Q&A with New Dean of Students Alex Vasquez
Issue   |   Thu, 08/28/2014 - 17:38
Photo Courtesy of Office of Communications

New Dean of Students Amherst Alex Vasquez comes to Amherst from Wheaton College in Norton, Mass. At Wheaton, Vasquez spent 13 years working in a variety of administrative roles, including positions in the dean of students office, the provost’s office, the advising office and the president’s office. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degree from the State University of New York at Albany, and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in higher education at Boston College.

Q: Why did you decide to come to Amherst?
A: Although I went to a large public institution, I’ve only worked at small liberal arts colleges. I was at Colgate University for a while, and then Wheaton, and now Amherst. I believe in what we do at small colleges: I believe in the liberal arts education and the power of that education. I enjoy students. I enjoy the experience of small colleges. I like to see the places in which we as a group have helped make that experience the kind of experience that students want, the kind of experience that they can really leverage, the kind of experience that makes them lifelong learners. I think we do that better at small colleges. So when you have an opportunity to work at a great small college, you have to really consider it.

I wasn’t looking for a job, but I always said that I would be a dean of students, or take any position that came my way, as long as the needs of the institution matched the skill set that I would bring to it. I felt like there was a real synergy between the needs of the college and the skill set that I brought. Amherst is a great place. And if you study small colleges like I do, you pay attention to really great small colleges. So the right set of circumstances came together.

Q: How do you think your skills fit Amherst’s particular needs?
A: I would say I feel like I’m a relationship builder. And one of the things that I picked up in my conversations between students, faculty, and administration on my visit was really the breakdown of the relationship. I feel like there was certainly a lack of trust on the part of the students towards the administration. But I also felt like there was a lack of trust in the other direction as well. One person said to me on my visit, “Sometimes I feel like as a staff and as an administration we’re a little too paternalistic with students.” And one of the things that I say pretty often is that we believe in what we’re doing. We believe that we’re educating students in the right way, and that we really co-sign on that experience. Sometimes you have to throw students the keys and say, “Okay, it’s your turn to drive.” And I think there are moments in recent history when they’ve been reluctant to allow students to take the risk and drive, and say if we think we’ve prepared them the right way, then this is going to be okay. And I feel like as a relationship builder I can come here and spend some time building trust with the student body, and showing students that they really have a voice in the administration — building the bridges.

Q: Could you describe what your role as dean of students will be? I know it’s slightly different than the Dean of students role was before.
A: It is slightly different, with the dean of students role in some ways being split. Under the previous dean of students, there was a lot in this area, in the Office of Student Affairs, that would all go to one person. What Suzanne [Coffey] and I have done is think about the leadership of the division in a sort of team approach. She and I help lead the division, along with the rest of our leadership team. Under my immediate purview I have the residential life area, student activities, conduct, religious life and part of orientation. Suzanne would have primary responsibility for class deans, counseling, some of the support staff. We make lots of collective decisions, so anything that comes to me goes to Suzanne and vice versa.

Q: Where are you from? Where did you grow up?
A: My parents are from the Dominican Republic and they immigrated to the U.S. I was born and raised in the U.S., both in the Bronx and in northern Manhattan. I went to the State University of New York at Albany. I did my bachelor’s degree there, and then I came back and did my master’s degree at the same institution. After that, I actually didn’t go into higher education, although I certainly knew I wanted to go into higher education. But I felt like leaving college I had a lot to explore, and I wanted to have that business career experience.

When I left college, however, the economy was terrible and I ended up temping at a temp agency. I worked at the Coach company. I worked at Guess for a while. All my family’s in fashion — I’m like the only person who’s not. These were long-term temp jobs. I did operations stuff, like I did product development for Coach. And then I got placed at a corporate consulting firm that did management and benefits consulting, called Segal Company It was great to work with management. So I worked my way up, and I was there for about three years. I said to myself when I got there, “I only want to do this for three years.” Because I knew that after three years it would be really hard to turn around and go into higher education, because I knew that promotions would come and raises would come. So I left there and went to Colgate University as assistant director for campus life, and then on to my higher ed career.

Q: What have you noticed that distinguishes Amherst from the other places you’ve worked at?
A: I think Amherst has benefits that other small colleges don’t have. The Five College Consortium is an unbelievable benefit, not even just in how we partner [with other colleges] but in making sure that this experience is not an isolating experience.

Also, I feel that at Amherst, I will be working with people who are willing to do whatever it takes to make the student experience what twe want it to be for students. I think one of the things that was most convincing for me, in addition to having unbelievable students is that we have an unbelievably committed group of faculty and staff who were really willing to do whatever it takes to create the kind of student experience that’s going to be the right kind of student experience. When I came, Biddy said a really interesting thing. I said, “Biddy, tell me what it is you want out of this role. What do you want this experience to be?” She said, “I’m not sure, but we’re Amherst College and it should be better.” And that was really great.

This interview has been edited and condensed.