Keynote Spotlight: Angel B. Pérez

On April 15, 2020, some 450 education professionals will meet at the Royal Sonesta Boston hotel in Cambridge, MA for the 12th Annual NPEA Conference, Reaching Out and Rising Up: Forging Ahead for Student Success. The challenges facing the field of educational access are myriad, and conference attendees will spend three days networking, learning best practices, and sharing strategies for student success.

One of these attendees will be Angel B. Pérez, the Vice President for Enrollment and Student Success at Trinity College, who will deliver a keynote address the morning of Friday, April 17. This February, we had a chance to catch up with Angel and hear first-hand about what he sees as the biggest obstacles to student success, the most effective student supports on campus, and his favorite ways to unwind. Join us in April to hear Angel yourself, and learn more about his work at Trinity here.

You grew up poor in the South Bronx; how would you say that has shaped your work?

I think our background and our experiences inform our work, and in my case, it’s the reason why I do what I do. College was a transformative experience for me, and I know that I was one of the lucky ones. I went to a very large public high school where most students weren’t college-bound, didn’t have a lot of resources, and didn’t have a lot of counselor support. But that experience has given me really deep levels of empathy for the challenges of the student experience, for the challenges involved in getting into, but getting through colleges and universities.

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the field of educational access and persistence today?

On the elementary and secondary level, it’s the health of the pipeline. Are we investing deliberately in our public school systems to create college-going cultures?

For higher ed institutions, it’s finance. There has been a serious disinvestment in this country, and the financial models of higher education are deeply broken. That’s going to have a significant impact on who goes to college, how college is financed, and also the kind of burden and debt that we leave students with when they finally do graduate from college.

Author Paul Tough is pictured with Trinity College President Joanne Berger-Sweeney, and Angel Pérez, right, VP of enrollment and student success in the fall of 2019. Trinity College hosted an event, “Social Mobility through Education” where Mr. Tough was a guest panelist. Photo by Mike Schauk, courtesy of Trinity College.

In your interview with Paul Tough in the New York Times Magazine, What College Admissions Offices Really Want, Paul described one of your primary challenges as reconciling your interest in supporting underserved students with a mandate to “admit more rich kids.” How do you balance those two sometimes conflicting interests?

First, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s not just admitting rich or poor students – it’s also about supporting middle-class socioeconomic diversity. It’s about asking how you balance an institutional budget with an institutional mission during a time when our financial models are broken. There is an extraordinary amount of pressure on higher education: our sticker price continues to rise even as our subsidies continue to decrease. But I don’t believe that’s a reason not to continue to push the needle on meeting institutional goals around diversity, equity, and access. When I arrived at Trinity, I really wanted to move them towards two goals: better academic quality in our applicant pool and better socioeconomic diversity.

You talk a lot about your role in navigating the higher ed infrastructure. Do you have any recommendations, strategies, ideas for convincing your constituents that a particular challenge is critical?

You need to build upon your team and your community, and help them understand that there’s a sense of urgency. The way that I did that at Trinity, and at other institutions that I’ve been a part of, is to take us the question out of the local context and put matters in a national context. Instead of coming to Trinity and saying, “In the year 2026, Trinity could potentially have an enrollment shortfall because of this looming demographic crisis,” I really started at the national context using national data, bringing in speakers who were experts in their field around these issues to speak to my board and speak to our president. I gathered alumni and said, “Trinity needs to be thinking about this because this is a national issue.” I’ve had a lot of success removing the conversation from the local (“This is just us as an institution with this challenge, and we should be doing this”) to the national (“Here’s the national issue, and we should get out ahead of this national challenge.”).

But I really want to emphasize, it’s not easy. One of the things that I have come to realize, and this is not about Trinity, this is about our society, is that not everyone is going to buy the social justice lens. Not everyone is going to buy the diversity lens. So you need to be able to think about who your audience is and what they care about. For a certain audience, they might care more about academic quality. In that case, I would have to make sure that I was helping them understand that diversity and academic quality are not mutually exclusive. For other audiences, they were really thinking about the future financial sustainability of their organization. So I needed to help them think about how national issues are going to help impact our organization’s financial situation. And then within all of that, there are ways that you can position diversity, inclusion, and equity as part of the agenda.

