Season 6 - Episode 636
In his role as Dean of Intercultural Engagement and Division of Student Life Initiatives, Kevin Villegas works with students and colleagues to create a more vibrant, inclusive, and supportive campus environment. In this Baylor Connections, Dr. Villegas examines those efforts, provides insights from his work with students and shares how this work is an expression of the Baylor University mission.
Derek Smith:Hello and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more, discussing important topics in higher education, research and student life. I'm Derek Smith, and today we are discussing intercultural engagement with Dr. Kevin Villegas. Dr. Villegas serves as Dean of Intercultural Engagement and Division of Student Life Initiatives in Baylor Student Life. Dr. Villegas joined Baylor University last year after more than a decade at Messiah University in Pennsylvania. In his role at Baylor, he's responsible for leading a comprehensive approach to empower all students and Division of Student Life staff in the creation of a more vibrant, inclusive, and supportive campus environment as an expression of the Baylor University mission. A Marine Corps veteran, Villegas has served in pastoral ministry, teaching, and the entertainment industry, in addition to higher education, and he's with us today on the program. It's the start of the new year. I know it's a busy time, but Dr. Villegas, thanks so much for taking the time to join us today on the program.
Kevin Villegas:Absolutely. Glad we could make it happen.
Derek Smith:Absolutely. Well, I want to start off by asking you a question about you. So, a Marine Corps veteran, a pastoral ministry, a teacher, you've been in the entertainment industry, so you've got a very multifaceted background. Probably could allege any number of paths. So, what was it about higher education that rose to the top for you, among what sounds like several pretty good options?
Kevin Villegas:Yeah. Great question. Well, I kind of found my way into higher education quite by accident. I studied communications as an undergrad and wanted to go into public relations, and had two great internships, was able to do that. And back when we used the Sunday paper to look for jobs, I saw a public relations coordinator position, and it was at my alma mater, Messiah University. And so, was hired for that position because of some of my portfolio for my internship. And so, started in higher ed, really just handling all the media relations for Messiah. Did that for five years. But I found my favorite part of the job, Derek, was when work study students would come in my office sharing their personal problems, their struggles, their big questions, and sitting with them and helping them work that out. And so, I really felt called to work in student development, but didn't know what a change like that could look like. Fortunately, I was at a smaller Christian university and I had some social capital, people knew me. And all it took was someone saying, "Hey, I think you would make a great RD, a residence director." And so, had never thought about it, had never worked in res life even as an undergrad. I'd spent four years in the Marine Corps prior to going to college, and so, I was an older married kind of student when I was in school, so didn't have that traditional college experience. And so, but I went ahead and did it. I quit my job, my wife and I sold our house. We moved on campus and I became an RD.
Kevin Villegas:And at the same time, an assistant wrestling coach for a new coach of the program who he and I had become close friends. And so, that was my time to really discern, well, now I'm in this lane, what does this look like? Do I need more education? I was also in bivocational ministry. I was feeling a call to being a pastor. So, what do I do with all of this? So, to spare all the details, I ended up going to Fuller Theological Seminary, spent six years out there, and that's when I worked in the entertainment industry, getting my seminary degree. It took me six years to finish a two-year program because I was working full-time, had our second child out there. But it was a really great experience, learned a lot about leadership at every step of the way in my journey. But it really led me, after I was finished there in California, my wife and I chose to go back to Messiah. There was an opportunity to get back to Messiah as the Director of International Student Programs, and I just loved it. Loved working with diverse students at a critical age in their human development. And so, I just found my niche, and this is where I really felt that I was called to serve and to lead. And so, continue to do some things in student affairs there at Messiah, and worked on my doctorate in higher education, deciding I'm going to go all in, and learn more, and eventually became the Dean of Students and Christian Spiritual Formation there. And so, was able to marry my theological training and background with student development, with my love of intercultural studies and intercultural environments. And so, that led me to, again, wanting to look for more options or opportunities to take all of those things and use them in the context of higher education.
Derek Smith:Well, a great description of your path to this role. What was it that led you to Baylor specifically?
Kevin Villegas:Yeah. I wanted to know what it was like to live in an oven.
Derek Smith:Sure, yes. You're getting that experience right now.
Kevin Villegas:Yes. No, there's some truth to that. My wife is from the Dominican Republic, and when we moved from southern California back to Pennsylvania, I think it was that very first winter she said, "You need to get me to somewhere warmer." 10 years later, our daughter was graduating from Messiah, and my wife said, "Hey, remember when I asked you to move us somewhere warmer? Isabelle's graduating, now might be a good time." So I said, "I'll look." There's only a handful of Christian college universities I wanted to be at or could see myself at in warmer climates, and Baylor was at the top of that list. And so, I just looked and Baylor had a position that I thought I could really contribute to and be successful in. But I wasn't too sure. I was moving from a smaller Christian university to a larger one, going to the south, there was just lots of questions in my mind. But as soon as I entered into the process, and particularly when I met people from Baylor and visited the campus and went through the interview process, and seeing the things that they were already moving towards and aspiring to, I was really inspired. And I was sold on coming to Baylor, and fortunately, they offered me the position, and here I am.
