended up at the College of Dentistry, again, a fish out of water.

Here I am focused on emotions and feeling, and that's what guides me, and now I'm surrounded by people who rely on science and data and evidence. I felt a huge disconnect when I got there, and I struggled with that for awhile, but once I started to get to know people and, again, fall into that rhythm of telling stories, I realized, okay, I'm home. I found my home again. It is that storytelling that helps me feel comfortable and like I belong, and we all have wonderful stories to share.

[00:04:04] Antonio: That's fantastic. Yes, you mentioned something that is really common, that Gustavo Pérez Firmat wrote a book a while ago- you probably read it a long time ago as I did- about life on the margin-- or life on the hyphen, that's what it was-- this concept of you're Cuban and American and this 2.0, like, where are you generationally? It's like, were you part of which migration out of Cuba, and then how do you intergenerationally-- How is that changed for you, the intergenerational Cuban-American stories-- Do you find those are changing in terms of the sense of what belonging or what home is?

[00:04:44] Patty: Oh, absolutely. Well what's really interesting is-- My parents came in the late fifties, early sixties. From that standpoint, I'm of that generation of parents who fled Cuba right when Batista was overtaken and made their lives in Miami. After college, I stayed two years in Mobile, Alabama working at the Catholic Services Resettlement Program, bringing Cubans from the Guantanamo Bay area into Mobile, Alabama and helping them make a life there.

They had lived a completely different life in Cuba than the one my parents and family told me about. Yet as soon as I would meet them, my job was to help them aculturate to life here in the United States, like show them interesting things, like going to a drive-through at a bank. The little canister that comes through the tube, and you put your check in, they were always wowed by that, just technology they didn't have-- simple things.

There was such a sense of familiarity. It felt like home once we started to tell those stories of their family life. There were some similarities, how they would all gather at meals and tell stories, and immediately, this familiar language. It's really interesting, although very different lives were lived, that there's still this sense of commonality.

[00:06:19] Antonio: Yes, and the sense of also listening, because story gives us the ability to not-- It's not a lecture. It's not a sermon. You have to really listen if you're going to be A) a good storyteller, and B) someone that really reacts to a good story. You're in open ear mode, and I think that gets under our radar. Usually, it's like it bypasses our politics or religion, all of our ideologies, and allows us to get immersed in somebody else's shoes for just even a little bit.

[00:06:51] Patty: Absolutely. That's why I'm saying, I'm such an empath and that good storyteller that just brings you right into your feeling all their emotions, you're seeing everything they're seeing as they're telling that story. It's an incredible experience and really gives you a sense of connection to that person.

[00:07:08] Antonio: That's awesome. Tell us about what excites you about the work you do. Your official title is Dean for Student Advocacy and Inclusion, but you have many more hats as well. You're also a campus diversity liaison. You do work on implicit bias. You do a lot on this campus, and you run some summer immersion programs. If I were to ask you like, what's the one or two things that really make you jump out of bed and say, this is amazing what I do and what I have the ability to do--

[00:07:40] Patty: Oh, my gosh. Well, there's so many things, and really, I have to tell you, Antonio, I think I have the best job on campus. I love my job. I love my dental school community. The students there are bright. They're engaged. They want to make a difference in the world. They're all in, and our faculty, they are so invested, the staff, the administration. I learn every day from our leaders and the investment that the faculty and staff have in creating a college community of learning, of learners.

Being there is a gift, honestly, and I don't say that lightly. I mean it. I really love getting up and going to work. There's that, and I think that that experience of just being with people, collaborating-- the implicit bias work, again, where I get to go and teach something, but more importantly, hear from other people and their stories is what charges me and gets me going. It's that meaningful connections that I get to have every day.

[00:08:55] Antonio: That's pretty cool. How's it feel to work for an Admiral?

[00:08:59] Patty: [laughs] I was a little nervous about that coming in, because my experience with military people although has been positive, it's been not the most connected I've got to admit. She's got both sides. She's got that leadership ability. Through this pandemic, we certainly have seen it, the ability to be organized and to delegate well and yet empower us and really take the time to connect and call me and say, "How are you doing? What's going on with you? What can I do to support you?" Dr. Garcia is someone I'm learning from on a daily basis what it means to be an empowering leader.

[00:09:46] Antonio: I think the last time I asked her or I spoke with her, I was asking her when she was going to show up in uniform just to remind people that she's a flag officer. She's an amazing human being, so I agree.

[00:09:59] Patty: She's impressive, yes.

[00:10:00] Antonio: If I were to ask you over the last six months, what is one thing that you've come to change your mind about that surprised you?

[00:10:13] Patty: That's a tough question. Although this pandemic has certainly-- The stay-at-home has brought some things has made some things really clear. I think that the biggest thing that I've changed my mind about is what productivity looks like. I've always had this, I guess, a checklist, if you will. As long as that checklist is long, then I'm being productive. If I'm involved in many things, then I'm being productive.

Honestly, I felt good about that. I really like wearing a lot of different hats, but during this time-- I have to say first that I have been a fan of Jomo, joy of missing out, in my social life for many years, I'm an introvert. It's very easy for me to say-- I love a good party, but it's also very easy for me to say, I can just stay home and chill-- not so much in my professional life.

I have always felt like I have to say yes to everything, because it's an opportunity and because it could lead to interesting work, but lately, I've said no to some things because I realized that I wasn't being fully present in the things that I was doing. Right now, where my physical presence is not something I can use as a tool to help me connect, I need to do everything I can to be physic, to be as present as possible with people.

That meant saying, "This is something that I don't need to be a part of, that I can put on the back burner, and what I need to put on the front burner are my students. They need me-- work with faculty, work that we're doing on a summer program," things that really need my attention, and I can be fully focused. I feel just as productive and maybe even more so. There's more intention to what I'm doing and how I'm doing it. I'm going to really have to think about that when our lives get back to whatever normal we're going to experience.

[00:12:26] Antonio: Yes, very much so. In many ways, they won't go back to whatever it was before. The opportunity here is, how do we get creative and create something new that has been experienced before-- at the same time, understanding everything else that we can't always be creative given the cowls that we have going around us.

[00:12:46] Patty: Exactly. There's some value in this shutting things down. I felt for a long-- The last time I had this much time with my kids was on my maternity leave. There are some things that I want to keep. I want to keep that sense of every day setting intentions and having enough time to really meet my intentions, as opposed to I set my intention and then the day starts, and it's dun-da-dun-da-dun.

You're just trying to get everything done as opposed to doing things fully present. I've been writing about that in my journal to make sure that I hang on to those ideas and figure out how to keep them when we start life back up a little bit more in whatever form that's going to take.

[00:13:37] Antonio: That's great. Patty, we end the podcast with a question, which is what brings you joy?

[00:13:44] Patty: Oh, my goodness. Well, my husband and my kids bring me so much joy. In these days, we're stuck at home together. You would think we'd get sick of each other, but it's been an amazing time of connecting with them. It's interesting. All of February, I was mulling over the fact that I have a senior at University of Florida. I have an eighth-grader, and I have a fifth-grader. They were all reaching those milestones in May.

While I'm excited for them, I was also just mourning that loss of the time with them. I've lost my babies and that family experience. Then, the world stops. Getting to spend time really connecting with them has been a great joy. Seeing students grow, meeting them at orientation, giving them some tools to help them survive dental school, those kinds of things have really-- and then watching them take those tools and move forward and become the people that they become after four years. They changed so much.

Watching that growth brings me a lot of joy-- collaborating. One of the greatest things that I get to do is collaborate with representatives from every college at the University of Florida Health Science Center. Together, we put on that summer program, the U of F Summer Health Professions Education Program, where we bring students from disadvantaged backgrounds who are interested in health professions. They come together for six weeks. We get to create a rich, robust, interactive academic enrichment program and expose them to all the possible fields in healthcare.

Right now, watching our heroes, our healthcare workers lead us in this pandemic movement, it's just inspired. I get goosebumps thinking about these kids that we're going to bring in and teach them all of the ways that public health works together with dentistry, with medicine and pharmacy and nursing and the physician's assistance. The way that they work together to solve problems and to keep the world healthy, it's inspiring. There's a lot of joy, a lot of things to think about and get excited about.

[00:16:06] Antonio: There's a lot you do, like I said, that all synergistically makes sense. Right? It's amazing. Particularly now, what a time to be-- If it wasn't clear before how the health professions were vital to our continuation as a civilization, particularly how we deal with underrepresented populations and populations that don't get the services normally that they get, now is the perfect time for people to really see this happening for good and for bad. Right?

Let me thank you one more time, Dr. Patty Xirau-Probert, who is the Assistant Dean for Student Advocacy and Inclusion in the College of Dentistry. Thank you very much for being on the podcast. It's been a real pleasure.

[00:16:47] Patty: Oh, it's my honor. Thank you for inviting me. I really appreciate it.

[00:16:52] Antonio: Thanks for joining me, Antonio Farias, for another episode of Level Up on presence and belonging. If you like this episode, please like the track and share on social media. I'd also like to thank Dr. Welson Tremura of UF's School of Music and the College of the Arts and the Center for Latin American Studies for the new theme music. Stay safe, stay connected, and open your hearts to others. It's what makes us stronger as the Gator nation. Go Gators.

[00:17:20] [END OF AUDIO]

15:05 Minutes
Podcast Guest Image

Episode 050: Katrice Graham

In this episode, Antonio talks with Dr. Katrice Graham, Director, Knight Division for Scholarships, Career Services and Multicultural Affairs, in the College of Journalism and Communications, and President of the Association of Black Faculty and Staff. Antonio and Katrice talk about the ways in which belonging is community based and intergenerational. Listen in to be among the first to hear about an exciting new project that ABFS is working on to showcase the history of black students at UF.



[00:00:01] Antonio Farias: Welcome to season three of Level Up, a podcast where we explore how students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida are leading our community in presence and belonging. I'm your host, Antonio Farias, chief diversity officer at the University of Florida. Welcome to another episode of Level Up on presence and belonging. Today, we are privileged to have Dr. Katrice Graham, who is the director of the Knight Division for Scholarships, Career Services, and Multicultural Affairs in the college of journalism and communications. She is also the president of the Association for Black Faculty and Staff and is leading a project that I hope we can get into at some point and a native of Miami. Welcome, Katrice.

[00:00:45] Dr. Katrice Graham: Thank you for having me.

[00:00:48] Antonio: We're in a Z oom environment, so this is interesting. I always start the podcast by asking the question, which is, what is your story of belonging?

[00:00:58] Dr. Katrice: My story of belonging, it started very late [chuckles] . I was privileged to grow up in a family and a neighborhood where we were very welcomed. While we were diverse, there were tons of people of color. My father's a military sergeant so there were never any excuses. I believed I could do anything, go anywhere and I belonged to wherever I wanted to be. The first time I realized that belonging wasn't inherent may have been high school. I went to a performing arts high school. One of those ones you had to audition for. For the first time, I felt like a minority. For the first time, I realized I wasn't upper-class [laughs] . I thought we were doing very well until I got to this school and I realized what life looked like for some other people.

[00:02:05] Antonio: Is this in Miami?

[00:02:07] Dr. Katrice: Yes, this was in Miami. It was downtown so we didn't have a cafeteria. We didn't have a courtyard. PE was step aerobics and weightlifting.

[00:02:18] Antonio: Oh, wow.

[00:02:21] Dr. Katrice: We left campus for lunch so literally lunch was whatever restaurant I went to in downtown Miami. We painted on the beach. I was in the visual arts program, but we had a musical theater, musicians, vocalists, dancers, and straight theater.

[00:02:42] Antonio: Really. How did you physically get to school?

[00:02:44] Dr. Katrice: I caught the school bus to Northside Metrorail Center. I caught the Metrorail to Government Center downtown and then walked from Government Center to campus [laughs] . It definitely was a transition as a high school student, but I don't regret it. It prepped me for what the real world was going to be like. It also gave me a large sense of responsibility and independence and because we didn't have things like the cafeteria or dress code or sporting teams and things like that. You really had a lot of freedom to shape your identity, everything from the way you're dressed, how you spoke, your courses. The only thing that was determined, the second half of the day, all of your courses were going to be in your art discipline but it definitely shaped me as a person during that critical development stage of teen years.

[00:03:53] Antonio: You said you were a visual artist. That was your specialty.

[00:03:56] Dr. Katrice: Yes.

[00:03:57] Antonio: Tell me a little bit about that in terms of how you saw the world developing around you, the visuals of what belonging looked like?

[00:04:06] Dr. Katrice: It was always diverse to me. The high school I went to was probably about 90% black, but we had a very large Caribbean population. I'm A frican American, but I grew up with best friends who were Jamaican, Trinidadian, Haitian, just from everywhere. We took Spanish classes in elementary school. I was used to going to Chinese-Jamaican restaurants and although I'm what they would consider traditional Southern Black American. I cook curry chicken and peas and rice and things like that. I always knew there was tons of music in the world. There were multiple forms of art and expression and poetry and clothing. I always was open to learning about people and places and things that were different than me and trying to understand that perspective and how it related to me. My expression in art allowed me to show my place and my visual in a way that I felt could connect with people who were different than me because that was the way I processed the world.

[00:05:37] Antonio: That's an incredibly rich and vibrant palette to draw from. Tell us about what excites you about the work you do at UF? You do a lot of work in a lot of different venues here. If we had to bring it down to one or two things that really get you going, what would those be?

[00:05:57] Dr. Katrice: It's never boring. It's almost never the same thing twice. If you're the type of person that has a busy mind, you want to know how those different pieces connect. It allows me to touch so much. I work in an academic unit, but the work I do is student affairs related. It gives me the opportunity to network with people across campus and in different aspects, whether it be with housing or counseling and wellness or Rec Sports and the career connections center and then bringing it back in and working with our various academic departments and deans in the college to give that holistic approach to the student experience. Personally, it allows me to help people through that student development process by providing a lot of the resources I wish I had. You know how you go through life and they say hindsight is 20/20, you think about all these things you would've done differently. I get to help people full-time, not repeat my mistakes and encourage them to do those things I wish I had. It's almost like I'm constantly improving my college experience vicariously through those students and anytime I make a mistake, there's another set of students, another day, another opportunity to make it better.

[00:07:32] Antonio: We have the privilege and honor of having you here because you're shepherding in this new generation because you yourself came to Gainesville as a young gator, didn't you?

[00:07:44] Dr. Katrice: Yes, I did many moons ago. I graduated from high school on June 16th and I had moved to Gainesville June 24th. I came very quickly directly from high school and haven't left. I've worked on and off for the university. I left and worked in the industry for a couple of years, but I came back to working on campus in '08.

[00:08:14] Antonio: We're lucky enough to keep you here and not just as an undergrad, but now you've come back as a professional and a director and a leader in the community. Can you tell us a little bit about your role as the president of the Association for Black Faculty and Staff and, in particular, the project that you're leading right now?

[00:08:32] Dr. Katrice: As president of the Association of Black Faculty and Staff, my biggest goal has been to create a strong foundation on which the organization can continue to grow with. With my current eBoard, we've done things like polish up our financial accounts. We've initiated our first fundraising activities, where large focus on professional development. We've created a news letter that goes out to all of our members and we're just really focused on increasing our active membership and making sure that people know they can get involved. They have a say-so. We've instituted surveys for the first time to get feedback on changes and directions. We're even partnering with community groups and UF's Community Relations Department for different activities to really help our population get integrated into the culture and the fabric of the University of Florida, as well as weaving that fabric throughout the Gainesville, Alachua County community. One of the projects that we're working on along with some other great stakeholders, like MCDA, the Association of Black Alumni and other constituents on campus is a historical wall within the Reitz Union. Many people may have noticed the displays that review some of the history and culture of UF throughout the Reitz Union but we're looking at a space to commemorate the integration of UF and in working with representatives from different facets of the community display that there are proud black Gators here that we stand on the shoulders of some people who did some very self-sacrificing work to give us this opportunity. We want to make sure that future generations coming; guests, friends, partners in the surrounding community that utilize the Reitz Union are able to see that we are a part of UF's history and that we're proud to be a part of UF's history. We want it to be interactive. We want it to be educational. We want it to be inspiring. That's definitely been one of the most exciting things that I've had a chance to be a part of since taking on this role of president of ABFS. [00:11:23] Antonio: Thank you. That's incredibly exciting for everyone. If people aren't getting it throughout your entire narrative it's that this issue of belonging it's not just about the personal but it's community-based and really you hit it home. It's also intergenerational, right? [00:11:43] Dr. Katrice: Yes. I definitely wouldn't have had the opportunity to be here if it wasn't for Virgil Hawkins and the Mickles who I've been able to meet. Several of them are sorority sisters that have served as mentors and advisors since I've been here. Just knowing what they went through I feel a responsibility to pay it forward , make them proud, but also to do the same for those that come after me. I'm glad to have been here long enough to witness a lot of the improvements the university has made and I hope to be a part of many more. [00:12:33] Antonio: Thank you. Thank you very much. We end the podcast with a question which is, what brings you joy? [00:12:40] Dr. Katrice: I have been blessed with a very large colorful interesting family. Anybody who knows me or has seen my photos they know I travel with my family. We go on cruises 20 deep] [chuckles] . I love my brothers. We hang out across generations. I've been to nightclubs with my mom, great aunts, little cousins. We just love each other. Now I have a daughter, I have a husband, and they just added to that joy so much. Like if all else fails in the world I'm happy with them. It definitely takes the pressure off me making friends and things of that sort because you have that security blanket of knowing you have a built-in support system and circle. Then I have some great friends who have been friends literally since I've been in the second grade. I consider them family too. Yes, that is my joy. Just any time with them. Whether it be in the house on this lockdown or out and about in the world. It's a good time. It doesn't take a lot. [00:14:06] Antonio: It's so well said particularly in these trying times at no point is family and close deep personal friends are more important than now. Thank you again, Dr. Katrice Graham director Knight Division for Scholarships Career Services and Multicultural Affairs in the College of Journalism and communications. It's been an honor and a pleasure to get you on the podcast and we look forward to the work that we're doing together. Thank you very much again. [00:14:36] Dr. Katrice: Thank you. [music] [00:14:38] Antonio: Thanks for joining me Antonio Farias for another episode of Level Up on presence and belonging. If you liked this episode please like the track and share on social media. I'd also like to thank Dr. Welson Tremura of UF's School of Music in the College of the Arts and the Centre for Latin American Studies for the new theme music. Stay safe, stay connected, and open your hearts to others. It's what makes us stronger as the Gator nation. Go Gators. [00:15:06] [END OF AUDIO]

18:43 Minutes
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Episode 049: Evie Cummings

In this episode, Antonio talks with Evie Cummings, Assistant Provost and Director of UF Online. Evie talks about the power of online education to provide flexible, accessible and customized pathways to higher education and how the lessons we are learning in the COVID-19 crisis will help us to adapt to a "new normal."



[00:00:01] Antonio Farias: Welcome to season three of Level Up, a Podcast where we explore how students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida are leading our community in presence and belonging. I'm your host, Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer, at the University of Florida.


[00:00:16] Antonio: Welcome to another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. Today, we're fortunate to have Evie Cummings, who is the Assistant Provost and Director of UF Online. Before UF, she held a senior position at the Environmental Protection Agency. All key points that we hope we can get into today. Welcome, Evie.

[00:00:34] Evie Cummings: Thanks very much. Thanks for having me.

[00:00:37] Antonio: Thank you. We always start the podcast with a question, which is, what is your story of belonging?

[00:00:42] Evie: I think, for me, it goes back to family. I guess I'll start with my parents, actually, are both immigrants to the United States. We remained very close to this day, but growing up, I was always the weird family on the block, the family that didn't really fully understand those pesky American traditions, white people had garage sales, all that sort of stuff. We became very close as a family because our extended family was overseas. My dad came over from Greece, my mom from Wales. My mom is still proudly not a US citizen, she'll tell you proudly to this day.

I think I learned a lot from them, and from their experience, the sense of differences are universal, and a notion of belonging, therefore, is really within oneself. I know it sounds a bit counter-intuitive. I actually saw it described somewhere as, "Searching for belonging is like looking around your house for your keys, and then you figure out they're in your hand." [chuckles] That's always stuck with me, that basically, sometimes we really search to have a sense of belonging or have a sense of being a part of something, but fundamentally, it's really within ourselves. I really carry that with me.

I don't mean to come off as it's all about me, but rather that it's really, a big part of connecting with others is having a true sense of self. My parents came to the US, built an amazing life, have this unabashed sense of they're just going to say what they're going to say, and they're going to contribute. I think some of that gets me in trouble sometimes, but I think it really helps me feel connected, quite honestly, with a lot of folks. Really having that sense of self and having that sense of being a part of a group that is really representing your ideas and your thoughts in a constructive way to contribute to what the group is trying to accomplish.

[00:02:53] Antonio: I couldn't have heard it any better than that. It's really important, particularly in our current era, to hear that from senior leaders around the university. Can I ask you, given that you are the Director of UF Online, and online communities, this is the world that you've been working in and trying to build up our infrastructure since you arrived at UF. Now, more so than ever, most of the campus has awakened to this process. How are you sensing your students in the UF Online process, and how are you sensing your ability to help the university create community around this new online shift?

[00:03:39] Evie: Yes, it's obviously an unprecedented time. Before the coronavirus, and to this day, we have about 4,000 fully online Gator undergrads. Of course, as you know, online as a modality has really risen nationally, and actually globally, as a way for students to connect with universities to achieve their degrees. If I were to characterize online and the trend toward online before the pandemic, it was really a cry for flexibility, for accessibility. A lot of our students that were fully online before this really needed the versatility, they also wanted a more customized experience. They were working, they had kids.

We also see a lot of folks that were already in our online program who were 19 years old but wanted to go faster. This notion of flexibility, customization, and also the concept of a modern university with an expansive campus was really something that took root, of course, long before the pandemic. Now, of course, right now, what you're seeing is an emergency continuity of operations, which I have been really impressed with nationally, in particular here at the University of Florida. This semester, we had about 1,000 courses that had to be quickly remote-enabled in about a week, and the energy across campus was incredible.

I do compartmentalize these a little bit differently, which is, the fundamental mission of the University of Florida to provide flexible pathways and an emergency continuity of operations. What's really fascinating to me is going to be our next phase. I hope that this helps us think through, "Huh, maybe we actually, as an institution, do have it within us to be more flexible and more accessible," and to take a fresh look at our programs, not so much that everything should be online, or that no one should come to campus, but that we can begin to basically renew our curriculum and our offerings in a way that makes them more versatile and engaging.

I think, again, online in general, I feel like, was this cry for flexibility? That can be face-to-face classes at night, more openness to part-time, better sense of the fact that a lot of our students have kids, so daycare facilities, the ability to live on campus and family housing with your kids and attend on campus. The notion of flexibility and versatility is something that I hope we think through. I've also, I think I mentioned to you, I'm in grad school right now in my spare time, and I've been doing my research on student parents, single moms.

There are millions and millions of students out there who want to earn a degree, who want to work hard, who don't want lower expectations, they want to be challenged, but they really need to be able to fit school into their busy, productive lives. A lot of those folks really struggle with stepping foot on our campuses and having a sense that they don't belong. I've talked to a lot of single moms about that. I think that, to me, right now, is an interesting thing for us to begin to think about after the pandemic, how might we better leverage, not just online, but maybe hybrid or also face-to-face flexible programs to welcome our students.

[00:07:15] Antonio: That's super important. You touched on many points. One thing we always forget when we're talking about this issue of belonging is access. It's one thing to talk about belonging with the group that is already there, but how do you create more pathways or on-ramps, things to the university or into higher education, so that we have access and excellence to talk about in the same sort of breath? Thank you for what you're doing in that process.

[00:07:40] Evie: No. There are thousands across campus that are really doing it.

[00:07:43] Antonio: Yes. Hey, you're at the top of the food chain in terms of navigating this supertanker, so we appreciate the work you're doing. You touched on many of these points, but if I could narrow you down to, what really excites you? Like burns a fire inside your belly when it comes to the work you're doing at UF?

[00:08:02] Evie: Well, I have to say, I'm a proud Gator by birth and degree. I was born in Gainesville, I got my degree here. The thing that really brings me to work, fire in my belly, is helping the University of Florida be the best of itself. I am so dang proud of this institution, what it does every day, what it meant for me as a student, what it now means for me as an administrator, and I know we can continue to evolve and improve. One of my missions in life, professionally, is helping all of us at the University of Florida see that part of our mission is evolving, is changing.

To deliver on this great mission, as a land-grant research institution, part of our mission is to be comfortable with change. I came, as you mentioned, from another institution, the federal government, the Environmental Protection Agency, equally challenged by the concept of change. It's not just higher ed, it's all of these major public institutions. During times of change, we tend to cling to our tradition, and our tradition can evolve into a beautiful new normal.

Helping UF really see that, whether it's through online programs, part-time programs, the richness of this university is really found by the diversity of experiences, and offering different pathways, and that a modern research university is something that really excites.

[00:09:36] Antonio: Thank you. What is one thing that you've changed your mind about in the past six months?

[00:09:44] Evie: Well, I'm right about everything, Antonio, so it's hard for me to change my mind about something. Just kidding.


[00:09:52] Evie: I changed my mind about-- I think fundamentally-- Well, it's really funny. I'm the Director of UF Online, right? I did have this growing notion that we're just obsessed with our phones, we're obsessed with social media, we don't connect enough as human beings, we don't talk like we used to. Even in my own household, I have a teenager and a 10 year old, we're all in different rooms on our devices, and really feeling like society as a whole was taking this turn for the worse, away from learning from one another, challenging conversations, and immersed in our devices.

I think the pandemic is showing us that actually, the best of technology is something we should focus on harnessing, and not throw the baby out with the bathwater and think, "Oh, this technology stuff." I've taken a fresh look at Facebook, at Twitter, at Instagram, and Snapchat. Heck, I'm on TikTok. These are these fascinating connective tools that we have that I feel like especially now, we say, "hashtag alone together." We're all importantly socially distancing, physically distancing. I've changed my mind in just the fact that actually, this gravitation to a lot of these tools is actually a positive step for us in that it really enables connections that weren't otherwise possible.

That's another one, though, that I think so we have to go through this as a society, and it's going to be really challenging and really devastating, quite honestly, this pandemic and what's going to be happening, especially in the next several weeks, but I know that we will emerge on the other side. I wanted to have us take the best of the technology connectedness with us into our next phase.

[00:11:49] Antonio: That's well said. I've had a little bit of crow pie myself recently, where I was challenging some of the groups that I work with to not use technology, and to come into community because particularly when we're talking, or we're trying to communicate more effectively, it's not just the visual, it's not just the voice, it's our body language that gives up way more than we imagine. Yet now, we are in the space where we have to navigate.

One thing that you mentioned that is spot on, which is, I think it's not an either or, and it's not about transposing one modality into the other, but about finding some sort of a hybrid new creative solution, so that we can telepresence in a way that embodies everything that we are as human beings, when we actually speak to each other, or when we remain silent. How do we pick up those cues? I think we're going to be tapping you a lot for expertise in the coming years. We're incredibly glad that you're here.

[00:12:53] Evie: I've been heartened by my team. Just this week, we had a Zoom baby shower. We had 25 of us on Zoom, and I was like, "We're going to do it. We're going to do it on Zoom, we're not going to not celebrate because we can't be physically in the same location." I challenged everyone to do a different virtual background. I went old school and I decorated my dining room with the baby shower decorations I purchased, of course, for the office. It was fantastic. Everyone got so creative, and we had the best time sharing ideas. Of course, we were able to have our kids there because we were all in our homes. It was exciting.

I'm sure you've been on calls where people are sharing their pets, right? We're starting to also see these added dimensions of each other's lives, and we're having these conversations. We're using now Microsoft Teams as a team, obviously Zoom. Discovering tools that are now filling those gaps in our lives, I think has been really powerful. At the same time, especially as a university campus, sometimes we get very focused on the face-to-face connection as the only way that we're really going to connect, and sometimes some students don't even have the luxury of that.

I think there's going to have to be a reckoning with the fact that, "Well, maybe what really, I like to do, which might be a face-to-face conversation, maybe. Maybe that mom who has 20 minutes to complete an assignment, she can't join you on campus, but it's not because she doesn't care. It's because she also has to work a job." Starting to think, "Okay, well, how do we foster connections in different ways? How do we schedule things in different ways to ensure we still connect?" That we provide a lot of different options for folks to pick the one that works best for them.

[00:14:46] Antonio: That's what it's about, right? Meeting the students where they are, and accelerating their growth.

[00:14:52] Evie: I've heard some people talk about, "Oh, well, once this is over, all the classes are going to swing back to face-to-face, and we're going to get back to campus, and we're all going to be on campus. That's what a lot of faculty prefer." A lot of faculty also prefer online. I think we're going to have to realize that it's going to also be about what you just said. What are the students going to want after this?

