Yolanda Zepeda advocates for Latino students and other underrepresented groups on campus as the assistant vice provost in Ohio State’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion. With a significant background in higher education, Zepeda has seen a shift in the treatment of diversity in a university setting. Her experiences as a former student and current administrator of color within the university system inspire her to help others struggling to defend their identities and explain their presence on campus.
Zepeda grew up in Victoria, Texas and attended Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. After a stint abroad in Germany, she decided to pursue graduate school, and found herself in the Midwest at Indiana University. While in the program, Zepeda hit some of the barriers many students of color face: the absence of academic and social support systems as well as a university administration lacking in experience with minority students. Zepeda now works to ameliorate the lives of minority students on campus.
While in graduate school, a position suddenly opened up in Indiana University’s administration and Zepeda took it thus beginning her career in higher education. Now at the Ohio State University, she relishes telling her husband every morning that she is “going to school.” Listen to Zepeda’s journey to Ohio State and her discussion of the work OSU’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion is doing to make the university a welcoming place for all students:
From Texas to the Midwest:
🎧 Listen (3:10)
“So I am a native Texan, Tejana. I’m from Victoria, Texas – it’s sort of a small town in South Texas near the coast… I went to college in Texas and then left the state and then spent some time in Germany during the time when the two Germanys were coming together… and that period really made me hungry for graduate school so I came back and started graduate school in the Midwest…”
“I was at a conference of the Big 10 Registrars and we were meeting in Indiana that year. And I met a tall, dark, handsome registrar from Ohio State. Two years later, I had a job here and packed up my little car and found myself in Columbus… Ohio State has a very longstanding legacy of diversity and inclusion and being a national leader… When I had the opportunity to be a part of that and in particular to extend that work to the Latino community – I jumped at that opportunity. So it was love, but it was also a great opportunity, a great time to come here.”
Growing a representative community:
🎧 Listen (6:08)
The Latino community on campus is small, but it’s very diverse and we have people doing all sorts of fascinating work. They’ve come here to be a part of Ohio State. So being able to operate and work closely with those folks in education, in the sciences, in literature, in engineering… a lot of vibrancy that’s terrific. I will still say that the community is still too small. When I got here we were close to 2% of the population (the enrollments) and today it’s not quite 4%… Supporting stronger student presence of Latinos here is really important and related to that we have to have more faculty – faculty who can serve as role models, who can support our students, but also who will bring scholarship and research questions that are relevant and reflecting the diversity of our community.”
Supporting Latino students at Ohio State:
🎧 Listen (3:39)
“For students of color, oftentimes there are subtle messages that may create an unwelcoming space, or that signals indirect messages that make them feel they don’t belong… The Latino students have expressed a really strong desire to have a safe space, a space where they can go find each other easily… Where they feel they don’t have to always explain where they’re from or what their language is or what their background is… that is the single greatest challenge. There’s not any office on campus that says we’re here for Latino students.”
“Especially in these days, we have very loud messages in the media that present Latinos as stereotypes – undocumented, uneducated, “bad hombre,”… that’s the only information that many of our staff have about Latinos…We put a lot of burden on students to explain themselves and give our staff and faculty the information they need in order to adequately serve them, and it’s not fair.”
A dynamic Latinidad:
🎧 Listen (2:25)
“I identify as Chicana, that’s the way I see myself. But it’s also very context bound – so if I’m in a room full of people who don’t know anything about Latinas, then I’ll say Latina. Sometimes I’ll even say Mexican American if I can tell that they want to know what my specific ethnic heritage is. I think it’s really fluid and context bound, but I will say whenever I fill out forms and they ask if you’re Hispanic/Latino [I mark] ‘yes’ and then they ask for your race, and I always just put ‘other’ because I don’t identify with the racial categories they provide… If it said ‘mestiza,’ I’d be all over it. But it’s so complicated! That’s what I love about being Latina, it’s very dynamic and in flux.”
Unless otherwise noted, all photos and text are copyrighted to Leticia Wiggins. Music for introduction & interlude by The Original Soundtrack (thanks, guys!).