New diversity coordinator extends a guiding hand

Michelle Fontes-Barros, Coordinator of student diversity initiatives
Michelle Fontes-Barros, Coordinator of student diversity initiatives

By Rudi Hempe
CELSnews editor

There is one word that continually crops up when one chats with Michelle Fontes-Barros and it’s “passionate.”

Fontes-Barros is passionate about her new job but more-so she is, as she puts it, “passionate about working with students.”

Fontes-Barros is the new coordinator of Student Diversity Initiatives for the College of the Environment and Life Sciences. On the job only since late September, Fontes-Barros admits she is just getting up to speed toward her mission to support and be a resource to students of color in CELS.

There are not a lot of students of color in CELS—something that Fontes-Barros and others in the administration want to see changed. The tone was set by Dean John Kirby when he first came aboard—increasing diversity in the student body and on the faculty and staff is one of his main goals.

Fontes-Barros took over the job as coordinator from Robert Britto-Oliveira who left a few months ago to take another URI position and she brings with her a varied background including recruiting, working for non-profits and helping students.

A URI 1996 graduate, she logged her last 12 credits as an intern in New York City at the National Association for Female Executives. After that she wanted to stay in the city and so she went to a recruiting agency seeking a job—and they ended up hiring her –to screen and test applicants prior to seeing a recruiter.

She returned to Rhode Island when her mother became sick and took a job with another staffing agency in Boston. Next a cousin helped her find her first job in the non-profit section as a volunteer coordinator for the Providence Summer Bridge program. Other non-profit work found her running such things as an after-school program for students at a providence middle school.

But working in the non-profit field was an unsteady situation and she later landed a job at URI in alumni relations in 2007 where she stayed until taking the CELS position.

Because she came onboard after the semester started, she says she has a lot of catching up to do—particularly in making contact with students in the college.

The college has only modest numbers of students of color. The data she has—and it has to be qualified because not all students fill out the forms when they arrive—is that there are 86 African-American students, 158 Hispanic, 100 Asian, 8 American Indian/Alaskan Native and 52 who listed themselves as being of two races.

To date she has met with only about 15 students—many came to see her after news traveled by word of mouth but she plans to change that number drastically in March when she, the College of Engineering and the Bay Campus hold a meet and greet session aimed at informing students of color about the resources that are available to them. “We have a lot of resources but many students don’t know about them,” said Fontes-Barros

Of the 15 students she has met so far, most just needed to be assured that they were on the right track academically. Fontes-Barros does not advise students on academics but she can steer students to those in CELS who can. When a student comes in, she said, “I make them focus on the academics first but we got to get to the underlying issues to make sure they are doing well academically.

And what are some of those issues?  Finances are big, she noted. Other issues she found out about thus far are that some students feel isolated in classrooms and some have a fear factor when it comes to talking to professors. Another issue is assessing their future after school. If for example a student wants to be a doctor but does not have high enough marks, they probably should explore alternative paths. “They need a plan because they don’t know what will happen,” she said noting that financial limitations and other things might become issues.

To reach the students of color, Fontes-Barros is relying on help from others in the university community. The URI 101 system, which includes all freshmen, involves a survey and renders good feedback information, she said.

In addition CELS has established a Diversity Committee which has faculty, staff and administration representatives. The committee will meet soon and should provide assistance. Also the Talent Development office is a resource and there is a system called Mapworks which can help with the task of identifying problems students of color can face.

Next fall, she intends to meet with freshmen right away through the University College system. She also will have two work study students who could help make contacts with students in the college.

Establishing diversity in the sciences is difficult, she noted, but there are resources available that can provide guidance. “We need to hire faculty that mirrors what the community is starting to look like. Cultural competency in the sciences is important but establishing something in a college that has not been established before takes times and effort and people to come together. It is not going to happen overnight but we need to explore how we are going to hire faculty of color to look like the classroom that is going to emerge—a more diverse classroom.”