There are going to be some students that are really excited to come back to campus to see their fraternity brothers, their folks in their clubs, and there will be a beautiful reunification of sorts. Then there are going to be folks that are like, "You know what, I have found that given the financial crisis, I need to pick up a job at home, and I need to stay at home and I'd like to continue online." As an institution, we're going to have to really think through, how do we continue to operate in this new normal? That might include courses that even the faculty would prefer to pull back face-to-face, and maybe we need to think about, how are we going to provide access in a new way?

[00:15:57] Antonio: Spot on. We end the podcast with the question, what brings you joy?

[00:16:02] Evie: What brings me joy? Helping people brings me joy. Helping people who really either aren't getting the information they need, the access they need. Just helping people really realize their potential and connect with our institution brings me joy. It's what I focused on in my 20 year career to date, when I was at the Environmental Protection Agency or here, which is really connecting people with their institutions. I just like hugging my kids and my husband, brings me joy, really refueling with my family.

[00:16:43] Antonio: Do you want to say anything about your husband? He's in a particular spot right now, we're fortunate as well.

[00:16:50] Evie: Yes, I'm very fortunate to be married to Derek Cummings. He's a professor here at the University of Florida. He's, as I like to call him, a big deal epidemiologist. He has been a longtime modeler of infectious diseases, where he was at Johns Hopkins, and now here at UF, and he has been instrumental in helping health officials in Florida, but also with the CDC, really think through the spread of the coronavirus and how to prepare.

It was because of him that pretty much in early February, I started bothering people here in Tigert, and they were like, "What are you talking about?" I was like, "Well, we need to start thinking about how we're going to fundamentally change as an institution." Yes, Derek, the guy is working himself ragged right now, constantly now focusing on the data that's coming out of Florida, and how to help Florida mitigate this crisis. Derek has been doing amazing work.

[00:17:50] Antonio: Both of you. Amazing power couple, we're fortunate to have you here in Gainesville, again.

[00:17:54] Evie: Thanks, Antonio. [chuckles]

[00:17:57] Antonio: Thank you very much, Evie Cummings, who is, again, the Assistant Provost and Director of UF Online. Thank you very much for being on the podcast, and for the work you do both here and in your prior evolutions.

[00:18:10] Evie: It's been my pleasure. I wish you health.

[00:18:13] Antonio: Likewise.

[00:18:15] Evie: Take care.

[00:18:16] Antonio: Take care. Thanks for joining me, Antonio Farias, for another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. If you liked this episode, please like the track and share on social media. I'd also like to thank Dr. Welson Tremura, of US School of Music in the College of the Arts and the Center for Latin American Studies for the new theme music. Stay safe, stay connected, and open your hearts to others. It's what makes us stronger as the Gator Nation. Go Gators.

[00:18:44] [END OF AUDIO]

17:55 Minutes
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Episode 048: Nicole Stedman

In this episode, Antonio catches up with Nicole Stedman, Professor and Associate Chair in the Department of Agricultural Education and Communication. Nicole shares how she is using the COVID-19 crisis as a teaching opportunity to discuss how systems change and how we build community resilience. Join Antonio and Nicole as they consider how we will emerge from this time as a stronger and more connected community.



[00:00:01] Antonio Farias: Welcome to season three of Level Up, a podcast where we explore how students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida are leading our community in Presence and Belonging. I'm your host, Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida. Welcome to another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. Today we have Nicole Stedman, professor and associate chair in the Department of Agriculture, education, and communication. She is a triple Gator and does research on leadership and the impact on international education. Welcome to the podcast, Nicole. [00:00:34] Nicole Stedman: Thank you. I'm excited. [00:00:36] Antonio: This is super awesome. We always start the podcast with a question which is what is your story of belonging?

[00:00:43] Nicole: When I saw that question come up, I had to sit and think about it and it was a little tougher than I thought it would be. I think the cool part of my story of belonging is that I have lots of them. I have so many moments where I have connected and felt like I belonged. Whether or not it was being part of a team growing up I swam and so that swim team connection certainly lent me a belonging, becoming a Gator and embracing the Gator Nation certainly has given me a sense of belonging. Then just my professional peers, my-- It's crazy when I had to sit and think about it that I was like, "I have lots of beautiful moments where I have said, 'These are my people." It's been fun to reflect on that. Probably my favorite right now, for the one that I'm hanging on to the most is really just my professional peers. We were on a call at 8:30 this morning, talking about life, talking about stuff. Just checking in with one another. It was really powerful that here we are separated. We can't really interact the way that we're used to. I can't scream across the hall and talk with my colleague, Laura, and my grad students aren't just stopping by. To pause and have that moment where I actually could see everybody, and talk with them, and exchange concerns. We've talked about some work stuff, but a lot of it was just like, "How are you doing? What are we doing?" Even I think in the moment of feeling absolutely disconnected and it's nice to feel that belonging with my friends and my colleagues. To me right now, that's probably the most powerful moment I'm really having this belonging of this wonderful network of colleagues who really care about each other. It's been nice. As much as you can say, it's been nice. It's been nice to see that coming into play.

[00:03:07] Antonio: Obviously that's work. It's like these networks don't just happen overnight. You've been diligent about it and the folks that you engage with are diligent about it. There's no magic to it. It's work that you have to do. Congratulations on that process, especially in this given time, right?

[00:03:25] Nicole: Yes. It would be easy for us to blow it off or say I've got other stuff to do but here we were at 8:30 this morning on our Zoom link excited to see one another, talking about all the features in Zoom like, how do I create this cool background? Just taking a moment to laugh a little bit of at the absurdity of what we're experiencing and so the idea of comedy was certainly helpful this morning. You're right. We could have blown it off but every other week, we are checking in. We're on Zoom. We're texting. We are calling. It's work but it is the payoff is so incredible right now.

[00:04:08] Antonio: What excites you about the work you do at UF? You cover a lot. You do organizational leadership. You do change management. You do international work. You do a lot. What really gets you going?

[00:04:23] Nicole: All of it. That's kind of the easy answer, right? P robably my students. I come back to that a lot, and I'm not going to lie. When I was doing my PhD, I did not necessarily see myself going into academia. I love certain parts of it. I didn't come from a teaching background. My first teaching experiences were in grad school. I just didn't know if this was going to be the right fit, because I just had never really done it before. Then I got to Texas A&M and fell in love with teaching. I fell in love with seeing these students have these light bulb moments where they're seeing things differently, they're thinking differently, which ultimately led to why I wanted to study critical thinking. Then being able to do what I love at the University of Florida, which was my home institution, has just been amazing. Who doesn't want to do that? It's been just really wonderful to come back and be able to sit and talk with students and, "Yes. I lived in Tolbert. Back in the day used to be called South Hall. I remember when all these stories and, oh, I went to the 1996 celebration, after we won the first national championship." Those stories and those connections that then resonate with students and allow me to do my job better, but it's the teaching part. It's coming in and working with my students. Even now I'm doing a Zoom class on Wednesday afternoons with my undergrads. I didn't know how it was going to go. I find that even now I think they're more inclined to want to come to class. [laughs] I think there's almost that moment of like, I took it for granted. My students get me super pumped. I love listening to them, learning from them, helping them see things differently. I love my research, don't get me wrong, but coming into a classroom and watching students grow over a 16-week period it's pretty cool.

[00:06:39] Antonio: That is pretty cool. I'm glad that you've led with that. Most people don't. In academia, we're almost wired to talk about our research first as if that is the coin of the realm, which it is and at the same time students are the reason we're here at the end of the day.

[00:06:56] Nicole: I'm super honestly blessed because my research is in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. I get to do research on my students, with my students, for my students. Everything I do from a leadership education perspective has this great 360 perspective, because everything I'm doing in the classroom, and everything I'm trying out and checking in with my students, directly informs my pedagogy, which is what I really love to research. To have that perfect combination is not always easy. It certainly doesn't happen a lot. I find that my work is driven by the fact that I have these great relationships with my students, but it's because I'm completely conscientious about my teaching and my instruction and creating really good dynamic research out of the things I'm doing in my classes.

[00:07:52] Antonio: That's awesome. It's all a perpetual motion machine.It feeds into each other. That's awesome. What is one thing that you've changed your mind about the past six months?

[00:08:05] Nicole: That's a good question. Let's see. [00:08:08] Antonio: Or given the times where maybe in the last three weeks.

[00:08:13] Nicole: I never thought I would teach a synchronous class online but here I am. I've always really tried to appreciate that people are resilient and that we all just experience and practice resiliency in our own ways, and that there's always challenges with that. I would probably say that even in the last three weeks, few months, seeing how people have become resilient and it's just not resilience for their own benefit, but it's resilience for that community benefit. I don't know that I've changed my mind about it, but I've certainly solidified my belief that people will ultimately try to do what's right, that my colleagues, our University of Florida community, so many things that I have to trust and believe are being done correctly and for the right reasons. I definitely think that in the last few weeks, I have become more steadfast in that belief and then just seeing my kids go through this. It's amazing to have to sit and console my oldest daughter who every element of her senior year of high school is now kaput. My daughter who is getting ready to leave 8th grade to go to high school, everything about that last year, leaving middle schools is kaput. Consoling them through that transition, but now seeing them embracing it and being able to function and do what they need to do. Nonetheless, having a five-year-old who's just completely confused about everything and is not sure if she's ever going back to school. She told me the other day she didn't really like school, so it was okay. I was, like, fascinating. I don't know that I changed my mind about what I think about people in terms of their resiliency but I think I've certainly come into more clarity in really truly believing that we are resilient and that is our best and most amazing attribute that we have as humans, is that we don't have to let things get to us and we don't have to let the trials bring us down. That we can 100% emerge healthy and wise and more informed about the world we live in. It's neat to watch. I can watch the news and get really depressed, but trying to find those little nuggets of good stuff.

[00:10:51] Antonio: That's awesome. That's a great swap right from the micro to the macro. That's really interesting. Normally, the way we talk about resiliency is always about the individual and it's a false paradigm, right? As if the individual is somehow separated from the larger network. You talk about community resiliency. That I think is going to be really critical to the coming six months, the coming six years. You just mentioned two great examples of both your children are going through what should have been these Keystone moments in their lives, and they can be marked by this virus and our reaction to it. What can we do to prep more on this community resilience? Should we be talking more about community resiliency?

[00:11:39] Nicole: Oh, my gosh. I think it's got to be a forefront in our conversations. A lot of the initial, and I'll put on my little academic hat now, research was done looking at the coastal areas and the Gulf after the BP oil spill, because you talked about something that was significantly devastating to a very specific community. They started looking at research. What made these communities bounce back faster? What made them weather the turmoil of that incident financially, personally? People were losing their welfare, they were losing their businesses, complete communities were just becoming devastated as a result of the BP oil spill. This wonderful line of research has now really started to explore this idea of community resiliency. I think it is a really important part of how we see ourselves coming through this. We talk a lot about individual decisions. I just did one of my lectures for my undergrad class, I'm recording part of it, and a lot of it was why do people decide to adopt an innovation? There's optional, people choose to do what is right or what they feel is right. There's collective. There is this notion that the community comes together and formulates in that social system, a response, or a need to do something. Then there's authority. We're simply told to do something. I was using COVID-19 as an example, like early on, people were in that optional phase of like, "I could maybe do this." Or "I should do this because I think it's right." Then you saw smaller communities making decisions. Then that's really become an authority based decision based on the severity of it. I think if we are really going to look at how we become more resilient, we have to look at those opportunities where people are collectively coming together and saying, "We want something better. We know we can do this, and what do those characteristics look like? What are the elements of community in conversations and communication and discourse that right of a community to truly be resilient when all other aspects of understanding would say you are going to completely collapse?" It's exciting to me to think that this is-- selfishly since I study this stuff, I'm like, "This is going to be a fascinating case study to talk about for like the next 10 years. It is, I think it is 100% a unique case where we will actually get to see resiliency across systems and how people react to this. I think it's spot on.

[00:14:39] Antonio: I'm incredibly fortunate to be for the students in your class, because they're going to be living their research in real-time, right?

[00:14:47] Nicole: Oh, yes. It's hard. It's hard not to teach in that moment because everything I seem to talk about lately, I might go, "Yes. This is how this has happened related to COVID-19." You can see how these decisions were made and why people were doing the things that they were doing and-- I don't always like teaching tools that are grounded in things that aren't always super positive but I think the positive piece is when we come out of this, what are the benefits that we gain as a community because we are going to be stronger? We're going to have more tools in how we teach. We are going to have more opportunities to connect. I think we will go through a wonderful grace period of feeling like I'm not taking anything for granted anymore. It's maintaining that. It's easy to enjoy it and have that return to the splendors of life but then it fades away then becomes monotonous and regular again. How do we hold on to that? How do we hold on to making people feel like this connection is something that we so incredibly need all the time?

[00:15:57] Antonio: Yes, completely. It's a different type of psychosocial herd immunity that's going to have to develop, right?

[00:16:03] Nicole: Yes. 100%.

[00:16:05] Antonio: We end the podcast with a question, which is what brings you joy?

[00:16:11] Nicole: Probably at the simplest form, I love getting up in the morning and we live on 10 acres and I just love looking out against my property and feeling like this is where I'm supposed to be. I then get to-- Used to be able to get my car and drive to work and just roll it up into campus. As long as I got there early enough to get a good parking spot, it was great. I think just waking up feels like early morning peaceful hours where I can just get me together, that brings me probably the most joy. Sipping my cup of tea and just embracing, right?

[00:17:00] Antonio: Yes. Especially now. Well said. Thank you, Dr. Nicole Stedman, professor and associate chair in the Department of Agriculture Education, and Communication. It's been a pleasure having you on the podcast. Thank you very much for all you do, not just in your research you put out but also in the care and the resiliency building that you put into our students.

[00:17:23] Nicole: Thank you. This is been a lot of fun for me this morning. Thank you.

[00:17:26] Antonio: It's been a pleasure. [music] Thanks for joining me, Antonio Farias for another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. If you liked this episode, please like the track and share on social media. I'd also like to thank Dr. Welson Tremura of UF's School of Music in the College of the Arts and the Center for Latin American Studies for the new theme music. Stay safe, stay connected, and open your hearts to others. It's what makes us stronger as the Gator Nation. Go Gators. [00:17:56] [END OF AUDIO]

21:57 Minutes
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In this special episode of Level Up, we have pulled together excerpts from some earlier interviews with exceptional Gator women in honor of Women's History Month and #ufcelebrate2020, the University's yearlong celebration of the passage of the 19th amendment. We hear from Trustee Anita Zucker, Dean Onye Ozuzu, Assistant Professor Porchia Moore, Dr. Sindia Jimenez-Rivera and student Brittany Bryant, a group of inspiring leaders and change makers who are moving the Gator Nation forward.



[00:00:08] Antonio Farias: Welcome to season three of Level Up, a podcast where we explore how students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida are leading our community in presence and belonging. I'm your host, Antonio Farias, chief diversity officer at the University of Florida. Since we launched level up in 2019, I've had the privilege of speaking with some incredible women leaders at UF who are game-changers when it comes to educational equity from kindergarten through graduate school. In these challenging times, we bring you the special Women's History Month episode where we've pulled together some highlights from these interviews, including some material that we had to cut from the original podcast. This year, we're doing a UF celebrate 2020 as the year of celebration for the centennial of the passing of 19th Amendment. What better way to celebrate while maintaining social distance than to listen to some inspiring Gator women. First up, Anita Zucker, the UF trustee and CEO of the Inter Tech Group. Anita told me about how she took over the reins of the venerable Hudson Bay Company after her husband passed away, jumping into a leadership position, and making bold decisions. She also talks about how she shares her leadership experience with the next generation, inspiring them to make a difference. People are, at times, confused or mystified by what does the trustee do? Again, being a trustee is just one aspect of what you do. You also run incredibly just amazing conglomerate corporations. You're the CEO of one of the largest companies. I'm looking at your bio, and you ran the Hudson Bay Company, which I had to do a pause because that's the original Hudson Bay Company, isn't it?

[00:01:57] Anita Zucker: It is. I really didn't run it for long, I think two months. My husband ran it for over two years until he got sick and couldn't do it anymore. When he passed away, it dropped in my lap, but we had an acting CEO that worked for us and he wanted to come back to Charleston. My husband left me with orders. One of those was that he trusted me to make the final decision as to what to do with the Hudson Bay Company and whether I wanted to keep it, or whether I wanted to sell a piece of it or sell the whole thing. I decided to sell the whole thing. We actually had an offer about a month after he passed away. A person who had been on his board came to us and said, "I'd like to buy this business." We said, "You know a lot about it. Let's hear the offer." We got the offer, accepted it, and about three months after my husband passed away, I would say we sold the business, and it was the smartest thing I could have ever done because no one knew that in July, the stock market would tank. We closed the week the stock market tanked. People would often say, "What was the best decision you ever made in your business life?" I would say the best decision I ever made was selling that company because it came at a time that the economy was struggling. What a time to have to become a leader. It was a difficult time. It gave me the ability to know that I had some cash behind me and that we could still operate, and it didn't destroy our businesses. It was just good. I didn't know enough about that business to ever consider running a giant retail operation with 75,000 employees. It was a very good decision for me.

[00:03:53] Antonio: 75,000. You obviously knew enough to understand the business.

[00:03:58] Anita: A little bit. We are a holding company, a family-owned holding company. There are not a lot of companies that we have to dive into the operations for because I have leaders on my team and they're the liaisons to the different businesses that we have, whether it's aerospace, manufacturing, or we make a polymer fiber that is in firemen's turnout gear or fishing lures . I have these awesome people that have expertise in those different areas. The good news is, I know a little about a lot. I've had to learn. Being a trustee, this was like this perfect opportunity for me because I'm so passionate about education. I've gotten involved in higher ed in the place that I live in South Carolina. I speak in the business school every semester, and often more than once to multiple classes. I thoroughly enjoy the opportunities of interacting with the students. I have students that come to my office, and I use my whole team and we all sit and talk to this group of scholars from the business school. I speak to a leadership class to entrepreneurship classes. It just depends on what I'm asked to do. I do a lot of public speaking.

[00:05:16] Antonio: You're a walking master class wherever you pull up shop? [chuckles]

[00:05:21] Anita: It depends on who decided to make the topic of the day. I don't have to write a speech. I just need-- I like to have a PowerPoint just to give me a direction, or if I don't have the ability to do that, then I have my little outline with words that help guide me through what I want to talk about. I love the opportunities with students because I've ended up having a few that I have mentored along the way, especially some young women. Being able to inspire people is really important. Frankly, as a trustee or whether it's working in advancement, if we can't inspire the people around us to want to make a difference, who can?

[00:06:09] Antonio: Like Anita, Dean Onye Ozuzu of the College of the Arts is a leader who joined UF during a time of change and exciting growth. Onye talks about her role as a visionary change leader of the college.

[00:06:26] Onye Ozuzu: In some ways, coming into Gator Nation as a Dean, last year particularly, we'll see if it lasts for a decade, but for sure, coming in the first year was like immediately jumping into-- in some ways, it felt like a dean's dream. There's a lot about being a dean that's just following your Outlook calendar around, it tells you where to go, where to show up. There's a lot of rooms you have to be in, decisions you have to make, stories you have to hear. There's fiscal management, there's curriculum, there's tenure and promotion. It's built-in. As soon as you sit in the seat, your time is managed for you. At the same time, walking in the door at University of Florida, we were executing the second year of our faculty 500 hiring, and there were the call for these moonshots. We made an application to be a part of the Moonshot Initiative to focus on the intersection of art, migration, and entrepreneurship. That has been an opportunity for collaborative visionary exercise with, again, colleagues on campus and colleagues across the academy. We brought in a national team of stylists that came in at the very beginning before we had anything to help us fashion some of the initial thoughts. We're continuing to be in conversation with those and an ever-widening and interested network of advisors that are stretching clearly into international arenas where people are really thinking about things like how do we get financial tools into the hands of street entrepreneurs on the streets of Bombay and Lagos and London, and how do we help in the incredible creativity that's happening in the context of the activities of some of these young people and the way that they're sharing and developing dance vocabularies, fashion vocabularies, ways of thinking about language and sharing it on Instagram? How do we integrate that with emerging ideas about doing business and put them into conversation with one another in ways that could take the wild west that is the digital environment right now into unforeseen territories? How does that link in? It links in the way that I'm demonstrating right now. I talk about it. I get really excited about it. I light people up and then I say, "Okay."

[00:09:08] Antonio: "Let's go do it."

[00:09:09] Onye: Let's go do it. Ultimately, I was telling somebody this the other day, one of the most difficult things for me coming from somebody who was a dancer who would get out there and physically do things myself, one of the most difficult things for me as a dean is to realize that deans can't really do much of anything [chuckles] . We can see. We can learn. We get to learn a lot though from so many amazing faculty and staff and people out in the world that are working in the fields that our colleges gather, focus on. We get to have these amazing visionary conversations and share them with others. Then, we get to put resources in place and organize environments for others to connect to one another, connect to ideas, and then go get things done. Then, we get to cheerlead and give applause, which is--

[00:10:14] Antonio: Much needed.

[00:10:14] Onye: Yes, much needed, and it's a great privilege. I'm having a good time. [music]

[00:10:20] Antonio: One of the faculty members who joined the College of the Arts as part of the hiring wave that Dean Ozuzu mentions is Dr. Porchia Moore, assistant professor in the Department of Museum Studies. Porchia talks about her innovative research and her excitement about bringing these cutting edge ideas to a new generation.

[00:10:41] Porchia Moore: When I entered my PhD program, we were tasked with identifying critical issues in 21st-century cultural heritage institutions. For me, as I began my reflexive journey, one of the things I wanted to deeply understand was why was I often the only person of color in a museum or like at a historic site. What was those barriers to engagement and participation, and so--

[00:11:11] Antonio: It's so important.

[00:11:12] Porchia: Yes. My work really became out of this deep desire for me to bring others who look like me into those spaces and try to understand why we weren't as engaged. Then, I was introduced to this idea of like critical race theory and all these other theories. What was important for me was looking at and understanding the role and function of race, and how we often-- Sometimes, it's still hard for us to think about the fact that in this country, we have a legacy of exclusion. I will never forget one time I was serving on a board at our local art museum, and one of the elders there shared this story and she basically said-- This was maybe roughly four years ago, but she said that one day-- she's a board member. She said one day, she was walking out of the museum and an elder, someone who was older than she was, gave her this look almost like of concern and also like, "What are you doing? Who are you to come out of this place?" The woman approached her and said, "What are you doing in there? What is this building? Why are you there? What's your role? What's your purpose?" She said basically something like-- There was a time when we weren't allowed to go into places like that. She's like, "What are you doing there? What is this place? How does it help you? How does it help us?" That is just mind-boggling to me. we're still--

[00:12:41] Antonio: It's living history. It's there.

[00:12:42] Porchia: Exactly.

[00:12:42] Antonio: You don't have to read it. It's on the streets that you walk.

[00:12:45] Porchia: I think that for me, it affirmed this notion that community memory is alive. We passed down those behaviors. That place is not for us. This building does not show us in the best light. This building does not tell our narratives. Therefore, it has no use for us. That is a small portion of why we have a history of such low engagement, especially when we think about the fact that the legacy and the heritage of museums, it's built on imperialism and colonialism. Sometimes, I think the way that we do things at museums and historic sites is very much still tied to those legacies. We're just now getting to the point where we're deeply talking about how to decolonize museums, how to actually talk about diversity, equity access in ways that are based on notions of like co-creation, deep engagement, authenticity, and radical trust-building as opposed to like one-off, "We did this program for you for Black History Month or for Latina History Month or whatever."

[00:14:09] Antonio: You should be grateful.

[00:14:10] Porchia: Yes, you should be not only grateful but like, "Why are you not coming?" For me, it's about relationship building. I have a national project that I co-create with my partner, Nikhil Trivedi, and it's a counter-narrative project where, basically, we're asking people of color and/or LGBTQI, marginalized folks to share with us their museum stories because we felt like that was really important. We see in the literature where museums often talk about diversity and inclusion or talk about the people who don't come but rarely ever talk with those people and plan things with the demographic that they are trying to reach. Our project is a way for us to dismantle those other systems, to think critically about oppression, what that actually looks like, and to center the voices of visitors of color so that other museums, and museum educators and curators can actually listen to those voices and to learn from what their visitors are saying. When I saw the position open here at UF, and I saw the tagline for the museum studies program, it says, "We believe that museums can change the world." I was like, "Yes, I believe that, too. I need to be there. Wherever this is, I need to be there." That's what I'm here to do. I'm really excited about that. I really believe in that notion that museums can change the world. [music]

[00:16:02] Antonio: Like many Gator women, Porchia is poised to change the world. Dr. Sindia Rivera-Jimenez, lecturer in the Department of Engineering Education, and a chemical engineer, is no different. Sindia talked to me about her project with students in the Integrated Product & Process Design program, otherwise known as IPPD. This project presents the forward-thinking, innovative, and truly transformative work being accomplished by women here at UF.

[00:16:33] Sindia Rivera-Jimenez: As part of IPPD, I started having industries that they support my ideas, and basically, they pay, they support the students to complete a project. I right now have the only project that I still continue because I love it, is on the topic of CO2, carbon capture. The idea is that this company in Orlando is a power company, OUC. They want to capture the CO2 instead of emitting that into the air and actually use it for growing algae and sell the algae as a valuable product. My team is working on the capture, trying to find very cheap solvents that we can use. At the same time, we're doing simulations to prove that we can produce products from the algae and sell it. It's a really pretty project. I love it. I have--

[00:17:26] Antonio: That's amazing. Real-world impact on Florida. Talk about creating a new industry.

[00:17:32] Sindia: Exactly.

[00:17:32] Antonio: Who do you sell algae to then?

[00:17:34] Sindia: There's a big community starting on trying to get products from algae, but there's products on the market. You can use it as feed for animals. You can use it for cosmetics, actually lipsticks, and a lot of the protein from the algae, you can use that for cosmetics. You can also have algae growth for a nutritional supplement. It has collagen. It has a lot of things that you can use. There's things out there from algae, but they cannot be used sustainably. If you're a chemical company, you need to have raw materials that are reliable all the time. We don't have that yet because Florida has such a big problem with algae. They're trying to convert that problem into a solution.

[00:18:24] Antonio: That's fantastic.

[00:18:25] Sindia: It's really cool. I love it.

[00:18:26] Antonio: That sounds like an engineering project, right?

[00:18:28] Sindia: It's very creative too.

[00:18:29] Antonio: Right, take a problem and create a solution. That's fantastic. [music]

[00:18:38] Antonio: Sindia is inspiring the next generation of engineers. Before we leave, let's take a listen to one of the students who represents this next generation. Brittany Bryant, third-year transfer student, inspired me with her grit and generous spirit and passion for learning. Brittany and I talked about the power of the word "yet." We may not be exactly where we want to be, but as Brittany says, "It's on the way." With these amazing women leaders, thinkers, doers, and learners, the future of the Gator Nation is bright indeed . [00:19:15] Britanny Bryant: I feel like I can't go to my professors and tell them I cannot do this. I'm not a great writer. I actually can say that now with conviction because I'm not a great writer, but there are so many resources at UF now that I know that. Now, I'm taking advantage going to my professors, going to the writing studio lab, using the libraries.

[00:19:35] Antonio: That's it. The only modification I would recommend, it's not that you're not a good writer, it's that you're not a good writer yet.

[00:19:44] Britanny: Right.

[00:19:44] Antonio: Always put that word in because it's not that you're not like-- If you just say, "I'm not a good writer," it's almost like you're telling your mind, "You're not a good writer," and that's going to be forever. I'm not a good writer yet tells you what?

[00:19:56] Britanny: That it's on the way.

[00:19:57] Antonio: It's on the way.

[00:19:59] Britanny: Eventually, I will.

[00:20:00] Antonio: Exactly.

[00:20:01] Brittany: Definitely, yes. I'll put that in there [chuckles] .

[00:20:02] Antonio: Always throw in a yet. We end the podcast with asking the question what brings you joy?

[00:20:10] Brittany: What brings me joy? The are a lot of things , that bring me joy, but I think my story and what I've been through has brought me greater joy in my life. Being honest, I have been homeless before. I live in a single-parent home. My brother has autism. With everything that I've been through and everything that I see in my life, I see the light at the end of the tunnel. For me, going through trials, going through tribulations, that drives me, that motivates me because I know that me being at UF, there are thousands of kids who want to be in this position. It brings me joy that I've been through those experiences and I can be able to help others. That's really why I'm going into Family, Youth, and Community Sciences because I want to be that light for people who don't have that.

