Editor in Chief
As multicultural affairs director at the University of La Verne, Daniel Loera has devoted most of his professional life to educating students about the importance of diversity.
In a recent interview he discussed why he displays his high school diploma, how entering the seminary liberated him and why college is not about discovering ourselves, but others.
Tell me about your academic history and how you got to where you are now.
I am a person that, by all accounts, should not be here. On my office wall, I have my high school diploma, my bachelor’s and my master’s.
One day I had a faculty member come by and he was kind of embarrassed that I had my high school diploma up there. The reason I have it there is there is so much meaning for me.
In high school I was on the edge of failure instead of making something meaningful out of my life. High school was a time where I didn’t focus very much. There was a lot going on, in terms of where I grew up.
I started working full-time when I was 13 and I bought my first car when I was 14 and a half. So I drove without my license for a year and a half, but we could do that back then since it was always for the purpose of working.
High school was a challenge for me, not in terms of academics, but because of the distractions. I used to miss an average of 30 to 35 days a semester. I knew everybody in the re-admitting department. But we never got called out on it.
What that said to me was that they really didn’t care if we dropped out or not. Most of the people I had gone to school with had dropped out already by the time I was a senior. It was just assumed we would drop out.
My first semester of my senior year I ended up with four classes; I wanted six, but since I’d been absent, they wouldn’t let me.
For the first time, I actually flunked two classes. Two physical education classes, mind you. And at that point I knew that if I didn’t graduate, my life would go in a whole different direction.
I knew I needed to change everything I was doing for that last semester and actually focus so I could graduate. That last semester, I had to take classes at three different high schools in order to graduate on time. I couldn’t imagine my life without graduating.
At that point, I didn’t even plan on going to college since I never knew anyone that had ever gone. There was a lot of chaos in my life, as with anyone who grows up in a neighborhood that doesn’t have aspirations for college or for professional lives.
What inspired you to pursue higher education?
I realized that what I was doing was not only destroying my own life but the lives of those that I cared for. There was always the challenge of not having a mentor or a role model. I couldn’t understand why I myself couldn’t just step it up and do that.
I actually decided then, through my reflection, that I wanted to be a Catholic priest. It meant I would never get married and a lot of other things. Everybody I knew was astonished that I, for what they knew me to be, wanted to be a priest.
There was one point where I was discerning, figuring out what it meant and the meaning of life. I read the entire Bible from cover to cover over the course of a year. By that time, I was a transformed person because I saw the insight to faith.
It was okay to be angry or joyful or to be who I was with whatever circumstances life presented, except you were always called to be and to do more.
When it was over, that was when I wanted to learn more, which is where I asked about the priesthood. I always think that God tricked me into going into the seminary, but it was wonderful for me because it really let me liberate myself from my neighborhood world view. In a sense I think that is why I’m here.
Going through the Bachelor of Arts program in philosophy was a lot of religion and a lot of psychology. It was incredibly enriching and I felt that I needed to make up for those lost years of high school. I was completely focused and wasn’t about anything else in life except learning.
I always say that I think about marriage more often than those who had gotten married because it was such a huge decision to not get married and go into the seminary. In the end, it wasn’t about needing to give my life in service in that capacity. I felt like I could give my life in service to the community in a more expansive way since my gifts lied elsewhere.
I felt good about entering the seminary and then also having left, as well. The biggest thing in that experience was that my world view was so expanded and opened. It was liberation from the neighborhood mentality that it was all about the neighborhood.
In terms of what I grew up with in understanding my faith and religion, my eyes were opened to a whole new part of the faith. During my discernment, I was able to check and to question the assumptions I had grown up with all along.
Including some that are mainstays of the Catholic teaching, in terms of what it means to be a loving community and to accept others as they are.
I was able to realize that there is nothing different about anyone who has a certain faith or religion or sexual preference. In the end, we’re just a variety of people and there’s usually cultural reasoning for it all.
What jobs did the seminary lead you to getting into?
In working later on after leaving the seminary, I worked for the National Conference for Christians and Jews, which later became the National Conference for Community and Justice. There, we encountered world views as disparate among the young and the old in the flesh.
Instead of book form, it was real people discussing views as distinct as the philosophers who came up with them.
It was incredibly enriching and a dynamic environment that I entered into. Prior to that, I worked for a juvenile hall. There I worked as a lay chaplain. Except at the time the term “lay” was not accepted as widely in the Catholic Church language.
But it was a wonderful place to be since the need was unparalleled.
Some of these youth found themselves in a situation where I could have readily been. Yet these 13 to 19 year olds were in juvenile hall for murder and probably in there for 25 to life. Just the encounter of that reality was powerful.
From there, since I was working for the church and wasn’t getting a livable wage, that’s when I transferred over to NCCJ. I worked with a lot of people in university settings, which is how I found the University of La Verne.
