During his public forum, Mena discussed the importance of embracing student identity and diversity, referencing his own upbringing as a testament to this mindset.
“It’s important that students are affirmed in their identity and lived experiences,” Mena said. “That is something that has really informed me throughout my life, starting with my lived experiences growing up in the Bronx, New York, as a first-generation college student to a single parent, being bi-ethnic, and then going away to college in the state of Maine, which was very different from where I grew up.”
Mena also explained the need for student affairs practitioners to re-imagine ways in which they can assist low-income students pursuing degrees in higher education.
“Oftentimes, we are looking at our students from a deficit perspective – they didn’t have a good education, they’re coming from a low socioeconomic background, and so on,” Mena said. “How can we switch our way of thinking to ensure that we are looking at the assets and the strengths that students are bringing with them to campus?”
Christina Gonzales, who most recently worked as the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs at the University of Colorado, Boulder, is also on the short list.
Like Mena, Gonzales is a first-generation college student who noted in her interview the impact that higher education had on herself and her family.
“I can say that being a first-generation graduate has changed the trajectory, not just for me and my husband, but for our families,” Gonzales said. “We can help navigate in a different way. It’s a game-changer for many families when this can happen.”
Gonzales discussed the role of student affairs administrators to ensure students are best equipped for successful futures once they earn their degrees in higher education.
“How can we then align our approach in student affairs to better prepare our students for success now and in the future where they will need lifelong learning?” Gonzalez said.
She also described ways in which student affairs practitioners can address potential shortcomings on the part of the University in assisting low-income students.
“There are some things that we still have not figured out for low-income identified students, and for student affairs. I think this is a great opportunity – student affairs can be more nimble,” Gonzales said.
Amy Johnson, currently the special assistant to the vice president for student affairs at Eastern Washington University, is also a candidate.
“I hope to work with the leadership and student community to promote UNC as a world-class university, as one that sets the standard in higher education particularly as it relates to issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, which has been an important facet of my career,” Johnson said. “I want to continue and extend the University’s focus on student health and well-being, especially as it relates to mental health."
Johnson also acknowledged some students’ desires for greater transparency from the University.
“Some students talked about the need to re-establish a sense of trust and transparency in terms of their relationship to the University, and I really hope that I can work with the provost and students to help foster that dynamic,” Johnson said.
The fourth candidate considered by the search committee, Frank Shushok Jr., interviewed for the position via Zoom before withdrawing his name from further consideration to become the new vice president for student affairs at Virginia Tech.