Back to Episode # 10

Intro  00:00
Life After Now.


Liz Bolsoni  00:09
This podcast is a place for young people like you to gather information about education. And think about what it means for your life after now, you'll be able to connect with inspirational guests who have first hand experience and expertise surrounding education in Minnesota. Today I will be speaking with a very special guest. She is the president of Macalester College, Dr. Suzanne Rivera. Thank you so much for joining me today.


Dr. Suzanne Rivera  00:33
Good morning, Liz. Thanks for having me.


Liz Bolsoni  00:35
Thank you so much for being with us. So would you take a moment to introduce yourself and tell our listeners a little bit more about who you are?


Dr. Suzanne Rivera  00:42
Well, sure. As you said, my name is Dr. Susanne Rivera. I'm the 17th president of Macalester College. I've been here for about a year. In fact, yesterday was my one-year anniversary of having joined Macalester and moved to St. Paul. I'm originally from New York City, but I've lived all over the country, and I've worked in higher education for the last 26 years.


Liz Bolsoni  01:06
Thank you. And I have a fun icebreaker question that I like to ask all my guests. If you would give yourself, your high school self a piece of advice or some words of affirmation, what would you say?


Dr. Suzanne Rivera  01:18
Ah. Well, I think I would say, say yes to everything, say yes to adventure. I mean, I don't mean like take unreasonable risks, but be open to new experiences. I think I was quite driven and focused on academic achievement, and I missed out on some things. For example, I didn't take a semester abroad in college, and I regret it. I think every college student should do some form of study away if they can. So if I could go back and give my adolescent self some advice, it would be say yes to more adventure.


Liz Bolsoni  01:53
That's great. Thank you. So tell us a little bit about your experience as a student, what you maybe went through and how the college application process was challenging or what it was like for you?


Dr. Suzanne Rivera  02:04
Sure, well I should start by saying that as a president of a college in the United States, I'm a pretty unusual person in the sense that I was raised in an immigrant home, I'm Latina, I'm the first woman president at Macalester. In many ways, my journey to get here doesn't look like the journey most college or university presidents take. So I, you know, I was on public assistance as a kid. I got free lunch. I was a Pell Grant recipient in colleg. And the road to get to college, I just remember as being mysterious, you know. The main thing I remember is I didn't feel like I could go to my parents or anyone in my family for advice or help, very much felt like I had to figure things out on my own. Not just the applications, but also things like how to complete the FAFSA form and whether to take AP exams. There were fee waivers for things, but you had to know to ask for them, and it was a little bit embarrassing. I also knew that other people had low expectations for me. Like I remember telling my high school guidance counselor that Brown University was my top choice, and she laughed at that. That was her reaction. And it's done at the time, but I think I just always have really had this deep sense of determination to try to do things that people thought I couldn't do. And indeed, I did get into to Brown, and that's where I went for college. But you specifically asked about my journey to get there, and it was sort of a process of making a path, you know, where where there wasn't one.


Liz Bolsoni  03:38
And there are probably some resources that you wish you had had access to when you were applying or going through that process that maybe didn't exist. So what do you wish for other students today? What resources do you want them to have access to?


Dr. Suzanne Rivera  03:54
Yeah, I was fortunate in that I was able to go to a very good private high school for free, because my mother had a clerical job at that high school and they let all staff kids go for free. But I still could have used emotional support and some older role models to follow, and to feel like there was a known path ahead. So I think now it's a very different landscape. There are lots of wonderful programs like Posse and QuestBridge and College Possible that didn't exist when I was applying to college. It was a long time ago. That was in the 80s. So I wish I had something like that available to me so that I could have gone to college with more confidence, understanding what to expect, you know. When I got there, it just was like going to another planet and I had to figure it out on my own.


Liz Bolsoni  04:42
That's right. You know, representation and mental health are two big themes that a lot of our guests have brought up and those are really important to being a successful student. So thank you for sharing that. What did your path look like after high school? You talked a little bit about applying, getting into college, your dream school, and then you also went on to get graduate degrees and get your doctorate degree. So could you share a little bit about that?


