Sherry Hernandez

"We need to ... provide specific support to specific groups. Not one approach fits all."

We caught up with Sherry Hernandez, interim dean of Multicultural Affairs, to discuss how she and her team are supporting Exeter students this academic year. Prior to joining OMA, Hernandez was an associate director of college counseling, where she led the financial aid and scholarship initiatives for the office. In her new role, Hernandez works with a close-knit team to support international students, students of color and LGBTQ students who seek engagement and advocacy in their affinity and cultural spaces. OMA also works within the larger body of students and employees to help nurture a community that is more culturally aware and inclusive. As we continue to pervades our country, OMA’s work is a critical cog in the Academy’s efforts to become an anti-racist school and to provide every student with an equitable experience on campus.

Tell us about the Office of Multicultural Affairs and its mission.

OMA is seen by our students of color, our LGBTQ students and international students as a safe place. This academic year, we’re trying to be thoughtful in how we support the Academy’s commitment to becoming an anti-racist school. We’re very deliberate about identifying ways to do that, from developing cultural sensitivity programs for our international students to helping train student proctors and student listeners.

I work with an incredible team that includes Hadley Camilus, our associate dean of multicultural student affairs; Jen Smith, our inter-grapple with the impact of COVID-19 and reckon with the systemic racism that national student coordinator; Wei-ling Woo ’07, our Asian student coordinator; and Joanne Lembo, our first LGBTQ student coordinator.

How is OMA supporting Exeter's anti-racist efforts?

We have four goals that inform how we approach our anti-racism work:

  • Self-reflect and be intentional. Being anti-racist requires intentionality. We’re influenced by the work of author Ibram X. Kendi, who emphasizes self-examination and self-reflection. It’s easy to say something racist and anti-racist in the same sentence. Each member of our staff must reflect on their own identity and how they can be anti-racist.
  • Be identity-informed and support students at the intersection of their identities. Many Exeter students identify as people of color or LGBTQ; it’s important that we recognize and support them. We’re identity-informed in our process and are partnering with departments on campus to track racial issues and make changes. For example, when our students self-identify their race (say, during the admissions or financial aid process), we need to make sure that information is used appropriately. Knowing that data is critical to our work — we aren’t color-blind. To understand and address equity issues, we need to know who we’re working with to provide specific support to specific groups. Not one approach fits all.
  • Identify and dismantle racist policies and work with people who have the authority to make that change. OMA’s work is supported by Dean of Students Brooks Moriarty ’87 and Director of Equity and Inclusion Stephanie Bramlett.
  • Create programming for BIPOC, international and LGBTQ students.

A lot of our programming and the anti-racist student leadership training we did this year with proctors, student leaders and athletic team captains was informed by themes we’re seeing on the Black at Exeter and Queer at Exeter Instagram accounts. We’re paying attention to what students are saying there; we hear them and we’re here to support them.

We encourage cross-sectional programming that amplifies student voices from different groups; for example, our Asian Voices group is partnering with La Alianza Latina to develop programs. Our student leaders are excited about these opportunities; they want to create awareness and amplify the needs of their peers based on their identities. I’m excited about that; when we all work together, it makes the effort stronger.

This year, we developed the Anti-racist International Student Curriculum for our international student orientation. It was also informed by what we heard through Black at Exeter and Queer at Exeter posts. Our goal is to give international students information about themselves so they can meet the challenges of being anti-racist. We’re having four trainings; the first was to have the students reflect on their own racial identities. Moving forward, we’ll give them more tools to work with, defining vocabulary terms such as microaggression and systemic racism. The third and fourth sessions we’ll teach them steps to become genuine allies for their peers.

How have you supported students through the pandemic and during this period of heightened awareness of racial violence?

Our Black and brown students are more likely to be affected by COVID-19, on top of the harm they’ve already experienced by increased violence against people of color. I meet daily with the Dean of Students, as well as the deans of Academic Affairs, Residential Life, and Health and Wellness, to discuss how we can best help these students. Whatever extra accommodations we can offer lets our students know we’re here to help them thrive academically.

At the start of last spring’s term, many of the issues coming up around the pandemic for students included not having adequate space at home for remote learning, internet connectivity issues, or perhaps sharing a device with other family members. These students rely on the academic environment that’s here and needed to be back on campus. Being able to bring them back this term safely, where they may have their own space to take classes and not have distractions, is one way we’ve been able to support them. 

What is OMA’s greatest challenge this year?

I hope students maintain the trust they have in OMA and see us as a refuge. It’s challenging with social distancing. We’re reimagining how we can continue to serve our students and let them know we’re accessible in ways that are relevant now. We’re doing OMA drop-in hours outside so students can visit us even though we’re not having indoor meetings at this time. Usually, students come in and out: they hang out here, do their homework, banter, get snacks, talk to the adults. I miss that vibrance. But unofficially the students have claimed the courtyard outside Principal Rawson’s office as their OMA hangout space, which is wonderful to see.

What motivates you in your work?

I’m in an incredible position to support our marginalized students. The work is engaging and meaningful and challenging at the same time, which makes it very worthwhile. It’s like a class you love that’s hard but stretches you and makes you grow.  

— Debbie Kane

Editor's note: This conversation first appeared in the fall 2020 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.