Oscar Dubón: How do we bring our authentic selves to campus?

Oscar Dubón at Lake Tahoe

This is me at Lake Tahoe in the early 1990s, when I was a graduate student at UC Berkeley. (Photo courtesy of Oscar Dubón)

I’m excited to write the second “On My Mind” column in the Berkeleyan, where senior campus leaders like me will share our experiences, thoughts and visions for the community. Today, in honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, I want to talk about what UC Berkeley was like when I first came here as a graduate student in 1989, how that informs the work I do today as the vice chancellor of equity and inclusion, and how I see the campus moving forward in the coming years.

I spent more than six years here at Berkeley earning my graduate degrees in engineering. During this time I don’t recall knowing any other Latinx engineering Ph.D. students. I do know I wasn’t always bringing my full, authentic self — the whole me — to the campus and to my work.

‘On My Mind’ — read more

In the inaugural column, Chancellor Carol Christ wrote about new-student jitters.

I had a very rewarding graduate experience at Cal, but sometimes feeling like the only Latinx graduate student wore on me and my sense of belonging. I never felt like there was one moment where someone truly doubted me, but not seeing other Latinx people in my field inculcated self-doubt, a sense that “you are a little different.” (I was fortunate to have met other Latinx scholars in other fields through the student organization Graduate Students de la Raza. This is also where I met my wife!)

So, in graduate school I really tried to first and foremost succeed academically. Sometimes you have to be selfish enough to invest in yourself so that later on you can invest in others. I tried to focus on my oral exams, my grades, and my research to keep the bigger goal in mind.

Those days feel a bit distant now. I look at our campus today as a faculty member and administrator, and now I know many engineering Ph.D. students who are Latinx or African American. And that really inspires me because — wow — we’re moving forward. We’re making a difference. It’s not as rapid as I would like, but I know that change is happening in the right direction.

Oscar Dubon with Lisa Chavez

Here I am with my wife, Lisa Chavez, who was also a Latinx graduate student. We met at Graduate Students de la Raza, which turned out to be an important organization to me. (Photo courtesy of Oscar Dubon)

That’s why I’m passionate about my job as vice chancellor. I get to connect people across the campus to make Berkeley a more welcoming place for everyone, supporting their full, authentic selves at all times. Unfortunately, we are not all able to bring our full selves to all parts of campus. That’s the case for me too. Sometimes I am the engineering professor, but other times I have to check that important part of me at the door. I think we’re constantly putting parts of ourselves away in different environments. And that’s a challenge that keeps us from realizing our full potential as an academic community.

I started this job a little more than a year ago, and one of the best moments so far was a welcoming event for the queer, trans community hosted by the Gender Equity Center. Just experiencing the sheer joy of all the students and staff was truly exciting, overwhelming. This was a moment where everyone in the room could just be themselves — regardless of our gender identity.

It really changed my whole perspective around so-called “safe spaces.” What we’re really talking about are places where people bring their full, authentic selves and share that with other people and experience the joy of being part of a social, an intellectual, an inclusive campus community.

Part of what I am focusing on is making UC Berkeley a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI). This means that we’re striving for a quarter of our undergraduate population to identify as Latinx. Already, six out of nine undergraduates campuses in the UC system are designated as HSI — at about 15 percent, we have a ways to go.

Oscar Dubón speaks at a podium

Today, I am the vice chancellor for equity and inclusion, and I work to make sure students, staff and faculty can always bring their full, authentic selves to campus. (UC Berkeley photo by Hulda Nelson)

It is really about understanding our role in California in the 21st century, looking forward rather than in the rear-view mirror. Even if we get to HSI designation, we’re still not going to reflect California’s public high school graduates, half of whom are Latinx. Becoming HSI just means that we’re being proactive about moving down the road of inevitability given California’s demographics, leading the nation toward our more diverse future.

So how do we get there? I think we need to look at the kind of research we do on campus, to see if it really reflects, at least in part, the issues that affect Latinx Californians.

It’s also about the leadership of UC Berkeley reflecting the community, even if it takes time to change the diversity of our faculty. It’s about the curriculum. What are we teaching and does it reflect our community?

And we also need to look at whom we’re encouraging to apply to UC Berkeley. We can’t and don’t consider race or gender or other identities when it comes to admissions. But we can encourage the half of California’s public high school graduates who identify as Latinx to apply to UC Berkeley; we can make them feel welcome on campus and make them feel that they will be successful here and beyond.

Every time I talk with people on campus I think about how amazing this place is because of our students, our amazingly committed staff and the extraordinary faculty members who are here. We just need to find ways to make everyone feel like they can bring all their talents to the table and continue to contribute to the excellence that UC Berkeley represents.