The leadership journey of Uva Coles
AL DÍA’s Hispanic Heritage Month Education Honoree celebrates the many stories that make up her identity as an Afro-Latina, as she works to build inclusion in higher education.
For Uva Coles, being Latina is “a state of mind” composed of the stories and traditions, the pain and perseverance of her ancestors woven into her being.
Latina is the strength of her grandmother crossing into Panama from Costa Rica as a child, by herself — terrified but resolute.
Latino is her father, joining the American military “so that he could have a better life,” but always feeling a sense of responsibility and connection back to his home country.” Being Latina, Coles says, is “that sense of perpetual connection to your home, wherever that home might be.”
Coles’ Latinidad smells like her mother’s cooking on Sundays: arroz con pollo, plátanos maduros, and a little bit of curry that represents her family’s Caribbean heritage.
It sounds like a fresh coconut breaking open as she blends it to make homemade coconut milk.
But, it also means “walking into spaces in this city and region and getting into conversations about underrepresentation,” says Coles. It involves being aware of the many intersections of Latino identity.
“That to me is Latina. It is having a voice and processes where we traditionally have been silenced,” the higher education leader said.
Coles, in her current role as associate vice president for the center for civic and global engagement at Widener University in Chester, PA, as well as in the myriad of other works and pathways she has taken since coming to the U.S. from Panama at the age of 18, has upheld that need to speak up, and speak out, throughout her career. In ways large and small, Coles uses her voice to advance a society-wide conversation on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Out of those moments in silence and underrepresentation, Latinos are given one month a year to celebrate their heritage.
Uva Coles believes the focus on different cultures and identities should be a year-long effort. Hispanic Heritage should be a “daily intentions of celebrating one another,” not something to be confined to one month, she explains.
But, as a Hispanic Heritage Month award winner, she said that being honored for her Latina heritage is “a full circle moment.” It is a particularly significant, Coles said, since it hasn’t always been an identity that she felt was entirely inclusive of her identity as an Afro-Latina.
“To be honored in this way by the part of my background and history and culture that was a little bit difficult to break into when I first came to the U.S., feels like we are making progress. It’s less about me and more about our mindset and our thinking,” Coles added.
“When I came here as an Afro-Latina, a person who didn’t fit the stereotype of what a Latina might be, I ran into a couple of walls,” she admitted. Some people who were accustomed to being in environments with Latinos of all races and colors welcomed her into the Latino community, Coles said. But others did not.
That experience of feeling different because of her Blackness dated to her childhood in Panama, Coles said, where “to be beautiful meant that you had to be of a certain hue, and that hue looked nothing like mine.”
“We don’t talk about colorism a lot, but it’s there, right, and so sometimes we devalue the experiences that other people may have. And so I ran into a lot of that when I came here so it took some time for me to start chipping away at that, and to keep showing up to things and to keep speaking up for not only my Black heritage, which is critical for me, but also my Latino heritage,” she said.
In her home, her family celebrated their Blackness. But in the outside world, Coles said she never saw herself.
“My conflict was feeling like my family was telling me I was great, and just fine the way I was, but the rest of the world was saying but this is the standard of beauty and intelligence, everything that was kind of held on a pedestal, in my estimation, looked nothing like me,” Coles noted.
That changed when she arrived on campus at Claflin University in South Carolina, a Historically Black University. There, she saw “every hue under the sun of people of color,” of all races, and she felt that she was “home.”
As a student at Claflin, Coles for the first time was able to walk into classrooms where the majority of teachers looked like her.
That comfort and support allowed her to grow in her own expression of her race, culture, ethnicity, and identity as she built her career. Now, Coles is willing to defy standards in the professional world, to be a teacher for others, and try to open up the possibilities for professionals to “rethink what our standards are.”
The leader noted that she is much more comfortable now to speak up about tokenism or other “disrespectful” ways that diversity is addressed superficially by some organizations, institutions, and individuals who think that “you wave a magic wand and your diversity issue is now solved.”
That attitude constitutes “a very narrow way of thinking about business, and a very narrow way of thinking about diversity,” she said.
“Smarter companies, smarter organizations, smarter institutions understand that...you cannot become a leader in your space if you’re only thinking about numbers, bringing people who are different as your solution. What you have to think about is to create an inclusive environment where those people can really thrive,” Coles said.
It’s a subject that is “near and dear” to the administrator, and continues to be an essential aspect of her work in higher education.
In her current role as the associate vice president for the center of civic and global engagement at Widener University, Coles works to support students’ experiential learning through engagement with local communities as well as those beyond the town of Chester, PA, past the state line, and across oceans and continents in places around the globe.
That approach to experiential learning is what Coles and Widener University as a whole envision as “a local to global continuum.”
“We want our students to really understand that they belong wherever they’re feet are. So whether they’re in Chester or in China, it’s important to understand and respect the culture and context, but to understand there’s commonality in our humanity no matter where we are,” Coles said.
The leader noted that Dr. Julie Wollman, president of Widener University, is an example of a leader who is working to build a culture of inclusion and equity, in addition to diversity.
Wollman created the university’s first Chief Diversity Office role to figure out infrastructure to support diversity at the university.
Wollman’s Common Ground initiative is another good example of that move towards inclusion, said Coles. It’s all about conversations with everyone no matter who they are and “really rich conversations about who we are and what’s on our minds.”
Coles sees diversity, inclusion, and equity as a “three-leg stool” - without one or the other, an effort to foster and cultivate diversity in a particular area will not work.
“If you’re just thinking about having an image of diversity, you’ve lost the battle, because you haven’t done the hard work of making sure that your infrastructure can support that diversity.”
Coles said she has written a “quasi-memoir infused with poetry” that is, for now, tucked away, and “has not been birthed yet” — although her 12-year-old and 16-year-old sons both insist that it’s ready to be published, even though they have not read it, admitted Coles with a laugh.
But in the meantime, Coles has turned to a perhaps unexpected platform as an outlet for her creativity and storytelling: LinkedIn.
Coles takes some of the pieces from her personal writing and thinks about how they fit into business, writing about her own experiences for the benefit of other first-generation career people or students who might struggle with some of the same issues Coles has dealt with throughout her educational and professional journey.
“What’s important to me is that I can be a part of a choir that kind of sings a song of you’re good enough, you are here with purpose and intention, and if anybody tells you to go home, tell them you already are,” Coles said.
Beyond her current role at Widener University, Coles also serves as a thought partner for different organizations and is a speaker on leadership and diversity, equity, and inclusion.
She sees all of these spheres as being one of a whole of her work in education and beyond.
“Every room you step into is a classroom and sometimes you’re a student and sometimes you’re the teacher,” Coles said. “And so I just imagine that I keep learning from others and that I get to teach and that I get to use my voice no matter what it is.”