Growing up in Detroit as the only daughter of Puerto Rican migrants who didn’t have a high school education between them, Andrea Guzmán never envisioned going to college let alone one day rising to a position of leadership in higher education.
When she was a child, she hoped that a Prince Charming would swoop in from Canada to marry her, or thought maybe she would run an orphanage for children, like the ones she saw on television commercials.
Then a high school counselor intervened when she saw Guzmán’s potential and encouraged her to take the leap and pursue a degree.
“She said this can’t be it for you — you have to go to college. There’s so much you can do,” says Guzmán, who was appointed at UCF’s vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion in June.
While trying to earn enough money to put herself through law school, she took a job working with at-risk youth in Detroit public schools and dipped her toe into her first diversity and inclusion work with the Hispanic and Latina/o/x community. During this period of her life, she happened to meet a vice chancellor of a community college who asked her if she had ever considered becoming an academic advisor.
“I started in higher ed and I never left,” Guzmán says. “Once I earned my master’s degree in public administration, I was still focused on going to law school and my mentor said, ‘Why are you still talking about law school? When are you going to realize that this is your calling?’”
As one of UCF’s newest Knights, Guzmán shares more about her personal and professional journey and her aspirations for the university’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.
What was your first job?
I used to babysit when I was about 11 years old. Then at 13, the city of Detroit had a youth employment program that allowed you to work in the summers. It was specifically designed for low-income families and you were placed to work at schools, painting or cleaning, activities like that. I also worked as a receptionist at our local church, a neighborhood clothing store and at McDonald’s. I always say I was 13 when I started paying social security (laughs).
What has been the key to your success in getting you to where you are today?
Two things. The first is faith. I’ve always been very grounded in my faith. I’ve been through a lot of things that most people don’t experience. I am a third-generation victim of incest and child sexual abuse, which had a huge impact on me and my family. I broke the silence and that cycle with my daughter, praise God, but it’s something very difficult to go through and culturally not addressed or spoken about. What I’ve found is the more I shared my story, the more I healed from it. So if I can help someone else speak up and heal, then I’m going to keep sharing my story. Faith is my foundation and allows me to see goodness even during the darkest moments of my life.
The second is really, kind-hearted mentors along the way. And most of them I didn’t even realize at the time were mentors. They were people who saw potential in me and wanted to take me under their wing. My current mentor is retired from higher education. I was very young when she asked me to be the chief academic officer of the community college that she was the president at and I remember thinking, “Is she crazy?” I told her, “I’m not ready.” And she said, “Yes you are. You have everything you need and I’m going to teach you the rest.” I soaked up everything she taught me and worked really hard to do my best. So the keys to my success are God, kind-hearted mentors who opened doors for me, and my willingness to take advantage of the coaching and mentorship provided.
Since you mentioned mentorship, what advice would you give to someone who is interested in being a mentor? Or someone who is looking for one?
For someone interested in being a mentor, I would say make the first move because some students — particularly first-generation students — may not even know they need a mentor or may think you’re not approachable because of your position. So if you see that spark in a student or you really think you can help mold that staff member into a higher level position, take the initiative to ask if you can serve in this capacity.
For someone seeking a mentor, I would say, ask. If you’re afraid to ask verbally, send them an email and say, “I’m looking for a mentor” and if the person says yes, really take the time to have the conversation of what kind of mentor you’re looking for and what you need. If you know that you procrastinate and sometimes need motivation, you should be able to share that with your mentor so they know what areas you need help, and be willing to listen and put in the work.
What does UCF do well in terms of diversity and inclusion? Where does it need to improve?
I believe the institution has done a really great job about communicating the importance of — and our commitment to — diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). It’s pervasive. When I speak with people in academic affairs, SDES, athletics, institutional advancement, student leaders or even people in the community who partner with the institution, they all know the importance of DEI and the impact it has on UCF and the larger community, and they all want to be a part of advancing inclusive excellence at UCF. Many of them are already forming committees or are involved in DEI initiatives in different capacities.
We can grow and improve by synergizing some of that passion because there’s so much happening all over the university that we aren’t operating as efficiently and effectively as we could. So we’re having small splashes of impact throughout the university, when we could bring all that energy and talent together, and have larger scaled impact.
