Two Colleagues, One World: Navigating the Experience at A HSI (Hispanic Serving Institution)

Stephen Dominy and Michelle Castro, Ph.D.

As the academy continues to navigate the changing landscape of higher education, understanding minority serving institutions, especially Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), can be difficult to quantify into a how-to guide to support student learning and development. In this brief analysis, two higher education colleagues share their knowledge of navigating fraternity and sorority advising through the lenses of a director who previously served exclusively at predominantly white institutions and a director with a Ph.D. who has served at two different HSIs, including her alma mater. The two colleagues will provide different perspectives, informed by different experiences, on how they see the landscape, specifically looking at trends, best practices, and lessons learned related to engagement, education, and culture while understanding what we can learn from others.

When one comes to Florida International University, one will notice a couple of distinct features: a tropical feel of campus, a diverse student population, lots of traffic, and nimble use of funds. As you begin to have conversations with students and explore different events, you uncover more information. During orientation, a professional comes to understand how little families understand about fraternities and sororities. Part of the situation stems from the fact that many cultures do not showcase an equivalent. Describing what a fraternity or sorority is can be difficult not only because of what it is but also the language barriers that exist. Recruitment and promotion of fraternities and sororities must be multifaceted and comprehensive; otherwise, families and communities do not comprehend the purpose or value of fraternity and sorority life. The multilingual experience is something you learn about having worked and studied at an HSI. It is taken for granted by many. At Florida International University, it is common for English and other languages to be mixed into conversations, Spanglish in particular but Portuguese, French, and Creole, just to name a few others, are common. When discussing growth and support for our chapters, multiculturalism and multilingual preparedness are two critical factors. The organizations and resources that support these factors yield stronger results long-term than those of our unprepared counterparts.

Further, professionals will uncover through discussions with students how much the family and biological siblings impact their collegiate journey. As we see in higher education, parents and families want a greater role in the student experience; therefore, the more you engage families in opportunities to be involved, the more likely a student is to be engaged on varying levels on the campus. Extending family engagement will influence a student’s persistence to graduation and/or their major/career path. This experience spills over to the familial dynamics within a council and/or chapter. Much more so than at our previous institutions, the siblinghood between members is robust and fully embraced by students, campus administrators, and biological families. Big and Littles become part of the families, and mothers, fathers, and other family members are social with each other. Parents or guardians are very much aware of the “drama” or the stories of what goes on within chapters, and many parents, siblings, and grandparents become familiar with members of chapters and learn about the social order taking place within organizations. Parents become part of the chapters as boosters, builders of items, and sometimes financial backers. This familial culture is so unique that it is difficult to unpack the benefits of these dynamics.

Another factor that impacts the experience of students at FIU is the urban environment. As many can imagine, an urban setting provides varying opportunities for engagement, community partnership, and social enrichment. When it comes to engagement and community partnership, people want to support individual experiences while enhancing the ability of the institution at large. Community leaders understand the value and purpose of higher education while navigating the elements of the broader city to engage students and alumni. This experience can lead to financial growth, practical based learning, and career placement. On the other hand, we navigate the factors of social enrichment, especially when you live and work in a destination city for travel, music venues, and social venues. As we assess social enrichment, alcohol and drugs often appear in conversations. While recognizing it occurs outside the confines of the institution, we, as colleagues, must manage the expectations of our students. Students have access to alcohol and drugs more readily than in other environments and must still uphold the student code of conduct. These conversations become challenging to explore with students. As we host these conversations, we have come to understand that students want to discuss things they enjoy in a face-to-face environment, while difficult conversations are preferred to be held virtually. We are still exploring if this is a best practice or the aftermath of the pandemic.

As we navigate these conversations, alumni engagement plays a role in supporting our efforts, from advising chapters and councils to financially investing in the undergraduate experience. There are several factors that play into the role of their advisors. Many advisors live in the area and are willing to step in and be on campus whenever possible. Alumni actively engage in the direction of the chapter while supporting them in their chapter operations and programs. Of the factors impacting higher education, our opinion is that alumni engagement and participation is higher at an HSI than PWIs, based on anecdotal experience and observations. The familial culture and affinity to the institution appear higher, too. From alumni events to fraternity and sorority philanthropy events, one can see alumni at any and all events by the institution. When the environment of an institution prepares students for a lifetime level of stewardship and support, institutions can see why it is critical to invest in alumni programs because their engagement can create a long-term impact.

As other institutions navigate increasing alumni engagement, it is essential to consider the timing of programming. This timing of programs continues to be an ongoing conversation for us. At FIU, chapter meetings are primarily on Thursday nights. Most visitors ask, “Why Thursday?” Remember, the familial environment is robust. Our students understand the need for chapter meetings while also understanding social engagement is important. Therefore, the chapters host meetings on Thursday to get down to business, then transition into outings and other activities following the chapter meeting. This poses some unique challenges in preparing educational experiences between chapters, councils, and the community. Our programming calendar typically falls after 5 p.m., which means with Miami traffic, 5:30 p.m. or later. Our best yield for attendance is usually between 5-7 p.m. on Thursday. This does not mean other times do not work, but it does take calculated planning and risk to yield strong attendance and outcomes.

As timing of events and familial connections play a role in the life of the students, a professional working at an HSI will be more engaged in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion conversations that mirror the city or area the university is a part of. At FIU, understanding the history of South Florida and the makeup of the two major counties, Miami-Dade and Broward, is essential. There are so many different neighborhoods and cities within these two counties of Florida. The history is rich, and it is reflected in the student population. This lens of the student’s cultural background influences the conversations about DEI; it provides the sphere in which they view the world and relate their experiences to others. If you look at how to anecdotally address DEI, the education and programming presents as a predominantly white washed narrative; however, the breadth and depth of culture change the scope at FIU. We are organically diverse; however, the topics of equity and inclusion are more robust for us to address. We are currently striving to find ways to bridge community gaps and progress inclusive language for our community. The topics are the same, but the lens through which our staff and students may respond or discuss them may have a different flavor or approach.

As stated, there is no guide on how to work at an HSI, but as with everything, each institution has its own traditions and approaches to conducting business and working with students. If you are looking to learn from this HSI, we would ask you to come visit us and witness for yourself the varying levels of engagement, education, and culture. One can learn a significant amount about the community while also learning what is special at FIU cannot be easily mimicked at other institutions. It is a rich tapestry of experiences and processes. It is hard to explain sometimes without showing you!

 

About the authors

Stephen Dominy serves as Director of Fraternity & Sorority Life at Florida International University with a growing community and staffing structure. Over the last 13 years, Stephen has served at different institutions supporting diversity initiatives, multicultural education, community engagement, fraternity and sorority life, assessment, and more. Stephen served at various types of institutions; however, most of his career has been with Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) prior to serving at Florida International University. Stephen has a bachelor’s degree from Mercer University, a master’s from Florida State University, and completed his doctorate of Philosophy in Higher Education from Florida International University. He is a member of Alpha Tau Omega and volunteers with many organizations, including AFA and NASPA.

Dr. Michelle M. Castro currently serves as Director of Student Government Association at Florida International University. In her role, Michelle oversees the daily operations of the SGA and its executive board members particularly the President and Vice President and Comptroller. In several previous roles Michelle served as a Fraternity and Sorority Life Professional at both a Hispanic Serving Institution and Medium Private University. Michelle holds a bachelor’s degree from Florida International University, a master’s from Bowling Green State University, and a doctorate of Philosophy in Higher Education from Florida International University.  She is a member of Phi Sigma Sigma and serves the organization as a NPC Area Advisor.

 

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