Derek Smith:Well, glad to have you here. Visiting with Dr. Kevin Villegas and that role that you applied for, and it's become the role of Dean of Intercultural Engagement and Division of Student Life Initiatives. So, if you were in line at the faculty center, and a Baylor faculty member you're just meeting, so tell me what you do. So, how would you describe that to them?
Kevin Villegas:Yeah. Well, I would say that I do work across our division and outside of our division to create a more vibrant and inclusive community, where all students feel a sense of belonging. And so, I think if we're honest with each other, not every student feels like they belong, and sometimes there's pockets of belonging. So, it's really kind of trying to put our finger on where are there places or spaces across campus where students are maybe feeling like they don't belong in those spaces, or maybe even in Baylor in general, and see where we can do better. So, realizing that one person or one department can't do that alone, it's a comprehensive effort. And again, as I interviewed at Baylor, I saw that they were putting, I felt that they were putting people in positions across campus and doing some, investing in some initiatives and articulating a certain direction that I aligned with. And so, that's probably a longer answer than I would give it the faculty.
Kevin Villegas:But it's essentially, it's really a new position, so it's really trying to figure out how do we do this work? There's really no handbook, because every institution is different when it comes to what their challenges are relative to creating belonging for all students.
Derek Smith:So, a comprehensive approach to empower all students. That's a big charge. I want to ask you a couple of questions about that as we visit with Dr. Kevin Villegas. So, if you were to open up your phone and show me your calendar for these first couple of weeks or weeks leading up to students, where are some of the places we might find you interacting, and whether it's building relationships or building on relationships you've got to, to build towards what you described?
Kevin Villegas:Yeah. Well, my calendar looks a little full now because it is August and the start of school. But I just came from leading an interfaith chapel. It's called Interfaith Community and Practice. Baylor's an R1 now, students, it's a globally recognized university. There's students coming from all over the world here, and sometimes choosing Baylor because of the rigorous academics and for lots of reasons. And so, we are an increasingly diverse student body, and so we also have students who do not orient around the Christian faith. Indeed, no matter how much we communicate it out, there's some students who arrive at Baylor and didn't realize it was a Christian school. Not many, but that's happened. And so, what does it look like to create a space of belonging for our students that don't orient around the Christian faith, rather than asking them or telling them they need to go to a chapel where they really don't resonate with things that are being taught, that could really impact their sense of belonging and impact their success. And so, we really wanted to, at the same time of meeting the outcomes of chapel, it specifically is interfaith community in practice. What does it look like to be in a space where there of a variety of faiths, but we are in a Christian context. So, it's not letting go of those things. It's rooting ourselves in our Christian community, but then exploring what it means to live in a community like that, but still hold to your values and your beliefs. And that's [inaudible] for me, and that's part and parcel of intercultural engagement work. I'd say all interfaith work is intercultural engagement work. Not all interfaith work is intercultural engagement work, if that makes sense. Mosaic mixer, that's something that happens usually the first week of school every year, and that's put on by the Department of Multicultural Affairs. I remember starting around this time last year, that was probably one of the very first events that I went to. And I do think that's the embodiment of the title of that, Mosaic. It's a beautiful mix of students from all sorts of backgrounds and experiences and identities, and so I love going to that event.
Derek Smith:That's great. Well, as you described that, Dr. Villegas, you touched on that next question. Finding those starting points to build those impacts, it's relationships, its services. Are there any other areas that are important to you to talk about as you talk about kind of finding those hooks where you can learn, where you can discern, and then where you can look to meet those needs?
