Inside Track, Higher Education, and Human Resources

Inside Track: Engaging the community

Jesse Bernal’s commitment to inclusion and equity stems from his experiences growing up in a small town in southern Texas.

July 3, 2015
Text Size:
Jesse Bernal
Jesse Bernal hopes Grand Valley will become a nationwide model for equity and inclusion in higher education and public institutions. Photo by Michael Buck

Jesse Bernal recognizes it is the impact of the individual that provides direct meaning for his commitment to social justice.

As vice president of the Division of Inclusion and Equity at Grand Valley State University, Bernal has a long-term vision of implementing a multi-faceted, coordinated strategy to support staff, faculty and students on campus and broadly engage the diverse communities surrounding the university.

Bernal joined the Division of Inclusion and Equity earlier this year and brings experience in recruitment and retention of employees from underrepresented groups and in developing inclusion strategies to enhance campus climate from his leadership roles at universities in California.

“I started working at a system-wide level as a student on the University of California board of regents, and that is where my systemic work around equity and inclusion began,” said Bernal.

“I worked with the university around efforts for LGBT students, domestic partnership benefits, around undocumented students and how we increase representation and support of undocumented students, and a number of initiatives.”

After serving as a student regent for two years, Bernal worked as the coordinator of the Educational Outreach Program at U.C.’s Merced Campus, as program manager for pre-college and first-year summer transition programs at U.C. Santa Barbara, and as coordinator for Santa Barbara Public Schools educational outreach program serving low-income third and fourth graders.

Bernal was then appointed diversity coordinator for the University of California’s Office of the President.

“Working at the Office of the President, it was a purely administrative office and there were no faculty or students in the building,” said Bernal. “I missed being around the academic culture and was looking to get back on a campus, so I started working at Santa Clara University, which is a Catholic Jesuit school in the Bay Area in California. I was the director for diversity and inclusion, and did a lot of the same work I am doing here but at a much smaller scale.”

Bernal said one of the reasons he made the move to West Michigan was to have the opportunity to impact, influence and work with an institution as large as GVSU in developing cutting-edge work.

“This community, Grand Valley in particular, is a place that I think cares deeply about its commitment to inclusion and equity, that struggles to identify ways to continue to demonstrate that commitment,” said Bernal.


Grand Valley State University
Position: Vice President for Inclusion and Equity
Age: 34
Birthplace: Victoria, Texas
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family: Bryan Payne, partner
Business/Community Involvement: National Association of Chief Diveristy Officers in Higher Education, American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education, National Conference on Race and Ethnicity, Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, National Conference on LGBT Equality. Volunteers with The TrevorProject.
Biggest Career Break: Having the opportunity to come to GVSU.


“Being in a place where there is a high value for this work, having a president who cares deeply about creating an institution that is student-centered and focuses on the inclusion of all our students on campus, I think working in this environment makes this work that much more appealing and the potential of this work that much more significant.”

Responsibilities of GVSU’s Division of Inclusion and Equity include: employee relations, recruitment and retention; responding to and investigating claims of discrimination and Title IX violations; supporting ADA disability compliance; intercultural competency training; and partnering with student affairs units to support programming and practices.

With a focus historically on employee relations and affirmative action functional responsibilities, Bernal said the division is undergoing a strategic process to develop a comprehensive plan to not only engage underrepresented individuals but also all of the campus community.

“I would like us to think very broadly about how we support not only staff but also faculty and students, and not only individuals who may come from underrepresented backgrounds, but also how we engage all of our campus community in conversation around intercultural and multiculturalism, social justice, equity and inclusion,” said Bernal.

“I think the new phase of our work will involve a lot of community engagement, so thinking about our relationship with Grand Rapids, as well as counties surrounding GVSU, and the state, and how we engage broadly with diverse communities outside of GVSU, as well.”

The draft document of the strategic plan was scheduled to be completed by the end of June and then shared with stakeholders across campus to receive feedback, according to Bernal.

“I would like Grand Valley to be a model, if not the model, for equity and inclusion in higher education and public institutions across the country,” said Bernal.

“In a lot of ways, I think Grand Valley already is — we are already pioneers in a lot of areas, and I would just like to continue to go down that path in becoming whatever it means to be a model for equity and inclusion.”

Some of the practices include refining the existing inclusive hiring practices to recruit and retain staff; re-administering a survey done in 2011 to gauge the current perception of faculty, staff and student experience on campus; and enhancing professional development and educational opportunities for employees.

“I think providing opportunities for our employees who interact on a daily basis with our students to think about their own involvement in advancing social justice, equity and inclusion, not only inside the classroom but also outside of the classroom — I think is important,” said Bernal.

“I come from the approach that understanding equity and inclusion is a continual sort of evolution. It is a life-long learning process that requires ongoing, deepening self-awareness and knowledge.”

Bernal’s commitment to inclusion and outreach stems from his own experience and recognition of inequity when he was growing up in a small town in southern Texas.

“My family was Mexican immigrants. Recognizing the existence of inequities in communities growing up was sort of a motivational factor as to why I wanted to continue to support communities in having an opportunity to have an education,” said Bernal. “There are others who don’t have the same opportunities that I had, or don’t have the same opportunities that a majority of people have in the United States.”

Citing volunteering as a value that was instilled by his mother and grandmother, Bernal said he wants to seek out opportunities that not only benefit him on an individual level, but also enable him to give more to the communities he came from and those in which he serves.

When he was living in California, Bernal volunteered with a program for youth with incarcerated parents to provide mentorship, career development and outreach. He also continues to work with The TrevorProject, a national LGBT youth support program for those considering suicide.

“I think the value for civic engagement and volunteerism has been pretty significant in terms of my life. It goes back to recognizing where I come from and wanting to shift or provide as much support for individuals from similar experiences as I possibly can.”

As Bernal transitions from California to West Michigan, he said his initial purpose has been to listen to the longstanding advocates in the Greater Grand Rapids area who have set a solid foundation for advancing inclusive efforts.

“Part of my transition is understanding those dynamics, recognizing those voices and continuing to see myself as adding to and potentially enhancing some of that work,” said Bernal.

“I think there is a true commitment to creating a culture of respect and civility in this community that is attractive. There is a real desire to even recognize some of our shortcomings and some of our challenges in the community and then work collaboratively.”

Recent Articles by Rachel Weick

Editor's Picks

Comments powered by Disqus