In Her Own Words: Narce Rodriguez, Dean of Students, Portland Community College Rock Creek Campus
Rock Creek is the fastest growing campus of Portland Community College. As we are growing fast, we need to make sure we have adequate infrastructure to ensure our students and staff have the services they need.
My primary charge as the Dean of Students at PCC is to oversee student services areas in the Rock Creek campus: all areas of advising, counseling, and instruction. I see myself as a “synchronizer,” assuring that student programs have the tools and resources needed to function effectively.
I also am responsible for student behavior on campus. I work very closely with other departments to make sure that students abide by the Student Code of Conduct. I represent PCC the best that I can in the community, to carry on a positive name for our institution.
Path to Higher Education
My parents were migrant workers: my Dad is from Texas, my Mom is from Mexico. When we were little, they would follow the harvest from Texas to California and beyond. Even though both my parents had no education, they knew the value of education, that it was a ticket out of the fields. My family moved so much when we were young that my brothers and I were born in different states, depending on the crop that is in season. I went to Catholic school in Mexico from age 6 to 13. My dad had been working with an Oregon rancher for a number of years, and he expressed his intent to bring us over from Mexico. That’s how we ended up in Central Oregon.
I grew up as a very upset teenager. Back in Mexico, I already had my whole life planned in sixth grade: finish school, learn English and start some sort of business. Instead we came to the United States when I was 13. I was the only Mexican in my classroom in Central Oregon. It was a painful experience, being called names. The schools didn’t know what to do with me and my brothers, because we didn’t know the language. We were placed in special ed classrooms, because they thought we had a disability.
When I was a senior in high school, I talked to a counselor to express my interest in going to college I was told that people like me didn’t go to college. I didn’t go to college until after a migrant home school consultant encouraged me to pursue higher education.
I started out as a high-risk student at Oregon State University. I was part of the College Assistance Migrant Program – I went through a lot of experiences that first-generation college students go through, especially as a Latina. I didn’t feel that I belonged at the campus; I didn’t feel connected. I dropped out of college and went back home. I couldn’t find anything to do at home, except filed work, or restaurant and child care jobs. I went back to school.
I started participating in student government on campus. I was quiet, and enjoyed doing work behind the scenes. I ended up working at the Educational Opportunities Program, which was a good way to learn about student services operations. I realized that I really liked working in student services.
To gain new experiences, I took on different jobs. I worked as a firefighter for the forest department. When considering law school, I also worked as a court specialist for the Oregon State Supreme Court. Through these experiences, I realized that I really loved working in the field of education. I got a job at Oregon State University, doing ‘boot camp,” where I was responsible for recruitment, admissions, residence life, and other components of student services. I was surrounded by positive role models and mentors, who encouraged me to study for my master’s degree so I can be promoted to the next level in my career.
I believed in education, and I was challenged a lot at OSU. One of my tasks was to recruit Latino students to attend OSU. I learned along the way that for recruitment efforts to be successful, it’s important to ask the institution the right questions. I can bring diverse students to campus, but we need to ensure that we have the necessary retention programs. Success of the recruitment effort led to other challenges, such as recruiting Native Americans and first-generation white college students from poor neighborhoods.
Although I didn’t belong to those cultures, what worked is enlisting the help of community members to understand the needs and aspirations of those prospective students. I talked to Native American community leaders to learn about their concerns. I went to lumber communities that have experienced financial difficulties. Making connections with different communities required creative approaches. I had to really get to know the community, and build trust and credibility. It was a great learning experience.
I left OSU to take on a director position at a university in Arizona. I had the cold realization that I was hired for the position simply because of the color of my skin and my last name, and not because I was the most qualified for the position. I was tasked with promoting programs of color that were non-existent. I quickly saw the writing on the wall, but was advised that if I wanted to work in administration, I’m going to need to play the game. It’s like having a state-of-the-art tractor to work the fields, but without the fuel to run the equipment. I was getting paid well, expected to sit in a pretty office, but I can’t do anything.