Photo credit: Trinity College.

What specific challenges or problems in the world of educational access keep you up at night?

[Angel laughs] I laugh because every day it changes. I feel like I open up the newspaper and every day, there’s yet another national or international crisis that will impact colleges and universities. I mean last week [this interview took place 2/12/2020], all of a sudden coronavirus was on my mind. This hasn’t really hit the national higher education media yet, but this is going to be a massive issue for institutions of higher education in terms of enrollment and revenue generation. So every day it’s something different.

But first and foremost is the financing of higher education, because without money, you have no mission. And I think it’s going to be really challenging in the decade ahead as we face a demographic cliff, as our price continues to rise, as disinvestment continues to take place.

The second thing is really (and this is wearing my student success hat) the challenges that this generation of young people are facing. We’re really facing an epidemic of mental health issues on our campuses as well as executive functioning.  They need a lot more mental health support, counseling, and coaching. So one of the things that really keeps me up at night is, “Are colleges and universities transforming themselves fast enough to meet the needs of today’s students and make them successful?”

Photo courtesy of Angel Pérez.

One of your greatest areas of success has been with the Office of Student Success and the Career Development Office. What were some of the biggest obstacles you encountered in fixing them? What were some of the important changes you made?

This is pretty common when you’re trying to tackle a problem in higher education, but one of the biggest obstacles has been actually understanding what the real problem was. Our challenge in career development was that students were disengaged, they didn’t want to come to the center, and they weren’t using our resources. And what we didn’t realize was that we were trying to deliver this service in a way that this generation of young people no longer finds helpful. A big part of traditional career development offices is, “Come in, make an appointment, have your resume seen.” These students, they don’t even pick up the phone anymore, so now we go to them and we meet students where they are.

So we do the standard things, like pop ups on campus, we’re on social media and different media platforms a lot more, because that’s where students feel most comfortable communicating and engaging with a lot of these employers. But we also had to make an entire overhaul, a philosophical shift in the way that we help students think about their careers. Yes, we want to make sure that we help you be successful and do find employment, but we also want to think carefully through a design thinking lens. “How do I design a life that is purposeful and meaningful for me? What are the kinds of skills that I have, what do I enjoy doing most?” I no longer ask students, “What do you want to major in?” I ask them, “What are the problems in the world that you would like to work on?”

What advice would you give someone trying to replicate your success? 

You really need to fully understand the problem. Because oftentimes, people try to create solutions for things and they’re not answering the right question. One of the things I would encourage people to do is really do some research: “What is the problem we’re trying to solve? Is it a lack of engagement from our students? Is it a retention issue?” Because then you really know which direction you need to go. The other thing I would say is that you need to truly understand your institutional culture. There’s no way that I could have done my work without a deep understanding of Trinity, its history, and its alumni. We work in a shared governance model in higher education, and there is very little that you can do without bringing in a lot of different groups, especially student voices.

Photo courtesy of Angel Pérez.

For those who are supporting students in those high school years, as they’re preparing for college, what do you wish that they knew? What have you found to be the most successful strategies for building out those systems of support? 

More and more, I’m seeing community-based organization (CBO) counselors who follow up and stay in touch with the students once they arrive on our campuses. And I have had five situations this year, including one yesterday, where a CBO counselor was the one who alerted me to a student having a problem on my campus. And I was then able to follow up, intervene, and put them on a path to success. I think because we have created such deep relationships with community-based organizations, the more that we could create systems where we are keeping in touch and closing the loop between the high school and the college experience, the more successful we can make students.

