Going Public: A Conversation with SEMO's New Assistant to the President for Equity Initiatives
Woods: Welcome to the program.
Bouzihay: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.
Woods: Welcome to SEMO. So, tell us a little bit about your background.
Bouzihay: Yes, so obviously my name is Nora Bouzihay. I'm the new Assistant to the President for Equity Initiatives and Title IX Coordinator here at Southeast. My background is in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, with an emphasis on understanding first generation and underrepresented groups in the United States. And, I'm also completing my doctoral degree in Higher Education, Student Affairs and will be Dr. Bouzihay in a couple months.
Woods: Cool. And where did you come from before SEMO?
Bouzihay: My previous institution was Arkansas State University where I served as the Assistant Director for Multicultural Affairs.
Woods: How long were you there?
Bouzihay: I was at Arkansas State University for almost four years.
Woods: Okay. So, what brought you to SEMO?
Bouzihay: This great job opportunity brought me to SEMO. I actually had…my sister graduated from Southeast, and so that was my relationship to knowing the community. And, so, this was a great opportunity and a steppingstone to make some differences and be an initiator of change for the community. I thought what better way to come to Southeast and start with the Southeast community.
Woods: So, tell us about your office and some of the things that you're responsible for.
Bouzihay: Yes, so our office is juggling a variety of hats, of course. It’s a hub of working on equity- and diversity-related issues here at SEMO and working with faculty and staff, but also working with our student populations. Currently, we are working with each of the colleges on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging committees to initiate a variety of strategies for each individual college to be the initiator of DEI for the campus. And, so, working on a variety of initiatives, it’s the hub where any type of heritage month—whether it's Black History, Month, Women's History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month—all serves underneath our office, as well. And, so, part of that is the inclusivity on campus and making sure that not only students but faculty and staff feel the sense of belonging here at SEMO.
Woods: Title IX is part of your responsibility. Tell us a little bit about what that is and what responsibilities you have related to that.
Bouzihay: Yes, so Title IX is also housed within our office. As the Coordinator for Title IX, I'm making sure that there's awareness when it comes to Title IX and the components of Title IX, and really changing the conversation and normalizing that it's not a scary thing to be in the Title IX office, but to educate the community of what is Title IX, defining the variety of definitions whether it’s sexual harassment, etc., in order for students and faculty and staff to understand and better serve as mandated reporters for the campus community. We go into the classrooms and go into different student organization spaces to do trainings for Title IX.
Woods: Did you do this Title IX work at your previous institution?
Bouzihay: So, this is a new venture for me in terms of Title IX, which is great, because in any position you want to continue to grow and gain a variety of experiences. I have had the shadowing experience and also the training for Title IX before I got here.
Woods: Are there a lot of components to it?
Bouzihay: Title IX has a lot of components and it's very heavy, and so it's been great to see what has been done and what continues to be done to be able to provide for our students.
Woods: Okay, so what challenges do you see in your role?
Bouzihay: You know, I don't see challenges. I see areas of opportunity. I think challenges has more of a negative component that is associated with it. And, so, I think there's a lot of opportunity for growth, and that's for any institution. I think that one of the great things about Southeast is the transparency across the board in terms of this is what we want to do, and we need to start the steps in order to initiate those types of changes. And, so, I think Southeast is in a great space. There's so many…so much work that has already been done. And, so, now it's time to capitalize on that work and develop strategic plans for the institution to continue to grow in the variety of colleges. So, I don't see any challenges. I just think this is a great opportunity of initiators of change and normalizing and changing the narrative in different conversations.
Woods: Dr. Vargas, several years ago, initiated where a report was done, which I'm sure you've probably read. So that's probably…when you say a lot of work has already been done, that's probably what you're talking about.
Woods: How do you measure success?
Bouzihay: How do you measure success? That's a great question. So, working with students, success is different than in academia, where it's actually the books that show how you measure success and content. Success is measured by knowledge gained, and it's a qualitative measure, it’s not a quantitative measure. And, so, success is…did we learn something new today? Did we change something that was done incorrectly before. Change is measured based off of progress, implementing strategy, but also actions based off the strategy and, so, what are the things that we're working on in order to initiate these changes shows how much success is. For me, success could be I teach, I go into a training, and I teach one person something. That’s success for me, that they learn something new and now they can be able to teach somebody else that new knowledge as they learn it. So, it’s an ever-moving cycle.
Woods: When you came, one of the things you noted was that this was a student-centered position that attracted you to it. Talk about that and what you really saw when you first came here.
Bouzihay: I honestly think every position here at Southeast is not only student-centered, but faculty and staff, as well. And, the care that the Southeast leadership has for the students in order for them to be successful is extraordinary. Anybody you talk to says I'm an alum of Southeast, and they do a really good job of bringing back the alums to be a part of something that's much greater than themselves. And, so, I think this type of role is a person who's an advocate for students, to be that support system for students, but also that advocate for faculty and staff when it comes to equity.
Woods: If you had to put time on it, as far as a percentage of time, do you spend more time with faculty and staff or with students? Or is it 50/50?
Bouzihay: So, I started my position at a weird time on December 1, and so students were transitioning with finals, so I didn't have as much hands-on with students. So, right now, it's been very heavy on faculty and staff, but that's not something that I want my students to feel that is…that I'm going to forget about them. So, I definitely am going to be indulging myself within student groups this semester and really making that conversation rapport with them, as well.