[00:21:02] Antonio: To be the light. You are one incredibly courageous human being, Brittany Bryant, third-year transfer student. Welcome to the family.

[00:21:14] Brittany: Thank you. [music]

[00:21:21] Antonio: That concludes this special episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging for Women's History Month. If you liked this episode, please like the track and share on social media. We can all use some positive inspiration right now. I'd also like to thank Dr. Welson Tremura of UF School of Music in the College of the Arts and the Center for the Latin American Studies for the new theme music. Stay safe, stay connected, and open your hearts to others. It's what makes us stronger as the Gator Nation. Go Gators.

24:53 Minutes
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Episode 046: Curtis Taylor

In this episode, Antonio sits down with Curtis Taylor, Associate Professor in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Associate Dean for Student Affairs in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering. Curtis shares his recipe for belonging with three magic ingredients and explains why it is so important to doing our best work.



[00:00:02] Antonio Farias: Welcome to season three of Level Up, a podcast where we explore how students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida are leading our community in Presence and Belonging. I'm your host, Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida. Welcome to another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. Today we are fortunate to have Dr. Curtis Taylor, who is an Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and also Associate Dean for Student Affairs in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering. Welcome, Curtis.

[00:00:35] Curtis Taylor: Hey, thank you for having me.

[00:00:37] Antonio: It's super awesome. We always begin the podcast with the question, which is what is your story of belonging?

[00:00:47] Curtis: I guess I'll start by saying one, I'm happy to share my story and what I've also learned throughout my experience. I grew up in the Washington DC area. My parents both together family and my dad was in the military.

[00:01:09] Antonio: What service.

[00:01:10] Curtis: He was in Navy. United States Navy for over 20 years.

[00:01:13] Antonio: Surface guy or underwater?

[00:01:15] Curtis: He was aviation. Aviation mechanic navy. We moved around a little bit. By the time I was four years old, essentially we were stationary there in the Washington DC area. I grew up in Prince George's County up in Maryland.

[00:01:34] Antonio: It's a huge Navy town. It's all Navy.

[00:01:37] Curtis: Yes. The county in where I lived at was primarily African American, I would say probably at the time, in the 80s, about 80% African American. I feel like I was privileged to have the opportunity to have a lot of support, family support, but also support within the community, as well as within our schools. I really look back on growing up, and very thankful for my teachers. Many of them took time, extra time to really pour into me and helped me support me. Even to this day, I keep in contact. My PE teacher, third-grade teacher, even principal high school teachers came to my wedding.

[00:02:32] Antonio: Really. That's deep.

[00:02:33] Curtis: Yes. They played a very crucial role for me. I've also had mentors as well growing up. For me in terms of belonging, I really felt like, "Hey, I've been in a privileged position of support." Then beyond growing up in high school, going into college, went to the University of Maryland College Park. That's when I began now to feel what it's like to not be in a majority environment, and having to now make some changes and to feel somewhat isolated.

[00:03:16] Antonio: Did you have any prep to that or was it like one day you woke up, the world was one way and the next day you're--

[00:03:23] Curtis: I wouldn't say formal preparation, anything like that. Of course, I always knew about and parents reminded me of history. I was growing up in the United States, of course. I was aware of race relations, but I wouldn't say I was prepared for experiencing some of the things that I did. After University of Maryland then started working. I worked at Capital One. I really say a big change in terms of now having to adapt really came when I moved to Arkansas from the DC area. That's when

[00:04:03] Antonio: That's a big move.

[00:04:04] Curtis: that was a big move and all the demographics of being in Arkansas, of course, are much different. We were going from 80% community black African American now to less than 3%, and then just feeling like-- I guess I really didn't become as conscious before as I was now in Arkansas, and just even going into restaurants and feeling like everyone's turning their head and looking at me and my wife. We got married. My wife at the time.

[00:04:38] Antonio: Was she also from Maryland, or she?

[00:04:40] Curtis: Yes, she was from Maryland. We met at the University of Maryland. I think that's where I really now had to begin what I would say growth in terms of diversity, understanding myself and then even there were several incidents where we couldn't travel certain places in Arkansas. Thirty minutes away, Harrison, Arkansas, there was known Ku Klux Klan activity.

[00:05:07] Antonio: Tell us what year this was?

[00:05:08] Curtis: This was from 2000 to 2005. I moved there right at 2000.

[00:05:14] Antonio: All right, so this is an ancient history as some of our students think. This isn't the '60s or the '70s, or even like the '90s. This is a spitball away.

[00:05:23] Curtis: Exactly. I remember my wife she could not go to certain towns, and again, at night.

[00:05:32] Antonio: Same codes?

[00:05:33] Curtis: Yes, same type of code. One time they asked her to go to a client and it was about two-hour drive away, but leaving at five o'clock and getting back, couldn't do it.

[00:05:44] Antonio: These are the sundown laws that from Jim Crow that still-- In 2005 still in place?

[00:05:49] Curtis: Yes. Some of it unspoken, but this is what it was known. Even as a student, graduate student at the University of Arkansas, I remember incidents where one incident, I was asked to stay behind in the class. The professor handed out the assignment that was due the grades to all the other students and didn't hand mine back and told me to wait after the class and then after the class had a meeting with me and asked me was this my work.

[00:06:21] Antonio: Oh, wow.

[00:06:24] Curtis: I had to really talk to him and say, "Yes, it is my work. I can show you here are the references that are already listed there. I can show you this is the work from me, and you can cross-reference with reference and see that." That's where again I became more conscious and aware of these issues, but I think it also allowed me to grow.

[00:06:49] Antonio: I take it was because the grade was a high grade.

[00:06:53] Curtis: It was high grade, yes.

[00:06:54] Antonio: If you would have gotten a low grade, there would have been no pull-aside, right?

[00:07:00] Curtis: I assume so. I think that's my journey in belonging and then feeling what it is like to not belong. Then after, I would say about three years in Arkansas, I met people who really became like part of my family. People of a different race. That was very powerful as well because up until that point, I had never really felt comfortable to even say that somebody was like a family member to me. I developed deep enough relationships there that I could literally say that. At one point when the group that was part of, we were going our different ways. I was openly weeping because of the ties that were there, which is very powerful. One of the things in terms of belonging that is powerful with that is that when you feel like you belong, you can be yourself. When you can be yourself, I think you can be successful and you can also do the best that you possibly can. You can do your best in some type of work right, in a sense . I did get a glimpse of what that feels like, and it's very powerful.

[00:08:30] Antonio: And you said family, that's a powerful word. What were the magic ingredients that made that happen? You mentioned one, time. It took years. It wasn't instantaneous.

[00:08:44] Curtis: It wasn't instantaneous. A couple of things. One, it definitely takes time. I think a key ingredient is being able to openly discuss community dialogue. Things that can be hurtful. The things that need to be said, need to be discussed. In an environment where people agree that this is what we want to talk about and being able to do that. That's one key ingredient.

[00:09:16] Antonio: It's super important.

[00:09:17] Curtis: It's extremely, extremely important.

[00:09:18] Antonio: Most people shy away just from that one. They're like, "I'm not going."

[00:09:22] Curtis: It's right. Many times you may be offended, people don't want to be vulnerable, you want to protect yourself from-- If you open up and really share, you're going to be vulnerable to your feelings now possibly getting hurt or possibly feeling like you've been taken advantage of in some type of way. That's one key part. I think a second part is like you mentioned the time in building the relationship. In that group, it was a group associated with the church. We were intentional about getting to know one another outside of just meeting. We really now wanted to develop personal relationships and that takes time to do that. I could see the same thing in any type of team, where it's important now even in a work environment, to really get to know your people, the people that you work with beyond even work. That's I think, a second key ingredient. A third one is to, I think, embrace the differences and not to overlook and assume that, Okay, we're-- Sometimes we hear these clichés that we're all one and things like that. We can be, but we're also unique in who we were made to be. I think that's also very important.

[00:10:55] Antonio: It's super fascinating, right? Because in our American culture, we all think that we're unique, but yet we shy away from difference, but if we're all unique, then it assumes that we're all different, yet we don't like that we're different. That's great.

[00:11:12] Curtis: The uniqueness and the differences are really what can contribute to the fabric, if you will. The unity and which is unlike things that you normally would see. Everyone's playing their role. Everyone is using their strengths and abilities and gifts to help one another. That's where the beauty of it comes together.

[00:11:40] Antonio: That's it. I love it, the weaving together. You have a lot of titles here. You are your faculty member, a researcher, you're an Associate Dean. You're also a campus diversity liaison. Lots of roles. Tell me what excites you about the work that you do.

[00:12:01] Curtis: Well, like you said that's a lot of roles and of course could be a lot of work. I think for me, having the opportunity to feel like I'm making an impact on the campus, really in people's lives is important to me. In these roles, I feel like I get a chance to do that. We're talking also about things that affect the entire society. That's another aspect is okay, well, I feel like now I really can make a contribution in these areas in the role that I have. It does bring joy to me when I get the chance to bring people together when we get an opportunity to discuss important issues that we can now make progress on and move forward. Then in the role of Associate Dean of Student Affairs, part of my job is student success. So working with students, working with our staff to provide support programs, whether it be tutoring, whether it be experiential learning, and seeing students being able now to grow, and again to be successful, very important. Campus diversity liaison, again, being able now to listen, to learn about how we can now help people come together, how we can make the campus, the college a place where people feel like they are included and they belong, very important because for me, being in these different environments, like at the University of Arkansas, going through that and realizing, Hey, if you can, if you can create an environment or influence people now where they feel like they belong, then they can be very successful and they can do things that we may not even have imagined in terms of success.

[00:14:16] Antonio: Right, or that the individual student could imagine. You mentioned going back to high school in your early years before college, how your teachers saw something in you, and they believed in you, and they made you do the work in that environment that you said, exactly made you accountable, but also believed in you.

[00:14:34] Curtis: That's right, and that's very powerful.

[00:14:37] Antonio: That is incredibly powerful.

[00:14:37] Curtis: When you have people who believe in you, and when they believe in you, you have also an expectation that, hey, you can do some things. You're going to be successful. If you keep working hard, then doors are going to open for you. You start believing that and you're encouraged by that, and it's a good feeling to have. Whereas if you're going to an institution or an organization where you now feel the opposite of that, where you feel like you're going uphill, where people don't expect you to even be where you are, they expect you to be somewhere else, then it's like you're fighting, you're fighting to do just do the work and to be who you are. Not even, with how difficult and the rigors of learning but you have this other fight. It's like a distraction in a sense.

[00:15:30] Antonio: It's sucking energy from you.

[00:15:32] Curtis: Energy, talents, all is gone. That's, of course very difficult. Then we think about things that we're talking about, it helps the entire organization, everyone benefits. It's not just okay the student we influence. That one student could have an influence on others. We talked about the systems, we're talking about ways in which we can ... the entire organization.

[00:15:58] Antonio: That's exactly it. What would you say to someone that says, okay, but our systems are neutral, right? We don't we don't encourage, we don't discourage. We simply are a neutral process. Do you think a system can be? Now that you're a dean, do you think a system like a college or an engineering college, in particular, can be neutral on creating or accelerating learning by not doing belonging? Or if you think neutrality automatically defaults to depressing excellence or depressing a sense of belonging?

[00:16:35] Curtis: I think that's a very good question. My opinion on that is I think you can't be neutral. I think it's either you go in one direction or the other direction. I say this because we're talking about people. We're talking about human beings and it's very difficult. Even sometimes we may not even be conscious of it, but to be neutral in dealing with influencing others. We're constantly influencing one another whether we know it or not, through our words, our actions, just from the interaction itself. If we're looking at it from the standpoint of people, no, I don't think as a college of people, that we can be neutral. Because we bring to the college, ourselves. We bring personalities, we bring opinions, thinking to the mix.

[00:17:27] Antonio: All of that. It's all there from the very beginning in the classroom.

[00:17:31] Curtis: That's right.

[00:17:32] Antonio: Thank you. One of the questions we're asking now is, tell us about something you've changed your opinion on in the last six months or so.

[00:17:42] Curtis: The last six months? One thing-- Actually, me and my wife were talking about it just the other day is, sometimes when we're wanting to help other people or we want to do our job and particularly, as campus diversity liaison and diversity, equity inclusion, or even as a teacher in the K–12 system, in these big systems, in these large problems, sometimes we can feel like as an individual, that we may not be making all that much of a difference. That, the system is the way it is, and it'll keep going in that direction and we only have a very little influence. It's going to take a larger societal change for this thing now to happen. What's our role in it? Are we really making a dent in the problem? I've really started to think about that, and I do believe, this is my thinking is that one person can make a difference. I remember we had some programs back when I was in the undergraduate program when I was a student. In a student organization, we have some programs for K–12 students. I remember a couple of times I've made these big grand plans for this event and how we're going to put this thing together for students and one weekend, I remember only, like 10 people showed up. The question was, okay, do we just not hold it or cancel it? No, we didn't. We had speakers coming in. We had an auditorium. No, I didn't cancel it. I went through with it. Now even with these things that we're doing, and you look at how enormous the issues are, I do feel like okay, one person can definitely make an influence and even sometimes, even if it's just one person, even when we're in the classroom, and we're teaching to a class of 100, even if one person now says, "Hey, I got a new idea or, something that, hey, Dr. Taylor, what were those students said now, has influenced me." Sometimes that's all it really takes.

[00:20:00] Antonio: That's it.

[00:20:01] Curtis: Is one idea to possibly change the world. That is possible to do that. Even if it's not, again, we don't know and we may not ever see in our lifetime, the difference that we're making. We have to now have faith that, I'm doing my part. I'm trying to do what's right. I'm progressing forward and guess what. I believe things can change, even if it's on a small scale.

[00:20:33] Antonio: That's super key to change, right? We're planting seeds to trees under which we may never sit under. We don't know. That's your point. Your principal, your teacher in K–12 influenced you to the point where your trajectory could have been something else.

[00:20:52] Curtis: Exactly.

[00:20:52] Antonio: You may not be an engineer today, right?

[00:20:54] Curtis: Exactly. I remember even as an elementary, high school student, they'll bring in speakers. We have what we call a like career day. They'll bring in an NFL referee and firefighter. I still remember different things that they said. It was small things. Like our PE teacher, he would say, "Your attitude determines your altitude." I still remember those things.

[00:21:17] Antonio: That's a great one.

[00:21:18] Curtis: It's like every opportunity that we get, and we never know what is going to be an influence. What's going to now plant a seed that can now really grow?

[00:21:31] Antonio: I love that. We end the podcast with the question, which is what brings you joy?

[00:21:39] Curtis: I think for me, I feel like I really ultimately wanted to do is teach. What I wanted to do early in life is to be a teacher and part of that is because I had teachers who really helped me and part of being a teacher is helping students to learn. When you see the light go off, the light bulb go off, or you see them now go from at the very beginning where their knowledge is at a certain level, but then it increases tenfold at the end. That's where the joy is. The seeing the growth, seeing potential. Sometimes even like as a coach because the teachers are almost like coaches as well. Sometimes the players, the students don't even realize the potential that they have. Sometimes your coach can see it. He can see it or she can see it and they can bring that out. That's joyful. Joyful for me to see that I had an influence in helping someone be successful.

[00:22:53] Antonio: That is the marker of an educator to bring out the best in a student and allow them to flourish. That's amazing. I got to ask, aerospace engineering. Was dad an influence because he was in aviation or?

[00:23:06] Curtis: It was, yes. We were always around aircraft. We will go out on onto the tarmac, the airfields, would go to the air shows, pretty much every single year. He would always--

[00:23:21] Antonio: Those damn Blue Angels.

[00:23:22] Curtis: Blue Angels, Thunderbirds and he would always-- I would ask him questions, and he would always somehow relate it back to flight and the science behind it. That was a big influence. Actually, one time I really wanted to fly. I wanted to be a pilot. I said, "If I can't be pilot, then-

[00:23:45] Antonio: I'll build it.

[00:23:46] Curtis: -I'll build it. Then also teach it.

[00:23:50] Antonio: It's pretty cool. I've gotten addicted to, on Instagram, these little short videos of aircraft that are doing some wickedly wild maneuvers. They're not fast movers. They're these giant lumbering Airbuses. My guess is that their test flights but they're going into what I would imagine would be a stall angle. They just keep going. I was like, "Oh, wow."

[00:24:15] Curtis: [laughs] It's pretty cool.

[00:24:16] Antonio: Thank you. Thank you very much, Dr. Curtis Taylor, Professor in Engineering, and also the Associate Dean for Student Affairs and campus diversity liaison in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering. Thank you for being on the podcast.

[00:24:31] Curtis: Thank you for having me.

[00:24:32] Antonio: Awesome. [music]

[00:24:35] Antonio: Thanks for joining me, Antonio Farias, for another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. We welcome your comments and suggestions for future programs. You can find more episodes of Level Up and contact information for the Office of the Chief Diversity officer at [00:24:53] [END OF AUDIO]

13:34 Minutes
Podcast Guest Image

Episode 045: Kat Garcia

In this episode, Antonio is talking with Kat Garcia, 4th year pre-med student, President of the new student organization Unity in Diversity and organizer of the group’s inaugural 5K run, walk, roll event on April 4. Kat talks about her Cuban heritage and how allowing herself to be uncomfortable has helped her grow and find joy in the process.


[00:00:00] Antonio Farias: Welcome to season three of Level Up, a podcast, where we explore how students, faculty and staff at the university of Florida are leading our community in Presence and Belonging. I'm your host Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida. Today, I'm talking with Kat Garcia, fourth year premed student. Kat is president of the new student organization Unity in Diversity and the organizer of its inaugural 5K Run, Walk and Roll on April 4th. This inclusive 5K starts at the Harrell medical education building and goes downtown through the Porter's neighborhood to Depot Park and back. Registration is happening now, so google 'Unity in Diversity at Florida' to get more information and get your running shoes on. Welcome again to another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. Today, we have a really super cool guest, that is Kat Garcia, who is a fourth year student here, undergrad, who is looking for a career at some point it may be in medicine or--

[00:01:05] Kat Garcia: Yes. Hopefully, a surgeon.

[00:01:07] Antonio: Surgeon? What kind of surgeon?

[00:01:09] Kat: Plastic surgeon.

[00:01:10] Antonio: Wow. Okay. We always started a podcast with a question, which is, what is your story of belonging?

[00:01:15] Kat: Yes. I came from a very tight-knit Hispanic Catholic community.

[00:01:18] Antonio: Miami?

[00:01:19] Kat: Fort Lauderdale. We were too Hispanic for the Americans, but not as Hispanic enough for people from Miami as I've learned here in Gainesville. Yes, everyone went home to the same backgrounds. We all came from a pretty similar financial level. The most diverse different students we had were the ones that were a little too tall or played Pokemon as a girl, which was myself.

[00:01:40] Antonio: Were you good at it?

[00:01:41] Kat: No, sadly not even good at it.

[00:01:43] Antonio: So you lost a lot of cards?

[00:01:44] Kat: Yes, I did. My mom was not unhappy about that. I always did feel like I belonged. I think it definitely started on my family, my mom, and my grandma always taught me that just to be yourself, never to change yourself, and I never had to do that. I have always been one to just say what I'm feeling, how I'm dealing with everything throughout the day.

[00:02:03] Antonio: Does that get you in trouble?

[00:02:05] Kat: No I've learned to master it and learned to restrain what I am feeling to some extent, but it's definitely helped me to belong because from the get-go people know if they're going to mess with me or not. I feel like this is how the case works out. Coming to Gainesville, it was a complete different culture shock. I thought just essentially being part of the Gator nation that I would fit in. I guess, that does hold true because across the world in Greece I ran across the Gator and that started a conversation. It does hold true, but at this age range, people are a little judgmental and a little cliquey. I learned that very soon coming into my freshman year. I joined Greek Life, which I think really did help me find my place in the beginning. I never really felt like I did belong, because like I said, I was too Hispanic for the Americans, but too American for the Hispanic. I did always feel like I was in a limbo. Even through my activities, I never really found people that I was essentially meshing well with, I guess you could say. It wasn't really until my junior year that I realized I was most comfortable learning about different people and being uncomfortable and learning to restrain my comments and like just listening to people and just taking in who they are. I feel like that's how I really belonged here and why it's led me to start Unity in Diversity, just because I wouldn't have met any of these people otherwise, and just pushing myself to a different extent is really what I feel like .

[00:03:28] Antonio: Yes, that's what it's about. It's a journey. Again, we always come with like hope and expectation that this new place will be the total fit, and sometimes it doesn't. You've got to find your group, right?

[00:03:39] Kat: Exactly.

[00:03:40] Antonio: You mentioned Unity in Diversity. That's how you and I met, it's like you came and I was like this phenomenal energetic student with lots of credentials, in terms of trying to create some recreate something here that you had done previously. Tell us a little bit about the history of Unity in Diversity in terms of the first iteration and then what you're trying to do here now in like, coming up in what? Less than a month?

[00:04:04] Kat: Yes. April 4th. Very soon. t has been a very different setup than it was originally in South Florida. I was a mentor for my little brother who started the walk at home. Everyone here is very busy on a different level than they are in a high school level. It's been a little difficult, because everyone talks about being inclusive and diverse, but actually putting it into practice is a different story, especially with everyone's insane time constraints. At home, we were able to unite four different high schools, which is a pretty big deal, because like I said, everyone sticks to their tight-knit community at home. My high school was predominantly Hispanic and Catholic.

[00:04:46] Antonio: So, what flavor Hispanic, I got to ask?

[00:04:48] Kat: Cuban, which I learned not all Hispanics are Cuban.

[00:04:51] Antonio: It's shocking, right?

[00:04:53] Kat: Very shocking. We also were able to unite over 17 religions, which was a really big deal, especially in today's time, where people are all praying to some higher power, but not realizing that we are all have that commonality. It was really impactful to see the 17 religions holding hands in one common ground and just coming together for a common purpose, which is what we're all on this planet here to do. The sooner people realize that I think the better it is. Now, moving it here to the college level. It has been a little more difficult, because people do have, or still have so many other time requirements and have so many other things that they need to do that they don't realize that to take a step back and appreciate everything that we have that's different, because you can really grow and learn from that and the only way that you can actually be inclusive is by putting into practice, not just saying, "I'm inclusive," and not really doing anything about that, because it is a muscle and you do have to practice it every day.

[00:05:47] Antonio: That's a great analogy. It is muscle, it requires practice, and because it is a muscle, you're going to potentially fail at times.

[00:05:54] Kat: Exactly.

[00:05:55] Antonio: What do you do when you fail?

[00:05:56] Kat: You just awkwardly apologize and say, "I'm so sorry. I didn't understand," but you're never going to grow and become the best person you are, unless you have those awkward moments and be taught, because it's all about learning too. People have to humble themselves and realize, "I know a lot about who I am, but the person next to me is not that at all." Just that learning experience is, enough, I feel like.

[00:06:17] Antonio: Yes, really. You're how old 20-something?

[00:06:19] Kat: 21.

[00:06:20] Antonio: It took me a long time to get to that place. You're you're well on the path. Give us the dates, how do people find out about this Unity in Diversity?

[00:06:30] Kat: It's April 4th, it's actually taking place at Harrell, the medical building area, in the ARB Research Center, the pavilion there, and we have a link online. You can follow us on Instagram, Unity in Diversity at Florida. The link's also there. We have a Facebook page, hopefully you're going to start seeing our flyers everywhere around campus. We are partnered with the college of medicine and chief diversity officer. If you have any correlation there, you'd be able to find this there as well. We're also reaching out to so many clubs that I didn't even know existed on this campus, student organizations, you're definitely going to be hearing about us.

[00:07:07] Antonio: Awesome. What's unique about this 5K as opposed to any other 5K ? Because there's lots of 5Ks that happen in Gainesville.

[00:07:14] Kat: I feel like the 5K part of it is basically just an excuse for all of us to come together. What stands us apart is really that, first of all, we're all inclusive. It's strollers, wheelchair-friendly all ages. We're really trying to promote not just unity within the campus, but within the community, because there are families that maybe have heard of UF their whole life, but have never actually ventured onto campus. We're trying to go beyond just us as a school, and realize that Gainesville is its own community and trying to open the doors to that as well.

[00:07:44] Antonio: I love that. Tell us about something that you've changed your mind on in the past six months or so.

[00:07:52] Kat: Like I said earlier, I think the fact that inclusivity is a muscle and that it's not going to come easily, and as inclusive and diverse as a person you want to be, you can't just go out and say, "I'm going to be everyone's friend," and just expect them to receive that. People are still hesitant to accepting everyone's differences and who they are, even as today everyone's trying to promote that y ou have to be accepting basically of everyone. Although that would be an ideal world, that's not the case. I have realized that as I've been trying to reach out and express the message, I've gotten a lot of weird looks sometimes they're like, "Why are you doing this? Of course, we're all diverse. We're all friends," but that's not the case because I can tell.

[00:08:35] Antonio: When you dig down a little bit below the surface, right?

[00:08:36] Kat: Right. Not even that you just look at their schedule and you see that there's no wiggle room for inclusivity, because they're on such a schedule that they're only inclusive of their abilities at the moment. I've definitely learned that. I've also learned that sometimes just a "How are you?" can go a really long way, and you can really get to know a person just beyond-- If you get a good, then I guess that's where it ends. If you go beyond a good, you can really get to know a person.

[00:09:06] Antonio: That's great. That's interesting because we all do that. It's almost like a habit, like, "How are you?" We always say, "Fine." Or, "How was your weekend?" we're always like, "Good." We never follow up, like, "What was good about it?"

[00:09:15] Kat: Exactly. Sometimes good doesn't even mean good. It's just, good, please leave me alone.

[00:09:19] Antonio: Yes. It's like, 'nice'. Nice doesn't mean anything anymore because we just overuse it. I like that. You mentioned something about time, time and inclusivity. That's really curious. I've never thought about that, that being so regimented, we don't allow space for others or for other thinking.

[00:09:37] Kat: I personally held an executive position in Greek Life, which is what essentially led me to this transition here, because I was so immersed in that one position, I was so overwhelmed with just that world, I guess you could say, that I didn't get to really go out of my comfort zone. I was constantly just trying to get the job done, trying to do what I had to do, meeting with the people I had to. I guess for that year, I never got to experience the campus because I was so overwhelmed with just that part of my life. I feel a lot of students here also feel that stress of just having to delve so deep into something that they don't have the opportunity to go otherwise, but they don't realize it until maybe they're 30 or 40 or it's too late to just change who you are.

[00:10:21] Antonio: Believe me, there's life after 40. [laughter] It doesn't feel that way. I used to be that way, but now it's at 50 something year old. I was like, "Wow. I'm on that other side."

[00:10:31] Kat: I definitely see that in my grandma. My grandma is 78, does not care, lives her life exactly as if she was 18.

[00:10:37] Antonio: She's coming up on a birthday?

[00:10:39] Kat: Yes, tomorrow.

[00:10:40] Antonio: Abuelita .

[00:10:41] Kat: I actually talk about her more than I talk about that I'm Cuban. I love my grandma more than anything. She actually just commented. We got her an Instagram and we just--

[00:10:49] Antonio: She's on Instagram?

[00:10:50] Kat: Yes, she is. [chuckles]

[00:10:51] Antonio: She manages her own Instagram?

[00:10:52] Kat: She has started to, against our discussion. She actually commented on the UF Admission page and then told us all a week later. We're like, "What are you doing, grandma?"

[00:11:02] Antonio: That's awesome. We end the podcast with the question of what brings you joy?

[00:11:07] Kat: So, weirdly enough, I feel I'm most happy when I'm really uncomfortable and overwhelmed and just pushed to an extent that I can bring myself to a new level. I have definitely learned that through this semester. I'm studying for the MCAT, planning this insane walk. I'm really hoping will be a success. I really feel it's getting a good response. It's just so much at one time and I feel that's what I'm able to be happiest with. It's made me also focus on my support system. My family is probably one of my number one aspects of my life. When I am in such a stressed and overwhelmed state, I'm able to fall back on them.

[00:11:47] Antonio: Very cool. Just a complete side question more curiosity, favorite food from home?

[00:11:54] Kat: Definitely, vaca frita . Vaca frita with yuca.

[00:11:59] Antonio: Can't find it here. Can you?

[00:12:00] Kat: No. Definitely not the same quality. Mi Apa really does try; I love Mi Apa, but . [laughter] If I told my grandma that's the Cuban food I was eating, she would not be happy with that.

[00:12:08] Antonio: Do they send you up with a suitcase full of food when you're here?

[00:12:12] Kat: Yes. Frozen Tupperware, comes up with me every time, whenever they come to visit about eight cases of it.