I discovered there was a position opening as the multicultural affairs director. I loved the idea of working in a college and academic setting because there are those decision-makers and those who are seizing the opportunity to have an education.
To be able to bring life experience to this place helps me do so much more for my community.
So my academic journey has been formal and job-related. All of it has informed me in different ways. When I entered into my works, I realized that even I, the man that accepts many people, still had prejudice and bias against certain beliefs.
It was a very subtle, yet very powerful realization that I needed to grow as a human being and as an inhabitant of this diverse world. I found that I did not have it all together.
When I was at the juvenile hall, I entered into Mount Saint Mary’s masters program since I had already done two years of graduate study, I may as well finish it. I figured I would just enter a program halfway and I would finish quickly, but it took me seven years to finish my masters.
It was because I ended up taking a three year hiatus in the middle and they finally asked if I would finish or not and I buckled down and did it. That was 10 years after my bachelors.
Three years after I got here, I entered the doctorate program. I always thought I would wait for the right time, but it wasn’t coming so I just made the time.
I finished my coursework three years later, but I am still working on my dissertation, which I am right in the middle of a lot of things regarding to it.
Besides finishing your doctorate program, what are your other short-term and long-term goals?
The meaning of a doctorate for me is not only academic. Right now it is a thing. I am not quite sure what it means though, partially because there is a sacrifice in doing it and finishing.
I now know that the community suffers because there are not enough that pursue it. I am bombarded by all of this external force and data and statistics derived from other areas.
It would be an accomplishment, frankly, and would open many doors for me. In terms of the doctorate, in an academic setting, there is a transformation that takes place.
Suddenly I would be invited to do things that otherwise I wouldn’t have thought twice about.
I think that there will be other things that will open up for me, but my hope is to stay here. I like the university and I think we can do a lot more here for students. We need to be doing so much more for so many more students.
We are only serving about 10 percent of the first generation students that come here.
But the university is excited about a lot of the new things that are happening and changing. There will be opportunities opening themselves once everything begins to settle.
Why do you feel diversity is important on a campus?
In many ways, it goes back to liberation. We come in as individuals in our own walks and it would be a travesty if folks went through college and didn’t open up to understand each other.
All of that stuff makes us different. It just seems that we focus on the similarities and then those that are different get pushed aside and these prejudices and biases keep going.
We absolutely need to get to that place of commonality by getting through that place of difference. It helps the students’ own mental well being to be diverse and well rounded.
Are we doing our part to be as diverse as possible?
I have been in this position for 10 years. Every year and a half to two years, it shifts and changes dramatically. We are still trying to figure it out, I think.
We obviously are in need of more personnel to aid student initiatives and student organizations because they are a lot of work. It is absolutely critical to be reciprocally available in a student to faculty relationship.
There is a ton more we need to do in that respect.
How many diversity retreats are done a year and what happens on these retreats?
Obviously, I think we will never have enough diversity retreats. But we can only start small and then grow from there.
The diversity retreat is what I used to do on NCCJ. We were all about 8-day retreats for youth to build community and mental diversity. We actually had retreats that focus on who students were.
That is the most fundamental part of getting to know other people, knowing who you are as a person first. We should know our own self and accept it long before we can know others and accept them.
It is nice to know what we are projecting to others. People get freaked out after a while because they don’t know what to say about themselves.
They want to talk about how they understand themselves and what they try to project. But who they are at the core is a difficult, but powerful question that we need to keep asking others and ourselves.
We are dealing with a lot of social constructs and we need to acknowledge that, but it is a hard thing for people. Some are treated differently based on how they are perceived.
We then enter into this aspect of stereotypes and advocacy. This stuff is still alive and well even though we think we’ve gotten over it.
Most of it is really subtle since it’s not the status quo to go against it anymore.
There’s still this notion of micro-aggressions which makes people feel uncomfortable and they aren’t sure why. So, both the perpetrator and the victim are not sure what is happening.
These retreats used to be a weekend component, but it’s hard to get commitment without some sort of pay-off to participants.
We are going back to an overnight residential retreat with the hope that it will grow. We absolutely need to do a follow-up to help some of them deal with their issues. It’s impossible to resolve things in one night.
We used to do things from 7 a.m. to midnight for eight days and that’s when you get through to some people and make distinct progress.
Even then, we were limited in terms of processing issues, but we want to lay down a foundation to help people feel comfortable talking about these issues.
It helps look at issues of identity like gender, race, sexuality, etc. and it helps them become less ignorant about these oh-so prominent matters.
This is where they find the necessity to be an ally for those who are receiving this pain and struggle.
Now for those who receive this “privilege” to be white, male, heterosexual, Christian who doesn’t feel the oppression of these “isms,” they need to learn to process to know what their role is in society.
Kristen Campbell can be reached at email@example.com.