Color bar.
Anthony Vargas standing outside.

GSE’s community supports new student as he starts grad school on rocky virtual ground


After finishing his degree in criminology and sociology as the pandemic started last spring, Anthony Vargas, BA ’20, enrolled in GSE’s higher education and student affairs master’s program.

Communities need advocates to support their members.

At first, Vargas, a Marine veteran, was motivated by his undergraduate work at UB as a resident assistant. He set his sights on a career in student affairs because he knew how transformative outreach to students can be. When students feel like they are part of a strong campus community, Vargas knows they work harder and persist toward graduation with confidence.

This lesson in community reemerged for him at GSE this year and led Vargas to focus and elevate his own ambition toward a new goal of becoming a professor. That decision followed his own low point as a new graduate student.

As the COVID-19 and systemic racism pandemics set in, Vargas felt isolated and this dragged him down. Three members of the GSE faculty showed friendship and mentored him, taking time for long conversations while cheering him on in moments when he needed it most.

To sit here now, as a master’s student in this double pandemic that we’re facing, with amazing scholars at my side and in my corner. I’m very grateful and very thankful for that.”

The first to help was Raechele Pope, associate dean for faculty and student affairs, chief diversity officer and associate professor of higher education, who also serves as his advisor and talked with Vargas at length when he needed perspective.

Then, after taking three classes with Stephen Santa-Ramirez, a new assistant professor of higher education, the men had a connection. Their shared Latinx experiences and identities led Santa-Ramirez to become a mentor to Vargas.

He found a third champion in Terri N. Watson, an associate professor of educational leadership and human development at The City College of New York and a UB Distinguished Visiting Scholar with the Center for Diversity Innovation. He was particularly interested in her work to build community within New York City schools, where they both grew up. He signed up to be one of her mentees. Watson then asked him to sit on the student panel that was part of GSE’s virtual “Creating the Beloved Community” symposium to address racism and build community in schools.

Guided by communities, at home and UB

His journey in academia was shaped by his roots as a first-generation student. “My parents immigrated from the Dominican Republic. My mother never graduated from high school. My dad never graduated from the eighth grade,” he said. “I grew up in Washington Heights in New York City. It seems like yellow tape, like the yellow police tape, has become a piece of furniture for our neighborhood. From shootings and stabbings and drug cartels … That’s what I grew up around.”

Not long ago, someone asked him why he wanted to get a PhD. Vargas answered by explaining how each one of his degrees is a tribute to the people who influenced him.

“My bachelor’s degree was for my mother,” he said. “She always asked us: ‘If there’s anything you can do for me, give me that degree and I know that coming to this country is all worth it."

"My master’s degree is for my family, to let them know I’m still making those strides."

"My PhD is for me and my community. It’s for the change that I’m going to use my agency to make. Change in all of my communities­—in my Washington Heights community, in my Latinx community, in my first gen community, in my veteran community ... All of these communities need advocates in them so badly,” he said. “I’m a firm believer that mentoring works.”

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Community matters. It defines who we are. It aligns with our mission as a public research university and graduate school of education. Community and its lessons strengthen academics with innovations and evidence-based practices, improve opportunities for people and spark creativity.