Kevin Villegas:Yeah, no, that's a great question. Those are two big ones, really, working with students of color and my work with multicultural affairs, and also the interfaith work, that's an important part. But another component of it is civil discourse, or civil dialogue. We are on the cusp of going into another presidential election year. Some of my work will involve helping us as a community to navigate difference, and what does it look like to engage with the other? Someone who might have vastly different perspectives on a whole host of issues than you, but what does it look like to engage with that other in a way that upholds the dignity of the other? And I think that's part of our mission here at Baylor, a caring Christian community, right? And so, what does it look like to look different than the broader society when it comes to disagreeing on important matters, right? I think, too often, as a society, and maybe even Baylor's been like this, or we would engage with difference, and if we encounter someone who thinks or believes differently than us, we just say, "You know what? Let's just agree to disagree." But I think the good, courageous, honest work is to engage with one another in kindness, upholding the dignity, and perhaps try to reach some understanding. That doesn't mean your perspective will change or your values will change, just not being afraid to enter into those spaces with humility, with courage. And then on the other end, you might still disagree with one another, but at least you've done the honest work of reaching deep disagreement and building relationship in that. And my hope is that, when it comes time to, fall of 2024 and we get closer to November and election day, that people will look at Baylor and say, "Wow, Baylor really has those conversations differently than most places." Right? That we can model that, that we can model not only civility, but kindness. It's a fruit of the spirit, right? And so, I really, really think there's a lot of work to do to prepare our students to do that, but it's good work. And so, that's what I'm really looking forward to. So, besides those other two things that I mentioned, that will be a significant portion of my work.
Derek Smith:Great descriptions for sure. Appreciate that. As we visit with Dr. Kevin Villegas here on Baylor Connections, he serves as Dean of Intercultural Engagement and Division of Student Lives Initiatives in Baylor Student Life. And I want to ask you, as you work to get to know students and empower them, to get to that sense of belonging, what are some of the common obstacles that students face, whatever their background may be? Are there some common obstacles or some common threads? And then, how do those kind of grow from there?
Kevin Villegas:Yeah. Well, without getting too deep into it, I mean, we all know that the experience of Covid did a lot to fragment us in a lot of ways. And so, I think, even the CDC is using language of chronic loneliness to talk about some, and even talking about it in terms of an epidemic of loneliness. I think one in five young people, so college age students experience severe loneliness. And so, you can be an environment like Baylor surrounded by people and still feel lonely. And so, I think, we are relational campus community. Just because people seem to be doing well and okay and getting good grades, they could be really experiencing a lot of loneliness. So, finding ways to connect each other. And so, that's a lot of the work for all of us, but in particular, Student Life. We know that engaged students, engaged in co-curricular activities, that those students are going to experience greater success. So, again, I think it's a matter of recognizing that students might feel like they belong in one space on our campus, and then go into an entirely different space and feel, "This space is not for me. I don't belong here." Maybe that is the straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak, and they've experienced lots of invalidations in their experiences. And if they're already historically underrepresented or marginalized, those things could really exacerbate that. And I think it's part of who we are as Christ followers to make sure that we are bringing people into community. I think, if you look at the gospels and you look at the work of Christ, everything that he was doing, whether it was healing the person with leprosy or the woman with the issue of blood or the casting out the demon, it was all so people could come back into community because they had been pushed to the margins. And that's part of the gospel, right? And so, we get to do that work in a caring Christian community like Baylor. And so, it's really a matter of building those relationships, looking at data, looking at aware and listening, looking to see what are students saying? Where are they saying, "I don't feel like I belong," or, "This space is not for me." And trying to then address those things as a community.
Derek Smith:So you talk about trying to address those as a community. What do you enjoy about, as you get to know students and you hear their voice and you see an opportunity to build that connection for them in different spaces, or maybe they didn't have that before? What do you enjoy most about that process? I mean, I know it's not easy work. It's hard work, but you've got to love it to do what you do. What do you enjoy about that?
Kevin Villegas:Yeah. Well, I think this generation is the most diverse generation in our country's history, if I'm not mistaken. And so, I think they're a lot more open. And they, of course I'm generalizing, but I think this generation of college students looks at the world and they say, "Something's not right here." Right? So, tapping into that sense of, "Oh, there's something not right." And also, the idealism that usually comes with young people and really helping them to discover who they are, who, ideally, who Christ calls them to be, and to find a need and fill it, find a hurt, and heal it. And to just, as they learn and grow in their own academic disciplines, to figure out how they can take the things that they're passionate about, the problems they see with the world, marry that with what they're learning and enter into a vocational path, one that's going to lead them to meaningful work towards human flourishing. I have a saying that, if one person is not flourishing, and let's just take our Baylor community. If one person's not flourishing, then none of us are flourishing because we all belong to one another, and we've forgotten that. And so, I love when I talk to students about that, and they're nodding their heads because they just needed language for that. But that's what they're sensing. They're like, "Yeah, why are we so divided?" Right? And it's mostly the adults, right? The grownups in the room, if you will. I know they're adults as well, young adults. But it's really, they look at the generation before them and they're like, "What are you leaving us? We could do differently and we could be different." So, that's what I love talking about young people with and college students, because of their idealism and their sense that, yeah, there's some things that need to be fixed here.