Woods: Okay, so you're involved in DEI work now, but you're a biologist at heart, right?
Bouzihay: I am.
Woods: And, so, talk a little bit about how you started with that, but then you did some canine stem cell research with the FDA. I'm curious how you got from A to B.
Bouzihay: Yeah, so I actually went to boarding school for mathematics and sciences. During my time in high school, I did diabetic research. So, I was a researcher, and my views were pre-med, pre-Dental. And, so, when I went to undergrad, I did my degree in Biology with a minor in Chemistry. I worked on solar cell research in the Chemistry department, as well as made my way to the FDA in Laurel, Maryland, working on canine stem cell research. I spent my time in Washington, DC, working there and then when I returned, I ended up working with UAMS with breast cancer research. One month before graduation, I decided that it was not my calling anymore to go to medical school or dental school, after I've been accepted into both.
Woods: One month before?
Bouzihay: One month before. It was April 7, and I graduated May 15-ish. And, so, I decided there was something different between what you're passionate about what you're naturally good at. I was naturally good at the sciences, but I was passionate about making a difference. I was passionate about women's empowerment and making that difference in international education. During my time at the Clinton School for Public Service, I worked with the US government in Dubai working on education-related work. And, so, I know my parents to this day are like how did you make that big transition? But being a biologist, I think that blends of how I see things, and how I logically analyze a variety of things definitely is an asset to the work that I'm doing today. But it's a prime example that it's never too late to do what you're genuinely passionate about. Because when you're really passionate about something, you're never going to work a day in your life.
Woods: So, before you made that decision, you were probably thinking about this quite a bit before you actually took that jump. It's a pretty major change one month before graduation.
Bouzihay: Yes, so I was involved in what's called Model United Nations/Model Arab League, and I was doing that as fun while I was in the honors college. I was headed to a conference in Washington, DC, and I would meet diplomats on a yearly basis. I met the prince of Saudi Arabia, ambassadors of UAE, Kuwait, Sudan, etc. And, so, I thought that was something that I was just doing for fun. I was headed to the airport for the national conference. I don't know what triggered, but I had a conversation with my mentor, who's now my chair, one of my committee members for my dissertation. I said, Dr. Glazier, I don't know what I want to do in my life anymore. And this was a Wednesday as I was headed to the conference session. She said, “What do you mean?” And I said, well, I'm very passionate about women's education, women's rights, youth…um...and I don't know if medicine and dentistry is my path. So that was a Wednesday. Sunday came around, and we're headed back to the airport. I will never forget, she said, “Nora, that conversation….” We were at Chipotle. And she said, “Nora, that conversation stuck with me.” And I said why? She said, “Because I wanted you to figure out what you were passionate about instead of me telling you.” And that was the most powerful words of wisdom I've ever received. The next day, Monday, I get a call at seven o'clock in the morning from her. She said, “Hey, Nora, there's been an extension to the deadline for the Clinton School of Public Service. Go back to sleep, wake back up, and then give them a call.” And then they before graduation, I got accepted to the Clinton School of Public Service, and it's been it's been amazing since then. So, it's never too late.
Woods: So, how much of your job is relationship building? I would imagine that's a big part of what you're doing.
Bouzihay: I think that…I, in my opinion, my entire job is in relationship building, building purposeful partnerships. I think there's a difference between building partnerships and building relationships versus purposeful relationships and partnerships. And, so, I would say the majority of my job is that relationship building across not just the campus but also the community.
Woods: So, let's jump in a time machine and go a year from now. If you were to look back over this past year, what kind of things, in your mind, will be like this, is this is what I want it to happen? This has been this has been great. What would be—what’s the word—fulfilling for you to see after a year, a full year here?
Bouzihay: After a full year here…is I want something that wasn't done before. And that can be small, or it can be very big. I am the type of person who's very eager, so anyone who interacts with me understands I'm a very, very eager person. But I would like to see a strategic plan for each of the colleges, which we're working on, and that deadline is coming up by the end of the semester. But having that in writing, having a report done, acknowledging and celebrating all of our faculty, staff and our students from all identities, continuing to building that social media platform to celebrate those differences across the board is definitely what I would like to see. I would like to see consistency when it comes to those celebrations. Whether that is for Black History Month, whether that is for Asian and Pacific Islander Month. All of these celebrations, I want to make sure that we are recognizing them. And it doesn't take much to recognize, and when you recognize groups of people, that brings a sense of belonging and inclusivity and makes someone wants to be a part of something greater than themselves. And, so, any work that we're doing, I want to make sure that we're capitalizing on that to make sure that we're making that difference across the board. But honestly, genuinely, it's to continue to build that, that relationship, allowing individuals to know who I am and the work that can be done. One of my biggest initiatives, that I mentioned in the past, is starting a Diversity Ambassadors program for our students with a small stipend, where students can actually have hands-on experience when it comes to diversity, when it comes to social media content and developing a variety of resources for our campus community. So, anything is great progress, and I'm hopeful that a lot of the goals that I have for myself in the next six months and one year are definitely going to be fulfilled because the support, the genuine support, that the campus has.
Woods: Well, Nora, it's been good getting to talk with you and getting to you know you. We'll have you back again in a year or so and see how things are going.
Bouzihay: Thank you so much for having me.