When George Sanchez, professor of history, and American studies and ethnicity, was offered the position of vice dean for diversity and strategic initiatives in 2009, he accepted on one condition — that he would not have to give up working with students.
Since then, Sanchez has continued to teach courses that offer first-generation college students skills they need to enter the workforce, mentor graduates and undergraduates, and travel to Africa and Japan with other first-generation college students.
He often befriends his students’ families and once taught a young woman who had been part of the Los Angeles foster care system how to drive.
“I fill my life with students, and I believe that there is no other way to succeed in our mission to diversify higher education,” Sanchez said. “I cannot be an effective leader in this area unless I am continuing to do the work myself.”
All of this effort has been noticed by Insight Into Diversity magazine, which has awarded Sanchez a Diversity Visionary Award. The publication aims to connected potential employees with institutions and businesses striving to create environments that reflect the diverse makeup of their communities. Its 40th anniversary edition focuses on higher education, and each Visionary Award recipient is described as having made “an indelible mark” in broadening diversity and inclusion at his or her college or university.
At USC Dornsife, Sanchez sees a need to narrow the gap between minority representation among students and their professors.
Right now, USC Dornsife’s undergraduate student body includes 21 percent minority students — 14 percent Latino and 7 percent African American. However, only around 7 percent of professors are African American, Latino or Native American. This year, he will create a committee that will work with departments to seek out stellar minority faculty candidates.
But Sanchez also wants to help build the foundation to diversify for higher education on a national level.
Through the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program and USC HSBC Fellows Program, first-generation and minority students conduct research and establish working relationships with USC faculty mentors. Qualified students receive financial support to conduct research at USC and if they seek a graduate degree.
“The idea is to offer resources to anyone who will promote and bring diversity to the future professoriate,” said Sanchez, who directs the program and mentors a number of students.
But for Sanchez, success in diversity is not just about increasing numbers and percentages — it’s about strategy and sustainability.
Sanchez co-organizes USC’s Japan Summer Immersion Program with the Norman Topping Student Aid Fund, which promotes study abroad for first-generation students. Every two years, he takes 14 undergraduates on a trip to Japan to explore the cultural, social, political and economic exchanges between the United States and Japan.
“The rates of study abroad for first-generation college students and minority students were very low,” Sanchez said. “But we have found that 75 percent of students who go on the trip study abroad again and they will become campus leaders for study abroad among first-generation and minority students.”
In 2013, Sanchez founded the Trojan Guardians Scholar Program, which supports students who have recently left the foster care system. The program offers such services as financial aid assistance and counseling, on-campus housing coordination, supplemental academic and professional mentoring, and health and counseling advice.
“These students have high need, but they also have tremendous potential because they have already overcome an inconceivable number of obstacles to get to USC,” said Sanchez, a first-generation college student himself, whose parents emigrated from Mexico.
“I am a firm believer that there is no point in bringing in students who are not going to succeed — so we need to make sure that we are giving them the resources that allow them to thrive.”
Another group Sanchez has coordinated is USC Posse, a chapter of a national foundation that identifies high school students from urban school district backgrounds and gives them increased opportunities to pursue higher education. In its first year in 2011, USC accepted 12 Posse scholars from New York public schools. Half pursued majors in USC Dornsife. Sanchez acts as mentor for Posse students.
Sanchez acknowledges that there is still major diversity work to be done at USC Dornsife, especially among faculty.
In this effort, this year Sanchez spearheaded the fundraising effort to make USC a platinum sponsor of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) National Conference, which will be held in Los Angeles in October.
“We have more faculty networking in China than we do in East L.A., so we are more likely to know how to recruit from the major universities in China than we do from Hispanic-serving institutions, including the ones right around us,” Sanchez said. “At the SACNAS conference, we’ll have 5,000 minority scientists right at the L.A. Convention Center.”
He also hopes to increase the number of female faculty members in all areas of the sciences and in other specific departments, such as in the economics and philosophy departments.
Ultimately, Sanchez believes that embracing diversity requires a balance between increasing numbers and assuring that students and faculty have the support they need to thrive.
He said he’s proud that the rates of students who graduate within six years are the same for both minority and non-minority students at USC.
“Going forward, I would like to create and solidify programs to push these achievements even further, but it must be an effort that includes the entire USC community — not just first-generation and minority students and faculty members, but everyone here.”