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Natacha Cesar-Davis Appointed UCLA Ed&IS Assistant Dean of Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

By Joanie Harmon
Dr. Natacha Cesar-Davis headshot

HEOC alumna is the first in this post and will also work to support Black student life and community at SEIS.

Natacha Cesar-Davis (’20, Ph.D., HEOC; ’17, MA, Higher Education/ Higher Education Administration) has been appointed the inaugural Assistant Dean of Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) for the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies, and took her post on January 3, 2022. The UCLA alumna has worked most recently as director of Caminos a Las Ciencias, a STEM support program for Latinx and low-income students at St. Mary’s College of California in Moraga, California and as a faculty member of the psychology  department at Diablo Valley College. 

Cesar-Davis’ doctoral dissertation examined the vocational identity development of Black and Latinx emerging adults in a community college.  She achieved her master’s degree in developmental psychology, community psychology and social justice, and her bachelor’s degree in art history and history at Boston College. 

Cesar-Davis has served as an academic advisor and academic coordinator of junior and senior year programming at Brandeis University; a student-success specialist at Northeastern University; and as an assistant professor of behavioral sciences at Bunker Hill Community College. She draws upon her extensive professional experience and her personal experience as a first-generation, Afro-Latinx immigrant student to enhance and strengthen Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion efforts across SEIS. 

The Latest had a conversation with Cesar-Davis on her vision for shaping a supportive environment for all SEIS students, faculty, and staff, and her belief in the power of community in doing so. 

What led you to pursue a career in higher education?

I started my career in higher education back when I was [still] in college. I did my studies at Boston College, and while in college worked as resident assistant and as a student worker at the Office of AHANA (African-American, Hispanic, Asian and Native American) Student programs.

My plan when I first started college was to become a lawyer. I worked at a law firm and realized that wasn’t the type of advocacy I wanted to do. I actually wanted to advocate for students who, like me, were the first-generation to college, were immigrants to this country, [and] may not know how to navigate the post-secondary system. I wanted to be what those advocates were for me in college, and I felt like higher education was going to be a great space for me to do that. 

I ended up doing a master's in developmental psychology, developmental and educational psychology at BC after I did my undergrad. I started working at Brandeis University, which was very near BC, and I worked there with juniors and seniors, advocating for them as they were finishing their program at Brandeis. I loved that experience, but realized that I wanted to find more of a community of people who were adult learners, maybe did not have it all together, and needed to do school. 

I worked at the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University for a couple of years. A lot of the students were coming from Bunker Hill Community College, a local community college, and they were going to Northeastern to finish out. I wanted to see what that experience was like at a community college … that did not have as many resources as a place as BC or Brandeis and wanted to be there to help them navigate that space.

I did that for three years and transitioned to becoming a full-time faculty member at Bunker Hill Community College, because people [had told me], “Well, when you are helping students start out in orientation and signing up for classes, you get to understand those challenges. But when they're in the classroom, you really get to understand a different side of the learning process, and you can be of assistance.”

I taught for a while, then decided to do my PhD because in committees, people kept discussing data-driven solutions, and I wanted to be able to understand data and see data for myself and make decisions. I was in the Higher Education and Organizational Change division [at UCLA Education] and throughout that time, once again, I was able to keep working with students at the local community colleges and also working with faculty. In that moment, I understood that the PhD was a passport to go into spaces where people who fall into the categories that I fall into, who come from the backgrounds that I do, don't really get to go.

After I graduated, I worked as a faculty member and ran a HSI grant at St. Mary’s University and had a wonderful time doing that. But when this position came up, I saw it as an opportunity to work with graduate and undergraduate students, staff, and faculty, I felt it was going to [utilize] all the different skill sets that I had acquired throughout my time in higher education.

With your vast experience in serving different populations of students, what do you hope to achieve as Assistant Dean for JEDI and Black Student Life at UCLA Ed&IS? 

It’s a new position. I want to honor the demands from the Black Bruins who got this position, who ensured that this role was there. I want to create a space where they feel heard, where they feel like this is their school, and their needs are being met. I want to be a conduit to ensure that UCLA Ed&IS is able to do that for them. 

This role also encapsulates, for lack of better words, an institutional agent for staff and faculty as well. This is a varied role that allows me to work with all three different [groups of] stakeholders and community members. I hope that I'm able to keep a good ear to the ground to understand what is happening and use the different skill sets that I've acquired to ensure that we're meeting the goals and the outcomes that have been set and that the institution needs to fulfill.  I’m an action-oriented person and I see this role as one where a lot can get done and a lot of infrastructure can be set up. I’m the first person in this position so it's a big responsibility, but one that I am very happy that I have.

How will you address the number of Black students in Ed&IS who are underrepresented in certain areas of study?

I hope that I have a way of encouraging prospective students to come to Ed&IS, and I hope I have a role in creating a space where those students are going to be able to come in and have a good safety net to get through school. 

