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.
Rafael Zapata, assistant dean and director of the Intercultural Center (IC), will be returning to his Catholic roots when he begins his newly accepted position in January as Chief Diversity Officer and Associate Vice President at Providence College. Swarthmore will form a search committee later this year comprised of faculty, staff and students fill Zapata’s position, hopefully before the end of next semester.
“I would hope that the committee makes approachability and accessibility important traits for the person who succeeds me,” said Zapata.
Zapata said he believes the mission of Providence College, which is a small Catholic-affiliated, liberal arts school in Rhode Island, resonates with the Catholic beliefs he grew up with.
“I grew up Catholic from second grade through an all-boys high school. I then earned my bachelors degree at a Catholic college,” said Zapata, who went to school in Harlem during a very turbulent time in the 80s. However, he said his high school, the Congregation of Christian Brothers, supported him and gave him the self-confidence he needed to succeed. Zapata went on to say that his early experience with Catholicism prepared him for life with two basic beliefs: “in the essential dignity and inherent potential of every human being, and the responsibility to make this a more socially decent world.”
After serving as assistant director of the Office of African American, Latino, and Asian American Student Services at New York University, Zapata continued his vision for advocacy and community-building at Swarthmore in 2002. This year he served as dean of the sophomore class and will host the Liberal Arts Diversity Officers (LADO) annual conference at Swarthmore November 7th-8th. Zapata also introduced diversity workshops at this fall’s new student orientation.
Zapata has always been impressed by “how important and central diversity is to enhancing the quality of education here at Swarthmore.” He believes his main role on campus has been to challenge and support the many students from a wide range of cultural backgrounds. He said his goal has been to make every student with whom he interacts feel cared for.
Haydil Henriquez ’14 has Zapata as her academic advisor. Henriquez sees Zapata as a “successful Latino man who does not completely assimilate to American culture.” She said she had a very tight-knit community in New York City and Zapata helped her to adjust to Swarthmore. Henriquez explained that there could be many obstacles to transitioning for a Spanish-speaking student coming to a small, culturally-diverse liberal arts college. Her conversations with Zapata were reassuring and encouraging because he reminded her of home.
Andrew Hernandez ‘13 will also miss the influence of Zapata on campus. He said that many Latino students regard Zapata as a mentor and relate to his childhood experiences of growing up in the Bronx. Andrew worked with Zapata through ENLACE and organizing Latino Heritage Month. He admired the way that Zapata always made the effort to reach out to students.
“Your peers lend so much because they come from so many different parts across the world, but how do we engage that diversity constructively?” said Zapata, referring to his aspirations for his successor.