[00:12:17] Antonio: Also, you have a lot of friends around you. Don't you?

[00:12:19] Kat: Yes. I'm a very talkative person. I really like just having a bunch of different friends, not really having a set friend group.

[00:12:27] Antonio: Are you bilingual?

[00:12:29] Kat: Yes, I am. I speak Spanish.

[00:12:31] Antonio: What do you dream in?

[00:12:33] Kat: I dream in colors and pictures. I don't really think there's languages in my dreams.

[00:12:38] Antonio: Very interesting. Very cool.

[00:12:39] Kat: Very weird. [chuckles]

[00:12:40] Antonio: No. I don't think it's weird. It's pretty cool. Kat Garcia-

[00:12:44] Kat: Yes.

[00:12:45] Antonio: Fourth year, premed, MCAT, Unity in Diversity coming up, give us again, when?

[00:12:51] Kat: April 4th, 2020.

[00:12:52] Antonio: April 4th, again, super inclusive. It's about bringing the community together. It's about walking, running, strolling. It's open to everyone, right?

[00:13:03] Kat: Yes. Open to literally everyone, your mom, your dad, your cousin, your grandma.

[00:13:07] Antonio: Yes. Be there. Thank you again for being on the Podcast.

[00:13:10] Kat: Thank you for having me. [music]

[00:13:13] Antonio: Thanks for joining me, Antonio Farias for another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. We welcome your comments and suggestions for future programs. You can find more episodes of Level Up and contact information for the office of the Chief Diversity Officer [00:13:35] [END OF AUDIO]

14:17 Minutes
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Episode 044: Laurie Brown

In this episode, Antonio is talking with Laurie Brown, Assistant Director, Custom Solutions and Community Engagement, in the Office of Professional and Workforce Development. Laurie shares her excitement for the upcoming Inspiring Women Leaders Conference, happening March 9 and 10, here at UF. Laurie is a lead organizer of this sellout event and lets us know why this work brings her joy.



[00:00:02] Antonio: Welcome to Season 3 of Level Up, a podcast where we explore how students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida are leading our community in presence and belonging. I'm your host, Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida.

Stay tuned to hear about the 3rd annual Inspiring Women Leaders Conference happening here at UF, March 8th through the 10th. This unique and innovative conference is already sold out but put it on your radar for next year.


Welcome to another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. Today, we're fortunate to have Laurie Brown, Assistant Director of Custom Solutions and Community Engagement in the Office of Professional and Workforce Development. We are also in this really cool place called the TREEO Center that hopefully, we'll talk a little bit about because word on the street is that it's not part of IFAS, even though it looks like IFAS. Right? So, Laurie, welcome.

[00:00:53] Laurie Brown: That's correct. Hi. Thank you.

[00:00:54] Antonio: Welcome to the podcast.

[00:00:56] Laurie: Yes. This is exciting.

[00:00:57] Antonio: Super excited to have you. We always start the podcast with the question what is your story of belonging?

[00:01:03] Laurie: I find that an interesting question and thought over the weekend. I guess, really, my story of belonging occurs through my faith and my family.

[00:01:14] Antonio: Say more.

[00:01:15] Laurie: Yes. I'll say more. My faith is part of my culture almost. It's indistinguishable between the two. It's just a way of being. So, from an early age as a child, I've just always felt that sense of belonging within that church community, if you will.

Then, my family, I have a very strong family. My sister and I are-- we're often teased that we're twins born at different times because we're so similar. I think just that strong foundation has made me feel really comfortable in belonging to almost any unit, any group. I thoroughly enjoy people and I enjoy talking with people and meeting them and learning about their story. So, just through that, I feel like then, all of a sudden, I happen to belong to their group, whatever it is, because I've taken a moment or two to talk with them.

[00:02:05] Antonio: Get to know them. You can surely do an excellent job of networking and sort of coordinating a lot of different things here. Are you a Floridian or are you--?

[00:02:14] Laurie: I was actually born in Texas.

[00:02:15] Antonio: Texas? What part of Texas?

[00:02:16] Laurie: Houston.

[00:02:17] Antonio: Houston?

[00:02:18] Laurie: Yes, never-- Well, I lived there for a very short amount of time, after I was born, less than a year. Then, our family moved to Eustis, Florida area in 1963. Then, moved to Gainesville in 1968. I went to high school here, Santa Fe College, which was Santa Fe Community College at the time, and then, the University of Florida.

[00:02:38] Antonio: That's fantastic.

[00:02:39] Laurie: Yes. I love Gainesville. I will never leave.

[00:02:42] Antonio: Texan, are you still identified at some core level as--?

[00:02:47] Laurie: No.

[00:02:48] Antonio: No?

[00:02:49] Laurie: I think because I didn't live there long enough and I know that as a child, we spent some time there with my grandmother and such. I don't have enough of an identity to that area I think just because I didn't live there that long and it's so darn big. [chuckles] Houston's just sprawling and I don't like the big cities.

[00:03:06] Antonio: So, this sense of faith, do you find that-- how do you practice some of those values in the workplace, if you will? How does it translate from the home-life to the work-life? In many ways, we're told, "Don't bring politics. Don't bring religion into the workplace." Yet, these are core things about our belief systems and how we engage with human beings.

[00:03:31] Laurie: Yes. That's a great question. For me, it's more of an example, not needing to speak, but hoping that my actions would be speaking louder than any words, so that we don't get into any kind of discourse that would be inappropriate. The key part of that is being kind and serving others.

So, through those avenues, I feel like that speaks in of itself. Then, if someone wants to know more, I'm happy to talk about it but I don't feel a need to make any announcements or do anything any different other than just conduct my life in a way that someone might say, "Oh, that's different. Tell me more."

[00:04:06] Antonio: Live your values.

[00:04:07] Laurie: Yes. Live my values.

[00:04:08] Antonio: And servant leadership which you certainly are.

[00:04:09] Laurie: Yes. Oh, Absolutely. Yes. I thank you. I love servant leadership, the whole topic, the books, all of that. Yes. [chuckles]

[00:04:16] Antonio: Tell us what excites you about the work that you do here at UF?

[00:04:21] Laurie: You know what I really like? It goes back to people again but seeing people when they've kind of gotten that aha. I do training. I provide training to corporations, organizations, institutions, like on a corporate level.

Then, we also have open-enrollment workshops here where people would come in and sit through training. As I sit back and watch the training occur and watch the audience, it's like seeing those little light bulbs go on and it's like they get something and they-- you know it's going to have an impact on their life and hopefully, make a change either in their profession or the way they conduct themselves in their personal life and that just-- I find it very exciting because it makes me feel very happy.

[00:05:00] Antonio: That's pretty cool. Now, I know the other thing you're super excited about is this conference. Right?

[00:05:04] Laurie: Yes. I am.

[00:05:04] Antonio: Tell us about this conference.

[00:05:07] Laurie: This will be our third year of the Inspiring Women Leaders Conference. We always bookend it or incorporate somehow International Women's Day, which falls on March the 8th.

[00:05:16] Antonio: Great timing.

[00:05:17] Laurie: Yes. So. this year, March the 8th happens to be a Sunday. We didn't really want to start a conference on a Sunday, so we'd like to have pre-conference workshops on that day and then, our opening reception will be that evening. We have about 275-ish people that are registered. We're going to have to cap it this year.

[00:05:34] Antonio: That's great.

[00:05:35] Laurie: It's very exciting. For just being the third year, it's really amazing growth. I'm most excited about one of our tracks is something that we added this year through our programming committee members, reached out to the chamber and we are-- I guess, through their efforts and then meetings with the chamber folks, have added some wording and questions, even a category into the Business of the Year award.

Now, they will have a Diversity and Inclusion Award that will be distributed for all business leaders in the Gainesville community. They did that for the first time this year and then, that winner of that award, which was Infotech, will be at our conference. We're going to have a panel all around the diversity and inclusion topic and then, just how does that look in the workplace, how can you incorporate it in your workplace, and those kinds of things. So, very excited about that one.

[00:06:30] Antonio: It's fantastic. Again, going back to modeling behaviors. Right?

[00:06:34] Laurie: Mm-hmm. Yes. Absolutely.

[00:06:36] Antonio: What does it mean to thrive and to excel in this space of diversity and inclusion?

[00:06:40] Laurie: Yes. Absolutely.

[00:06:41] Antonio: Good for you for highlighting this process.

[00:06:43] Laurie: We are very excited about that.

[00:06:44] Antonio: So, 275. Wow. That's fantastic. Where can people learn more about this?

[00:06:50] Laurie: Where can they learn more? They can go to our website and then, the Inspire Women leaders will be right up there, front and center, and then click that. The agenda's up there. Registration's there, our list of sponsors. We've got a lot of sponsors this year. I would have to look at the website, but it's at least 10 or more sponsors and just-- Yes. They can find out all that they need to know.

[00:07:20] Antonio: It's fantastic. I had the privilege of going last year and it was inspiring.

[00:07:24] Laurie: Yes. We are pleased. You did a panel for us last year. Yes. I felt that went very well.

[00:07:29] Antonio: Yes. Thank you. I tried not to fall off the stage.

[00:07:32] Laurie: Yes. No, you did good. [laughs] Yes. We're very appreciative of your support at the conference, too, through your office [crosstalk] sponsor and it's been wonderful.

[00:07:38] Antonio: Thank you. I'm just impressed with the entire leadership team that you bring together, create this, and the thoughtfulness. I mean you've been working on this almost right after the last conference ended. You've included an enormous amount of talent from across the entire US sort of capacity. So, thank you for what you're doing.

[00:07:57] Laurie: No. Thank you. Thank you.

[00:07:57] Antonio: You're right. The timing is great. 2020 is a big year.

[00:08:02] Laurie: Yes, it is, a hundred years.

[00:08:02] Antonio: A hundred years of women's suffrage movement.

[00:08:05] Laurie: Exactly.

[00:08:05] Antonio: Also, we're going to deal with issues of diversity. Right? Which-

[00:08:09] Laurie: Yes.

[00:08:10] Antonio: -are at times troubled in that hundred-year experience, but you're dealing with all of this in a very intersectional way. So, again, my kudos to you for the work that you're doing in the space.

[00:08:19] Laurie: My pleasure. I'm enjoying every minute of it. [chuckles] So, thank you.

[00:08:21] Antonio: We're asking you questions, so you're going to be the Guinea pig in this sense, which is share one thing that you've changed your mind about in the past six months?

[00:08:35] Laurie: Okay. That is a very intriguing question. So, on the surface, the first thing is I think of is what to have for breakfast. [chuckles] Then, I think, "Okay. Well, which program is better than the other program?" I did have a chance to look at that and percolate over the weekend. All of a sudden, the lights came on. It's like, "Oh, my goodness. That's a deep question. That is really what--" because when you change your mind, then you're changing your mindset. You're going to have to behave differently hopefully than you have before.

[00:09:07] Antonio: It gets harder as you--

[00:09:09] Laurie: It is hard.

[00:09:09] Antonio: As you mature.

[00:09:10] Laurie: As you mature, as you become seasoned. Yes. It does become [chuckles] much more difficult. We held a training program this past Thursday for the Leadership Gainesville class. The topic of the training program was Diversity and Inclusion.

One of the exercises within that program was all about privilege. What I changed my mind about is what I view as privilege, what I even understand to be privilege. Some of the questions of the criteria that were on the list just were amazing, such as not having fear of showing affection to a partner in public, having hair products at a hotel that are complementary to your hair, just being able to-- Just so many things that I've taken for granted that I never would have thought of as a privilege just because I haven't had to. Then, that just made me almost feel ashamed. It was like, "Wow. That's amazing." There are so many things day to day that I'd do or have access to or that have been a part of my life that I've never considered that many populations can even comprehend, don't even have that opportunity.

[00:10:21] Antonio: That's a great example.

[00:10:22] Laurie: The more I thought about that, "Wow. I need it now." Then, it makes you start thinking about all the other things, too, and then, that falls into the whole bias and diversity types of categories as you start thinking about privilege and who has what.

[00:10:36] Antonio: Yes. It gets you thinking. Right?

[00:10:37] Laurie: It does gets you thinking.

[00:10:38] Antonio: That's the business we're in. Educators. We're supposed to educate but if we don't educate ourselves continuously, then we’ll calcify.

[00:10:47] Laurie: Exactly right, continuous self-improvement.

[00:10:49] Antonio: Thank you. Thank you for sharing that.

[00:10:50] Laurie: Yes. You're welcome.

[00:10:51] Antonio: We end the podcast with a question which is what brings you joy?

[00:10:56] Laurie: I will always go back to people. I think every profile, every personality assessment I have has something to do with people. People bring me joy, just absolutely because then, it ties in that learning, that continuous learning, that self-improvement when you can meet someone and when you can meet them without judgment.

So, I do work on that. There's times when I will still and I'm hoping that I'm not the only one in the universe, that make those instantaneous judgments and not meaning to, but when I let all that go, just that sheer joy of sharing a moment with someone, learning from them, being able to, hopefully, they have learned something from me, and sharing in a moment. I love it.

[00:11:38] Antonio: That spark.

[00:11:39] Laurie: Yes.

[00:11:40] Antonio: Thank you.

[00:11:41] Laurie: You're very welcome.

[00:11:42] Antonio: We can't leave without just getting a quick education about the TREEO Center. Tell us about the TREEO Center because, again, I want to hear you thinking, "Wow. This is an amazing IFAS facility," and it isn't an IFAS facility.

[00:11:54] Laurie: Not at all. This building is very unique, too, because it's kind of circular. We've got this mote and the water that's out there is reclaimed water from the GRU plant across the street.

This land and building were donated to us from the City of Gainesville to do training for water and wastewater managers. That's what they did for 40 years, all just solely. Then, as they grew, they started bringing in other topics and they provide asbestos training, backflow, and solid waste.

All of those are continued-education courses. Anyone in those fields used to continuously come for updates and refreshers to keep their certificate valid. In many ways, it captured the audience and it has-

[00:12:39] Antonio: That's great.

[00:12:40] Laurie: -been, yes, the bread and butter of TREEO for, like I said, 40 years or over 40 I think. We might be going to our-- golly. It's possible that we could be going into our 42nd year. That I'd have to do a backcheck on, but anyway, at least 40 years.

We have what you didn't see in the back is a huge demo area that's all full of pipes for the backflow. They come in and do hands-on training. There's a little mini building that they can do asbestos training with and go in and say, "That's asbestos. That's not that is. How do I remove it?" It's a really nice space in the back.

[00:13:14] Antonio: Yes. I see because-- It's got a beautiful trail right around here. It's exactly like two miles. I just circled this on the weekends. It's a beautiful place, the wildlife--

[00:13:25] Laurie: Yes, bird sanctuary right next door.

[00:13:28] Antonio: Yes. So, thank you. Thank you, Laurie Brown, Assistant Director of Custom Solutions and Community Engagement in the Office of Professional and Workforce Development. Thank you for being on the podcast.

[00:13:37] Laurie: My pleasure. Thank you, Antonio.

[00:13:38] Antonio: Don't forget the conference.

[00:13:40] Laurie: Yes. March 8, 9, and 10 at the Gainesville Hilton Conference Center.

[00:13:44] Antonio: This is going to be amazing. It's the 3rd year. If you don't know about it, get there and be ready for next year because it's going to sell out even sooner.

[00:13:53] Laurie: Absolutely. Absolutely will.

[00:13:55] Antonio: Thank you.

[00:13:55] Laurie: Thank you.


[00:13:57] Antonio: Thanks for joining me, Antonio Farias, for another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. We welcome your comments and suggestions for future programs. You can find more episodes of Level Up and contact information for the Office of the Chief Diversity Officer at


25:38 Minutes
Podcast Guest Image

Episode 043: Paloma Rodriguez

In this episode, Antonio talks with Paloma Rodriguez, Director of the Office of Global Learning at UF's International Center. Paloma talks about how her sense of belonging has shifted through her global travels and how she brings this multifaceted perspective to bear in her work with international students and study abroad programs. Tune in to find out what Antonio and Paloma love about the Spanish language!


[background music]

[00:00:02] Antonio Farias: Welcome to season three of Level Up, a podcast where we explore how students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida are leading our community in presence and belonging. I'm your host, Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida. Welcome to another episode of Level Up on presence and belonging at the University of Florida. Today, we are super privileged to have Paloma Rodriguez, who is the director of the office of global learning in the University of Florida's International Center. Paloma, welcome.

[00:00:31] Paloma Rodriguez: Thank you, Antonio, for this opportunity. I'm excited.

[00:00:35] Antonio: Well, we're super excited. We always start the podcast by asking the question, what is your story of belonging?

[00:00:40] Paloma: I've been thinking about that question. I am a very critical person. I'm going to tell you about some stories of not belonging, what I've learned from them. I was born in Spain in 1970s in a very homogeneous society.

[00:00:55] Antonio: What part of Spain?

[00:00:56] Paloma: In Madrid, in a working-class neighborhood, North of Madrid near the airport. If you've been there, you've seen my neighborhood. The idea of belonging is something that we take for granted. Growing up as a child in a white country with everybody being forced actually to be Catholic. There were only two options you were Catholic or you were not. It was a very homogeneous society and belonging never was a question for me. Also, I was in a working-class neighborhood. Everybody was poor, low middle class, but then my parents started to make a little bit of money and they decided to send me to the most expensive neighborhood in Madrid to a private high school. This neighborhood is so exclusive that the father of the King lived in the neighborhood.

[00:01:46] Antonio: Wow.

[00:01:47] Paloma: In order to go to school, I had to do ride a public bus with all the ladies that clean the houses of my classmates and these ladies were, for instance, my mother's friends. I really strongly felt what not belonging means. I experienced stigma, self-doubt. Even to this day, I feel that even if my physical appearance was the same as the other people in school, there's something about this stigma that is physical, that attaches to you, that you constantly question who you are, that you feel physically you don't fit in.

[00:02:33] Antonio: Yes. We label it now, imposter syndrome.

[00:02:38] Paloma: Yes.

[00:02:39] Antonio: I mean, you experienced it through class mostly, because it was--This was high school. I take it you went involuntarily.

[00:02:49] Paloma: Yes, sort of, but I was really committed student academically, so that was my refuge.

[00:02:59] Antonio: Academics?

[00:03:00] Paloma: Yes. To me, those high school years, we were very isolating at the school. I had my friends, my service learning in my community. I had my sense of belonging within my group, even though they would tease me a little bit because I was in a posh school and they were not, but my friends were always my friends, but I never established strong relationships with people in my high school except for maybe the faculty.

[00:03:26] Antonio: Okay. Did they treat you different, the faculty?

[00:03:29] Paloma: Well, the faculty were closer to my social background than to the students they were teaching. The faculty--

[00:03:34] Antonio: Ironically right?

[00:03:36] Paloma: Yes, there were on occasion victims of this power differential themselves, and some faculty would get fired for inconveniencing a client. That was the environment. I experienced how much- like that luxury and privilege , these people had, that I didn't, on occasion that I would be jealous because they would spend summers in the United States, but I would get better grades in the exams. I was first in my class. I was the valedictorian. That was how I overcame some of that, but I've really learned that that is not enough. It's not enough at the human level. I never overcame for all these other deficiencies just because I was getting good grades, because I think I would have preferred to have friends.

[00:04:30] Antonio: Especially at that time, it's a critical period in the young adult's life. I'm sure your parents were doing it for the best of reasons and that's why I asked if it was it voluntary, and then, of course, it's always involuntary because you're-

[00:04:46] Paloma: I always appreciated the effort, but you also have to think that because I came from that background, my parents of course had never been to college. That when people say, "Well, first-generation college." I was like, “Yes, of course." All of my generation people, my friends in that neighborhood, we were all in that situation. I've never thought about it until I actually graduated. I said, “I guess I'm the first one in the family,” but that is nothing because my mother, for instance, interrupted her studies in after elementary school. My father never, I think maybe he finished high school, maybe. I don't know. My mother and I learned how to do equations at the same time, because she was taking distance learning courses through the radio at the time. That pride with your parents comes also with some shame because now you're moving into an environment where they don't fit in.

[00:05:43] Antonio: That's the dilemma of being first-gen, especially when it comes to first-gen and you're moving up the social ladder. It's like the sense of shame. I experienced that when I went back home. We were the same thing. First-generation and even at the first job had when I was making more than my father, I couldn't deal with the shame and the guilt that I was somehow making more than my father. I couldn’t deal with it, so of course I ran away.

[00:06:15] Paloma: What I experienced is that my parents stopped understanding my world, so you become isolated also from your own environment, because even if you have an accomplishment, you understand it's not fully understood or your decisions. I decided to study Latin and Greek. I don't know that my parents would ever, understood that choice. I try to keep all these things fresh in my mind when I deal with students. I don't have any solutions because, for me, this experience was, as you can hear and feel was painful. Also, it never led to a resolution. Is not that at the end, I have a happy story to tell you, but at the end--well, I mean, I had a couple of friends. I had bridged those differences with a couple of people, but in general, I cannot tell you it worked out. I just can tell you, it does not work out to just put different people together in a room and hope for the best

[00:07:20] Antonio: Right. Now, hope for the best is usually just you're leaving it to chance. That gets us into- it’s a nice segue into what you do here, and in terms of being the director and being the nexus point for all of these international students, and even our US-based students that come through the center. Tell us more about that and the work you do there.

[00:07:41] Paloma: The work I do has to do with exposing students to international perspectives. Many of the students that we attract that are diverse students are maybe Hispanic students. That brings me to the other thing that, I am, which is, well, I am from Spain, I live in the United States. What is my identity here and what does that represent for the students? That's also something really funny because I'm European. My first experience with ethnicity was when I went and lived in the UK for two years where I was a Southern European. Northern and Southern Europe has a history of migration. People of my color, my size were migrants in Germany, in the Netherlands and in the UK. I experienced that difference in the UK when people thought of me as a lesser class of citizen. I developed a sense that I was brown, because before I'll be fair, before in Spain, everyone was like me. I wasn't brown. I was just a Spaniard, but in the UK, I was like, "I'm a person of color and I’m a person with an accent." I came to the US after two years in the UK and I said, "Well, at first, I'm brown." Here were very rapidly, I was reminded, "No, you are not brown. You are Hispanic." I was like, "Wait, this is new." I became something else. I became Latina. People would assume that I'm from Venezuela, from Cuba. I'm completely fine with that, except for the fact that I am from Spain and I have been in Bolivia for instance, for extended periods of time, and there I have another identity. I am from Spain, the motherland and that has a really negative connotation.

[00:09:38] Antonio: 500 years of connotation.

[00:09:39] Paloma: Oppression and I belong to the oppressors.

[00:09:44] Antonio: Yet we all do right in Latin America because we house both.

[00:09:48] Paloma: Yes. Not all, but most people will be mixed.

[00:09:51] Antonio: Most people. At least culturally, we are mixed in that way.

[00:09:55] Paloma: Here I have embraced my Latina identity. I enjoy it and I love it. Most people would not go into details, [laughs] that I'm a Latina from Europe.

[00:10:11] Antonio: Antonio Banderas is Latino. If Antonio Banderas can claim Latino-ness, then it's up for grabs. We get wrapped around the axle at times over who belongs and what are the check boxes. We forget that there's a bigger thing to work on, which is how do we collectively move forward, how do we help each other out. It's sad. At the same time, what you mentioned is exactly it as you move geographically from one part of Europe to another to South America to here, your position changes, which is incredibly difficult. At the same time, do you think it builds agility or resiliency in you?

[00:10:57] Paloma: I've always had this nomadic gene in me. I've never wanted to be with my community and be part of just that group. To me, this is all the fun in life. [laughs] I enjoy that flexibility and to me, it's like a privilege. I feel really comfortable not belonging in that sense. I don't enjoy being excluded but I do enjoy being in between these spaces.

[00:11:29] Antonio: Which is a sense of belonging It's that in-between this, I love that concept. It's like you can't find spaces between cultures, spaces between classes, spaces between all sorts of identities. Some people can navigate them very fluidly. It's usually people that have had some experience that is not homogeneous. You're about exposing students to the world that you came out of, the world beyond just Florida, the world beyond the United States. How do students react to that and what do you do to coach them in that process?

[00:12:09] Paloma: There's one thing I don't feel really comfortable with, which is the fact of providing an example, that sort of thing, but I embody that life so for some students, I am naturally an example of what they could become. I always tell them, “Don't be like me,” because I feel really uncomfortable in that role, but I think that is why I have had a good career in the US, it’s because every employer I've had has told me that you embody that journey that we want to put the students on. I am very cognizant that journey and all these experiences I've accumulated are informative for students. The other thing is I represent for minority students also a way of life or a path they could follow. I hate the word inspiration because we are very full of flaws. I hate that, but some people would ask about my experiences and I would be informative. The other thing I live in between many languages I speak Italian, I studied a lot of French. When students come to my office, and if they are Latinos, and they prefer to have a conversation about advice in Spanish, I do have it in Spanish. If the students want to come to Italy with me on a study abroad program, and their parents have questions, I talk to them in Spanish if they have that background.

[00:13:39] Antonio: That's great.

[00:13:39] Paloma: The one thing that I've noticed with all the diverse students is that we all carry shame, the shame of not fully belonging like I always say, you hear I have an accent, I have an accent because I speak other languages and I have the same accent in four languages. How fun is that? [laughter] We take our differences as something we need to hide, instead of our strength. I hear a student that comes to my office and I ask them about their international experiences. I see that the student looks diverse, whatever that means. They're first telling me, “No, I have never studied abroad. I've never been anywhere.” I look at the student and the student looks Indian. I was like, "Do you speak another language?" The student finally says, "No, I mean Hindi." [chuckles] That is a foreign language, "Have you been to India?" "Oh, yes, just to see the family." That counts. I try to do a little bit of the strength-based advising to help the students understand that they are two for one that, that is not to the detriment but an addition.

[00:14:55] Antonio: Its a plus factor and employers see it as a plus factor. I think sometimes higher education is late to the game to understanding that, right?

[00:15:05] Paloma: That links to what is that I do here. I've been researching through our campus surveys, what is the makeup of the students in our initiatives, and what type of attitudes and beliefs they have towards international thinking and intercultural communication. We have found that, for instance, Hispanic students have more open-minded, have an open mind and a higher curiosity, higher desire to interact with different others than, for instance, white students, that is the makeup of the UF undergraduate population. I am now thinking how I'm going to be sharing this with faculty and with the campus at large, so that we are a little bit more cognizant about the strengths of our diverse students, how we could create classroom structures that reflect that wealth of attitudes, and how can we increase or improve our relationships and our sense of belonging, and our academic learning based on that diversity. Because for me, the academic learning is really important, what matters is learning. How can these strengths be leveraged so that everybody learns more? The diverse student that has that strength learns more because doesn't feel what I had to feel when I was in high school right for instance and the other students can benefit from that contrasting of perspectives. [00:16:41] Antonio: Yes, that's really key. It's about sparking curiosity because these things are inherent they're not genetically based they're not culturally based. Well, culture in the sense of whether you live in a culture or structure that fosters curiosity then that will make you brave enough to step outside of your comfort zone. Especially if you're a migrant, then you've been forced in some way or another to go outside of your comfort zone. I love the idea of- of course, tying it all to education, which is what we're supposed to be doing. Once we're getting students out of their comfort zones, expanding them, making them just uncomfortable enough so that they're actually learning something.

[00:17:20] Paloma: Yes, but what we see as the students, we're all, as humans, a person tries to be in their comfort zone. It becomes very difficult for students who are very comfortable, and who are not trained at all to come in and out of those spaces, to embrace the experience to maintain themselves in that outside of the comfort zone experience without either crashing against an uncomfortable situation or just retreating out of fear. That's the kind of work we want to do. We have also a lot of data of what experiences abroad do for students in terms of gaining and we see a lot of gains with that experience. My main commitment, Antonio, is not just sending people abroad, but to campus internationalization, because we have enough diversity of experiences on our campus, and we have enough technology to connect people globally. All those approaches are much more equitable than paying for study abroad experience.

[00:18:29] Antonio: Which is sometimes seen as a barrier. Somehow study abroad is only for rich kids, or if you have money or if you have time. I love the concept of finding leverages, whether it's technological or on-campus experiences that says, “The world is here. It’s up to you for--” Then, for us as educators to develop a developmental model that gives students the ability to just nudge them forward as they grow.

[00:18:57] Paloma: Right now, we have started with the Center for Latin American Studies and the Center for Instructional Technologies, a new course that is a cultural exchange it's a course for faculty to learn how to develop modules-

[00:19:09] Antonio: Oh, interesting.

[00:19:10] Paloma: -in combination with faculty in other countries.

[00:19:13] Antonio: That's fantastic.