Dr. Suzanne Rivera  05:04
The first degree I got was my undergraduate degree from Brown, and that was an interesting journey and a really transformative one. Because like I said, when I got there, I felt really overwhelmed, very much like a fish out of water. I looked around the campus, and it seemed to me like most people there knew what they were doing and felt that home in that environment. And I really did not. I had to kind of make space for myself there before I felt comfortable. Once I did, it was great. Truly the most transformative four years of my life. I'm so grateful for the undergraduate education I got. And then straight out of undergrad I went to UC [University of California] Berkeley for a social work degree. I thought I wanted to work directly with clients in antipoverty programs. And instead, I ended up going to work for the federal government on antipoverty programs at the policy level, first as an intern, and then as a program specialist for the Headstart program. Actually, my first job in higher education was at UC [University of California] Irvine, and I worked there for seven years. And then I moved to Dallas and worked at a medical school called UT [University of Texas] Southwestern. And it wasn't until I was 35, that I went back for my doctorate. So the point of the story is that I took a really crooked path to get where I am now. When I went back for my PhD, I was a mother of two grade school kids, and I was working full time. So I went to school at night for my doctorate, while I was working full time. It's tough, but it can be done. But it means that I was almost 40 by the time I got my first professorial job. And then I got recruited to move to Cleveland for a job at Case Western Reserve University. I was there for almost 10 years. So Macalester College is actually the fourth higher ed campus I've worked at in higher education.


Liz Bolsoni  06:45
So you talked a little bit about your experience as a Latina woman who is representing and supporting a large college campuses student body. So how important to you as the president, is it to enroll students from underrepresented groups who live in Minnesota and why?


Dr. Suzanne Rivera  07:02
Well, it's, it's hugely important to me. Macalester has done a great job recruiting students from a diversity of countries around the world. It's known for internationalism. And it also recruits students of color from historically excluded groups from all across the country. But I think we can do more to recruit more students from historically excluded groups, and specifically to recruit more talented, underrepresented students right here in Minnesota. And we need to. We want to make the ladder of opportunity than in Macalester education provides accessible not only to students from New York or Texas or California, but also to students from right here in the Twin Cities and in rural areas around the state. So one of the things we did after I arrived last summer is we created a new scholarship fund called the Minnesota Opportunity Scholarship Fund that specifically targets increasing financial aid dollars available to Minnesota students from historically excluded groups. I think it's really important. We know that academic excellence and inclusion go hand in hand, we are a better, more vibrant, more intellectually rigorous campus when we have a diversity of viewpoints and experiences represented. And by the way, not only in our students, but also in our faculty and staff. So increasing diversity is one of my top priorities.


Liz Bolsoni  08:27
Can you speak a little bit to the specific things you do at Macalester to move the needle on diversity, equity and inclusion and antiracism issues?


Dr. Suzanne Rivera  08:36
Yeah, and I think, you know, these are important issues, to me anyway. So they would have been areas of focus, even if not for me having started this job in the middle of a national civil rights crisis. But obviously, the last year was one in which many institutions in our society we're rethinking the importance of inclusion and equity and how to do a better job because the events of the last year really illuminated, or let's say brought to light for people who previously perhaps were able to ignore or just didn't see all of the inequality. I think now it is really impossible for institutions to ignore the structural inequalities in our society. So my point is that these would have been areas of focus for me anyway, because at a very personal level, it's important for me to be inclusive. But it also is timely for Macalester to make this a priority, because it's the way all of higher education is moving--is to focus with more intention on not just diversity, not just including more numbers of people from historically excluded groups, but becoming a community in which everyone can thrive and flourish. So that means being more equitable and more inclusive. Some of the things we've done at Macalester since I arrived, I've created a new Vice President-level position that's going to lead the college in the fostering of inclusive excellence, not only in learning and teaching, but also in community flourishing, you know, all the ways that everyone on our campus can be involved in antiracism and helping us to meet our social justice goals. We also started a new partnership with the Posse Foundation. So we're going to be bringing in  a group, a posse of students from the Twin Cities in not the September coming up of 21, but the next September, September of 2022. And Macalester will actually be the first campus in the United States to bring in a posse from the state of Minnesota. So we're really excited about that, because it's not only going to bring us wonderful, talented students, they're going to be students from right here in our backyard. And as I said already, earlier in this interview, focusing on the talented students in Minnesota is something we're really excited about. We also have expanded programming and mental health support for students with underrepresented identities. You identified mental health as a concern in this last year. And we know that students of color and other students from underrepresented groups have felt especially vulnerable at this time, and have needed supportive services that are uniquely tailored to their lived experiences. So we have added more counselors in our mental health staff, but also programming that I would say is not sort of like traditional therapy, but has included things like storytelling and movement and dance and other kinds of experiences that help people to feel affirmed and appreciated and in community with one another in ways that are supportive and affirming. Last November, Macalester joined with several other selective liberal arts colleges to form a national organization called L'ACRELA, the Liberal Arts College Racial Equity and Leadership Alliance. And that now has bloomed into a consortium that has over 60 member colleges and universities that provide professional development training for faculty and staff so that they can lead more effectively on issues of racial justice and make classroom teaching more equitable and inclusive. There's a lot of other stuff that's going on too, but those are some -- that's kind of a summary of major initiatives that we've launched already. But we continue to make this a focus. So there will be more that happens in the year ahead.


