Q&A: Departing Dean Reflects on Pitzer Student Engagement

Danny Hernandez, Assistant Dean of Students at Pitzer College’s Office of Student Affairs, will be departing Pitzer at the end of this semester. (Courtesy of Pitzer College)

Danny Hernandez, assistant dean of students at Pitzer College’s Office of Student Affairs, will depart Pitzer at the end of the semester. He is leaving to work as the senior director of student life and assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. TSL spoke with Hernandez about his experiences at Pitzer and his plans for the future.

TSL: How will your responsibilities at USC differ from your current responsibilities?

Danny Hernandez: I’ll still be working primarily within Student Affairs, but the major difference is that I will be in the School of Social Work, which is more focused on graduate students. So the position is more removed from undergraduates, and graduate student affairs naturally comes with a whole different set of issues and concerns.

I’ll also be overseeing a few more areas than I am here. At Pitzer I was primarily doing academic support; at USC I will be overseeing admissions, financial aid and scholarships, career services, and student services, so my responsibilities have increased. I’ll also have the chance to be a faculty member, which will give me the opportunity to bridge academic and administrative areas. That’s something unique that I haven’t experienced before. I’ve taught at other institutions, and held this job at Pitzer, so I know a bit of both, but have never navigated both at one institution.

TSL: What was your favorite part of your job at Pitzer? What aspect of the position will you miss the most?

DH: My favorite part about my job has been my colleagues. I came from a traditionally clinical background, working in the Orange County and L.A. County departments of mental health, so coming here to a non-traditional work setting was a huge challenge for me, but I’ve just felt supported by my colleagues from the day I got here. There is not only support, but also folks who are willing to go out of their way to collaborate with you, and that’s an important part of working at a liberal arts college.

Overall, I really appreciate my colleagues, and that’s a big aspect of the job that I’m going to miss, because I don’t think I would have gotten the job that I’m about to embark on without the support and care of my colleagues here.

The other thing I’m going to miss is the opportunity for student interaction. I really appreciated students being open with me and sharing their narratives, and I really valued the opportunity to help students navigate and overcome difficult obstacles in their lives. When I see students here in the dining hall or around campus, I get to see them for the person that they are. I really value that aspect of this work, and I’m going to miss it at USC, because there you’re dealing with a different stage of life in terms of working with graduate students.

TSL: Are there any particular lessons you learned from your time at Pitzer that you plan to carry forward to your new position at USC?

DH: I want to incorporate the practice of not just making assumptions about what we, as an administration, think is best for students, but actually hearing the voices of students. It’s important to understand that although there is research and a set of accepted administrative practices in higher education, it is always important to consider context and the needs of your own student body.

What might work at another institution might not necessarily be helpful here. Every student body is unique, so understanding the student narrative and the student voice is very important. We also need to acknowledge that our institutions don’t exist in a vacuum, so what happens outside of campus has an impact upon our students, and that’s something I’ve learned to consider the past couple of years. Those are some of the critical lessons that I plan to take with me.

TSL: What was the greatest challenge you faced in your time as the assistant dean of students at Pitzer? Your greatest success?

DH: When I first came to Pitzer, my position was new, so I walked into a position that wasn’t previously established. There were a lot of needs in the areas of social justice, mental health, student retention, and first-generation college student support, and when I first came here, it was overwhelming to think about what my position would look like in light of all that. That was very challenging, but being able to tackle those issues the help of colleagues and students was an experience that I found particularly rewarding.

The work we did as a community to address those needs and determine what my role would look like is something that I am very proud of. I have valued my time here and what I was able to offer from my skill set, and I valued learning about the opportunities and strategies available for improving campus life for students, faculty, and staff. I feel that I have left behind some of my own characteristics and skills to the role, and I hope that informs the search for the best person to support and meet the needs of the community as a whole.

TSL: Anything else you’d like to add or say to the Pitzer and Claremont Colleges community?

DH: Pitzer and the Claremont Colleges will always play a significant role in my life. They have been influential not only in shaping me as a professional, but also in shaping who I am as a person. I will take a lot of the experiences that I had during my time here with me [and] use them moving forward. I know that I am a much better person for those experiences than I would have been without them, and I really appreciate that.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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