[00:19:14] Paloma: We are in our second round of trainings. We have faculty, for instance in the US and faculty in Senegal or in Colombia, developing the course. We just have, for instance, waste management in the developing world. There were students here at the University of Florida and students in Colombia comparing sustainability practices in their campuses and creating solutions for each other's campuses.

[00:19:39] Antonio: That is very cool.

[00:19:40] Paloma: They did all that online through flipgrid and through collaboration and also through teleconferencing.

[00:19:47] Antonio: Wow.

[00:19:49] Paloma: What is good about that it's not just that the student has an experience with somebody from abroad, it's that we also train our abroad partners so there is not a power differential between our faculty.

[00:20:01] Antonio: Sure.

[00:20:01] Paloma: All students in UF classes, we have access to all this technology for free. Everybody participates of that experience. You don't have to go abroad, you don't have to have parents who have, you know, taken you abroad already and are encouraging you to go to that experience, everybody can do it.

[00:20:23] Antonio: I love it. Tell us what brings you joy?

[00:20:33] Paloma: What brings me joy? I am pretty negative in all this, so I never fell--

[00:20:39] Antonio: I don't know, you sound very positive about ...

[00:20:41] Paloma: No, I am a worrier, but I guess I get pleasure in implementing new things, in starting new things, but I never get the pleasure of conclusion. I never think I'm done. My husband always jokes about me, "Have you made it yet? No, not yet." [laughs] Like I keep on going. Every time I see an idea that suddenly has a name, and a program, and a website, I feel pleasure on that, but I never feel I'm done.

[00:21:15] Antonio: Are we ever really done?

[00:21:17] Paloma: No, and in terms of education, improvement, quality, inclusion, we are never done. Also, the problems are so complex.

[00:21:25] Antonio: Very much.

[00:21:26] Paloma: Yes.

[00:21:27] Antonio: Is this the burden of being international, is that you're seeing the world in a much more complex way because you've lived and experienced it?

[00:21:36] Paloma: I don't know that, I would link that only to the fact that, I come from another country. I think there is a number-- Anyone who is self-aware understands that problems are complex.

[00:21:48] Antonio: Sure, molded you.

[00:21:50] Paloma: You had to be in that way, being at a disadvantage, I really think that's a strength because I've learned much more from situations of disadvantage and difference than from being comfortable. One of the same identities I carry that has given me the most trouble is being a woman. That is something I am constantly trying to create space for women, I am very cognizant that that is visible, invisible, structural personal barrier [laughs] constantly. That is a constant idea of inadequacy in being a woman. You cannot separate yourself from that identity, that's who you are. The best barrier or the-- For me, the target has been fighting the idea of inadequacy and shame, because shame is such a powerful mechanism for social control. For women, it's like not even subtle. [laughs] The most difficult thing I've done in my life, I think when I was 19, I went to Bolivia by myself. I mean, I've done things that people are like, "Oh, you are awesome." The most difficult thing I've done in my life is convincing myself after having two children and then staying 10 years in the house, breastfeeding kids and changing diapers, that I still had a brain and I wanted a career, and I was going to go back. That is the most important barrier I've ever overcome.

[00:23:27] Antonio: We’re all the better for it.

[00:23:29] Paloma: Yes, but I'm still fighting the sense of, "Oh, I should have done this, I should have done that, I never finished it," but I am becoming more shameless. I think I really recommend being shameless to everybody.

[00:23:44] Antonio: My grandmother would be rolling in her grave. I was constantly called- her name for me was sinvergüenza, I was constantly.

[00:23:52] Paloma: I like that.

[00:23:52] Antonio: I took it after a while as a badge of courage.

[00:23:55] Paloma: Yes.

[00:23:56] Antonio: Which drove her even more bananas.

[00:23:59] Paloma: There’s those some stickers, sinvergüenza [laughs]

[00:24:02] Antonio: That could be the new club.

[00:24:04] Paloma: I like it.

[00:24:06] Antonio: I have to ask, because of your multilingualness, what do you dream in, what language do you dream in?

[00:24:12] Paloma: I don't even know. I've been thinking, I like languages. I studied Latin and Greek because I love languages. I can tell you this, I prefer reading in French, writing in English, speaking Italian, and I guess swearing in Spanish, I don't know. [laughs]

[00:24:32] Antonio: Spanish has probably some really awesome swear words that just don't translate. I would agree with that. I agree, and it's more socially acceptable, I think. Maybe that's why I almost get myself in trouble, because I do a lot of cussing in English and that sometimes has people sort of raising their eyebrows really high.

[00:24:50] Paloma: Yes, I'm with you. Yeah, I swear in Spanish, totally acceptable. My daughters are bilingual and bi-cultural, so in Spain they swear a lot. When I call, I said, "Why, girls, what did you just say?" They say, "Mommy, we would never survive in Spain if we didn't swear."

[00:25:05] Antonio: Yes, it's like the wine we drink. Thank you, Paloma Rodriguez, director of the Office of Global Learning in the University of Florida's International Center. Thank you for being on the podcast.

[00:25:16] Paloma: Thank you. [music]

[00:25:19] Antonio: Thanks for joining me, I'm Antonio Farias for another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. We welcome your comments and suggestions for future programs. You can find more episodes of Level Up and contact information at the office of the chief diversity officer at [00:25:39] [END OF AUDIO]

13:55 Minutes
Podcast Guest Image

Episode 042: Kate Ratliff

In this episode, Antonio talks with Kate Ratliff, associate professor of psychology and executive director of Project Implicit. Antonio and Kate consider why the IAT is a valuable tool for exploring biases and disrupting disparities. Tune in to find out what Kate loves about Gainesville!


[music] [00:00:02] Antonio Farias: Welcome to season three of Level Up, a podcast where we explore how students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida are leading our community in Presence and Belonging. I'm your host, Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida. [music] Welcome to another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. Today we are super stoked because we have Dr. Kate Ratliff, associate professor, social psychology area director in the Department of Psychology, and the executive director of Project Implicit. That is a lot. Your card must be two feet long, right? [00:00:36] Dr. Kate Ratliff: It's a lot. [00:00:36] Antonio: It's a lot. Welcome to the podcast Kate.

[00:00:39] Dr. Kate: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

[00:00:40] Antonio: This is awesome. We always start the podcast with a question what is your story of belonging?

[00:00:45] Dr. Kate: That's such a good question in so many ways you can go with that. I have always struggled a little bit with belonging. My father was in the military.

[00:00:58] Antonio: What service?

[00:00:59] Antonio: Navy. [00:01:00] Antonio: Navy. A lot of moving. [00:01:02] Dr. Kate: A lot of moving. I moved every two or three years, for my whole life. I have now been in Gainesville for seven years and this is the longest that I've lived anywhere in my entire life.

[00:01:15] Antonio: Hopefully you don't have an itch right now to go anywhere.

[00:01:17] Dr. Kate: I don't.

[00:01:18] Antonio: Good. [00:01:18] Dr. Kate: I don't. I have an itch to stay put [crosstalk] -- [00:01:20] Antonio: Awesome because we love you here. [00:01:22] Dr. Kate: [chuckles] Thank you. I am happy to feel like I have found a place now where I can put down some roots and be part of the community both here at the university and the city more generally. I am starting to feel like I am accomplishing some sense of belonging after a long time of really moving around and always knowing that the space I was in was relatively temporary, and that I'd be picking up and leaving again at some point.

[00:01:55] Antonio: Was there any place you didn't visit while you were a military brat?

[00:02:01] Dr. Kate: We mostly lived in the United States. It's funny because we lived in pretty inland places. People think of the Navy as coastal obviously. We went to places like Fresno, California, and Cape Girardeau, Missouri, which really associate Missouri with the Navy so much, but my dad did personnel work. We were recruiting centers usually.

[00:02:24] Antonio: Okay. Very cool. Tell us about what you do? You do a lot here. Not just here at UF but also just in terms of this Executive Director of Project Implicit. There's a lot of things where I see you moving around the campus or I hear about you and the work you're doing. Give us a sense of what your research is about, but also the broader aspect of what is Project Implicit and why should we care about it?

[00:02:48] Dr. Kate: Sure. My research and the work I do as faculty here at UF is really trying to understand implicit bias. Implicit biases are the biases that we have prejudices, stereotypes, attitudes, associations that we don't always recognize in ourselves. They're in contrast to the attitudes and stereotypes that we know we have that we can tell you about. I like Florida more than Florida State as an example.

[00:03:17] Antonio: That's a good bias, right?

[00:03:18] Dr. Kate: Right, exactly. That's a wanted bias. We have all these other biases here that we may not want, and that we may not know, that we have in our minds, and that can influence our behavior. Biases related to things like race and gender and ability status, age. All of these other biases that collects in our minds that we're not really as aware of that we don't pay as much attention to. My research is really focused on that kind of bias. That's what I do here at UF. I have a lab where I have a team of grad students and undergrads and we're working to understand those biases. Then I also do a more public-facing role as the executive director of Project Implicit. Project Implicit is a nonprofit. Our mission is to educate the public about implicit bias. We do that primarily through a research website where people can go. I don't know if you've ever done it. You probably have.

[00:04:22] Antonio: I have and like most people, I swore the keyboard was sticking. There was something wrong with the issue because surely I couldn't have come up based on what I took a test on it. It's a phenomenal-- I think, what is it?

[00:04:37] Dr. Kate: We're at about 25 million visitors overall at the site.

[00:04:44] Antonio: That's pretty impressive.

[00:04:45] Dr. Kate: It's a lot of people. We have a lot of data, which is great because people can learn something about themselves and we as researchers can learn something about people and the biases that they have.

[00:04:57] Antonio: Tell us about some of the criticism because I remember when I was using this at this institution, but another one, I had some folks that were really critical about the implicit bias test. They weren't necessarily critical about implicit bias, but about the actual test. What's some of the reverb you get on this space?

[00:05:18] Dr. Kate: There's all kinds of criticism, as there is in science. Some of the criticisms that we've seen over the years, some of them are statistical, so about how the test is scored, and what it means to have a zero on the test. One piece of this is the statistical. One piece is related to knowing what these biases actually do. A big open question, I think, is the extent to which implicit bias on the IAT is the test that we're talking about. How much does that actually predict people's behavior? [00:05:56] Dr. Kate: The prediction part. [00:05:57] Dr. Kate: The prediction part. The effect sizes are generally pretty small, because lots of things predict our behavior. This is just one piece of it. Some people think that because the effect sizes are small, that these kinds of biases are meaningless. My response to that is that small things accumulate and become big things. When a person makes a decision over and over and over and over again, their biases can lead to disparity. When lots of people are making decisions, those can get even bigger. That's one of the criticisms. Then there's a whole class of criticism about the site itself and whether or not it's appropriate that we give people feedback, because the test like all tests is somewhat unreliable. Sometimes some people will take the test and then take it again later and get a different score, just like your blood pressure changes from time to time. Some of the criticism is about the feedback that we give people.

[00:06:56] Antonio: I had similar concerns from folks that were critical of it, and they were talking about FMRI is actually much better. I was like, granted an FMRI it probably is better at detecting this, but how many faculty search committees that we're going to put through an FMRI? For what it is, I think it's a really solid tool to just give people an awakening. That's really, I think, how we-- Tell us a little bit more about-- because people always when I ask them to take and they bring back the results they immediately see is, there's two. One is that this can't be right or they accept it and they're like, "Well, how do I fix myself? How do I become not as racist, not sexist, not as homophobic?" Is there a cure?

[00:07:40] Dr. Kate: Yes. That's a great. It's great that you've observed that because that's actually what our data tell us about people's responses, that people's responses generally fall into one of two categories. One is defensiveness. The test can't be true. This research doesn't make sense. You have made some error. Then the other response is a more guilt response. The people who have that more that response it's more guilt focus, what can I do about this, those are the people who generally are motivated to change. Your observation falls exactly in line with what the data tells us about how people respond.

[00:08:20] Antonio: What is the change? Because there isn't a cure, right? This isn't a pill. We love taking like, what's the magic diet? What's the magic pill here? How can I take something and quickly change my-- but there isn't. This is something that's it's a long just saturation in our culture, then how do you undo it or how do you get better at being less?

[00:08:43] Dr. Kate: I think that's the million-dollar question. I think that the way that I approach it is that, I think that the change is really important. I think that we have a moral obligation to try to figure that out. We know that whatever it is, it's going to be really difficult, really time-consuming, and require a lot of commitment. I think that in the meantime, while we're working to figure out the change piece, what we need to focus on is how do we prevent those biases from influencing our behavior. Disrupting the link between our biases and what we actually do, which doesn't require changing the bias. That's a separate problem but it can prevent some of the disparities that we see as a result of the biases that people have.

[00:09:34] Antonio: By disrupting, are you talking about slowing down your process, so being more front of mind when you're making decisions?

[00:09:41] Dr. Kate: Yes. Things like slowing down your process, things like putting systems into place that check yourself. When we're doing evaluations, for example, making sure that the criteria that we're using are really clear and explicit so that we're comparing candidates to a set of criteria rather than just, I don't know how do I feel about this person? Do I think they're doing a good job? Things like that where we change our behavior may not or may not result in actually changing the bias, but they can still prevent the disparity, which I think is, in the short term, the more important goal and the long term, I think we should be working to figure out why do we have these biases? Why do we keep perpetuating them in our culture, and what can we do about it?

[00:10:31] Antonio: That's great. It's great, you're working on both. The immediate because we all want the immediate, I want to lose five pounds, and I won't do it tomorrow, right? I suppose, but we know it's a long journey.

[00:10:41] Dr. Kate: Right.

[00:10:42] Antonio: I really appreciate the work you and your colleagues are doing in this space. As a practitioner, I love the tool and I love sort of engaging with it because if nothing else, it gets people thinking and it gets people having a discussion about it that is potentially something that they wouldn't have before.

[00:10:56] Dr. Kate: Right and that's the goal.

[00:10:57] Antonio: Right.

[00:10:58] Dr. Kate: That's what we're hoping to do.

[00:11:00] Antonio: To switch a little bit, tell us what brings you joy?

[00:11:04] Dr. Kate: Oh, my dog. My dog brings me joy.

[00:11:07] Antonio: What kind of dog?

[00:11:08] Dr. Kate: She's a Florida shelter pitbull mix hound kind of dog.

[00:11:16] Antonio: Big sleepy or?

[00:11:18] Dr. Kate: She's pretty energetic.

[00:11:19] Antonio: Really? Okay.

[00:11:20] Dr. Kate: Yes, she's pretty athletic but she's very sweet. Yes, my dog brings me joy. My children bring me joy. I probably should have said them before I said my dog. [laughter] Maybe you can edit it to switch that around?

[00:11:35] Antonio: They're probably not gonna listen to the podacast, at least not for a couple of years.

[00:11:38] Dr. Kate: No.

[00:11:38] Antonio: Mom, I can't believe. [laughter]

[00:11:40] Dr. Kate: You said Poppy before us.

[00:11:42] Antonio: Right.

[00:11:43] Dr. Kate: Yes, my children bring me joy. They're two and five and they're just really amazing.

[00:11:50] Antonio: Those are great years.

[00:11:51] Dr. Kate: They're great years, yes, they're really fun right now. That brings me joy. There are lots of things about this area that bring me joy. I'm really into birding.

[00:12:04] Antonio: Birding?

[00:12:04] Dr. Kate: There's a lot of great spots around for that.

[00:12:07] Antonio: Really?

[00:12:08] Dr. Kate: Yes.

[00:12:08] Antonio: Birding, all I keep seeing is gators, tell me more about the birds.

[00:12:13] Dr. Kate: [laughs] Yes, this is one of the best places for birding in the country.

[00:12:16] Antonio: Is that right?

[00:12:17] Dr. Kate: It is, yes.

[00:12:18] Antonio: Have you gone and seen the bats, not birds but obviously, but they're--

[00:12:22] Dr. Kate: Yes.

[00:12:23] Antonio: Yes? How's that experience? We haven't done it yet.

[00:12:24] Dr. Kate: You haven't?

[00:12:25] Antonio: No.

[00:12:25] Dr. Kate: Oh, you should do that, it's amazing. It's really neat. Yes, and then since we're talking about work and the work that I do I think my joy at work really comes from seeing people learn things about themselves that they didn't know. There's a real joy in sort of being able to expose people to ideas that are new and that challenge the way that they see themselves and that they see the world so I take a lot of joy in that as well.

[00:12:58] Antonio: Yes, well said. Well, thank you.

[00:13:02] Dr. Kate: Yes, thank you.

[00:13:03] Antonio: Kate Ratliff, a year ago I think you were promoted, right? You were [crosstalk] --

[00:13:08] Dr. Kate: I was, yes.

[00:13:09] Antonio: Congratulations also on tenure.

[00:13:10] Dr. Kate: Thank you.

[00:13:11] Antonio: Not just were you here for seven years and you placed down some roots , and we hope that you retire here, but you also sort of went through the tenure. Congratulations on that, that's huge.

[00:13:20] Dr. Kate: Thank you very much.

[00:13:22] Antonio: Again, thank you very much. It was a pleasure speaking with Professor Kate Ratliff, associate professor in the Department of Psychology and executive director of Project Implicit. Thanks again.

[00:13:32] Dr. Kate: Yes, thank you. [music]

[00:13:36] Antonio: Thanks for joining me Antonio Farias for another episode of Level Up On Presence And Belonging. We welcome your comments and suggestions for future programs. You can find more episodes of Level Up and contact information for the Office of the Chief Diversity Officer at [00:13:56] [END OF AUDIO]

19:54 Minutes
Podcast Guest Image

Episode 041: Laura Blecha and Katia Matcheva

In this episode, Antonio is talking with Laura Blecha and Katia Matcheva, both astrophysicists and professors in UF's Department of Physics. Laura and Katia take us from Earth's backyard, the solar system, to deep space and the realm of super massive black holes. They also tell us about some exciting events much closer to home--UF's celebration of the UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a full week of events February 13-19 with free public lectures and hands-on events for kids. 



[00:00:02] Antonio Farias: Welcome to season three of Level Up, a podcast where we explore how students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida are leading our community in presence and belonging. I'm your host Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida. Welcome to another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. Today, we are super fortunate because we have two phenomenal faculty from The Department of Physics.

They're here to talk about not just their work and their sense of belonging, but also an incredible conference that's coming up in celebration here for the UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Incredibly important, given it's 2020, 100-year commemoration of Women's Suffrage Movement. It all is aligning in a great way. I want to start by introducing Dr. Laura Blecha, who is the assistant professor in The Department of Physics, and Dr. Katia Matcheva, who is also an associate professor in The Department of Physics.

They both work on some super cool things that as a humanist, I have no idea, although I love science fiction. One works on supermassive black holes and also atmospheres and in the solar system and planets. Maybe, if we have time, we'll squeeze in the question about Lost in Space, and is it real or not?

[00:01:14] Dr. Katia Matcheva: Why not?

[00:01:14] Antonio: Welcome both of you to the podcast.

[00:01:16] Dr. Laura Blecha: Thank you.

[00:01:17] Katia: Thank you for the opportunity actually, to come and talk to much wider audience. Both of us are from the physics department. Now, actually neighbors by office, which I'm very excited about.

[00:01:26] Laura: Just changed offices.

[00:01:27] Antonio: Is that right?

[00:01:27] Katia: Yes.

[00:01:28] Laura: Yes.

[00:01:29] Katia: It's not that often you see two female physicists next to each other, the same corridor in the same building. That's an exciting development, I think.

[00:01:37] Antonio: I will start the podcast with the question, what is your story of belonging? Maybe if you can take turns of what does that look like for you?

[00:01:46] Katia: All right. I'll go first. My story belonging is actually related to my origin. I'm not a native of the United States. I am a native of Bulgaria, which is a country in South East Europe, just next to Greece. It's a small country with about less than eight million people. I came to the United States more than, let me see, 27 years ago. I spent more of my life in the United States than in my native Bulgarian.

Coming student here as a graduate student, I experienced some cultural differences shocks and some periods for the adaptation, language barriers, you name it. Also entering a field of physics, which subsequently I learned is not that feminine here in the United States, which was not that unusual in Bulgaria.

[00:02:39] Antonio: Interesting. You came as a PhD student or an undergrad?

[00:02:42] Katia: Yes. I came as a PhD student in physics in Johns Hopkins University. I went through some different stages, which I recognize in incoming students here in UF. I have always had a soft spot for incoming international graduate students because I know what they're going through coming from a different country. Not everything's quite the same. Even your everyday look, whether you wear makeup, whether you wear a skirt and all those things do that does make impact on your wellbeing. Let's put it that way.

[00:03:18] Antonio: Very much so. Most of it is part of the invisible playbook that we never talk about. Right?

[00:03:22] Katia: Yes. There's never written something, "Oh, you should be this and that." It is just the unwritten rules of our country. From my point of view, the inclusiveness has two parts and one part is being accepted. The other part is wanting to be part of the society as well. I've been lucky enough to do fit well in the society and to be welcomed into society. I think this is basically the winning story. It doesn't work only one way. You have to want to be part of it and you have to also accept it.

I have lived not only in the US, I've lived in other countries. I've been through some adaptations there as well. It's been a long journey, but I've been here in Gainesville and the University of Florida now for 15 years. Unbelievable. Being at one place for me for 15 years is remarkable.

[00:04:17] Antonio: Wow. You're the second world traveler we interviewed today. That’s planted roots.

[00:04:20] Katia: There you go.

[00:04:22] Antonio: Something about the water or something about the gravitational pull for Gainesville or?

[00:04:26] Katia: The sunny sky, you can't beat that. This blue sky every day, just going to get you out of any misery.

[00:04:33] Antonio: It is gorgeous. Thank you.

[00:04:34] Katia: Yes.

[00:04:34] Antonio: Thank you. Laura?

[00:04:37] Laura: Yes. My story of belonging goes back to growing up in a small college town in Kansas, even smaller than Gainesville. I've been interested in astronomy since I was a little girl. I was lucky to have parents who were very supportive and they would take me stargazing. Since we did live in a college town, there were university events going on, your public lectures and things like that, that they would take me to. Even though the path I chose was very different than anyone in my immediate family, it was something that I always felt supported in. I was very lucky in that sense.

As Katia said, being an academic involves moving around a lot. I've certainly learned the importance of finding a sense of belonging where you are and how that takes work and each time you move to find your community. I do feel lucky in the community that I've found here in Gainesville. This is my third year here, but I also, the more I'm in physics, the more I see the struggles that women face in finding that sense of belonging within the community of physics.

Not just women, but anybody who doesn't fit the typical "stereotype" of what a physicist looks like, minorities and people with disabilities, and so forth. That's one thing that's really important to me, has become really important to me is trying to figure out ways to foster that sense of belonging in the younger generation of people interested in physics. That's definitely something that motivates me a lot.

[00:06:18] Antonio: It's incredibly important. It's a two problems, at least. There's a pipeline issue which we always default to, but it's also the question of, can we keep young talent in academia now? Especially I was listening to the latest reports on where PhDs are going. Roughly 50% of them are going to industry or government. It's a double problem that we have to not just make sure that the pump is primed, but also that we actually keep folks here.

Especially the young generation that may decide, "Well, I'm going to go someplace else. I might go work for JPL or someplace else." Tell us about the work you do here, both the research you do. We're talking about supermassive black holes and atmospheres in the solar system's planets, and then maybe we can get into this big, big event that's coming up with the UN.

[00:07:13] Laura: Katia, do you want to go first to talk about research?

[00:07:16] Katia: Sure. I'm a bit close to home. I call myself a backyard astronomer because nowadays, when you say that you're a astronomer or astrophysics, people think of far, far, far, and beyond the solar system. In that perspective, I work in our backyard, which is the solar system. I study giant planets or Mars or Venus. I really study their atmospheric dynamics, mostly waves or water patterns. You can call me also a meteorologist for Mars or for Jupiter or Titan.

I'm fascinated by those alien worlds that we will one day visit. NASA or humanity already has plans for Mars, for the moon, might not be that far from now that we'll be able to settle some of the worlds. That's exciting for the new generations.

[00:08:08] Antonio: That is incredibly exciting.

[00:08:09] Katia: Yes. Then you're going to need meteorologists to tell what's the weather tomorrow.


[00:08:14] Antonio: Titan.

[00:08:15] Katia: Titan is a very exciting place. There is a new mission in the planning for NASA and is very fabulous. Actually, it's called Dragonfly. The reason it's called Dragonfly is because they're going to have basically a large size drone flown in the atmosphere of Titan. Because Titan's atmosphere is actually thicker than the earth so it can support a flying and hovering object from place to place like a dragonfly. That's in the future, but it's in the planning and has been selected from NASA to go into the next place of development. That's very exciting.

[00:08:56] Antonio: It's very exciting for Florida too. Florida becoming the epicenter.

[00:08:58] Katia: I think Florida is also a participant in one of the departments, has a participating team in that mission.

[00:09:06] Antonio: That's awesome.

[00:09:07] Katia: That is pretty cool.

[00:09:08] Antonio: That is pretty cool. Laura, supermassive black holes.

[00:09:11] Laura: Katia studies the nearby stuff and astrophysicists have a funny way of talking about things that are nearby. The stuff she studies is hundreds of millions of miles away but some of the stuff I study is more millions or billions of light-years away. It's all relative. We have black holes that form when stars, massive stars die and explode, and a core collapses to become this very compact objects. We see that in a series of galaxies.

They are what we call supermassive black holes, which instead of being maybe 10 times the mass of the sun, or maybe millions to billions of times the mass of the sun.

That's big enough that even if it's a tiny, tiny volume compared to the galaxy, it has a huge influence on the galaxies evolution because it can spew out lots of energy. Well, they're very messy eaters. When they swallow gas and stars and so forth, they tend to be very messy and spew out a lot of energy in the process. One of the main ways that we study them is by observing that energy and then also by seeing evidence of their gravitational waves which is a very exciting topic recently.

If you have two black holes that come together and collide, they're going to spiral around each other and create these ripples and spacetime that we call gravitational waves. That's what LIGO, the experiment that UF is heavily involved in, discovered a few years back and the team got a Nobel Prize, leaders of that team for discovery of gravitational waves from stellar-mass black holes, the smaller ones.

One of the main things that I study is how these black holes when two galaxies collide say, and they each have one of these supermassive black holes, then those supermassive black holes can come together and spiral and emit very strong gravitational waves at very different frequencies. Right now we're working on two different experiments that try to detect those. One is called LISA and it's going to be like LIGO but in space with little satellites that send lasers back and forth.

The other is called Pulsar Timing Array. We use radio telescopes to monitor a suite of very rapidly spinning neutron stars, another form of very compact dead star. Because they spin so rapidly they are very precise clocks rivaling atomic clocks. We can monitor a suite of them and look for deviations in how long it takes the pulses. Each pulse each time it sweeps around like a lighthouse if we expect to see the pulses at very specific times.

If we see a delay in them in a coordinated way between different pulsars and different places on the sky, then that tells us that we have seen evidence of a gravitational wave actually bending and stretching space-time between us and the pulsars. That's where I'm going right now and may even make a detection in the next several years.

The other reason that pulsars are a very exciting topic at the moment is because these objects that I described is rapidly spinning neutrons stars that emit beams of very high energy radiation were discovered several decades ago by Jocelyn Bell Burnell. She actually won the Breakthrough Prize in 2018 for the discovery of pulsar. A little bit belated. This is one of those stories where she was a graduate student when she first discovered pulsars.

The discovery won the Nobel Prize but the Nobel actually went to her supervisor who was a man. That's something that's generated a lot of controversy over the years. It was definitely great to see her win this prominent Breakthrough Prize just a couple of years ago as a real recognition of this very momentous discovery that has lots of other implications for other areas of astrophysics beyond just detecting gravitational waves.

The really exciting news for UF is that actually Jocelyn Bell Burnell is actually coming here as part of the celebration we're having for Women and Girls in Science in February. She's going to visit UF on February 19th and she's going to give a public lecture from 6:30 to 7:30 PM in Pugh Hall, room 170. There's going to be refreshments afterwards and it's going to be a great time for anyone who's interested in astrophysics or pulsars or Women in Science to come and hear about her story and ask questions.

Her talk is titled Women in Astronomy Yesterday and Today. I think it's going to be a really special event. We're very lucky to be able to get her to come visit us on campus.

[00:13:52] Antonio: That is super interesting. Then how do people find out more about-- Because this isn't just one event. You've got an entire series of programming around this.

[00:14:03] Laura: Oh, no. It's definitely not just one event. We have a second keynote public lecture, Dr. Jenny Tang, who is a geneticist and an anthropologist and a MacArthur Fellow, another very prestigious award. It's coming on February 15th it's a Saturday and she'll be giving a talk from 2:00 to 3:00 PM at the Florida Museum of Natural History. Her talk title is The Social Life of Genomes: Lessons From Our Primate Cousins. There'll also be refreshments after that talk and opportunities to ask her questions.