Liz Bolsoni  12:27
So, you know, George Floyd Square is just across the river from your campus. And I imagine that the events of last summer were challenging for students across the country, especially black students, but how did it specifically impact your campus? And what did that look like coming back to school in the fall? How did things change?


Dr. Suzanne Rivera  12:48
Well, I should say, I may have a unique perspective on this because my first day on the job was June 1. I mean, I literally got in the car in Ohio to move here on the day George Floyd was killed. And so each day as I was driving toward the Twin Cities, I'd be in the car all day, and then I would turn on the TV in a motel that night, and I would see progressively each day as I got closer, a city that was in deep, deep pain and crisis. And I arrived on campus on June 1 to a  campus community that was in deep pain and crisis also. So it was my introduction to St. Paul as a city and my introduction to Macalester as a campus was sort of meeting that moment, and just being ready to roll up my sleeves and jump in -- the first thing I did here in St. Paul was to join a silent marg and vigil that was led by Black clergy in response to George Floyd's murder. So in some ways, I feel like my whole experience in this last year has been, you know, very much influenced by and focused on addressing racial injustice and social inequality because it's impossible to live here and not feel that in your bones. And you're right to say that it was felt even more keenly and continues to be felt even more keenly, by our Black students, staff and faculty. But I have seen our whole community come together to support not only the Black Lives Matter movement, but to think, you know, really deeply about what police reform and community safety might look like here in the Twin Cities. I personally served at the request of Mayor Carter on St. Paul's commission to reimagine public safety, which was a really rewarding experience and one I feel very grateful to have had. So I'm, I can't really pull apart my experience in this last year from the events in the Twin Cities and around the country around racial justice because that really was my introduction to St. Paul and Macalester. It's been the way I have experienced this transition is to be thinking all the time about how to do better with regard to equity and inclusion and fairness.


Liz Bolsoni  15:08
Right. And in a lot of ways, I think that's how we progress -- is not feeling uncomfortable having those conversations or not feeling uncomfortable bringing our beliefs into a workplace into school, because who you are, should not change when you walk into your university, when you walk into your job. Who you are, helps you and shapes your experiences in those organizations and institutions. So that's a really important observation, a really important comment that you had,


Dr. Suzanne Rivera  15:38
Well, I told the search committee when I was applying for this job that I only wanted to come if I could bring my whole self to work. And if anyone felt that I wouldn't be able to bring my whole self to work, including, you know, being the daughter of a refugee, including being a bilingual person, including being a woman and including all of my identities. If I couldn't bring all of those things to the job, I -- there was no reason for me to disrupt my life. I had a great job before in a city I liked with the community, you know, that I was deeply connected to. But this opportunity presented itself and I was told, you know, by the board, and by the search committee, we want you to come here, and we want you to be a part of this community and bring all of your lived experience to the role. And that's what I've tried to do every day.


Liz Bolsoni  16:24
So Dr. Rivera, we want our student listeners to be leaders like you. And you know, you have shared a little bit about your long journey and what it's been like. So as the first woman of color, as the first woman president, what are some of the challenges you overcame being from an underrepresented group? And being in your leadership ship position now, what do you think students have to look forward to in order to be leaders like you? Or what steps should they take to get in those positions?