Derek Smith:Dr. Villegas, you work a lot with students as you described. What about interacting with colleagues, whether they're faculty or staff members? What does your role enable you to do trying to work with them and build partnerships or bridges?
Kevin Villegas:Yeah. Well, one, it was a concern of mine coming to a big place like Baylor compared to where I was, but I do, I have sensed a lot of collegiality. A lot of, "Hey, we are in this together," type of thing. And so, part of my role is to work across our division, but also in my Dean role, to work outside of our division. And I've done that. I've worked with Dr. Steven Reed, who's the Vice Provost for Faculty Diversity and Belonging, and Dr. Malcolm Foley, and others across campus who are doing similar work and really care deeply about becoming Baylor together, because Baylor's not done becoming, right? It's an ongoing story, right? And I'd say the same thing for the United States. The United States, the ideal of what is the United States is not yet finished, and we are a part of that. So, we shape our community. And so, the ability to identify others who have a similar passion and skillset and expertise, and then coming together and figuring out together what do we need to do to make sure Baylor's a place for all, where everybody feels a sense of belonging as full-fledged members of our community? And that's ongoing work, because every year we'll get a new crop of thousands of new students and faculty into the space. And so, it's ongoing work, but it's good work and it's important work.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Kevin Villegas, and Dr. Villegas [inaudible] at the beginning of a year. I'm curious whether it's welcome week, whether it's other activities, are there programmatic elements that enable you to connect with students and start to build with that new group, what you just described?
Kevin Villegas:Yeah. Certainly there are, and I think, we did some training last Saturday for a lot of the student leaders who plan a lot of the big events for our campus community, just helping them think through those questions of who might be at risk of not feeling like they belong when we plan this event or this experience. And again, I'm very encouraged when you sit with those students and you see them asking good questions and really wanting to tend to these things. And so, that, in an indirect way, is some programming that I'm involved with. And also, through the work of Multicultural Affairs, the good work that they do with all the multicultural student organizations and some of the scholarship programs there, and making sure that that team has what they need to succeed, and that we're partnering with others. And that we're really, again, creating this caring community for all of our students. So, a lot of programming happens through there. And then again, I mentioned the interfaith work, the Better Together work, I think that work is only increasing. So, we just had the Celebration of Community and Faith Fair, used to be known as the Church Fair. And Better Together, which does a lot of that interfaith work on campus had a table there, and just really encouraged by the students who are coming up to that table and really wanting to dialogue and, yeah, address or sit with life's big questions together, right? And so, those are some programs that come to the top of my mind. We also do some programmings for our division in Student Life. Every month, we have a staff development this year, staff development event. And this year, our theme is wellbeing and practice. And part of that is really helping us to see how we are as a community, we belong to one another, and how we need to encourage one another to rest well, to take care of each other and to take care of self. And so, that's some of the work that I get to do this year as well.
Derek Smith:A lot of exciting things, and certainly no shortage of opportunities. And Dr. Villegas, as we head into the final moments, you mentioned a lot of great activities, whether it's Mosaic, certainly the Multicultural Affairs and other organizations that they put on that you can play a part in. I'm just curious, as we look ahead to the upcoming fall, and really, you could even expand it to the whole 2023-24 year, are there anything specific to this year or just that are on the horizon that you're particularly excited about?
Kevin Villegas:Yeah. I mean, again, I mentioned the fact that we are going into another election cycle, some people are dreading that, but I see that as an opportunity to shine, to use some of the language from Illuminate, to really demonstrate and role model to a fractured society that we can do better. And we should be modeling that. As a Christ-centered community, we should be doing it. So, that excites me. And even on some... Some people shy away from some more divisive topics or matters, and I think we're called to go into those things, to be reconcilers and bridge builders and peacemakers. And so, I'm excited. I also, this year, get to advise Prism, our chartered LGBTQ club. And working with that student group, I think they have a place on campus to address some sense of belonging, and also to help us be kind and caring and loving and supportive to one another, recognizing that we're all Baylor Bears here. And so, that work excites me as well. And while some people might want to step away from that work because it is difficult and challenging and emotionally draining and sometimes confusing, but I think we're called, at least I think I'm built to enter into those spaces and to try to be a peacemaker and a reconciler and an ambassador for Christ.
Derek Smith:Well, really appreciate you taking the time to share with us and paint a picture of all the work that you get to be a part of on campus. We're excited to see the fruits of that. Thanks so much for taking the time to join us on the program today.
Kevin Villegas:Of course. Thank you, Derek. I appreciate it.
Derek Smith:Dr. Kevin Villegas, Dean of Intercultural Engagement and Division of Student Life Initiatives in Baylor Student Life. Our guest today, on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder, you can hear this in other programs online at baylor.edu/connections, and you can subscribe to the program on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.