Those are the two public lectures. We're also having a number of other events including a gathering at First Magnitude on February 13th and then we're going to have eight or so women scientists come and people can ask them about their research and you just enjoy a beer. Kids are welcome too. We'd love to have people of all ages come to that. There's a day fair, science fair for kids with a couple of thrilling activities in Depot Park in the morning on February 15th. A number of UF student science clubs are hosting.

Then also from 10:00 to 2:00, at the Florida Museum of Natural History, the same place where Jenny Tang is speaking, there's going to be an event called Girls Do Science which will also have hands-on activities for kids, a scavenger hunt and other activities. That's a lot of information but it's all consolidated online. You can find out the details of those events. The summary of the events is on the physics web page. It's

It has all the events and we also have Facebook events on the UFY's Facebook page. That's Women in Science Engineering and the UFSPS web page. That's UF Society of Physics Students. I encourage everybody to come check those events out.

[00:15:57] Antonio: We'll link to them and also push this out throughout the network. This is incredibly exciting. Especially pioneers and current, right? You've got multi-generational opportunities to engage and become a physics nerd.

[00:16:12] Katia: I think it's a wonderful opportunity to have a piece of history. Just meeting with her and being able to shake her hand and be able to hear her voice. It's part of the history books in science.

[00:16:24] Antonio: You're in some way the offspring of her work, right? You're in physics and you're doing the work and you're exciting another generation of women and young women to move into the space.

[00:16:34] Laura: Yes, I'm definitely honored to be following in her footsteps to whatever extent I can.

[00:16:41] Antonio: Thank you. Lots to take part in in February. We close up the podcast by asking the question, what brings you joy?

[00:16:50] Katia: Good question. I find joy in curiosity. I really love to find I think-- If I find something that it's curious and interesting, it just brings me joy to figure out what it is. It's the feeling of being puzzled and it might be something very simple. It doesn't have to be science but it's something that brings some questions in your mind and you're thinking, "I wonder how that works."

That brings me joy in everyday life. On a bigger scheme of things, I really enjoy interaction with students, especially students that are interested in the curiosity again. Students that are eager to learn and when I see them in the classroom with the questions trying to figure it out, I see myself in the same steps, I always say, "Oh, you know I had the same question when I was a student like you and I couldn't figure it out. Now I know how it works. I can tell you about it." I find joy in that.

[00:17:53] Antonio: That's awesome.

[00:17:54] Laura: I guess I find a lot of joy in spending time outdoors. I have a garden. That's one of my favorite hobbies. I joke that it's like my therapy, pattering around in my garden. Cycling as well. I like to take bike rides when I can. I love that the weather in Florida allows me to do those activities year-round. Then I also want to echo what Katia said.

I think one of my favorite parts about being a professor of physics is getting to do research and experience that sort of childlike joy of discovering something new and getting excited about it. Also being able to share that with kids and with students and seeing their process of how they get excited about learning new things and discovering new things.

[00:18:49] Antonio: Craving that spark. Thank you for the work you're doing. I've got to ask, have you binged on Lost in Space?

[00:19:00] Laura: I have not.[laughs]

[00:19:01] Katia: No, but I've been a Star Treker. [laughs]

[00:19:04] Antonio: Do you think they get the physics right?

[00:19:06] Katia: I think they do lots of things right. I think Star Trek particularly gets lots of things right.

[00:19:14] Antonio: Thank you. Thank you both. Again, Dr. Laura Blecha and Dr. Katia Matcheva. Both are professors in the Department of Physics and both leading us in the right direction when it comes to issues of gender equity and science and research. Thank you very much for being on the podcast.

[00:19:31] Laura: It's an honor.

[00:19:32] Katia: Thank you.


[00:19:34] Antonio: Thanks for joining me, Antonio Farias, for another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. We welcome your comments and suggestions for future programs. You can find more episodes of Level Up and contact the information for the office of the Chief Diversity Officer at

[00:19:55] [END OF AUDIO]

16:52 Minutes
Podcast Guest Image

Episode 040: Alex Hernandez

In this episode, Antonio talks with Alex Hernandez, a 4th year graduate student studying comb jellies at the Whitney Lab in St. Augustine. Alex is also President of the UF chapter of SACNAS (Society for Advancement of Chicanons/Hispanic and Native Americans in Science) and is currently organizing the Southeast Regional Conference (February 28-29). Are comb jellies the earliest animal on the Tree of Life? Tune in to find out!



[00:00:02] Antonio Farias: Welcome to Season 3 of Level Up, a podcast where we explore how students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida are leading our community in presence and belonging. I'm your host, Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida. [music] Welcome to another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. Today, we have Alex Hernandez, fourth-year graduate student in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, who is at the Whitney Lab. Alex has been awarded a National Science Foundation graduate student fellow and she works in the Ryan Lab, which is super cool and works on the evolution of biodiversity. Welcome, Alex.

[00:00:41] Alex Hernandez: Thank you.

[00:00:42] Antonio: It's super cool to have you here.

[00:00:44] Alex: Thanks so much.

[00:00:45] Antonio: Did you have a trek in from the ocean or were you on campus today?

[00:00:50] Alex: I was on campus today. It worked out conveniently but I came in over the weekend.

[00:00:55] Antonio: Very cool. We'll get to where exactly your work happens which is multiple places.

[00:01:00] Alex: Yes.

[00:01:00] Antonio: Well, we always start the podcast with the question of what is your story of belonging.

[00:01:05] Alex: Right. My story of belonging started at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. That's where I did my undergrad. It's a school of about 5,000 students, which isn't very large. [chuckles] When I first arrived there, I felt like it was very easy to meet students and kind of build a sense of community because it was so small. It made me feel like if I wanted to see a change, that all of us students had more of a voice. It was like a built-in community right away.

[00:01:49] Antonio: Did it feel small to begin with or is it now in comparison to 54,000 student UF that it feels small?

[00:01:58] Alex: For me, it felt small. I was born and raised in Miami, which is very large.

[00:02:05] Antonio: Very large.

[00:02:06] Alex: Probably 5,000 students is very close to the size of the high school that I went to. [laughs]

[00:02:12] Antonio: Really? Wow. What high school did you go to?

[00:02:16] Alex: Coral Reef Senior High.

[00:02:18] Antonio: Okay, 5,000 students. That's amazing. It makes sense, though. Context is key.

[00:02:27] Alex: Yes. It was nice. I did want to be somewhere smaller for that reason. I wanted to be able to feel like I could have more personal connections instead of being lost and everything going on. [chuckles]

[00:02:41] Antonio: How did that happen? You said you found the sense of community was it you stumbled across it? Was it through your major? Was it through affinity groups, social clubs?

[00:02:52] Alex: I think it was a combination of things. A lot of the times I had classes with the same students in my major, the biology major. The other thing was I started to get involved with organizations on campus. One of them was the green energy club. It was all about how to make the school more environmentally friendly. The other one was the Marine Adventures Club because I was always interested in the marine environment. Both of those were little communities I was part of.

[00:03:27] Antonio: Perfect. What about now that you're at UF? How do you find belonging here?

[00:03:33] Alex: Here at UF, I initially got in and my advisor talked to me about SACNAS, the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science. He had talked to me about this organization. He said there wasn't one at UF. He asked me if I would be interested in learning about it. Before I even got to go to the conference, I started reaching out to students here and seeing who would be interested in starting a chapter. The first group of students that I reached out to was the Latino Organization of Graduate Students. That was my first community. I wasn't even a grad student yet. I reached out to those students.

[00:04:21] Antonio: Was that right?

[00:04:21] Alex: Yes. [chuckles] I was a post bac at the Whitney Lab and I reached out to those students and told them that I was going to be starting a PhD program. Right away, they kind of folded me into their group. [laughs]

[00:04:35] Antonio: You got absorbed?

[00:04:36] Alex: Yes. [chuckles] Then, from there, I did actually go to a SACNAS conference and was like, "We definitely need this here at UF." Now, I've been working on building that chapter here and that's another community that I have here.

[00:04:48] Antonio: That is very cool. We want to talk a little bit more about SACNAS and the power of SACNAS. Also, your leadership role in it because you're very humble but you're also the driving force behind it right now. Tell us about the magical Whitney lab. I was fortunate enough to visit, at your invitation and Dr. Joe Ryan, who's your advisor, who you were mentioning earlier. It was just an amazing place. Can you tell us about it?

[00:05:12] Alex: Yes. Whitney Lab is located in St. Augustine that's on the East Coast of Florida and probably about like 35 of us in total over there. People are working on things like the evolution of development in several marine invertebrates. Some of these are like sea anemones or comb jellies. Other things that people are working on are looking at biomechanics and studying neurobiology in fish and other marine vertebrates. Some people are studying ecology out there and nutrient cycling in the mangroves in Florida.

[00:05:55] Antonio: You rescue turtles or is this part of the research?

[00:05:58] Alex: Yes. Well, I don't do it [laughs] but we have a Sea Turtle Hospital at the Whitney Lab. They rescue sea turtles and help them. A lot of them are found by people just walking around in the area. They'll bring the sea turtles or call up the Sea Turtle Hospital to come pick them up. Eventually, they try to have releases to get them back into the ocean. There have been several of those.

[00:06:26] Antonio: That's pretty cool.

[00:06:27] Alex: Yes. [laughs]

[00:06:28] Antonio: I know I got a chance to look at them. That was the one thing that I remember. Your work is on comb jellies?

[00:06:35] Alex: Yes.

[00:06:36] Antonio: Tell us about that because I know you saved us from getting stung. I had sent you a photo. My daughter and I were actually up in Atlantic Beach. We were walking our dog on the water. We saw what looked like a jellyfish of some type. My daughter is curious. She wants to be a marine biologist and she wanted-- She was worried that it was dying and she wanted to move it and I was like, "Don't touch it because it's probably jellyfish and it will probably sting you."

[00:07:03] Alex: That's a wise decision. [laughs]

[00:07:04] Antonio: It was a wise decision. So, what she did is she wrote me a step around in the sand and put sticks so that people would walk around it because the tide was coming in. Then, I sent you the photo and it turned out to be what? A Portuguese-

[00:07:16] Alex: Man-of-war. [laughs]

[00:07:16] Antonio: -man-of-war, which is about the highest level of pain. Right? Is that true or not?

[00:07:21] Alex: I can't remember. The box jellies I know are the ones that get you pretty bad. The man-of-wars are also pretty painful. Yes.

[00:07:28] Antonio: Okay. That would have been a lesson learned, wouldn't it? Tell us about comb jellies.

[00:07:33] Alex: Comb jellies are-- those guys actually don't sting you at all. They are often confused with jellyfish, but they're actually not jellyfish. They're gelatinous but they're a different animal group.

[00:07:49] Antonio: Really?

[00:07:49] Alex: Yes. A lot of them bio luminesce. There's a big debate right now [chuckles] as to whether or not they're the earliest animals to come from the last common ancestor of all animals.

[00:08:06] Antonio: Really?

[00:08:06] Alex: Yes. [laughs] It's between them and sponges. This is the current [laughs] hot topic debate in our field.

[00:08:13] Antonio: Wow. So, what drew you-- Of all the marine life, what drew you to comb jellies?

[00:08:21] Alex: I think it was that, the not knowing too much about them. They're pretty understudied. I took a marine invertebrate class in my undergrad. I had remembered them talking about we don't really know where they belong on the tree of life. There's a lot that we don't know about them. I got very interested in studying evolution. When I was looking at labs for graduate school, I saw that Joe was working on comb jellies, and his lab also works on evolution. I thought, "Oh, my God. This is such an amazing pairings." [chuckles]

[00:09:00] Antonio: His lab also works on SACNAS, right?

[00:09:02] Alex: Yes.

[00:09:03] Antonio: Tell us a little bit more about SACNAS and Joe and that relationship.

[00:09:07] Alex: Yes. Joe, I can't remember how long he's been going to SACNAS conferences, but he has been going since he was a postdoc, so it's been a while now. He just brought it up to me and because I was interested, he took me to the conference in 2016. That was my first time going. When I got there, I realized what an amazing community it was. The whole organization focuses on promoting diversity in STEM. I think, originally, when it started, the mission was to specifically help students from Latin or Native American backgrounds but it's grown. Their mission right now is they want to see true diversity, so what's represented in the US, is what they would like to see in science. I don't know. It's just such a heartwarming environment to be in. Students get opportunities to present posters there and get feedback and it's not an intimidating environment at all. Everyone's very friendly and seem like they genuinely want people to succeed and do what they can to help you, whether it's introducing you to a colleague. If you're a little bit nervous about it, they're always happy to bridge that.

[00:10:36] Antonio: Do you find that an anomaly in terms of, as a grad student? Right? Because you've been doing this now four years, that they're that sort of open or about building you up? Do you find that across the board or have you found that across the board of higher education? Do you think that this is something different?

[00:10:54] Alex: I don't think it's across the board. I'm sure there are other environments like that. I just haven't come across another one. Not to say that if I go to other conferences, people aren't friendly, but it's a different feeling.

[00:11:12] Antonio: Like you're home?

[00:11:13] Alex: Yes. Definitely.

[00:11:17] Antonio: Right now, you're actually putting together the regional conference. Right? Tell us about that and hype that up a little bit for the listeners.

[00:11:27] Alex: Yes. We're hosting our first-ever Southeast SACNAS Regional Conference. We're bringing two keynote speakers from elsewhere, but one of our keynote speakers is from UF. One of them is Dr. Danielle Lee. She works on behavior in the African pouched rat. Then, the other person is Dr. Andre Cropper. He works on electrical engineering. Right now, he works at Raytheon. He was actually suggested to us by Brendan and Mikaela. They were here a couple weeks ago I think? Right?

[00:12:12] Antonio: Yes.

[00:12:13] Alex: Yes. They got to meet him, I think, at an AISES Conference and suggested him as one of our speakers.

[00:12:20] Antonio: That's very cool. AISES and SACNAS are sort of, again, expanding that network. Right?

[00:12:25] Alex: Yes.

[00:12:27] Antonio: That's very cool. When is the conference?

[00:12:29] Alex: It's February 28th and 29th, so it's also the first regional meeting t hat will be a two-day meeting.

[00:12:37] Antonio: Okay. Where can they find out more information?

[00:12:41] Alex: They can find more information by Googling, "2020 Southeast Regional SACNAS Meeting."

[00:12:50] Antonio: Okay. Can they reach out to you directly?

[00:12:54] Alex: Yes. Definitely.

[00:12:56] Antonio: What's your role in SACNAS UF?

[00:12:57] Alex: I'm the president of our SACNAS chapter.

[00:13:01] Antonio: Excellent. Ideally, present something, right? This is a great--Again, your whole point is these are places that are here to build you up, encourage you, give you professional development, create networks. Right? It's not about cutting you down to size?

[00:13:14] Alex: Right. It's student-led and student-oriented, so we want students to be the ones that are presenting.

[00:13:21] Antonio: Super important. Right?

[00:13:22] Alex: Yes.

[00:13:23] Antonio: No better place to-- now as a young graduate student to get your work out there and get the critical feedback. Right?

[00:13:29] Alex: Yes. It's better to do it in a place, like you said, where you feel safe and comfortable then, especially if it's your first time presenting. That was my thing, too. The first time I presented was at a SACNAS meeting, so it was nice to be able to do it there and--

[00:13:45] Antonio: Now, you're paying it forward. I love it. I love it. We end the podcast with the question of what brings you joy?

[00:13:52] Alex: Okay. What brings me joy? [chuckles] I'm really into weightlifting. [laughs]

[00:14:00] Antonio: Like powerlifting?

[00:14:03] Alex: I did a bodybuilding competition-

[00:14:05] Antonio: Oh, wow.

[00:14:05] Alex: -a couple months ago. [laughs] Weightlifting is such a stress relief for me and I've gotten very into it and I-- a lot of the time, find myself comparing PhD life to like gym experiences. [laughs]

[00:14:22] Antonio: Walk us through that correlation.

[00:14:25] Alex: Both are like a challenge that you're facing and there's times during the PhD where I'm like, "Oh, I just-- I'm so tired. I want to give up," but then, you have to push yourself and remind yourself why you're doing this and I feel like I go through the same thing at times with the weightlifting. I'm like, "Ugh, I don't want to do this," but I know it's worth it at the end and trying to motivate myself and push myself through that. [00:14:50] Antonio: That's very cool. That's the key. Right? It's like with both, you don't get the immediate payback. PhD, long trek, heavy lifting, you're talking-- the immediacy is not there. It's like pain is the immediacy. Right?

[00:15:04] Alex: Yes. [laughs]

[00:15:05] Antonio: In the long term, a month, two months, three months, is when you actually get the sort of the payback. Well, in the PhD, it's a couple of years. Right?

[00:15:12] Alex: Yes

[00:15:13] Antonio: I love that. I love that. You competed regionally or--?

[00:15:16] Alex: Yes.

[00:15:17] Antonio: Wow. How was that? Was that your first?

[00:15:19] Alex: It was my first.

[00:15:21] Antonio: And?

[00:15:21] Alex: It was amazing. I placed fourth. I was very excited. [laughs]

[00:15:25] Antonio: That's really cool. [chuckles] For the first time?

[00:15:28] Alex: Yes.

[00:15:29] Antonio: What was the most terrifying thing about it?

[00:15:32] Alex: You have to get up on the stage and pose. [chuckles] I'm very shy. I feel like I've come such a long way, so getting up on a stage and doing that, I was like, "Wow. If I can go and give a talk again," like comparing this to my PhD experiences, "If I can get up and give a talk in front of people, I can get up and do this." [laughs] [00:1556] Antonio: I love that. See? All the grad students out there, just give a paper, give a talk, and then, who knows what's next? Right?

[00:16:02] Alex: Yes. [chuckles]

[00:16:03] Antonio: Powerlifting. I love that. Very cool. Well, thank you for sharing that.

[00:16:07] Alex: Yes.

[00:16:07] Antonio: Thank you for being on the podcast.

[00:16:09] Alex: Thank you for having me.

[00:16:10] Antonio: No. It's been a pleasure. Alex Hernandez, fourth-year graduate student, Whitney Lab, College of Liberal Arts and Science, it's been a pleasure and it's been actually a learning experience and I know now, "See a Portuguese man-of-war, just walk around."

[00:16:23] Alex: Yes. [chuckles] [music]

[00:16:28] Antonio: Thanks for joining me, Antonio Farias, for another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. We welcome your comments and suggestions for future programs. You can find more episodes of Level Up and contact information for the Office of the Chief Diversity Officer at [music]

20:32 Minutes
Podcast Guest Image

Episode 039: President Kent Fuchs

In this episode, Level Up has a very special guest--UF President Kent Fuchs. For President Fuchs belonging starts with family and takes root in the formative years of higher education. Find out about a day in the life of a university president and the location of the best secret selfie op with President Fuchs!


[00:00:00] Antonio Farias: Welcome to season three of Level Up, a podcast where we explore how students, faculty and staff at the University of Florida are leading our community in presence and belonging. I'm your host, Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida. Welcome to another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. Today we are incredibly fortunate. We have Dr. Kent Fuchs who is the 12th president of the University of Florida with us today. Dr. Fuchs, welcome.

[00:00:30] Dr. Kent Fuchs: Thanks, Antonio. It's good to be on your podcast. I've noticed them for many months but finally, you invited me. Thank you.

[00:00:38] Antonio: Thank you for being here. It's great to have the number one Gator on the podcast. We always start the podcast with the question which is, what is your story of belonging?

[00:00:48] Fuchs: You told me you might ask me that question. I think it's a great question because it's not something you would normally think about or ask about. I've never been asked that question and I've been interviewed by hundreds of people. You're causing me to think about an important concept. For me, belonging is at several levels. There's the sort of the enduring piece of which you are rooted in something and that will never change no matter what happens, no matter what failures or successes or how the world changes. I think that starts with family. Both of my parents have passed away, but I still feel like I belong part of them. My wife, Linda and I, we belong to each other and then we've got children and we belong to them, they belong to us. Those are really enduring relationships, but then there's also for many of us, we're a part of an organization where we may be pursuing a degree or maybe we're employed, and we certainly feel like we belong to that entity. For us and probably most of your listeners that would be at the University of Florida. What's special I think about colleges and universities is that they too endure, that when you get a degree from a university or college, you got that degree forever. Very few times does a university take it back or you give it up, and that university endures. To me that enduring belonging is something that is really quite, quite special. I'm giving a talk tomorrow to about 300 employees of the university that work in the broad area of communications. I'm actually going to talk about how we indeed have near term goals personally for the university, but we're in also what an author by the name of Simon Sinek calls the infinite game. We're working on something that endures beyond us, beyond even our lifetimes. That's when we belong as a part of a university, I think that's special, even if we go on and do other things, you can graduate, you can take another job. I still feel like I belong to the college I attended. I belong to the university I worked before I came here, and now I belong here.

[00:03:32] Antonio: You mentioned this concept of enduring belonging which I hadn't thought about, but Gator nation is that, is that sense of enduring sense of belonging. Do you think that there's having been at places like Cornell and comparable big institutions, is there a magic sauce that we have here in Gainesville, Florida that creates that?

[00:03:58] Fuchs: I think what is pretty special is that the majority of our alumni came from the State of Florida. For many, many of them this was the start of a change in generations of people. They may be the first ones to go to college, they may not be the first, but for many of them, they're not parts of many generations of, say, wealth that you might see at a elite university in the Northeast. The names you might hear are Princeton, Harvard, Yale, et cetera. Therefore this institution for them has been transformational in their lives and they have a sense of gratitude, maybe even debt that they want to have that same effect in other people, future generations and they feel very much part of it because it changed them so much. I think for almost anyone that went to college, that was a time in their life where they changed the most, at least that's for me, and when I went to college, more at the undergrad level because, for me, first time to leave home, first time to be on my own, first time to challenge thoughts, thinking. Those things are just transformational. I think for University of Florida graduates, the State of Florida is a state of a lot of immigrants, a lot of-- It's a young state so it is the graduates reflect that state. I think that's pretty special. We're a large university and that means that we affect a lot more people than some other places that have had this longer history than we have.

[00:06:12] Antonio: Thank you. That helps me understand a little bit. Speaking about this question of the state, you were a Florida resident as a young man but you were also an Oklahoma resident. I understand you were also in the Outbacks of Alaska at some point.

[00:06:28] Fuchs: Yes. My father was a air traffic controller. He started out as a farmer in Oklahoma when I was born, but then he became an air traffic controller and at that point in the history of air traffic controllers, they moved around a lot. It was Alaska, different places in Alaska is my childhood and then high school in Florida. When I graduated from Miami Killian Senior High School in 1973, what I did is I went to the local library in Coral Ridge. They didn't have obviously the things we have today online, et cetera and there weren't college rankings even then, but they had a list of all the selective universities in the whole country and how selective were they. How many people applied, how many people actually did they admit. They ranked them all, and I drew a circle around a thousand miles. I didn't want to go more than a thousand miles. At that point, none of those universities in Florida were on that list. They were up in Georgia and North Carolina, so I ended up going to North Carolina. That's different now. It's different now.

[00:07:47] Antonio: That circle has gotten smaller for a lot of people.

[00:07:50] Fuchs: Yes. We have people now from those other states wanting to come here, which is great.

[00:07:57] Antonio: Tell us about what you do. Everyone has an opinion and a perception of what a president of a large comprehensive university does. If there is a typical day of a university president, and you mentioned that you're going to be influencing the influencers in terms of the communications folks that you're going to be speaking to and leading the charge on. Give us a sense of flavor of the bean as to what it is that a president does and what a president really doesn't do.

[00:08:27] Fuchs: I describe my job as having sort of two parts to it. I'll give you the high-level view, and then I'll just maybe go through a day. There's no typical day, but maybe just pick a few days. I purposely do three things. I usually just talk about two of them, but I'll give you-- to be comprehensive and to be accurate, it's really three. I think of my role as being as communicating on behalf of the university and spending about half my time doing that. It helps me to think about that, to say it, to realize that that really is my job and to be intentional about that, but for me, communicating is, for example, this podcast, it is the column in the Alligator that I had Friday, but it's also-- and it's big talks like that I mentioned speaking tomorrow to these 300 communicators, but it's also listening to people. I'll meet with a lot of people that could influence the future of the University of Florida and I'm really listening to them rather than me trying to persuade them to do something, but it's all communicating, whether it's writing, whether it's a speech or whether it's one-on-one. Sometimes that communication can just be my presence out on Turlington Plaza, Plaza of the Americas or maybe at an athletic event. That's what's so special about social media, is that now I can communicate by doing something but yet, 1000 people, 10,000 people will see it so I can be more intentional in what I do.

[00:10:21] Antonio: Well, you're all over campus. I just want to debunk a myth. There is only one President Fuchs. There aren't replicants. You don't have body doubles there because at one moment I'll see you in Turlington and the other day I'll see you-

[00:10:31] Fuchs: I refuse to say. [laughter]

[00:10:35] Fuchs: They're true. I have two brothers that look just like me. Communication is half of it. The second half is, as you might expect, is working to bring resources to the university.

[00:10:46] Antonio: Critically important.

[00:10:47] Fuchs: Both of those are the two things that I can't ask somebody else to do, I got to do them. Now, a lot of other people communicate, a lot of other people work to bring resources, but there is a role that the president just has to play in that and about half my time is spent on that. Next week I'll be in Tallahassee and meeting with the lawmakers in our session. That's a big part of it. Obviously, philanthropy is a big part of bringing resources but also the federal government. Half on resources or bringing resources, half on communicating. To be totally accurate, the other third piece and now there's no time left, I think, because the other two halves are taken, and this is equally important, and that is recruiting people to the university in different positions for which I have responsibility, and then supporting them so they can be successful once they're here. To be specific, we are this week recruiting a Chief Financial Officer. Our current Chief Financial Officer, Mike McKee, is retiring in two months. We're working on interviewing. We've got a lead candidate so we're today going to make an offer to someone. My view there, my role is recruit them and just support them and want them to be successful. Those are the three things. Recruiting people and supporting them. Secondly, communicating and bringing resources. Now, should I share with you just like a typical day? [laughs]

[00:12:26] Antonio: We would love to hear it.

[00:12:28] Fuchs: Okay. I'll start with today. I do spend time, many days out of the week, meeting with individuals that report to me to discuss what they're working on, how I could be helpful, issues that they're encountering. My very next meeting at 9:30 today is with our General Counsel, our Chief Legal Officer, Amy Hass. I meet with her and we'll talk about if she was in Tallahassee last couple days speaking to some committees and we'll talk about what she's involved in, and then I am hosting a luncheon at the university house, the Powell House today for leaders in the African-American community. Not UF employees, but African-American community and we'll be together.

[00:13:27] Antonio: Incredibly important, yes.

[00:13:28] Fuchs: Yes, it's just a way of staying in touch with important individuals in Gainesville and Alachua County.

[00:13:36] Antonio: It's back to your concept of listening to people.

[00:13:38] Fuchs: Yes, that is mainly listening time and building relationships. It's something where we've invited them, we have a nice lunch and we just have conversation. Usually I have someone there that I introduced them to that's part of the university they may not have met yet. From there I come back and I've got this talk tomorrow morning to communicators, which is a good 30 minute talk and that takes a lot of time. People invite me to come to an event and hope to say a few words. They don't know that saying a few words may take 40, 50 hours of work. You'd have to show up and say a few words. We worked this morning and a colleague of mine, Aaron Hoover and I on this talk. What we do is, we talk about how to do it, then he goes off and works on it and then I tell him, "No, no, I changed my mind. I want to reorganize everything." We work on that this afternoon, and then I go get a haircut. Okay.

[00:14:47] Antonio: It's super important. Do you go on campus?

[00:14:52] Fuchs: I do. The Reitz Union Barber Shop.

[00:14:54] Antonio: Would you recommend?

[00:14:56] Fuchs: That's a very personal thing for everybody. The unique part of that is I'll be sitting in the barber chair in the barber shop and the first floor of the Reitz Union is all glass. People walk by and then they come in and want a selfie while I'm in the barber chair with my bib on.

[00:15:13] Antonio: That's incredibly weird.

[00:15:15] Fuchs: It's pretty awkward, but I do it.

[00:15:19] Antonio: I shouldn't try that then.

[00:15:20] Fuchs: No, don't don't do it, please.

[00:15:21] Antonio: Another myth-busting that I want to do is your Twitter feed. You've got massive amounts of Twitter followers across the Gator Nation. Do you do your own social media or do you have someone handle it for you?