But the onus falls on the college or university. For example, part of what we do is I make sure that all of the CBO counselors who have students on my campus are part of a newsletter program that goes out on a monthly basis and that we’re constantly inviting them back to campus. We think that’s a win-win, because obviously it helps them keep in touch with their students, but it also creates an excitement and a pipeline for the next generation of students coming through. If the colleges and universities step up, I think we can get these systems to work.

Everyone has their own ideas about how to maximize student success. What have you found has the greatest impact?

There are three areas that I think are critical. Three things that not only all of the literature and best practices and research talk about, but that I’ve personally found to be successful on my own campus.

1) The most successful students, the ones who actually stay and work through challenges, are the ones who feel a sense of belonging on the campus. And most students make that decision within six weeks of arriving. In six weeks, they’ve created a perception of the campus and the community.

2) We need to help students navigate the higher ed experience. Colleges and universities are infamous for using lingo that no one understands. I’ve had low-income students come to my office and say, “What is a bursar? I’m supposed to go to the bursar, I don’t know what that is.” We take this language and culture of college and university campuses for granted, because those of us who live and breathe it every day know it well. But to help students navigate the college experience, you have to teach students what college is when they arrive.

3) The third is what I call ‘meaning-making,’ and what I mean by that is that students need to be able to find meaning in their classes, in their coursework; they need to be able connect it to something in the real world. Because for a lot of students, the first year of college can be very abstract – they’re taking all these required courses, and those can feel very disconnected from their reality. And by helping them make meaning out of what they’re doing and keeping them from living in an abstract space for the first year, we’re also going to put them on a path to success.

You’re obviously very busy, and it sounds like your work and your life are very intertwined, both professionally and personally. What is your favorite work-life balance tip?

I had the most life-changing breakthrough last year. I have spent my entire life being busy and always taking on more than I actually probably should. And I finally realized that it’s not about managing my time, it’s about managing my energy. That was so life-changing for me. And what I have figured out is that, for me, it’s about how I manage my energy so that I can have all of the stamina that I need to do the things that I’m really passionate about.

Trinity College VP of Enrollment and Student Success, Angel Pérez, far left, is pictured with students and staff during an international graduation reception in the spring of 2019. Photo by Nick Caito, courtesy of Trinity College.

What’s one thing people would be surprised to learn about you?

The one I always share with people is that I’ve been a dancer in a music video. But it was pre-YouTube, so thankfully, it’s not out there. But when I was in college, I was a backup dancer in a music video. It was actually salsa in Spain; I was studying abroad and there was this very famous Dominican singer called Manny Manuel, and we came to Spain they were looking for backup dancers who knew how to dance salsa and meringue. I was chosen, so I ended up in his video; it’s great. But I’m really happy that this was pre-YouTube, because I have Googled myself into oblivion and can’t find it. I’m so happy that I can’t find that and it’s not out there, because I had ruffles and polka dots. It was terrible. It was really terrible.

Any books you’re reading right now that you’d recommend?

  1. Generous Thinking, by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, a book about re-imagining the way the academy works.
  2. How to Raise an Adult, by Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former dean of freshmen at Stanford.
  3. Indebted, by Caitlin M Zaloom, about the sacrifices that middle-class families are making to get to places like Trinity.

What is your favorite way to unwind? How do you manage that energy?

The healthy way that I unwind: I get up really early in the morning, and I always try to do some sort of workout, whether it’s yoga or running or swimming. And that’s also where I do my best thinking, so for me, that’s the healthy way.

The less healthy way: when I do have that rare evening free, it’s Netflix, wine, and chocolate. You have to balance those two out.

What’s on your desk at this exact moment?

This might say a lot about me, but besides my computer, there’s nothing on my desk. I believe that a clean desk is a clean mind. I also have no paper in my office beside books; everything is electronic. So my office is meticulous; maybe a cup of coffee once in a while. But a part of it is that I’m a little obsessive compulsive about neatness – if the rest of my life is so chaotic with work that my space is not super neat, then I feel like things are out of control. I can only control so many things.

Visit Angel’s website to learn more about his publications, thought leadership, and professional background, and register for NPEA 2020 to see him yourself!