Dr. Suzanne Rivera  16:58
Well, it's true that there are very few Latina college or university presidents. So, this is a very exclusive club. It's a very small group. And getting here has meant, I think, having not only a strong work ethic and wonderful mentors, who have opened doors for me, but also a willingness for me to step through those doors of opportunity when they have presented themselves. Even if I felt like I wasn't ready. Even if I felt like I was a bit of an imposter. Even if I felt like I would have to learn things on the job. So one thing I would say is, you know, don't knock yourself out of consideration for opportunities, because you worry that other people won't see you as capable or appropriate for the role, just keep moving ahead. Sometimes the door opens a crack and you have to push on it. To open it all the way for yourself. I think about one of my idols is Marian Wright Edelman, who started the Children's Defense Fund and was one of the principal founders of Headstart, and she is known for saying "you can't be it if you can't see it." And there were, you know, very few -- if I had waited to find mentors, or sponsors who looked just like me or had my exact experience, I would still be waiting. You have to take mentorship and advice from all sorts of people in your life, even if they don't share the same path that you have exactly. But I think things are beginning to change. You know, I took opportunities for formal leadership training, but also just learned as much as I could from everyone I could along the way. And one thing led to another in ways that were unpredictable and serendipitous, and I was willing to take a chance. So, the short answer is, if you love what you're doing, you love learning, and you want to be a leader in higher education, then keep excelling at every stage in that process, and take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way. As a president, I think about the college from every angle, because I've really, I've been a member of all of the constituencies at a college right. I've been a student. I've been a staff member. I've been a faculty member. I've been an involved alumna for my undergraduate institution. I even have been the parent of two college students, because both my kids are grown now. So I think about my role as it relates to each of these. And I think about you know, how things are different now because I can be in this job. I didn't have one Latina professor in my undergrad, my masters or my Ph. D program. There -- that just was not an option. So if students are looking now at a career in leadership in higher education, and because I'm sitting in this job thinking, "well, if she can do that, I guess it's possible for me," then I think that's a really positive step. But there still are tons and tons of barriers. There's, you know, there's the so called hidden curriculum of higher education, all of the things that people who are new to higher education don't know and have to try to teach themselves on the fly. So for example, I try to use everyday language and demystify a lot of the jargon that's been used in the past to keep people out or to haze them as part of their initiation. I really try to use my position to increase access for other people. But I also recognize that we have a long, long way to go. And there are a lot of people who are very talented, who could be in roles like this, and are being kept out by traditions and customs that are outmoded, because people think about achievement in a very narrow kind of way that's based on old fashioned thinking, and we need to break that down. I'm sure there are still people who are underestimating me. I'm sure there are still people who have biases or make assumptions. You know, it has happened to me in my career on multiple occasions that people have walked in when I'm about to give a talk and asked me when Dr. Rivera is going to arrive, because they assume that I'm the assistant or the helper and not the keynoter. Or people have walked into a meeting and asked me if I'm going to be bringing the coffee and when I'm the one who called the meeting. Stuff like that happens, you know. People have have said things in my presence that I think they didn't even realize were hurtful, maybe what we would call micro aggressions today. But I think if I let myself focus too much on all of the obstacles, I would just get paralyzed and not be able to make progress. So I recognize those things when they happen. I take them in stride, and then I just keep moving forward.


Liz Bolsoni  21:53
So that kind of wraps up our conversation for today. I could chat with you for a long time about this. But I do have one last question. And, you know, as we talked about earlier, students today are facing just so many challenges, including distance learning, living through a global pandemic, a nationwide reckoning with racial and social injustices. And that's just to name a few. So, considering all of this, what do you hope life after now looks like for students in Minnesota?


Dr. Suzanne Rivera  22:22
Well, one thing Liz, is I hope we really don't forget everything we've learned in the last year. I think we've all grown and stretched a lot. Yeah, it's been painful. We've endured many losses, and we're holding a lot of grief. And we see all the things that need to change. Even people who, like I said before, previously were able to avoid knowing or feeling the pain of injustice, I think cannot deny it anymore. But we also discovered a lot of things about ourselves. We discovered we're strong, we're flexible, we're creative. And we're capable of persevering under really difficult circumstances. So some of the new tools we learned how to use this last year, like Zoom, are actually pretty helpful. The fact that you and I are doing this interview this way today, right? So I don't want to live on Zoom, but now we have it as an option. And as it turns out, students actually like some of these tools, like being able to rewatch a lecture to aid comprehension, or to have closed captioning for big meetings. People are unleashing their creativity. They're creating YouTube channels for group projects and presentations. We figured out we can bring in guest speakers from around the world to give lectures in places that wouldn't have been able to fly them in. And colleges like Macalester can recruit students from anywhere because open houses can be held online now. So all sorts of boundaries have been broken in this year by necessity. But I hope we hold on to some of those learnings because we've also made progress. We've become more inclusive. We've been able to provide things to people who couldn't access them before. So my main hope is that we hold on to that spirit of innovation going forward.


Liz Bolsoni  23:53
Dr. Rivera, thank you so much for joining us today, sharing about your own journey and the steps your institution is taking to support marginalized and underserved students. It was wonderful speaking with you.


Dr. Suzanne Rivera  24:04
Thank you, Liz, it was a pleasure.


Liz Bolsoni  24:06
I also want to give a quick shout out to our listeners. Thank you for spending some time with us today. This podcast was brought to you by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. I encourage you to dig into the resources mentioned in this episode, which you can find in the show notes on our website at Make sure to follow this podcast on Apple, Spotify, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts, so that you don't miss any future episodes. Until next time everyone, I'm Liz Bolsoni. Stay well, stay hopeful, and stay ready because you all are the future.

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