Raquel Esteves-Joyce is assistant dean of first-generation low-income student support and programming. She was recently appointed interim co-chief diversity officer alongside Provost Linda Strong-Leek.
Since this article is a means for people to get to know me in this new position and since it is so intertwined with who I am, the work I’ve done, as well as the experiences and knowledge that inform it, it’s essential to journey with me to an earlier time.
When I was a FGLI (first-generation and/or low-income) BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, person of color) undergraduate student, I attended classes part-time at the University of Pennsylvania while working full-time. I felt invisible, inconsequential, and alone in my academic journey. Upon graduation, I felt so discarded by UPenn that I swore my academic career was over. I would never go back to higher education since it made it clear that I did not belong.
However, I did return four years later with my master’s degree, experience as a bilingual teacher in a Title I school, and a family that included an 8-month-old daughter, who by the time I graduated was 8-years-old and was accompanied by her 3-year-old brother. This time at UPenn, I had a professor who saw me, believed in me, and supported me through the many stages of my doctoral journey. She understood the systems and structures that work against many BIPOC and FGLI college students. Her name is Susan Lytle; she was my advisor, my dissertation committee’s chair, my advocate, and a believer in me even when I doubted myself.
When I graduated UPenn with a doctorate in education, I sought to be someone else’s Susan. (Continued after the gallery.)
By this time, I had learned that my undergraduate story of struggle, invisibility, and institutional neglect in higher ed. was not unique nor a sign that I was inferior and didn’t belong. It was not my failure to own, but it was a problem I was trying to address through my life’s work.
Every job in education I’ve held, no matter the title, has always been about helping to widen and increase educational pathways and opportunities, to prepare students for college, and once here, to help them thrive. This has always been my work, and I sought to be at Haverford College to continue it. So in 2012, I came to Haverford as a quarter-time employee at the Writing Center. To do this work at Haverford College that I was committed to and felt called to do, I commuted an hour and a half each way, and I also worked a full-time job and did consulting/teaching work during the evenings and weekends. This juggling of various positions was a lot but straddling multiple jobs is common among FGLI students. So many do this as a means to support their families and communities, as well as themselves. I did it because I believe in Haverford’s students and my work. I am thankful that I persevered.
I am grateful for the opportunity afforded to me by Kristin Lindgren at the Writing Center, because it is where I first became acquainted with Haverford’s students. As I worked with them, they began to share more than just the pieces they wanted feedback on; they shared parts of themselves. Through their writing, I came to know them, their aspirations, fears, responsibilities, and, for some, the ways they felt invisible and inconsequential, and how they secretly questioned if they belonged, if they were the cause of the challenges they were experiencing. Students entrusted me with their feelings and stories. As I held onto the pain, anger, disillusionment, and struggle that was tangible, I gave them a different perspective, one where they were not broken, deficient, alien, and always behind and outside the narrative. In this story, there were fortified structures built to ensure they were always on the outside looking in. When they dared to enter academia, these structures may have looked different, but they still worked against minoritized students, women, BIPOC, FGLI, LGBTQ+, and nonconforming students.
My work continued when I started at the Office of Academic Resources (OAR). There, alongside my incredible colleagues, we tapped into a different narrative. Our work encouraged and modeled academic stories as a counter-storytelling tool. It was an act of both resilience and resistance to narratives about them that reduced them to a class rank, a GPA, and bullet points on a resumé. By authoring their academic narratives, students empowered themselves to take authority on how they wanted to be framed and decide what stories they wanted to be told.
When my work expanded to assistant dean of FGLI student support and programming, it provided me the privilege of working alongside student-leaders such as those who staff the Nest, a campus food pantry where we strive to nourish more than just the body of the FGLI community, and Horizons, where the Student Resource People co-create programming that is FGLI-centered and DEI-focused. All of this work is done in collaboration with my outstanding and tireless colleagues in the dean’s office and the Chesick Scholars’ leadership team. This is the work I’ve been immersed in and that I am thankful will continue to be part of my work portfolio as I transition to becoming the interim co-chief diversity officer (CDO).
This role is a culmination of all my work up to this point. It incorporates my knowledge, experiences, an appreciation for our diverse students–where they come from, their community cultural wealth–and a strong belief in Haverford’s unfolding mission of becoming antiracist and more diverse, equitable, inclusive, and accessible. It also enables me to bring the colleagues I work alongside and all the students I’ve ever worked with to the senior staff table.
While social justice work has been the underpinning of my life’s labor, this role now makes it visible in a new way and affords me more potent tools to expand my support to students. I am thankful to my mentors and supervisors at Haverford College, particularly Dean Wilcox, Dean Cuzzolina, Dean Glanzer, Chesick Director Barbara Hall, and my many valued colleagues and collaborators. Their support extends to me even in this role. I greatly appreciate Dean Bylander and President Raymond, who made this opportunity possible, and the students who expressed their support of me inhabiting this role, for my acceptance of it was predicated upon their approval.
In the six months that I will inhabit this role, which started at the beginning of this month, I will work alongside my hard-working dean’s office colleagues as we strive to implement more antiracist and trauma-informed programming. I also look forward to working with students to identify and operationalize their ideas for a more just Haverford.
I want to return to Susan Lytle because she still has much to teach every time I share her impact on my life. As my advisor, she was tasked with choosing one of my two questions for a particular section of my comprehensive exams. One of my questions was conventionally framed. However, the other reflected more accurately where my academic journey was leading me. I questioned the “need and legitimacy of comprehensive exams” and how they were “antithetical of the values” UPenn espouses. Another advisor may have shied away from such a contentious and possibly controversial question, but Susan embraced it and approved it. She knew asking my question and the personal struggle that conceived it was necessary for my journey. So with her support, I wrote: “In these classrooms, we didn’t just learn the dominant mindset and academic discourse. We learned to question it, deconstruct it, challenge it, and then work within the margins to dismantle it so that it would not act as a border to those who follow. It is because I learned to question in this space and because I was encouraged to end my silence that I can even ask, no challenge, the idea of a comprehensive final exam. And so I do. So what you read is a result of what you taught me.”
Susan taught me that sometimes we couldn’t just answer the questions asked of us. Sometimes we need to ask a new question based on a more panoramic perspective of the context and what is really being asked of us and recognize the assumptions and biases held within those questions. Sometimes, we need to draft our own inquiries and our narrative, for there will always be those who question our legitimacy and our right to inhabit all the spaces and roles we have worked diligently and endlessly to attain.
I will end this piece the way I finished that section of my comprehensive exam and that particular chapter of my life, by writing a new beginning for myself even as I was somewhere in the middle. As I wrote my answer for my exams, I gained strength. As my words filled the page, I began to take up space. I wrote about how I would no longer be denied access nor allow my place in academia to be questioned and how I would work to ensure the same was true for those that came after me. I would do this by writing a bridge to academia and paving a road through it, “because now that I am here, I bring everyone with me. No one will be left outside [academia’s] gates again …. I come once and for all, and forevermore. This is my journey. This is my struggle. This is my present, but not my end.”
This post has been edited and condensed from the original.