Staff Q&A with Rhina Duquela

Rhina Duquela, house dean at Du Bois College House, discusses House programs and initiatives, residents’ interests and concerns, and students organizing for social change.

Rhina Duquela
Photo by Peter Tobia

Born in the Dominican Republic, but raised in the Bronx, N.Y., Rhina Duquela recently began her second year as house dean of Du Bois College House.

Duquela came to Penn from Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa., where she was an assistant director for residence life and student conduct.

She also worked in student and residential life at her alma mater, SUNY Buffalo State, where she was a resident director in charge of running an entire residence hall.

Her commitment to social justice and working with students of color is what brought her to Du Bois, says Duquela.

“The students here at Du Bois are very much into social change and social justice,” she says. “I think my upbringing has really encouraged my fight for social justice. Going to inner city public schools really helped inform me about the disparities in education. That’s why I’m in this field specifically, and why I love working with students.”

The Current sat down with Duquela in her office in Du Bois College House to discuss House programs and initiatives, residents’ interests and concerns, students organizing for social change, and dreaming of Tokyo.

Q:

You received your bachelor’s degree in secondary English education and your master’s in higher education and student affairs administration from Buffalo State. Why were you interested in teaching English?

A:

I actually started as a political science and communications major. I wanted to be Anderson Cooper when I grew up, but for some reason I just knew it wasn’t for me. My mom was a Head Start teacher’s assistant, but I knew I didn’t want to work with smaller children, so I went into secondary English education and I loved it. I loved the schooling, I loved the classes, but when I went to actually student teach, it was a little rough. I knew that teaching the same thing to the same class over and over wouldn’t be for me, so I needed to find something else that really interested me. I was an adjunct instructor for a community college for about a year two years ago, so I do love teaching, I think I just need to teach older students and I need more flexibility.

Q:

While an undergrad, you studied Chinese language and culture in Shanghai, China. How was the experience?

A:

I loved it. It changed my life. When I was younger, my parents were strict so I was never allowed to travel on my own. So when I went to Buffalo State, they were really upset that I was going there because I was really far away. When I went to China, they were even more upset [laughs]. They were more scared than anything else, but it was something I needed to do for myself. I was very grateful that I had the opportunity because I was a senior at that time and you don’t typically get to do that your senior year. But I found a program during the winter. It was a short program where I got to live in Shanghai for a month. I visited Beijing with some friends on the side. We took our final early and just hopped on the train and went to Beijing. That opened up the world of traveling to me. Now I really, really love to travel.

Q:

How did you become interested in working in student and residence life?

A:

When student teaching didn’t work out, I needed to figure something out. I was about to graduate in a few months, so I literally went to all of the people that I really liked at Buff State. These were administrators in the education opportunity program, and other different programs. I saw that they were happy, so I literally interviewed everyone and I said, ‘What makes you happy? Please give me advice, I don’t know what I’m doing with myself.’ They all had pretty similar experiences in that they all studied teaching and at some point realized that it wasn’t for them. Then they looked at their resumes and realized that they had all these things that were for higher ed. That’s what I did. I looked at my resume and I was an orientation leader, I was a resident assistant, I was in Greek life. There were so many things that I was involved in in higher education, I just didn’t know that a job in higher education was even a thing until I interviewed them. They were like, ‘Yes, there’s a master’s program for this; there’s one in Buffalo State you can look at.’ I interviewed for the master’s program and they said if you get a job here, you can come to school here, so I applied to be a resident director, which is a full-time graduate assistantship at Buff State. It’s a little bit different than graduate assistants here. You’re basically a full-time professional from 9 to 5 and then you go to class at night. I applied and I got it, so I got into school. That’s how I got into residence life.

Q:

How has your time at Du Bois been so far?

A:

I really enjoy living in the House, especially with the faculty. The students, obviously, are wonderful, they’re brilliant. It’s so fun to learn from them. They’re just amazing. But the faculty bring another element to this position because I’ve done something like this in the past, but I never had faculty live in the house as well. They do programming and it’s really nice to help them develop their programs, and to help them coordinate because they have these wonderful, brilliant ideas. I really enjoy collaborating with them and helping them through that thought process. I really love working with campus partners. I work a lot with the cultural centers on campus—Makuu, La Casa Latina, PAACH, [the Greenfield Intercultural Center]. A goal of mine this year is to focus on working with the LGBT Center, the Women’s Center, and Hillel.

Q:

What sorts of programs and initiatives does Du Bois offer students?

A:

We have the Cultural Production and Political Power Program; we have Du Bois FIT, which is what it sounds like, just being fit. We bring in yoga instructors, Zumba instructors. We have boot camp outside. We are also very involved in intramurals. Du Bois won the football and basketball championship last year. We have House Council. Those are elected positions. We also have the HERstory and HIStory mentoring program this year. The HERstory program started last year. Dr. Robin [Stevens, an assistant professor at the Penn School of Nursing] is a faculty member here, and she’s the person who initiated the program and founded it. Students from Du Bois go into Powell Elementary School and mentor little girls. This year, we have HIStory as well. Next year is actually W.E.B. Du Bois’ 150th birthday so we’re reviving the Souls of Du Bois Conference. That’s going to be on Feb. 23, on Du Bois’ actual birthday. It’s going to be for the students, by the students.

Q:

One of your initiatives at Du Bois is your weekly Trending Tuesdays Dean’s Series. Can you talk about the program?

A:

Basically, students come to my apartment and we talk about what’s trending in the media. I usually have a facilitator there, so for instance, we had a #lockerroomtalk and I invited Malik Washington, [associate director of sexual violence prevention and education at Penn Violence Prevention]. That’s just one example. I talked about undocumented students and I invited Kareli [Lizárraga] from La Casa Latina. Every week, we have a different facilitator, especially if they have some expertise on a particular topic. Students basically tell me what they want to eat, and then we eat dinner in my living room. What I recognized is that it’s a really safe place because it’s a smaller place so they have a platform to really speak their mind.

Q:

Have you noticed a recurring theme, topic, or concern in these discussions with students?

A:

When I first got here, the [presidential] debates had just started, so we had a lot of Trending Tuesdays about the debates. We brought somebody in who was working on one of the campaigns and they facilitated that conversation. Then we had a person come in and talk about the election, and then we had a person come in and talk about the election aftermath. I think the current administration comes up fairly often, for good reason. Most of what we talk about just leads to that. When we talk about undocumented students, we talk about the current administration. When we talk about locker room talk, we’re talking about Donald Trump. We talked about the Dakota Access Pipeline and we had somebody from the indigenous community come in and facilitate that conversation. He was also a Penn grad and he came back to talk to us. We had a lot of conversations about President Obama’s lack of response to the pipeline. Students felt he was not responding quickly, and had a lot of feelings about that. I think a lot of the social justice driven issues, specifically, have a lot to do with politics and policies.

Q:

Where did your interest in social justice come from?

A:

I think my background. I was very involved in spoken-word poetry in high school, and that helped me kind of channel a lot of my frustrations when it came to social injustices, and I was around a lot of people who felt the same way. When I went to spoken-word poetry clubs and did slams and things like that, it was really nice to be around students who also used that outlet as a tool. It’s very nice to see our students organize on their own and fight for social change on their own. They don’t necessarily need any prompts, so it’s really nice to be here and support them, and just encourage them with all of their goals and all their needs.

Q:

You mentioned that you love to travel. Do you have your next trip planned?

A:

Next, I’m going to Paris. I’m going to Paris for Thanksgiving. Last Thanksgiving, I went to London. I have a dream of going to Tokyo. I’m taking my first cruise soon. I’m really excited about all those things.

Originally published on .