Creating Cohesion: A Talk with Dean Trujillo

Interviewed by Fred Baumgarten, Photo by Quyen Nguyen

Daniel Trujillo

Daniel Trujillo—known to all as Danny—joined Sarah Lawrence last August as dean of studies and student life, following his successful tenure at St. John’s University in New York. In his new role, he oversees the offices of Student Affairs, Career Services, and Community Partnerships. A psychologist by training, Trujillo is energetic and courtly, with a welcoming smile.

You’ve been here for several months now. What are your impressions so far?

I’ve lived in the New York City area for five years, and honestly, I’d been waiting for the right position to open up at Sarah Lawrence. It’s a leader in liberal arts education. There are incredible students here—students of varied interests, highly intelligent, very engaged. And they really love having the ability to share ideas. Also—I think this is unique—our students are willing to take feedback and an opposing view, to integrate it, and act on it.

Retention is always a lively topic of discussion. How do we increase retention at Sarah Lawrence?

Concentrate on the first six weeks. That transition is absolutely critical for student success and belonging. We look at mentorship, and we’ve focused on enhancing the role of the RAs. Our peer mentor program is now in its second year; we have more than 80 sophomores, juniors, and seniors who are mentoring our incoming class. All these programs we’re looking to advance.

Coming to the College as a Latino, what’s your perspective on diversity at Sarah Lawrence?

One of the reasons I wanted to go into higher education was based on my own experience as a Latino male, having gone to a small liberal arts college, and what I found lacking. In my era, there was an unfair perception that a student from an ethnic racial minority group was admitted because of his race and not because of his qualifications. Even just the conversation around diversity, it never really happened. And I think that was detrimental to the community. What I hope to bring to this conversation is an understanding of the importance of diversity, and I mean across multiple levels. It’s not just representative diversity. It’s beyond that. It’s the dialogue. It’s the understanding. It’s the ability for members of the community to make mistakes and grow from that.

What are some of the challenges of a campus like ours, where there’s a strong culture of individualism? How do you build cohesion?

The independent nature of our students is very important. It does help define the community. At the same time, it is a community. Our students value their connections with faculty and with one another. One of the wonderful things about Sarah Lawrence is that we expect students to own their academic experience. I believe that they should also own their social, community, and professional development experiences. And it’s important for students to feel that their educational experience is going to result in a positive outcome beyond graduation. That’s a great way alumni can contribute back to Sarah Lawrence, by connecting with students. Our alumni understand the value of a Sarah Lawrence experience.