New Residential Education staff champion social justice, inclusion

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Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Residential Education Housing Services and Student Conduct Isaiah Thomas smiles for a photo at Occidental College on Thursday, Feb 27, 2020. Gwen Berghof/The Occidental

Dean of Students Rob Flot announced two new hires within the department of Residential Education & Housing Services (REHS) Feb. 6: Isaiah Thomas, the new assistant dean of students and director of REHS, and Ashley Claiborne, the new assistant director of student conduct. Thomas was formerly the director of residential communities at Swarthmore College, while Claiborne was a complex coordinator at the University of California, Santa Barbara. For Claiborne, the transition to a smaller school came from a desire to engage more with the student body.

“I’m used to working at larger institutions, and that’s great and all, but it’s hard to really connect with students,” Claiborne said. “That’s kind of why I got into higher education — so when you’re at a larger institution you’re all in your own areas, but here we’re all working together.”

Ashley Claiborne, Assistant Director of Student Conduct, discusses her approach to her position in her office at Occidental College on Tuesday, February 25, 2020. Gwen Berghof/The Occidental

In 2016, Claiborne interviewed for her first position at UC Santa Barbara with Chris Arguedas. They worked together for two years until Arguedas accepted a position as Interim Director of Occidental’s Intercultural Community Center (ICC). Now, Claiborne and Arguedas are working together again — this time at Occidental. Dean of Students Rob Flot announced Arguedas as the permanent director of the ICC March 2.

“Where we connected most was our work as it related to social justice,” Arguedas said. “We sat on a social justice committee that was responsible for building our curriculum for the rest of the department that we worked in together.”

Since Claiborne arrived on campus a few weeks ago, the ICC and Office of Student Conduct have started working alongside one another, according to both Claiborne and Arguedas.

“We’ve already started discussion about conducting training together around implicit bias and where that meets the conduct process,” Arguedas said.

Claiborne said she hopes this work will help to make tangible change at Occidental.

“Me being able to work closely with the ICC when it comes to policies, keeping in mind the social justice aspect, I think it will really be able to shift the culture a bit here,” Claiborne said.

For Claiborne, her interest in working in higher education began when she was a residential advisor at North Carolina Central University. She said she loved the experience.

“I think about myself just because of how great my college experience was — I want to be able to do that for someone else,” Claiborne said.

According to Arguedas, Claiborne has a strong ability to empathize with people of different backgrounds, an invaluable skill in student conduct.

“My favorite aspect of Ashley’s approach to conduct is that she considers the whole person, recognizing that folks have varied lived experiences that inform the nature of whatever conduct is presented to her,” Arguedas said. “That’s when the most learning happens, when someone is open and understanding of your experience.”

Claiborne said this ability is informed by her own identity and experience as a black woman.

“That’s really my lens with all I do, in my personal life and even in my professional life, because when I show up to spaces, I’m showing up as a black woman, and that may come with all these other thoughts that people may have about me until you actually get to know me,” Claiborne said.

That will help with her new role in student conduct, Claiborne said, which includes reexamining existing policies and the biases that may accompany them.

“In my previous institution I would question, ‘Who is this policy really for?’” Claiborne said. “Yes, it’s for all students, but if you read it, if you think a little bit more, approach it from a different lens, it’s kind of focused on certain groups of people.”

Claiborne said she plans to always be accessible to students for anything they may need.

“Students are first — if you all weren’t here, I wouldn’t have a job, I wouldn’t have a purpose,” Claiborne said. “This is not just a job to me. I really, really enjoy this work. If students want to meet me and chat with me, we can talk about pretty much anything. My door is open.”

Isaiah Thomas, Occidental’s new assistant dean of students and director of REHS, said transparency is one of his biggest goals as he takes on his new position.

“I think that it’s very important to me that we are transparent in what our policies are,” Thomas said. “It’s my personal philosophy that we’re all essentially adults here, we’re all going to have the volition to make whatever decision we want. It’s important to me that students know what decisions are against policy and might have consequences.”

Thomas said much has changed since he was a student, so acquainting himself with the needs of today’s students will be an important goal for the office under his direction.

“I reflect a lot about when I was a student in 2003, and what I needed isn’t necessarily what today’s students need,” Thomas said. “There’s a lot of difference. It’s important to me that while I serve in this role, I don’t have the lived experience of students. So one of the things in terms of my philosophy in this work that’s really integral is how we are connected to students.”

According to Thomas, sitting down with students to find out what they need is one way he plans to include student voices in policy.

“By spending time talking, eating, laughing with students and building relationships — authentic relationships — that is how we will be allowed to support students,” Thomas said. “For students to want to ask us to help, they need to be able to feel a sense of comfort and a sense of trust that we are invested and want to help them.”

According to Dean of Students Rob Flot, Thomas’ attitude in the interview process was a testament to the level of attention he will pay to the needs of students in his new role as director of REHS.

“Isaiah demonstrated a real empathy and student-centered perspective during the interview process that further solidified my belief that he was the right person for the job,” Flot said.

Students may view the conduct process with fear or unease, according to Thomas. He said he wants to change that.

“If a student goes through our student conduct process, we want it to be a learning experience and a developmental experience, and not a punitive system,” Thomas said.

According to Thomas, residential education and the student conduct process really are about education, because after students graduate, the system is much less forgiving.

“I’ve always seen college as this really gigantic sandbox, and the beauty is, I’m not the police. We are not the police,” Thomas said. “And we don’t have to act like the police or law enforcement. The conduct process is about governing how we live in community with each other, and what policies and what guidelines do we all need to adhere to so we can best live in community with one another.”

Thomas said that while he looks to bring new ideas to REHS, he recognizes the importance of getting on the same page with current staff and learning the history behind Occidental’s policies.

“Context is important. I can’t move forward and make decisions without understanding the context. So right now, I’m being a student and learning from my staff members who have been here for years, ‘What is Oxy?’” Thomas said.

In addition to helping keep a department staffed, Flot said the process of welcoming new staff serves another unique function: allowing staff to get an outside perspective on how up-to-date the college’s policy is, which is essential to adhere to best practices.

“Any time there’s a new staff person that comes in, that affords them the opportunity to take a look at how we’ve been doing business so to speak, either to affirm, ‘Yeah, this is right, we should keep doing it the way we’re doing it,’ or to say, ‘Based upon my fresh look at the processes and policies, I think we can make some adjustments to better serve our students and the campus community,” Flot said.

Flot said he is excited to see what Thomas and Claiborne will bring to the college.

“They’re perfect fits for our res-life team, for my student affairs operation, for the college, and most importantly, for the needs of our students,” Flot said.