First Chief Diversity Officer Assumes Office

Rafael Zapata serves as Fordham's first Chief Diversity Officer. (Photo Courtesy of Rafael Zapata)

Rafael Zapata serves as Fordham's first Chief Diversity Officer. (Photo Courtesy of Rafael Zapata)

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By Hannah Gonzalez

Rafael Zapata serves as Fordham’s first Chief Diversity Officer. (Photo Courtesy of Rafael Zapata)

After his hiring this fall, Rafael Zapata has officially assumed his role as Fordham’s first Chief Diversity Officer, Special Assistant to the President for Diversity and Associate Vice President for Student Affairs. In the next year of his involvement at Fordham, his goals include building a support team, as well as gaining an understanding of the community’s priorities and perspectives in regard to diversity.

In an interview with The Fordham Ram, Zapata stressed the importance of working alongside faculty, students and administration to reach the goals of diversity and inclusion laid out in the President’s Task Force.

“If I fail to articulate that this is a shared endeavor, then I would have failed, because that is not the work of a true diversity officer,” said Zapata.

In response to queries about the purpose of the position and its role in comparison to other positions such as offices of multicultural affairs, the National Association of Diversity Officers released a list of Standards of Professional Practice for Chief Diversity Officers in October 2014.

Zapata said the purpose of the position is to foster diversity in all aspects of the university.

“Frankly, our job is to work ourselves out of a job. To do the work so that it becomes embedded in the culture, in the policies and the practice of the institution,” he said.

In order to promote the goal of diversity at Fordham, within the next three months Zapata aims to hire a staff to assist with the management and outreach demands of the position. In the meantime, he has been in frequent meetings with members of the Fordham community to gain an understanding of the unique challenges at this institution.

“I need to learn this place from the people who are already here,” Zapata said. “I think it would be premature for me to implement the things I did at Providence or Swarthmore to Fordham, because they may not apply.”

His long-term goal, as laid out by the Diversity Task Force, is to establish a standing committee on diversity and inclusion.
“The challenges seem to be clear, and laid out both by the Task Force and by the president’s response, so we have, in the near term, a serious to do list,” said Zapata. “The question is how do we do it together?”

Zapata has nearly 20 years of experience working to promote diversity on college campuses. Prior to being hired at Fordham, he was the first chief diversity officer at Providence College. He has also worked at Swarthmore College and NYU. There, he was an assistant director of the office now known as the Center for Multicultural Education and Programs, overseeing programs for academic support, leadership development and social justice education.

His work, he said, has always centered on fostering environments in which all students can be successful.

“How do you affirm the identities of people who don’t always see themselves, whose identities may not always be as immediately understood, whether they be first generation college students, LGBTQ, students of color? How do you help them navigate successfully these institutions that aren’t always as easy to navigate?” said Zapata. “That’s always been my work. ”

Roderick Perez, GSB ’20, president of the Fordham University Philippine-American Club (FUPAC), expressed his disappointment in the current lack of attention given to students of diverse backgrounds.

“I hope to see the new Chief Diversity Officer strive to empower the presence of these students with diverse backgrounds on campus. Their issues are generally not given as much attention as they should, which sometimes can to feelings of discomfort and isolation on campus,” he said.

Zapata, a New York native, expressed a desire to form new connections with the communities surrounding both Rose Hill and Lincoln Center, as well as draw upon existing connections forged in his time at NYU and his childhood roots near the Lincoln Center campus.

“I’ve always tried to connect my work in higher education with local communities. You build those relationships and you pull that community in when there are strategic and relevant opportunities for mutual benefit. It’s one of the more exciting aspects of my job,” said Zapata

Zapata said he was happy with the current direction of the Fordham community in matters of diversity, and he encouraged students to continue to stay engaged.

“There’s a lot of momentum, not just among the high level administration, but among the students and the faculty that I’ve spoken with. So that gave me a sense already that there’s a shared responsibility,” said Zapata. “That’s what really convinced me that this was a good place to be.”