Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
In this third installment of the Better Know a Dean series, the Gazette talks to Assistant Dean and Director of the IC, Rafael Zapata. Dean Zapata arrived at Swarthmore four years ago and was recently recognized as one of Delaware Valley’s ten “Most Influential Latinos Under Forty” by IMPACTO, the Philadelphia Multicultural Affairs Congress, and the Council of Spanish Speaking Organizations.
DG: Why did you come to Swarthmore?
Well, I was working at NYU in a similar capacity when this job came along. It was just a great opportunity, and when I interviewed, I was deeply impressed with the school, its values, and its commitment to social action and making positive change in the world. Swarthmore definitely lives up to those principles.
DG: When should students come to you?
Any time! If any student has any question regarding any aspect of the experience here at Swarthmore, just come visit. You don’t really need a reason to come. You can just come to get a sense of how to have a conversation about your goals or just to talk. It’s really important to develop relationships all across campus. There is always that misconception that you only see a dean when you’re in trouble or for mediation. I’m here, as a dean as well as IC director, to be supportive.
DG: As Assistant Dean/IC Director, do you have any specific goals for the next semester or next few years?
I hope the IC can provide ongoing, relevant programs regarding multiculturalism and social justice not just to its core constituents but also to the broader community. We want to reach everyone including the people who just want to learn and grow. The work the IC does is relevant to all students; multiculturalism is an all-campus issue. I hope to create an environment that mitigates discussion, especially difficult discussion. These are inherently challenging conversations, but we have to focus on how to create avenues for people to engage rather than avoid the real issues at hand.
People are passionate; how can we create a space for those who have very real experiences as well as those who generally want to learn? How do we make conflict productive? How do we provide a space that is compassionate, patient, and respectful where we can get to all those difficult and not always comfortable questions? We really have to get students to look within themselves in relation to the community, to peers at Swarthmore; it’s a very jarring process, and we have to have the competence to engage in these conversations in a way where we’re not alienating one another.
The IC is able to coordinate all types of programs with different departments, faculties, and student groups. It takes work to bring these things to completion, but when we’re able to do it’s great. It’s all genuine and very much in the spirit of sharing and growing together.
DG: You are currently working towards Ph.D in sociology at UPenn; is it difficult to be a grad student as well as a Swat faculty member?
Doing both simultaneously is definitely a challenge; there are still exams and the dissertation and other assignments to complete. I’m hoping I can finish that. I do have the support of the institution, and everybody’s been great. Being away has made it difficult, but I love returning to school. Quite frankly, I get inspired a lot by the work that students do here. I have a great interest in teaching and would love to teach on occasion, facilitating both academic and emotional growth in students.
DG: You were also recently named one of “Delaware Valley’s Most Influential Latinos”, how did that feel?
It was very surprising and flattering. The awards reception was great; I managed to meet some outstanding people doing excellent work in the community and catch up with a few old mentors and friends. It was nice to see them and nice to be recognized in front of people I recognize and look up to. Swarthmore actually allows me to do a lot of this type of work, collaborating within different communities. The College is very supportive of all kinds of efforts; we have an amazing access to all kinds of different resources and have managed to bring all kinds of talent here. I’m proud to work for an institution that allows me to do that. It’s all about those core values: effecting positive social change and positive impact in the world.
DG: Do you have any interesting or quirky personality traits?
I think I’m a repressed actor. I think I have the theatre in me; I’ve been told by several people that I’m a repressed actor slash performer slash singer. I haven’t actually taken the leap, but I just might…