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Profile: Oli Muñoz: New dean hopes to emphasize collective thinking, uplift student voices

Julia Trujillo

Contributing Writer

Image courtesy of Willamette's website

This semester, the Willamette Division of Student Affairs welcomes Dr. Olivia “Oli” Muñoz, as the new dean of students for community care and inclusion, following Abbas Hill’s recent departure from the position in order to return to his home in Ohio. Muñoz was the former associate dean of students at the Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA); she brings expansive knowledge from her work in journalism, art and student affairs to campus. The Collegian spoke with Muñoz about her personal passions and professional background, which have informed how she’ll be approaching her new position.

Muñoz was born and raised north of Detroit, where she began to develop her passion for equity and inclusion advocacy after witnessing and participating in several celebrations of diversity within her own community. Muñoz’s parents are both from central Mexico, and she was a first-generation student of color when she earned her B.A. in Journalism and Art from Central Michigan University. She went on to earn her Master of Fine Arts in Nonfiction Writing from California State University, Fresno and her doctorate in International and Multicultural Education from the University of San Francisco.

Muñoz spoke of feeling indebted to the educators from her youth whom she said helped shape her values. “My teachers were fairly diverse and I didn’t realize until later how much that would impact the way that I see the world. I had a variety of different teachers who brought their own lived experiences to the classroom, and we benefited from that,” she shared. Muñoz emphasized that they not only engaged in conversations about structural inequalities, as well as other struggles facing people of color, but also celebrated diversity as a community with joy and appreciation. “I think for a lot of folks that interest in diversity, equity, and inclusion might begin when something bad happens to them or their friend, or they get to college and learn about it. But for me, it was just a part of my community and…something that we talked about, specifically race and ethnicity. So my commitment comes [from] trying to be a good person, trying to make the world better, and trying to honor what I knew to be good growing up, which was my community,” said Muñoz, tearing up a little, clearly moved by her love for her upbringing.

When Muñoz began her position as the Associate Dean of Students at PNCA, she fell in love with the institution and its students, whom she described as being “immensely brilliant–like ridiculously so.” Additionally, the job married her passions for art and student support. When she was eventually approached to become the new dean of community care and inclusion, she saw it as an opportunity to bring the spirit of PNCA with her to the Salem campus, and serve as Willamette’s ‘number one PNCA fan’. Staying in touch with the student population and its needs are at the heart of Muñoz’s aim to bring the student perspective into broader conversations where it may need amplification. “There are a lot of [administrators at Willamette] who really care about the student experience, but I think sometimes students don’t know that, and they don’t see that. So how can I make that visible? [By] trying to elevate that student voice into rooms where maybe there aren’t students present.”

An elevation of student voices at broader administrative tables is something that much of the student body has expressed a desire for throughout this school year’s series of emergent student concerns and unsatisfactory university responses. Prominent incidents include the controversial Holidays in Hudson bathroom reassignment, the subsequent town hall meeting where one administrator walked out, and most recently, their failure to distribute the incident review of the College Republican’s guest speaker despite previously committing to several release dates. Considering this pattern of a lack of attention, action or transparency in regards to matters relevant to students, Muñoz is joining the Willamette administration at a pivotal time and will hopefully bring changes to increase how student voices are heard and valued in important discussions.

Muñoz places a tremendous value on advocating for marginalized students. One of the ways in which she practices this advocacy is by aiming to promote an overarching sense of strength and cultural wealth. Muñoz explained how instead of holding a mindset that says, “Poor first-generation students, they don’t know what they’re doing. Poor low-income students, they’re struggling,” she makes a point to recognize that, “at the same time, there are strengths and experiences that those students bring that other folks just don’t have. And so I like to have a strength mentality. Not in a way that erases the struggles because those are real…but that attitude or perception change is one of those areas [that can help embolden them].” Muñoz has first-hand experience with how these structural barriers actively prevent people from accessing or completing college.

Addressing these hurdles is precisely what she intends to do. “That’s where me and my fellow staff and administrators and faculty and student leaders can really examine what [it is] that’s creating these gaps in student success, what is it that’s making people feel like they don’t belong here? That’s a structural thing that we have to attack.”

To Muñoz, taking part in community care means intentionally thinking collectively. She hopes to move Willamette to a place in line with our motto, “not unto ourselves alone are we born: “If I had one goal, it would be to move students into thinking in a more connected way,” said Munoz. “That I’m not just me. You’re me. We’re in this world together, and what I do will impact other people. By and large, we belong to each other.”

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