As a Black Latina woman who did graduate school [when] older - I didn't go straight from college, I worked for a while, then I came back - a lot of challenges come your way. It’s very difficult to remain engaged in your education when you have real life happening to you. I want to be able to have those supports in place, not only for their academic life, but their social life, their spiritual life, and their health.

I want to be thinking of what type of resources our students are going to need, and what types of resources our faculty is going to need to better support students who may be going through the challenges of not just going through school, but going through school as a Black person in the United States and facing those microaggressions that without [them] even knowing, are present in Ed&IS. Even though we have an entire group of people that are very committed to equity and justice, those things are embedded in the culture of most post-secondary institutions. So, [finding] how we can, when those things come up, we're not ignoring them but addressing them and helping students move forward. 

[Another] question that I have is, how do we also support the staff that's on the frontline? There were so many instances in my time at Ed&IS where it was Amy Gershon, it was the people in the business office, it was all those people that made life happen for me. They’re essential to the success of students. How do we ensure that they feel supported too? I see all those different areas that I have to make sure I meet [in] this position.

How does the COVID-19 pandemic add to the challenges facing you in this new role?

Right now is a challenging time for everybody. I think of myself:  “Wow, what if I was in school right now, with two kids, trying to manage childcare, and manage my obligations to publish … to do a dissertation?” What a difficult task people are going through.  

This is the moment where people have to join in together, rely on one another, and build out their community. If the community is strong, then people are going to be able to get through these difficult challenges. We have a big event, “100 Days of Black Excellence,” planned to start in February and ending sometime in May. It’s going to be a series of engagements in order to start building out our capacity as a community, to support one another not only in intellectual matters, but we will also want to create spaces that prioritize wellness in our community. 

We’re going to [include] feature speakers that allow us to deepen our understanding of critical issues in the Black community, but we're also going to have chances to gather into fellowship with one another during this time. Whether you do it via Zoom or in person, it is so important to have those spaces to recharge. People are burned out, not only if they’re in school, but all around. There’s a lot going on, a lot that these last few years have required of us. I want to be able to create those spaces where our community learns from one another. 

I believe in the power of community. When I did my masters in developmental psychology, it focused on community justice and one of the things that was emphasized is the importance of having people to talk, just having different groups of people that you can rely on as you do different things, and I think that's important for all stakeholders that I respond to in this position. I think is going to be a very successful event, a very successful series of engagements and I hope it's something that stays for as long as I'm in the position, and as part of a tradition of Ed&IS.

Was there anything in your experience as a graduate student that was pivotal to your learning and affects the decisions you make as a higher education professional?

I had such a wonderful experience at Ed&IS. It was hard for me. I was moving from Boston, leaving my family. I’m one of seven kids and I'm number two, so I fill a really essential role in the dynamics of my family because of the fact that my parents weren't born here. I basically have helped my younger siblings navigate their college experience, and I was leaving right at the point when my one of my younger brothers was starting college. My mom was not used to going into the schools, was not used to navigating the school environment for my siblings, so I had to do it and I had to do it from far away.

I remember one time I was very upset because it was hard to get back into the groove of writing. It was about hard to get back into the groove of reading as much as you have to read. I had my first class with Pat McDonough and I went to her. I was crying, I was like, “I don't think I can do this - I think I gotta leave,” and she was like, “You're not going anywhere.”

She not only affirmed me and my identity as a student, but she was so affirmative in my role as a sibling. She gets it - she comes from a big family too, and she’s also from Boston. She made me feel like a piece of home was there at Ed&IS. I will never forget that conversation.

At that point, my advisor, Cecilia (Rios-Aguilar) who's also been amazing, was on maternity leave, but Pat stepped right in and supported me that whole first quarter that was very difficult. I can also think of Mitch Chang who was very flexible when I was trying to finish my required courses and I was nine months pregnant. You never forget those moments and these instances have inspired me in my teaching of students. 

Then, Amy Gershon and her constantly reminding me of the little things that I did not have the mind to keep up with, like, “You need to complete this to make sure you get your [state] residency.”  She never made me feel like what I was asking was too much, she always [had] an open door policy. Kim Mattheussens, too, and everybody that worked in the business office at that point, T’wana (Bills), who isn’t there anymore – always [with] a welcoming smile.

When you’re a grad student – when you’re a student, period – including as an undergrad… you’re trying to navigate all of these things. Sometimes you may have somebody in your family that helps you do it, sometimes you’re on your own. [Knowing] there’s a smile waiting for you at Ed&IS as you are trying to do all these things and they’re not judging you for what you haven’t done, they’re just trying to help you get there, is so helpful. In this role, I want to ensure that I’m supporting the faculty in the insurmountable task that they have of being there for students every day. I’ve been a faculty member - I know what it’s like to take that on. 

Learning involves emotional bandwidth.  It’s also being able to have somebody in the right mind space to feel that they can learn. Faculty broker that every day for students; staff do it too. And then, the students themselves have to get through it. [Mine is] a multifaceted role, and for me, being someone who went through Ed&IS, I know that it is something that can make a world of difference for somebody who's done so much to get to a place like UCLA.