[00:15:38] Fuchs: I do my own. However, I'm only on Twitter. We do have a social media organization at the university and many colleges and departments do as well, which I think is great because they engage with the community broadly. That often gets propagated out to other social media platforms, but I'm not on Facebook and many others. There are times when people suggest things that I might want to respond to or say, but almost 95% of it or 99% of it comes comes from me. I'm a little unique in that I don't follow any individual person. I just decided that at the beginning. I follow organizations. If I followed a person, I'd have to follow everybody, I think. I don't follow you and-

[00:16:31] Antonio: No, that's perfectly fine.

[00:16:31] Fuchs: If an organization retweets you, then I see what you did.

[00:16:35] Antonio: Okay. [laughter]

[00:16:36] Fuchs: Which they do. [laughter]

[00:16:38] Antonio: Which sometimes makes me wonder, "Should I tweet this?" Because my boss is watching more likely than not. We close up the podcast by asking the final question, which is what brings you joy?

[00:16:51] Fuchs: Yes, that's a great question again. There's joy at so many different levels. I'll just give a few examples.The most personal one would be, what do I enjoy doing, and that's more of just pleasure and more than I would say joy. That is my kind of thing that I'd be doing. If I could choose anything just by my own would be out sailing. I love sailing. When I think about it, I can just feel myself in a sailboat with the wind and the boat heeling over and pushing. It's just great. I love that. I know you're a runner, right?

[00:17:29] Antonio: I'm a runner.

[00:17:30] Fuchs: Does that give you joy when you run? It must, right?

[00:17:31] Antonio: It does after-- Not initially, but when it was 29 degrees the other day, it wasn't necessarily bringing me joy, but after about 40 minutes, I got into the groove.

[00:17:42] Fuchs: This ties back to belonging. Linda and I now have three grandchildren and they don't live in town. All of our children live long ways away, but just seeing photos of them and when we see them in person, that's certainly-- When you say young kids, their ages one, three and five.

[00:18:01] Antonio: Great ages.

[00:18:02] Fuchs: Yes, those are great.

[00:18:04] Antonio: You can still hold them on your lap.

[00:18:05] Fuchs: Yes, very much so. They're a little ambitious and rambunctious. I would just say, just seeing-- At a university you have these just energetic, brilliant young people, 54,000 of them. Just that brings me joy. Just seeing all of them and seeing them succeed. They and all of us have personal challenges, you've got the deadlines, you've got the courses we struggle in, but you know that they're in the midst of-- As we started this podcast, they're in the midst of having their lives impacted by being here, being together and that just brings me a lot of joy.

[00:18:48] Antonio: You bring them joy at a very personal level, just as a anecdote. I remember being in the parking lot with you, speaking with you. I was walking away and this young human being was walking directly towards you speaking affirmations to herself and saying, "There he is. There he is. There's the president. Should I go up to him? Should I go up to him? President Fuchs." You stopped and she asked for a selfie and I've never seen you say no to a selfie. I think there's probably a "catch the president" and it's probably where you're getting a haircut and people will stop you, you admit. I don't know what it would be like to go to the shopping center [laughs] as a public figure but-

[00:19:33] Fuchs: It can be fun.

[00:19:34] Antonio: I can imagine. You make it fun. That's what I appreciate a lot about you and what I think a lot of people appreciate is, when you-- Going back to your point about talking, when you talk and you communicate, you leave really actionable golden nuggets for people to really chew on. That I think is something that's appreciated over here.

[00:19:53] Fuchs: Well, you do too. I learn from that.

[00:19:57] Antonio: We learn from each other.

[00:19:57] Fuchs: Thank you.

[00:19:58] Antonio: Thank you. That really closes up the podcast. Again, thank you very much President Fuchs-

[00:20:03] Fuchs: You're welcome and thank you Antonio.

[00:20:03] Antonio: -for being on the podcast. That wraps up another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. Thank you all. [music]

[00:20:11] Antonio: Thanks for joining me Antonio Farias for another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. We welcome your comments and suggestions for future programs. You can find more episodes of Level Up and contact the information for the office of the Chief Diversity Officer [00:20:33] [END OF AUDIO]

16:16 Minutes
Podcast Guest Image

Episode 038: David-John

In this episode, Antonio sits down with Mikaela David-John, 1st year graduate student in Family, Youth and Community Sciences, and Brendan David-John, 3rd year graduate student in computer science. Brendan is from Salamanca, NY, representing the Seneca Nation of Indians and Mikaela is from Syracuse, NY, and is a member of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe. As married graduate students, Mikaela and Brendan share how they found belonging through the Native American Students Association as undergraduates and are paying that forward by establishing an American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) chapter here at UF.


[music] [00:00:02] Antonio Farias: Welcome to season three of Level Up, a podcast where we explore how students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida are leading our community in presence and belonging. I'm your host Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida. Welcome to another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. Today we've got a first. This is the first time we've had an actual couple who are also grad students here at the University of Florida. We're privileged to have Mikaela David-John, who is a graduate student in the Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences. We also have Brendan David-John, who is a PhD student, NSF graduate research fellow in the Department of Computer and Information Science and Engineering. Welcome to you both.

[00:00:46] Mikaela David-John: Thank you.

[00:00:46] Brendan David-John: Thanks.

[00:00:47] Antonio: Super excited to have you here. We always start the podcast by asking the question, what is your story of belonging?

[00:00:55] Mikaela: You can go first.

[00:00:56] Brendan: I can start. This is kind of a twofold thing. Belonging is a very hard thing to quantify, but one thing that sticks out to me was when I first did a college visit and got to-- I always knew I liked computers, but when I went to an actual university, saw research labs, saw there's more than just typing text down and get code and it runs. I had a feeling of technical and academic acknowledgement there but not only during that visit. It was run through a Native American Outreach Program. Not only was I someone going through these labs and discovering things, I was there as part of a group of 30 other native students.

[00:01:30] Antonio: That's fantastic. This was at Rochester?

[00:01:33] Brendan: Yes. The Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York. I think if I only gotten one of those things at once, I may not have folded in, but having both of those things in the same part of that experience had a really, really strong impact on me. I think that's why they belong, and that's when I first felt that with what I do today.

[00:01:50] Antonio: That sense of community that there was already people there who got it.

[00:01:55] Mikaela: I have a really close-knit family back home and very large.

[00:01:58] Antonio: Where is home?

[00:01:59] Mikaela: Syracuse, New York.

[00:02:01] Antonio: Very cold there right now.

[00:02:02] Mikaela: Yes, very. Then I actually graduated high school early, so I went and left the nest a little early, so that security blanket was pulled away. I did go to college with my best friend. That was awesome. She was part of HEOP, the Higher Education Opportunity Program.

[00:02:23] Antonio: I used to be a HEOP coordinator a million years.

[00:02:25] Mikaela: Oh, really?

[00:02:26] Antonio: Yes, in New York.

[00:02:26] Mikaela: Awesome program. She was part of that. She helped me make a lot of friends, but I still didn't really find my clique there, my niche, people that really made me feel welcome. There was a mutual friend of ours who was part of the Native American Student Association, and she kept telling me, inviting me to meetings. I ignored her for a whole year, and then eventually I gave in, mostly to just keep her quiet. [laughter]

[00:02:59] Antonio: Persistence works, right?

[00:03:00] Mikaela: Yes, it does. Then I finally went to a meeting my second year at RIT, and it was pretty awesome to just walk in. Everyone was so welcoming. Definitely felt the sense of community but it's also such a small group where everyone just knows each other, they're friends. Such a small group that even the next week I was asked to be on the executive board of the club and then just got roped in from there, but it was awesome. Had I not gave into that persistence, I might not have found my place.

[00:03:38] Antonio: It's really important. The sense of finding place, finding a home. We use lots of metaphors for this, but it's really, how do you make something huge feel like it's manageable?

[00:03:48] Mikaela: Right. Especially just going away to college. My undergrad university was a lot smaller than UF but still big compared to anything else I've been.

[00:03:59] Antonio: Where did you go?

[00:04:00] Mikaela: We went to the same school actually: The Rochester Institute of Technology. We met. He was at the first meeting that I went to.

[00:04:08] Brendan: By chance, I still have the sign-up sheet.

[00:04:10] Antonio: Is that right?

[00:04:11] Mikaela: Scanned in on one of my folders . She's like, "That's the first meeting I went to".

[00:04:17] Antonio: You're also a couple?

[00:04:19] Mikaela: Yes. We got married last August.

[00:04:21] Antonio: Congratulations.

[00:04:22] Mikaela: Thank you.

[00:04:24] Antonio: As a couple, are you feeling a difference in terms of how you find community? Is it with other couples, or is it still pretty much the same way you've been navigating the university, particularly when it's big as this one?

[00:04:38] Mikaela: I think any interactions that we've had outside of classes and stuff, it tends to be with other couples or married or other researchers, people of like minds, experiences. Then I was also working in the community for two years before I came to UF, so I made a few friends in the community.

 [00:05:03] Brendan: I think at first, even as a graduate student, it's a little bit different when you come in as the undergraduate. I felt that as far as who my community is now versus who it was as an undergraduate. There's some bridges to get these communities to talk. There's some comfort in-- Who you are the moment you arrive is different than I was an undergraduate now or if I look at where I am now back to my undergraduate.

[00:05:27] Mikaela: You're a lot more open to experiences, I think, as a graduate student and open to actually meeting people.

[00:05:36] Antonio: Does time speed up or slow down as a grad student versus being a undergrad?

[00:05:42] Mikaela: I think the day to day of it is probably a lot faster. There's just so many more deadlines, and you have to really be the master of your own self, which is not how it is in undergrad at all. I'm still getting used to it just being a second semester grad student and looking forward to hopefully doing a PhD. I'm trying to put deadlines on myself and everything.

[00:06:09] Brendan: I definitely look back and say, "Wow, I had so much time". [laughs] It didn't feel like I did in undergraduate, but I had a lot more time than I realized.

[00:06:18] Antonio: Are there special challenges that you face as a married couple that we need to be aware of as we bring in graduate students?

 [00:06:26] Mikaela: Yes. I see a lot of graduate students now with either an engagement ring, wedding ring on, and I have thought about this. When I wasn't a graduate student and he was, I think the dynamic was a lot harder for me to understand because he stays up till 3:00 AM working on projects when there's deadlines.

[00:06:49] Antonio: It's not World of Warcraft that you—

[00:06:51] Mikaela: No. To me, I just didn't understand like, "You're only getting paid for this amount of hours. That's all you should be doing". Then when I got here, I'm like, "Okay, now I get it". I think just probably telling people to be considerate of the other person's time a lot more and understanding is a good tip upfront.

[00:07:16] Brendan: I don't think you understand it until you try it. I think this last semester also .. . I know some colleges do an onboarding for if you're applying to a PhD program and you have a spouse. They will put them through a course to give them some prep for what they're about to experience.

[00:07:30] Antonio: Interesting. Do we do that?

[00:07:32] Brendan: Not that I've seen. The one that I've seen do it is the University of Maryland. That's the one that I'd seen prior, but I'm not sure if there's anything here.

[00:07:39] Antonio: Think it would help?

[00:07:40] Brendan: I think so for sure. Just because you don't know what you're jumping into very much. It's hard for even the other student in graduate school to explain that back.

[00:07:47] Antonio: That's interesting. I hadn't thought about that. The military does that. When you go in, there's always a spousal partner briefing so that-- again, makes sense of the world that it's alien to the person that even though they live with them, they just don't get it.

[00:08:02] Mikaela: I think it would be helpful, especially because I was a first-gen college student, so I didn't really know. Brendan's dad actually has a PhD, so he knew what was to be expected a little bit more than I did. It's just very different.

[00:08:18] Antonio: Excellent. Tell me about the work you're doing, both the graduate work you're doing, but also this bigger project that you're trying to develop here called AISES.

[00:08:30] Brendan: I'll get started, I guess, on the AISES front. AISES stands for American Indian Science and Engineering Society. It's a national organization. I think similar and most analogous to NSBE, if you've heard of, or National Society of Black Engineers. It's been around for a long time. That's actually how we met at RIT anyway. She had mentioned the Native American Student Association, but that was very closely tied to AISES as you know. I think that's something that when we were looking at places to go, some of the influence factors is there's this type of chapter there. It gave us a very good start to our academic career, and that's something we want to keep going. Unfortunately, UF doesn't currently have one, but we are currently in the process of creating one of those organizations as a student club. We are currently president, vice president, co-president. I don't know who right now. Somehow we are in the process of submitting the- [crosstalk]

[00:09:12] Antonio: Co-president?

[00:09:13] Mikaela: Yes. Co-president and then we have a secretary on board who's secretary/treasurer. We've recruited about, besides us, nine other people around campus, but we do know that there are other Native American or indigenous people on campus. We just haven't found them yet, but we're looking.

[00:09:36] Brendan: We kind of took that as a challenge. Of course, on one hand, we'd already seen how that works very successfully at RIT, and it's something that we want to bring to UF as a community because it would be very beneficial. There's a lot of good things happening at UF. We want to get swept up in that and try to contribute as well.

[00:09:54] Antonio: If you don't build it, then we're just going to perpetually have Native students that come here looking, and if they're not seeing it, then they're not going to stick around.

[00:10:03] Mikaela: Exactly, yes. It gives, as I said earlier, a sense of community, a sense of belonging. But then also, the main goal of AISES as a national organization is to increase the number of STEM majors or natives in STEM just from a high school level on up to professional, so just being able to get different career opportunities, networking. Brendan's actually gotten internships because of going to the national conference. It's just a really beneficial organization.

[00:10:46] Brendan: It ties in pretty close to how I got started with research anyway. It was AISES that recommended me. The chapter advisor said, "Hey, apply to this research experience", and that's where I think I started with my interest in computing, human centered computing. Not your typical engineering make computers faster, computing for the sake of computing, but how do we make computer to make humans better, lives better? It's the whole goal of that.

[00:11:09] Antonio: That's super cool. We rarely talk about that.

[00:11:13] Brendan: It tied in very closely to how I got started. Of course, a personal goal now is to do this for other students that I know are out there but may have not discovered this yet. That's part of our goal. It's something I want to give back. It's something they gave to me, and I'm really looking forward to give back to UF.

[00:11:28] Antonio: That's really key, right? Part of belonging it's not a selfish thing. It's always about building community and this sense of paying it forward. I appreciate you, Brendan, because last semester you came when we had the part of the Florida Seminole tribe here and these young-- At that point, they were bleary eyed from the college tour process. The administrators went up there, including myself, trying to be engaging, and they were zoning out until you went up there. All of a sudden, it just clicked, and they were bombarded with questions. Part of that is they saw themselves in some way or another in you. Again, how many Native students are doing STEM? How many of them are doing computer science? The numbers keep getting smaller and smaller.

[00:12:14] Mikaela: He is one of how many PhD students in computer science?

[00:12:18] Brendan: Want to say it's in the 20s or 30s? Dr. Gilbert did some survey to see how many-

[00:12:22] Antonio: National wide?

[00:12:22] Brendan: Yes -Natives currently enrolled in PhD Computer Science, and UF has two of them.

[00:12:29] Antonio: In some way, we're like—

[00:12:29] Brendan: We're already at 10%.

[00:12:31] Mikaela: You guys are leaders.

[00:12:32] Antonio: Which is horrifically wonderful in the way of, "Yes, we're number one, but that's not the number. We want to increase that process". That's why I'm really grateful for the work you're doing on this because AISES will-- By laying that groundwork while you're here, it'll live on and it'll expand.

[00:12:50] Mikaela: We're definitely trying to get some undergrads on board as well so they can keep the process going, so it doesn't have to live and die with us so they can continue to build that community.

[00:13:02] Antonio: Tell us, Mikaela, about the graduate work you're doing?

[00:13:06] Mikaela: Similar to his work but very different. He wants to help people through computers, and I want to help people help themselves in a way. In Family, Youth and Community Sciences, I'm a graduate assistant in COPE lab, which focuses on health disparities, such as obesity and diabetes, so preventing those in rural minority and low income communities. A lot of my interest is all around health equity and supplying the access where there really isn't any to bridge gaps.

[00:13:47] Antonio: That's critically important. All this knowledge and if we can't get it to the people that need it most, then might as well not exist. Right?

[00:13:55] Mikaela: Exactly. It's hard to figure out. We're still figuring it out. That's for sure, but I'm excited to be part of that.

[00:14:02] Antonio: That's super exciting. We close out the show by asking, what brings you joy?

[00:14:09] Mikaela: For me, I think it's adventure, always something new. I think with the different educational opportunities we've had, we've driven across the country together, which was quite an adventure. We're from New York, and now we're here in Florida. We've just traveled a lot.

 [00:14:27] Antonio: That's an adventure.

[00:14:28] Mikaela: That's exciting. Always something new and then just being able to learn from the adventure brings me joy.

[00:14:37] Brendan: It's always a hard one. I think seeing the fruits of your labor. It's weird to say joy and success because you can't always guarantee success. What we learn from failures is also very important.

[00:14:45] Antonio: It's super important.

[00:14:46] Brendan: It's seeing the fruits of your labor. That's something we're hoping the chapter here but something we've seen in the past with where we left before we moved on from RIT where we left the chapter and things of that nature. That paying forward part of it, actually seeing that something comes with it tangible. You're seeing somebody's life that you've impacted and somebody didn't know what they're going to do out of high school, but now they've decided to go for a certain degree. That's the victory and that's the joy on that side of things.

[00:15:12] Antonio: That's incredibly important. I can almost guarantee it's like the tracks you've laid down for AISES will pay dividends long after you're gone, long after you get your PhDs and you're doing your careers and you'll come back. That I think will bring us all joys when you realize that if you hadn't been here and you hadn't planted these seeds, this oak wouldn't have grown.

[00:15:34] Mikaela: Oh, for sure. Everything happens for a reason, that's for sure.

[00:15:39] Antonio: It does. Thank you, Mikaela, Brendan. This has been fantastic. Phenomenal graduate students. Thank you for being here. Thank you for being on the podcast.

[00:15:48] Mikaela: Thank you.

 [00:15:48] Brendan: Thank you. [music]

[00:15:51] Antonio: Thanks for joining me, Antonio Farias, for another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. We welcome your comments and suggestions for future programs. You can find more episodes of Level Up and contact information for the Office of the Chief Diversity officer at [00:16:17] [END OF AUDIO]

15:34 Minutes
Podcast Guest Image

Episode 037: Krista Vaught

In this episode, Antonio talks with Krista Vaught, Director of Academic Strategic Initiatives and Compliance at the Levin College of Law and President of the Academic and Professional Assembly (APA). Krista tells us how she found belonging through joining the APA and is now fostering belonging for others through innovative programs including the APA Ambassadors, the Warm Welcome and Bowling with Strangers.


[00:00:01] Antonio Farias: Welcome to season three of Level Up, a p odcast where we explore how students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida are leading our community in presence and belonging. I'm your host Antonio Farias, chief diversity officer at the University of Florida. Welcome to another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. Today we're fortunate to have Krista Vaught, who is the director of academic strategic initiatives and compliance, and also the academic and professional assembly president. Which is a lot of work. Welcome to the podcast, Krista.

[00:00:36] Krista Vaught: Thank you.

[00:00:37] Antonio: We always start a podcast off with the question, which is, what is your story of belonging?

[00:00:41] Krista: Sure. I thought back to the first time that I truly felt a sense of belonging and it was actually here at UF as an undergrad. I remember coming up here for a sports camp in high school. We stayed in the old Hume dormitory before it was knocked down and rebuilt. When I stepped on campus, all I thought was this place is huge. I don't know how anyone could ever go to school here. I definitely could not. Then, four years later, I came to UF for undergrad. I remember my first semester feeling the same way, a little bit lost. I didn't really fit in anywhere. It seemed like there were so many opportunities, which is great but also to some could be a little bit overwhelming. At the end of my first semester, a spot opened up in the newly built Hume Hall , which is like a full circle. I moved in. As soon as I did, it was clear that the floor that I moved on to everyone was already very close friends. As soon as I moved in, they immediately accepted me as part of their circle.

[00:01:43] Antonio: Even better.

[00:01:44] Krista: Yes. It was basically a complete 180. I think changed my college experience clearly for the better. In addition to being super close friends, they were all highly intelligent, passionate, very diverse backgrounds from all over the East Coast. That was the first time that I realized the difference that feeling like part of a community can make.

[00:02:07] Antonio: Having someone reach out to you, it breaks those terrifying expectations that we always think.

[00:02:13] Krista: Definitely.

[00:02:13] Antonio: That's super important. How big was the high school you came from?

[00:02:17] Krista: We had about 300 in my graduating class. Not tiny, but still compared to UF.

[00:02:23] Antonio: Compared to UF, pretty big scale. Wow, and you're a Floridian?

[00:02:27] Krista: Yes.

[00:02:28] Antonio: That's great. You have two roles among, I'm sure many others, but the two main ones are in your professional life. Then, you're also--how would you call it? Your leadership side of the house. Can you tell me both about your professional life, and also, as a president of the APA?

[00:02:47] Krista: Sure. At the college of law, I wear a lot of different hats. Most of them are related to compliance and accreditation, and special projects. APA on the other hand is the staff organization for more than 3,500 professional staff across campus and we're sponsored by HR. Very different, not really competing roles, but kind of complimentary even though they don't have anything to do with each other. Through APA, I have made a lot of connections that have assisted in my professional role. I think we tend to be in little bubbles wherever we're located physically on campus. APA allowed me to reach outside of that bubble and make connections that have assisted me with a lot of different tasks related to my job.

[00:03:31] Antonio: Do you see some parallels from your time as a freshman to now, trying to create community?

[00:03:37] Krista: I left Gainesville after undergrad because I felt like it was just too small. I went from too big to too small. When I came back, I felt the same sense of I don't really feel like part of the community. I'm a little bit lost and then getting involved in APA definitely changed that for the better. Parallel situations multiple years apart.

[00:04:03] Antonio: What's your sense of the membership APA? Is it growing? Are you having to recruit heavily or are people really coming to you?

[00:04:10] Krista: Technically, all teams’ professional staff are members of APA. In the past, there's been a little bit of a delay in people realizing that. We have some board members who have been at UF for multiple years and they had not heard of APA until the last year or so. We've been working a lot on awareness and trying to make sure that staff know about the opportunities we provide. I think we are seeing growth in just in terms of the amount of people that we're connecting with. We have a newsletter that goes to all members.

[00:04:42] Antonio: I saw it. Super professional. I love it.

[00:04:45] Krista: Definitely, where I try and include as much information as possible without it being overwhelming, which is always a challenge.

[00:04:51] Antonio: How much do you leave in or leave out?

[00:04:54] Krista: Exactly.

[00:04:55] Antonio: If I have to keep scrolling, then you're going to lose me. No, I thought it was pitch-perfect the way you presented it.

[00:05:01] Krista: I'm glad.

[00:05:02] Antonio: Thank you. Tell us what's next for you and/or for APA?

[00:05:10] Krista: Sure. In 2019, I think we accomplished a lot. In the beginning of 2019, we launched an ambassador program. Now, when staff are joining UF, someone from the APA board is reaching out to them within a few weeks just to introduce them to the organization, to try to connect with them, to let them know about what's coming up on our calendar.

[00:05:28] Antonio: That's fantastic. Is that with HR that you've partnered?

[00:05:32] Krista: We get the information from HR. Yes. Then one of our board members reaches out to connect. It's really just to give new staff-- especially staff who are new to UF, completely new to Gainesville, just some type of connection, even if they don't respond to us, as long as they have a name in case they need us.

[00:05:48] Antonio: What's the response rate? Are people surprised by it? Is it one of those things of like, "I had no idea that you do this or?"

[00:05:54] Krista: It's been interesting. We usually get only about a handful of responses but some people are really on top of things. They're like, "I just moved to Gainesville and ready to connect. Can we meet for coffee or I'm coming to your next event." The majority don't respond, which is fine because when you start a new role, obviously you're super busy and swamped with trying to learn everything. Our next step is to reconnect with people after they've been here for a few months.

[00:06:20] Antonio: Smart.

[00:06:22] Krista: Then, in addition to that in March of last year, in 2019, we did a membership survey and we had more than 500 people respond. That feedback has really driven a lot of our programming and our strategic planning. As you know, we had our first Warm Welcome event in August which is a really fantastic event. It sold out within an hour of when we announced it. There was a lot of demand. We're planning to have that event at least twice a year.

[00:06:43] Antonio: That's great. Do you have President Fuchs lined up again or?

[00:06:46] Krista: Not yet. We're hoping to have him at least once a year.

[00:06:50] Antonio: That's great. He' s always a great draw.

[00:06:52] Krista: Yes, definitely. We're trying to vary the panels to highlight different areas of the university and different leaders because we have so many really dedicated and talented people. That's another thing that we're working on. We also have a get to know campus tour series where we're highlighting different areas of campus that staff might not get to see all the time. Last year, we visited the wind tunnel, the UF data center, the Honey Bee Research Lab. There are just so many different things going on around campus that most people aren't aware of. We're trying to give staff the exclusive to see those.

[00:07:23] Antonio: I love that. Anyone get stung?

[00:07:26] Krista: At the bee lab, no one got stung, but I do think you have to sign a waiver.

[00:07:30] Antonio: Just in case. What about the wind tunnel? Nobody got blown away?

[00:07:36] Krista: The wind tunnel was pretty cool. We had a lot of people attend, no one got blown away but it was definitely really interesting just to feel the wind.

[00:07:42] Antonio: Is it intense? It's pretty awesome.

[00:07:44] Krista: It's pretty intense. It was definitely a highlight.

[00:07:47] Antonio: People should be getting jealous about this. These are great experiences.

[00:07:51] Krista: I know. They really are.

[00:07:52] Antonio: Because it makes the campus come alive. We know we have these things maybe, but to actually experience them, it's a different thing.

[00:07:59] Krista: Then, it makes you start to wonder what else is here that we don't even know about.

[00:08:02] Antonio: Like for me, the Lake that we have-- I'm going to mess up the name. Lake Wauberg , which I didn't know. I was like, "Oh, maybe I should take some sailing lessons or something." Then, I realized you have to take a swim test. I was like, "Okay, now it's a little bit," but it's smart. You should be able to swim if you're going to go on that lake.

[00:08:17] Krista: There's a rock-climbing wall there. Race course.

[00:08:22] Antonio: Is there?

[00:08:23] Krista: Yes, it's really cool.

[00:08:24] Antonio: Maybe that's the next APA event.

[00:08:26] Krista: We thought about it. We haven't planned it yet but maybe. Then, we've been building a lot of momentum in 2019, so we're on a pretty upward trajectory. We also, with the feedback from the survey and focus groups, and just from talking to people at our events, we revised our purpose statements with a little bit more modern now. Then in December 2019, we finalized our first strategic plan. APA has been around for a little over 15 years and we have our first strategic plan with some higher-level goals.

[00:08:58] Antonio: That's fantastic. Is this the first strategic plan?

[00:09:01] Krista: The first thing we know about.

[00:09:03] Antonio: It's probably the first one period. Congratulations to you and your leadership team on that.

[00:09:08] Krista: Yes, we're really excited. We have four larger goals but they really focus on building a community of staff, fostering a sense of belonging, and creating a feedback loop for staff because a lot of the feedback that we got was staff want their voice to be heard.

[00:09:23] Antonio: Incredibly important. I love that feedback loop. You said you had 500 respondents. That's a significant response rate.

[00:09:33] Krista: It is. We actually weren't sure. We have more than 5,000 staff who are technically automatically members of APA. We had never done a membership survey before. We had no idea the response rate would be. We were pretty pleased with 500. It was a good amount of feedback to start with.

[00:09:50] Antonio: You had a pretty thoughtful response in terms of what people said?

[00:09:55] Krista: Definitely. We really wanted to, as we're moving forward and we were thinking about a strategic plan at that point, we wanted to make sure that it was always driven by the members instead of just the board.

[00:10:05] Antonio: I love it.

[00:10:07] Krista: That was our goal.

[00:10:07] Antonio: Shared governance, right?

[00:10:08] Krista: Yes. We've tried to be as transparent as possible throughout the whole process.

[00:10:12] Antonio: Saying all the great words and living them, which is even more important, right?

[00:10:16] Krista: Definitely. I think, I don't want to say we've grown a lot, but we have a lot of momentum and there's a lot more awareness around what we do. We're seeing a lot of different people at events, a higher number of people at our events. We're just trying to build the community and make connections for people.

[00:10:33] Antonio: I heard you also bowl, or do some bowling.

[00:10:35] Krista: We have an annual bowling with strangers event, which is pretty popular.

[00:10:38] Antonio: I thought that. Can you say a little bit more about -- I missed the last one. I couldn't make it. I'm not a big bowler, but I thought it was a really cool, a cool sort of -- Particularly because there's a book out there talking about bowling alone in America and how -

[00:10:50] Krista: Oh, really?

