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SevaPriya Barrier, fourth dean candidate, brings student affairs experience

Updated: Mar 24, 2021

Jake Procino

News editor

Picture of SevaPriya Barrier. Courtesy of NPR.

The fourth and final finalist applying to the vacant Dean of Students for Community Care and Inclusion is SevaPriya Barrier, who currently works as the Director of Resolutions, Institutional Equity at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Barrier participated in a forum open to the Willamette University community on Mar. 18, where she presented about herself, explained why she wanted the position at Willamette and answered questions from the community.

Barrier started the forum by showing a pre-recorded presentation, as all finalists have done, about her values and her background. Barrier said her values are represented in her name. Barrier said that Seva means service, representing “a meaning that is both material, or grounded in matter and spiritual impacting the heart, emotions and soul;” Priya means dearest and represents “the firmly held beliefs and wanderings of the heart;” and Barrier represents “family culture or values that serve to form a protective barrier, as well as these forces that prevent achievements.” Barrier concluded this portion saying: “For me, what matters is service, love and gratitude, for those arms that envelope and support. And an understanding that values must be born out in actions to look at another person's ideas and cultures.”

Barrier continued in the pre-recorded presentation to explain her background. She said that her family has a history of working in education, “While this did not have a conscious impact on my career choices, it certainly impacted my intense appreciation for education, both as a means of individual fulfillment and growth, what we might call holistic development, as well as for a tangible mobility and societal advancement and uplift.” Barrier herself grew up and attended school in Little Rock, Arkansas: “My K-12 educational experience laid bare stark inequalities. The school district remained under court ordered, racial desegregation plans for the entirety of my time there.” After graduating high school, she followed her “dearest heart desires” of “med, studying feminist theory and cultural studies” and attended New School University in New York City. Afterwards, she earned a Master of Education degree at the University of Texas, Austin. After working in student activities at Reed College in Portland, she decided that wanted to pursue mediation as a career and attained a law degree at The Ohio State University. But she ended the pre-recorded presentation saying she went back to working in student affairs at the University of Florida (UF) and most recently at the University of Arizona.

When Barrier was asked live to explain why she wanted to work at Willamette, she pointed to Willamette’s ability to offer a greater connection to the individual student. “I really treasure the opportunity to be right within the complete timeline of the student experience to contribute to the community in a very deep and meaningful way,” said Barrier.

Associate Dean for Student Success Gretchen Moon started off the Q&A portion of the forum, asking Barrier what in the position would offer a new challenge for Barrier. Barrier said, “I think the new challenge would be the opportunity to look at this access issue for students access,” and explained that connection points need to be created for students to better allow access for the segmented services offered by the university.

Interim Associate Dean Clemette Haskins asked Barrier how she will foster relationships and how she envisions her first few weeks on campus. Barrier said that there are two important actions for when she comes on campus, the first being “making connections, understanding context, and understanding what's important to that university and university constituents.” The second is that Barrier wants to ensure she is available when someone on campus wants to have “a more kind of intimate, personal exchange.” “If I was in person, in general I tend to be pretty silly, have a really good sense of humor and have a big boisterous laugh. And so I found that this is always kind of a good connection point,” said Barrier.

Assistant Professor of Physics Daniel Borrero Echeverry asked several questions in a row, asking about how Barrier would serve the specific needs of PNCA students, neurodivergent students and graduate students on campus. Regarding PNCA’s distant campus, Barrier pointed to her experience of working on large college campuses, and said that she would want to establish “contact points to ensure that services are seamless across areas, but also really tailored to the individual student population, because what might work or be impactful in one of those locations might not have that same impact at the other location.” Regarding neurodivergent students, Barrier said she has experience serving on UF’s neurodiversity council and said: “What would be important is to know is that individual displaying behaviors that are impacting others in a way that's in violation of something at the university, are they displayed behaviors that's preventing connection in a way that they want to seek connection? And then look in a tailored way to see how needs can be met to that student and their individual preferences and concerns.” Regarding graduate students, Barrier said, “Graduate students will often come in with a broader diversity of needs than we might see and an undergraduate population,” pointing again to the need to understand the individual.

Emily Drew, associate professor of sociology, department chair, asked two questions, first asking Barrier what the national social context means for racial equity for students and staff on campus, and secondly wanted to hear Barrier’s response to: “What it would look like for you to be caught in between what the institution can do and what the students are demanding and asking it to do with regard to racism. We have a very vocal and active group of student activists and frequently their issues are not with fringe groups and certain individuals or clubs, but much more likely with the institution itself.” Barrier said the US tends to center the white, male, privileged perspective, and that it is the responsibility of individuals and organizations to commit to anti-racist actions. Speaking on the tension between students and the institution, Barrier said, “In terms of students and needs, some of it is empowering students about their ability to take action and what that looks like in terms of their actions.”

Clemett asked how Barrier will go about ensuring that students of color feel safe and that their needs are met. Barrier said: “It’s kind of twofold: trying to take action that I think is reasonably tailored to provide those structures, to the degree that I could, support wellbeing, safety concerns and general support. And then try and have a good enough relationship with students, whether it's me or someone else. They don't have to connect with me as long as they have a connection point on campus.”

Director of Academic Support Kelvin Clark asked Barrier what she will need to do her best, most effective work. Barrier said that she would need to rely on others to tell her gaps in where needs and concerns are, and said: “My goal is about ensuring individual students best. So what I would want for my community, is that understanding of context, people speaking freely and clearly where there are gaps. Even if it hurt me emotionally, it's all going to impact the work that I do.”

To end the forum, Vice President of Student Affairs Lisa Landreman asked if there was anything Barrier wanted to conclude with. “I think the Dean of Students for Community Care and Inclusion is an incredibly important role. And it plays a pivotal student’s lives, but certainly an important role in the life of Willamette, the next steps that Willamette will take, how their structures are organized and how the community itself is organized.”

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