I came back to Oregon and landed a job at Portland State University. One thing led to another, and I took on a position at Portland Community College. I worked really hard at PCC, and was given opportunities to move further up the ranks. I have been Dean of Students for four years, and it’s truly a healthy working environment. I have the support of administration, students and staff.
Here at PCC, we’re really proud to have a true Multicultural Center on campus, and being able to provide a functional working space for the Women’s Resource Center. We have a state-certified child care center that provides services for children ages 3 and up. We’ve also been able to bring federal money to our campus to help us recruit and retain the most disadvantaged students who would otherwise have no access to higher education. I’m very happy to have people on our staff that do their work well every day. I’m also very proud to have qualified counselors on board to help us deal with students in distress.
As the Dean of Students, my main charge is to protect student rights, while expecting students to behave accordingly with school policies. Many of the challenges in my current post are ones that I didn’t really expect to come my way, and they come mostly from students whom I meet because of certain issues with abiding by the Code of Conduct. Sometimes, I encounter students who constantly remind me that I am Latina.
I met with a student who is a military veteran. He stated to me that he has never worked with a Mexican person in charge. He wanted me to waive a writing requirement. There were also issues with some of his writings that were discriminatory, hate-filled, and disparaging toward women, especially Asian women. I stressed that he has to follow the protocols, just like everybody else. He tried to establish rapport by stating that he used to have a Mexican girlfriend who looked like me.
When I made it clear that I was going to move forward with the agenda, and stress that he follows the rules, he said:
“Come on, you’re a Mexican lady. I’m sure that someone had to break the rules for you to have this job.”
I told him that we’re not meeting to talk about me; rather, we need to find a solution to his issues. After we reached an agreement, I proceeded to respond to the issue he brought up. I emphasized that the only reason I’m responding is because I don’t want him to think that every student of color, or every administrator of color on campus is here because they got a break.
“I didn’t get any breaks. I had to work two or three times harder than everybody else. I have to be doubly cautious of every step that I make because I’m being watched simply because of the color of my skin. I worked really, really hard. Don’t assume that every person of color in this institution gets handed a silver platter.”
Then, there was another woman who was here because of behavior issues. As we were talking, she kept interrupting and asking me: “Are you sure you don’t know Maria? She’s my neighbor, and she makes tamales. Do you make tamales?”
Promoting Cultural Awareness
Throughout my career, I learned the hard way that when I’m going through an interview, what the search committee sees is a Latina person first, and my credentials second. My passion has always been working with disadvantaged and underrepresented students, and students of color. For some reason, search committees tend to look at that and ignore everything else. There is a tendency to focus on areas of my experience that have “color.”
At interviews, I have been asked this question a lot: “It appears that you have a lot of experience working with diversity issues and working with minorities, but can you work with all students?”
I emphasize that most of my experience has been in the state of Oregon, and here, we don’t have institutions of higher ed that only work with students of color. As a coordinator, adviser, or an administrator, I have had to work with all kinds of people. Most people in power are white, and so I’ve had to be able to work effectively with all people to get to where I am. What I bring to the table is a lens that always takes into consideration the needs of the most underserved and underrepresented students.
Then I ask this question: “Can you work with a Latina woman who is acculturated, but not assimilated?” I explain what “acculturated” means: you leave your roots and culture behind, and forget who you are as a person of color. I do not want to be considered for the job if I am expected to think and operate exclusive of my culture. I know that I will not make people feel comfortable all of the time. I’m truly connected with my roots. I live in Cornelius, Oregon, in the “hood.” This is who I am.
My culture influences who I am, and how I make decisions. I learned much from my parents, who are leaders within the community and have always championed equity and justice needs. They always taught me to do the right thing, and to never forget who I am. They made sure that I maintained my integrity, and respect for myself and others.
Colors of Influence Fall 2008