[00:10:51] Antonio: - bowling has fallen out of style, because people just don't do things together anymore. That's why bowling alleys have literally closed down. I thought it was fantastic sort of playing on that, and pulling the string.

[00:11:02] Krista: We started bowling with strangers, three or four years ago, just as a way for people to connect outside of work. I think when you have that type of networking event with an actual activity, I think there's less pressure. For me, if I go to a networking event, I'm just like- I'm automatically nervous because I don't really always like talking to strangers unless I have to, but the bowling gives you something to focus on. I think it creates different types of connections for people.

[00:11:31] Antonio: Yes, especially for us introverts, right?

[00:11:34] Krista: Yes.

[00:11:34] Antonio: It's like the biggest panic thing is running into someone and what's the kind of talk you're going to have about? I think it's a great idea.

[00:11:42] Krista: Yes. It's always really popular. We're trying to expand it a little bit. We're only offering at once a year. We also had a crafting with colleagues event last year at the Reitz Union at their arts and crafts center. That was really cool. We had a lot of people show up for that too.

[00:11:55] Antonio: Pretty cool, pretty cool. Anything else? What about you? What about for Krista?

[00:12:01] Krista: Oh, wow. I'm working on a doctorate right now in educational technology. I'm a little bit stressed thinking about qualifying exams and dissertation coming up. That's the next hurdle for me.

[00:12:11] Antonio: Wow, so not just a JD wasn't enough, you're going for- I love that. Continuous learner, right? That's the whole process.

[00:12:19] Krista: Yes, definitely.

[00:12:20] Antonio: What a great way to sort of model that for the rest of the staff so that they don't feel this place is not just abundant with knowledge, but there's the ability for staff also to get advanced degrees here while they're here. Right?

[00:12:31] Krista: Even in areas that they have no, or that they had no experience in coming to UF.

[00:12:36] Antonio: Right. This is a way to make your life 2.0 happen, right?

[00:12:41] Krista: Yes.

[00:12:41] Antonio: That's great.

[00:12:42] Krista: I think it's really just the employee education program is a really great opportunity.

[00:12:46] Antonio: It is.

[00:12:46] Krista: It's a good benefit to being here.

[00:12:48] Antonio: Do you think people take advantage of it or I mean, everyone gets told about it, but do you think it just falls by the wayside people just forget?

[00:12:55] Krista: I think other priorities come up, in life. In December, we actually had a session with Melissa Ford, who's the coordinator for the employee education program and we had about 35 staff attend that. I think there's a good amount of interest in it. Melissa said that the participation numbers happen been increasing. I think a lot of staff are participating.

[00:13:19] Antonio: That's great.

[00:13:19] Krista: But obviously real life happens too.

[00:13:21] Antonio: It happens all the time. We're only eight days, nine days into the year, real life is happening all over the place right now.

[00:13:27] Krista: Life moves fast.

[00:13:28] Antonio: Incredibly fast, even though it's Florida, it's not sleepy Florida.

[00:13:32] Krista: Yes.

[00:13:33] Antonio: Lots of fantastic things happening both in your life and in APA. What's next, the next thing that we should be on the lookout for terms of APA?

[00:13:43] Krista: For APA, we are working on implementing the strategic plan. We have a few events, a few campus tours planned for the spring semester. We're working on planning the warm welcome event for the spring, the next one for the fall. Those will be our two larger events of the year. I would say look out for the warm welcome events, when they're coming up again. Then, I guess the call to action for anyone listening is if you hear of any interesting areas of campus or any interesting projects, or research going on, that you think staff might be interested in learning about, let us know. We're always looking for those opportunities to highlight what's going on.

[00:14:17] Antonio: I love that. Call to action. You heard it folks. Pick up the phone. How do they find you? Nobody picks up the phone anymore.

[00:14:23] Krista: Sure. If you just Google UF APA, you'll find our website. It's

[00:14:30] Antonio: Okay. Or they can hit you up on Twitter?

[00:14:32] Krista: Yes, they can. Well, they can hit up me on Twitter but not APA. We don't have social media yet. We're working on it. That will be soon too.

[00:14:39] Antonio: That's part of the strategic plan?

[00:14:40] Krista: Yes.

[00:14:40] Antonio: Strategic communications.

[00:14:42] Krista: Yes.

[00:14:42] Antonio: Excellent. We close off the podcast by asking the question of what brings you joy?

[00:14:49] Krista: For me, it's connecting people to resources. That ties into both my roles here. I think APA has helped some staff across campus, not just connect with each other, but start collaborations, make connections that could lead to the next step in their professional journey. I think it's all about just connecting.

[00:15:11] Antonio: Connecting. Thank you. Thank you very much.

[00:15:13] Krista: Yes, thank you for having me. [music]

[00:15:16] Antonio: Thanks for joining me. I'm Antonio Farias for another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. We welcome your comments and suggestions for future programs. You can find more episodes of Level Up and contact information for the Office of the Chief Diversity officer at [00:15:35] [END OF AUDIO]

15:17 Minutes
Podcast Guest Image

Episode 036: Jodian Blake

Welcome to Season 3 of Level Up! In this episode, Antonio talks with Jodian Blake, Community Health Resource Coordinator for the UF Health Cancer Center. Jodian, a recent immigrant from Jamaica when she arrived for her first year at UF, shares how CaribSA, the Caribbean Student Association, gave her a feeling of home and helped her thrive. Today, Jodian finds joy through her family and connecting with the community.



[00:00:01] Antonio Farias: Welcome to season three of Level Up, a podcast where we explore how students, faculty and staff at the University of Florida are leading our community in presence and belonging. I'm your host Antonio Farias, Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Florida. [music] Today, we're fortunate to have on Level Up Jodian Blake, Community Health Resource Coordinator for UF Health Cancer Center, a place that's doing phenomenal work that we're super interested to learn more about. Welcome to the podcast, Jodian.

[00:00:31] Jodian Blake: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

[00:00:33] Antonio: It's appreciative. We ran into each other at a first-gen event. That's where we were, right?

[00:00:38] Jodian: Yes, we did .

[00:00:38] Antonio: It's part of why it is critical for us all to get out of our offices, whatever our zone is, and go to these places where we actually bring different parts of the campus together.

[00:00:50] Jodian: I absolutely agree.

[00:00:52] Antonio: Thank you for the work you're doing and the help you're doing with first generation students as well here.

[00:00:56] Jodian: Same here. Thank you for this podcast opportunity. I've been listening to the episodes as they've come out. I finally had a chance to connect with you when you weren't here giving a speech or something, so that was rather interesting for me.

[00:01:10] Antonio: I preferred not giving a speech and just being in the audience and then engaging with people. That's a lot more heartfelt for me.

[00:01:16] Jodian: [laughs]

[00:01:17] Antonio: We always start our podcast with the question, what is your story of belonging?

[00:01:21] Jodian: That for me is a difficult question to answer. I think my story of belonging started mainly because I left Jamaica, which is my home country, at 17. Came to the US and I hated it. Then a year later here, I was at UF.

[00:01:42] Antonio: Wow. That's a fast transition.

[00:01:44] Jodian: Yes. For me, I really had to seek a space where I felt comfortable and felt like I could be me and true to who I am.

[00:01:58] Antonio: Was there a Jamaican family or a hub established you that you fell into or Jamaican community that you fell--

[00:02:04] Jodian: In Gainesville?

[00:02:06] Antonio: Because you came from Jamaica to what part of Florida?

[00:02:08] Jodian: To West Palm Beach.

[00:02:09] Antonio: West Palm Beach.

[00:02:09] Jodian: Yes.There are a lot more Caribbean islander folks there in West Palm Beach, but it still didn't quite feel like home. My parents were there, of course.

[00:02:21] Antonio: You're 17 years old. That's a tough time to pull out of your social networks, and you're coming into who you are, all the confusion. Talk about building grit.

[00:02:35] Jodian: Truly, truly. It was just this idea of, I have to adjust to this new space, but I may only have this new space for a year. It was really a rather difficult transition. That's probably a big reason why I ended up at UF because I was kind of just hating being in the US and still my parents, "How could you take me out of my awesome space that I had? No, I don't want to go to a school close to where you are". [laughs] A guidance counselor introduced me to UF, and he was like, "You've got great grades. You're involved. You should think about this awesome school"- that I'd never heard of before -"and think about looking at that". I looked. I applied. I got in. I was like, "Sure, why not?" Then I came to UF, and it was that transition all over again but this time on my own without parents, family, even friends. I think maybe three people from my high school came here, and I didn't really know them much. I'd only been at that school for a year. Here I am at this giant university in this tiny town and learning to adjust. I think my sense of belonging came from what's called CaribSA or the Caribbean Student Association.

[00:04:03] Antonio: Say more about that.

[00:04:08] Jodian: I think a friend I met randomly while here at UF-- Actually, I probably met her before. I actually met her at an event that UF had welcoming new undergrads in West Palm Beach. I forgot that I met her, and then I met her again at UF, and she introduced me to CaribSA. She was like, "You should come check this out. It's just a cool organization. Gives you something to do". I went to a meeting, and I was like, "Okay, this feels homey. It feels like where I should be". It was just great to be able to not have to think about how I should sound or what I should say, or whatever else was happening here.

[00:04:56] Antonio: Super important. It made this really enormous place into a place that felt familiar.

[00:05:04] Jodian: Yes, and it made it feel a little bit smaller, which was great and what I needed at the time.

[00:05:09] Antonio: What do you think about that? It was almost random, but it wasn't because there was a reason why the young student that introduced it was in there, right? This is part of the recruiting and sort of onboarding of students. We do the same thing with faculty and staff. What can we do better to create those random collisions? If you don't know, then you don't know until it's potentially too late. You can go a year, a year and a half, two years.

[00:05:36] Jodian: Agree. I think having the information out there is hugely important so people can find it for one. Then once folks have found it, encouraging those people who have found it to share it because I think that's a big part of it. There's so much that happens here at UF that it's easy to miss things even when you see it. Even with new employee orientation, a lot of folks come in, they get oriented to UF, but you miss little things like campus cab, which for a lot of folks is so important and such a great resource. If you don't need it or there's so many other things happening, it's something so easy to miss.

[00:06:21] Antonio: I love campus cab.

[00:06:23] Jodian: See? [laughs]

[00:06:24] Antonio: I love Henry. Every time I get campus cab, it happens to be Henry is the driver. He took me through so many stories just the first time that it did. It made you feel like, "Okay, if this is what UF is like, I really like this place". Tell us about the work you do.

[00:06:42] Jodian: That's a really interesting and hard to explain thing, in the sense that before coming to UF, I was at a nonprofit managing a tobacco cessation program for 12 counties in North Central Florida. About six months or so before I came to UF, I had this idea, "Okay, you've been here for six years. You need a change. You need to start challenging yourself more". I started looking at what positions were open. My husband works here at UF, so I thought, "All right, let's check out UF". They're the largest employer in the area. This Community Health Resource Coordinator popped up for the UF Health Cancer Center. It was like, "That could be cool. It's cancer". In the realm that I'm in, I encountered a lot of cancer patients, and so it was just like, "I could possibly do this". I kept looking at the job description, and it talked a lot about that idea of community outreach and merging cancer research with community outreach. One of the things that my boss likes to talk about is ensuring that the research that comes out of the cancer center is relevant for our catchment area that we serve. I think that is so hugely important.

[00:08:02] Antonio: Very much.

[00:08:03] Jodian: [laughs] Yes. That's essentially a big part of what I do: supporting a program that's making sure that the research is important to the people and relevant for the people.

[00:08:15] Antonio: Were you the inaugural person in this position? You were?

[00:08:18] Jodian: Yes. Our department wasn't around about two years ago. My boss, who's the program director, she was the first hire, if you will, for the Office of Community Outreach and Engagement. Then they realized there's so much work to be done, we need at least one more person.

[00:08:37] Antonio: Which really means we need three more people.

[00:08:39] Jodian: So true. So true. There's so much that we want to accomplish and so much that the cancer center wants to accomplish that we need more people, but we're working on it. I think that's the important part. One, they formed a community advisory board.

[00:08:59] Antonio: That's fantastic.

[00:09:00] Jodian: Right? Which has really informed the priority areas for community outreach and engagement. Using that, they've started developing programs for our catchment area.

[00:09:12] Antonio: Protocols I would imagine in terms so this outlives all of you in terms of--

[00:09:18] Jodian: That's the goal. That's the goal. One of the other things that I've also kind of been charged with is this program called Cancer Connections. It was started about 10, 11 years ago by a community member. She was a cancer survivor and was just like, "There's this need in our community". So she created this program that brings cancer researchers to the community. Once per month, we have a lot of UF Health cancer researchers come out and talk about the cutting edge work that they are doing.

[00:09:48] Antonio: Wow.

[00:09:49] Jodian: Our community gets a chance to ask them questions, and it's fantastic.

[00:09:55] Antonio: What's the community's response to-- They see a lot of UF, and yet the same time they don't see a lot of UF. Depends on how, what are the different touchpoints around the community with this community thing .

[00:10:10] Jodian: I think the awesome part about this is that it's so informal in the sense that we're sitting in a room having lunch. It could be a researcher. We've had folks who are not researchers as well just come out and talk about the work that they are doing. People just seem to really enjoy the fact that they are in such close proximity with somebody that's doing this awesome work, where they have the opportunity to ask the questions that they want to ask, and it's not scripted. It's pretty fascinating.

[00:10:45] Antonio: How deep do you go? Do you go into the school systems in terms of-- I guess my question is, is it people that are already in some way or another have been sort of brought into the cancer world because they either know someone or have it, or are you doing a combination of really proactive engagement with folks that aren't necessarily in the danger zone?

[00:11:07] Jodian: A lot of it is with folks who are cancer patients, survivors, caregivers of cancer patients. We also have students who come out. We have other faculty and staff from UF that come out. We have people from the health department who work in programs in the health department that come out. It varies, but for the most part, it's folks who have some kind of an interest in cancer and cancer research that's happening. We try to get people from the general community, and sometimes we get folks who might have no connection at all to cancer but are just interested in the topic.

[00:11:48] Antonio: It brings us to the closing question, which is- especially in the work that you do and your colleagues -what brings you joy?

[00:11:55] Jodian: That is a hard one. It's somewhat twofold for me, if you will. A part of what brings me joy is my family. That's a big part of what brings me joy.

[00:12:09] Antonio: Big family?

[00:12:11] Jodian: To say the least [chuckles] . Yes, it's a rather large family. Here in Gainesville, it's just my husband, my five-year-old daughter and I for now, but my family brings a huge amount of joy and support. I got over, my parents turned me away from what I thought was this amazing life and bringing me to this place. What also brings me joy is being able to connect with folks that I meet out in the community who in whatever point or fashion either I've been able to touch or the cancer center has been able to touch and to be able to say that I'm a part of that. That just for the last year has brought an amazing amount of joy for me.

[00:13:01] Antonio: That's amazing. Five-year-old daughter, how do you explain what you do to her?

[00:13:09] Jodian: I haven't quite figured out how to do it in a way that makes sense for me. Maybe it makes sense for her and I just don't realize that it does. She knows that I work with the community. She doesn't quite understand the research side of things. She's five. But just the idea that mommy goes out to work and mommy gets to meet with a lot of people and somewhat change lives when she can.

[00:13:50] Antonio: Super important.

[00:13:51] Jodian: I think so.

[00:13:52] Antonio: Future scientist?

[00:13:53] Jodian: Is she? Maybe, I don't know. She got this little like a science kit set.

[00:14:00] Antonio: I love it.

[00:14:02] Jodian: We signed up for like an Amazon-- I forget what it's called. It's this box. Once a month we get these.

[00:14:08] Antonio: Really?

[00:14:08] Jodian: Yes. One of the kits that came in, it's got test tubes and other lab science type stuff, and she's all about mixing the waters in different colors.

[00:14:19] Antonio: Serious business. She experimenting? You have a cat or a dog? She's not experimenting on the cat or dog?

[00:14:25] Jodian: She wants one of those.

[00:14:28] Antonio: Have her create one in the lab.

[00:14:30] Jodian: Who knows? Maybe she'll be that person.

[00:14:32] Antonio: Wow. That's amazing. Jodian Blake, this has been amazing, Community Health Resource Coordinator, UF Health Cancer Center. Thank you for being on the podcast, and thank you for coming to UF and for staying at UF.

[00:14:48] Jodian: Thank you for having me.

[00:14:49] Antonio: We appreciate you very much.

[00:14:51] Jodian: Thank you. I appreciate the work that your office is doing here as well.

[00:14:53] Antonio: Thank you. Thank you for the kind words. Thanks for joining me, Antonio Farias, for another episode of Level Up on Presence and Belonging. We welcome your comments and suggestions for future programs. You can find more episodes of Level Up and contact information for the Office of the Chief Diversity Officer at [00:15:18] [END OF AUDIO]

Season 2
16:31 Minutes
Podcast Guest Image

Episode 035: Herby Zephir

In this episode of Level Up, Antonio talks with Herby Zephir, a 3rd year Haitian American student in the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conversation. Herby shares the story of his journey from his urban upbringing in Homestead, Florida, to a life of adventure as a wildlife ecologist. We close out season 2 with a wide ranging discussion that touches on the experience of low-income students, code-switching, the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars program, and kayaking the Potomac.


[00:00:02] Antonio Farias: Welcome to Season Two of Level Up, a podcast where we explore how students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida are leading our community in presence, and belonging. I'm your host, Antonio Farias, chief diversity officer at the University of Florida. Welcome again to another episode of Level Up on presence and belonging. Today, we are fortunate to have Herby Zephir who is with the department of wildlife conservation and brings with us an incredible story of how he got here and some of the amazing things that he's doing right now in conservation that we're really interested in. Welcome, Herby.

[00:00:40] Herby Zephir: Thank you for having me.

[00:00:41] Antonio: It's a pleasure. You come already with some notoriety. You've been in the press. People are really speaking highly of you. We always start the podcast with the question of, what is your story of belonging?

[00:00:54] Herby: I'm going to give a little bit more about my background as I segue into my story of belonging here at UF. I'm 23 years old to start, and I'm also Haitian American. I was born in Miami, but I was raised in Homestead, which is this town between Miami and the Keys of Florida.

[00:01:12] Antonio: With a big Air Force base there.

[00:01:13] Herby: Yes, a huge air force base. Growing up in Homestead, I never felt the pressure of having to belong, because everyone in Homestead pretty much is different culturally. You have your Haitians. You have your Mexicans, your Guatemalans. You have all these different tones of people. I never felt like I stood out. Upon graduating from Miami Dade College and then moving to Gainesville, that's when I first started to feel like, whoa, I'm obviously a stand out in this new place, and I know how important feeling support from others is, and I wasn't feeling that too much.

[00:01:56] Antonio: Did you feel that at Miami Dade?

[00:01:58] Herby: Absolutely. Again, the population there was mixed. You had your African Americans, your Haitian Americans, Jamaican Americans. There was just so many different ethnicities in one spot that I never felt like I stood out. Then, when I moved again, that's when that finally dawned on me that hey, you're maybe one in a very huge other percentage of people.

[00:02:24] Antonio: When you say stand out, do you find that you stand out in the university setting as opposed to the Gainesville setting, or is it both?

[00:02:34] Herby: The university setting, definitely. The Gainesville setting actually surprised me a bit. As I traveled around it, I started to notice different people. I went to the Eastside, and I went to other parts of it. I was like, "Wow, I didn't know this was Gainesville." I actually expected Gainesville to be a lot different.

[00:02:54] Antonio: So did I.

[00:02:55] Herby: Yes, a lot different. I'm becoming accustomed to it. I like what I'm seeing here on campus. I like the community service work I'm doing in the community of Gainesville. It's really starting to become home, but when I first came here, I wasn't familiar with my surroundings. UF was just this foreign place that I had to become accustomed to, because I chose to pursue higher ed here. To me, home was that melting pot of cultures. Everyone was connected because of their humble backgrounds. Growing up and being raised by immigrants, I definitely know what it's like to witness those hardships associated with that. So were my neighbors. I didn't feel like I was better or worse than anybody, because we all were in the same struggles.

[00:03:45] Antonio: How's that play out here on a day-to-day basis?

[00:03:50] Herby: At the University of Florida, I definitely don't share as often my background, me coming from humble beginnings and such, because most of my peers, they didn't. You'll hear someone casually talking about how their parents has this luxurious thing and how they did this grand trip, and I'm just like, "It must be nice." I couldn't afford that. I've never done it.

[00:04:16] Antonio: It is tough. For me, it's like generations ago. I was also a first-gen low-income student, and it was bizarre, places that-- People were just middle class, and they had things that we never had. The interesting thing you say is that you keep it to yourself, because about a quarter of students are Pell-eligible students. They also come from, really, families that are struggling, that are working class, that aren't what traditionally is called middle class. This must be something that's in the water, then, that people aren't sharing, because they don't feel like they can share, maybe.

[00:04:53] Herby: And also feel judgment. I live behind sorority row, so just to see the difference in lifestyles in comparison to what some are eligible to do and what some can't do because of their circumstance makes one not want to talk about it and be as open with it, because they don't want to be the outcast, like, "Oh, this guy is low-income or whatever."

[00:05:16] Antonio: You don't want pity either, because that's not what you're looking for.

[00:05:19] Herby: Absolutely not. [00:05:20] Antonio: What can we do better in that space?

[00:05:22] Herby: What can we do better to make students feel like they belong? Well, me personally, I feel that not allowing what distinguishes somebody, for example, my hair. Not allowing this to limit me from connecting or being valued for my contributions, not allowing what distinguishes me from my peers to limit me from discussions or being part of groups. Just seeing past those distinguishing features is the first step, in my opinion, towards making people who may come from different backgrounds want to open up more, feel more, feel as if that they are part of this space, not just that they fit in, because, to me, fitting in doesn't necessarily mean you belong. Fitting in just means that you've managed to put yourself in that space whether or not you feel comfortable.

[00:06:24] Antonio: It's spot on. It's, how do we break stereotypes and encourage curiosity? It's like, I want to know who you are as a human being as opposed to making judgment calls based off just exterior things that may or may not be anything other than just differences. They are differences, and that's all they are. They don't mean anything other than what's inside of you. I'm curious about-- What's your sense-- Do you know about code-switching?

[00:06:52] Herby: Yes.

[00:06:53] Antonio: Tell me about how you code-switch, and what's the impact on you, because a recent article came out on code-switching. We talk about it a lot in communities of color, but there's an impact, and there's a cost to doing that constantly. Tell me about your experience.

[00:07:10] Herby: Upon transitioning to the University of Florida, I didn't know I code-switched, which is a funny story, until somebody pointed out to me, "Hey, you just code-switched." I was like, "What does that mean?" They were like, "When you're speaking, how you change how you're speaking based off who you're speaking to, pretty much." Code-switching for me, at first-- It was a big issue once I found that I was doing it, because back home, I use certain jargon and I speak a certain way with my family. Coming here, because of that fear of judgment, I wanted to simmer things down a bit, but by doing that, I wasn't being true to self. With code-switching, it happened often. I was doing it more and more, especially in my department-- because I'm pretty sure I'm the only person with dreadlocks in my department, has my demographic. In order to show that I wasn't what was being portrayed to people who looked like me, I had to speak in a very proper way, which I think is great. At the same time, what makes me unique is those jargons that I grew up around. What makes me unique is the swagger that I have from being born and raised in Miami and Homestead. Changing that really was starting to damage my identity. It wasn't until recent where I became a member of Progressive Black Men Incorporated that I actually found a space on campus where I felt comfortable. I was allowed to still be myself, still speak with other people who are familiar with those jargons and who laugh with me. I felt like, "Hey, I don't have to be who you want me to be. I could be me and be totally fine with that."

[00:08:52] Antonio: That's spot on. That's the challenge we have. Diversity is what we have. Inclusion is what we got to get into, which is that you can show up fully authentic, and no one's going to judge you or think that you're weird or special or some object that you have to interrogate. It's just you bring your different flavor to the conversation. That's cool. Tell me about the work that you do. I'm really curious about this.

[00:09:19] Herby: All right. As a wildlife ecology and conservation major, I do a lot of work outdoors in the field. In classrooms, I'm learning a lot about wildlife management. I'm picking up technical skills as well, and learning the history of our natural resources, like different wildlifes in Florida and also the different habitats they're native to, as well as how climate change, for example, and conservation is working to combat that to promote the environment. The work that I do mostly is-- For example, this summer, I got a chance to do field surveys with American kestrels . These are a threatened population of falcons. I got a chance to see what were some of the factors limiting the success of the juveniles, the baby fledglings , because the population is decreasing. The wildlife field is definitely something I didn't expect to be as interesting originally, because I was just unfamiliar with it. Again, growing up with my background, I didn't go camping. I didn't go fishing. These weren't norms of my lifestyle. It was like, "Hey, stay home, go to school, work hard, because we can't afford these things." Now that I'm doing it, it's a complete switch to what I was raised upon.

[00:10:42] Antonio: What got you on that path? I'm really curious about that, because that story that you have is so common, and this is also the most challenging in terms of talent is out there, we just need to make sure that we show pathways to all the diverse opportunities that are available. It's not just doctor, lawyer, accountant, business person. It's fine if you want to do those, but do we expose students to this? Was it just random, or was it intentional how you got exposed to this as a field?

[00:11:15] Herby: I definitely think it was intentional. My parents, they come from Haiti. In Haiti, it's a developing country. There's a lot of traditional practices and knowledges they have. Upon moving to this country, they brought all of that knowledge with them. We had a backyard, luckily, and in that backyard, we had a variety of plants. I witnessed my father handle wildlife from our backyard, the green iguanas and even the feral cats and all these things. He literally handled them in a way that didn't hurt them, but showed me that, hey, I can handle them, too. Witnessing all of those things and then just growing up, bouncing around from major to major, it dawned on me eventually that, hey, I like green spaces more and more, or at least when I'm in them, I feel the most comfortable. It only made sense for me to pursue that as a major and also as a career, despite whatever differences in income. Certainly, I could be making hundreds of thousands of dollars, like physicians, but I want to be doing something that I feel is meaningful. So, hey, I'm all in.

[00:12:27] Antonio: That's awesome.

[00:12:28] Herby: Thank you.

[00:12:29] Antonio: That's awesome. You're also a Doris Duke Scholar.

[00:12:33] Herby: Yes, sir.

[00:12:34] Antonio: Tell us about that. That's a really interesting program.

[00:12:37] Herby: Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program, it actually aims to increase minorities within the conservation field. It's a wonderful program that-- It actually helped me to become more comfortable here at the University of Florida, especially around the people that I was around, because it addressed diversity directly. That's probably one of the first things we spoke about. Let's look at diversity in the field of conservation. How do you feel? What's it like being in your field? What's it like working with your peers, knowing that obviously, you don't have the same background, those sorts of things. It also promotes experience in the wildlife field. The first time I electrofished was with the program. The first time I ever-- I kayaked the Potomac River-- was with the program as well. Not only is it fostering a sense of hominess and comfortability, but it's also teaching the recipients of the scholarship how to be these competitive wildlife experts in this field. The program's awesome, and the staff are so supportive.

[00:13:48] Antonio: That's amazing. Can you say a little bit more about how you feel in the outdoors?

[00:13:56] Herby: In the outdoors, rest in peace, but I feel like Steve Irwin. I feel like this adventurer. I feel like when I'm in my Columbia shirt or my convertible pants, I feel like I'm connecting with a deep part of myself. I get a chance to not only identify and learn my surroundings, but also, I feel like I'm on the forefront of the fight to make sure that the next generation will have a green space to also cherish and be a part of and take part of.

[00:14:29] Antonio: I love that.

[00:14:30] Herby: It feels great.

[00:14:30] Antonio: You might have already answered it, but what brings you joy?

[00:14:34] Herby: What brings me joy, honestly, helping people and now helping animals, but whenever I could see somebody else smile and be happy, and I take part in that happiness with them, it's just the best feeling on earth-- also, helping others take on new experiences. Most of my siblings and most of my friends back home, for example, you could never get them to go camping. That would never happen, because they're raised in the city. They aren't raised around these green spaces, so everything sort of fears them . Helping them see, hey, you shouldn't be as afraid of this animal as you thought originally; this opossum isn't going to hurt you; it's actually the reason why ticks aren't everywhere, because it's eating them; it's a great feeling to help them learn more and be a part of something bigger, which is the natural environment.

[00:15:30] Antonio: That's amazing, and that's what it is. It's the lost knowledge. I love the story when you mentioned about your father. We always think about people with knowledge as somehow having credentials and being in ivory towers, but your father taught you about ecology and t