Other areas we could improve are in diversification of faculty, staff and leadership. This is a national challenge, but there are strategies we can implement to begin to move the needle. A starting point is to grow our own leaders. First, because it creates affinity, and you can retain talent. Second, because lower-level and middle managers tend to be staff of color. So looking for ways to support them and develop them for middle or upper management opportunities before we look outside to fill those positions, and equipping them with supervisory and managerial skills that are conducive for a culturally diverse institution like ours is important.
I also believe we need to have scaled tailored programs and services for underserved populations that are evidence-based and have clear objectives. Programs for first-generation and transfer students or women faculty in science, for instance. We currently have some “boutique” programs that can be revisioned, strengthened and scaled so that we are serving a larger number of people, while simultaneously positively impacting performance metrics and institutional goals.
We also need to review and enhance our diversity education and training programs. DEI work has evolved and professional development needs vary from college to college, department to department, and person to person. We need room to explore institutional inequities through a broader lens so that we can ensure that we are serving all faculty, staff and students. This means expanding our view of DEI to include varied abilities or people with disabilities, veterans and military families, low-income and working-class families, interfaith and spirituality, geographical diversity, and different political affiliations or views, to name a few. This is how we go from an institution committed to diversity, equity and inclusion, to an institution that is committed to inclusive excellence.
What is one goal you have for this academic year?
My goal is to have a solid recommendation to provide to President Cartwright so we can begin to articulate what DEI is going to look like for UCF. Is it going to be a division of diversity, equity and inclusion, and if it is a full division what areas belong in that division? Or is it going to be an accountability strategy where we’re ensuring alignment in DEI goals and expectations across units, colleges, and departments? Will it be a combination of the two? There are different models we can select from. By next semester I want us know what model is best for UCF and that our decision is informed by the constituents we serve and our long-term institutional goals.
What is the last book that made an impression on you?
“White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo. When I was working at FAU, we had [author] Jacqueline Battalora speak at FAU at our faculty and staff symposium for DEI. She was a big hit for most of the attendees, but not all. It intrigued me that some attendees were highly offended by her teaching and expressed feeling attacked or blamed for social issues, and silenced. I wanted to explore why they felt this way and learn how to create a space that was safe to respectfully have such opposition. I read “White Fragility” to understand why someone would feel that way and how I could create such a space in the future.
When you do DEI work, there’s always going to be a group of individuals who will support your work and be involved rain or shine; typically these are individuals that are directly or indirectly affected by marginalization. It’s the individuals that have a different view or experience, in my opinion, that can make a big difference in whether you will be successful in fostering a climate of inclusion, so we need to find ways to engage them in the conversation. If they feel attacked or don’t feel included, then we aren’t being inclusive. So the delivery of instruction has to be adjusted and needs to be varied so that our approach is conducive for all faculty, staff and students to partake in meaningful and respectful dialogues. I realize that there are DEI professionals who disagree with me, but I believe we should care about who is not showing up to the conversation or training, because it’s respect and civility that we’re seeking and we need all views and experiences at the table to achieve it.
When you were hired at UCF, you listed cooking as one of your hobbies. What is your favorite dish to cook?
I grew up in a Puerto Rican household so of course it’s going to be rice, beans, picadillo and sweet plantains.
What is the best parenting advice you can bestow?
Structure. Kids need structure and routines. But make sure that the routine is still pliable. And I will also say that work-life balance is difficult to attain, so make sure every moment you have with your child, you’re maximizing it. Sooner or later you realize, I can do the laundry later. Let me take them out to dinner and enjoy their company.
What is one thing you’d like to see every student do before they graduate?
I would like every Knight to do something that they’re not comfortable with — if it’s attending a religious dialogue of a religion they don’t practice, whether it’s going to the Holocaust museum for the first time, going to a Gay pride parade, or a political event put on by an organization you are not affiliated with — do something that you have never done that is completely outside of your comfort zone and just listen. Because when you take the initiative to do at least one, you’ll be more apt to do it again and it is in that discomfort that you learn and grow in, even if you don’t agree with it.