UW News

October 11, 2001

New VP will always be Rusty

When the UW’s new vice president for minority affairs started kindergarten, she told the teacher her name was Rusty Barcelo. “Oh,” the teacher replied, “You must be Nancy.” Barcelo didn’t argue but she went home and told her mother she wasn’t going back to school.

“That teacher says my name is Nancy,” she complained.

Her mother, who knew Barcelo had been christened Nancy Virginia but was called Rusty because of her red hair, replied that she would have to go to school, and tried to explain the mix-up. So Barcelo returned, but insisted that she be called Rusty. “I knew that’s who I was,” she explains. “And that’s the name I’ve used almost ever since.”

Characteristically, Barcelo has used the experience for teaching purposes, in a class on identity development in a multicultural world. “On the first day we talk about our names,” she says.

The red hair has faded to gray now, but Barcelo is still Rusty, and still working on issues of identity. The majority of her long academic career has been spent in multicultural work in several universities. It’s a fitting career for a woman who grew up in a Mexican American family that traveled the globe with her serviceman father. She was in France at a time when that country was embroiled in a conflict with Algeria over the Suez Canal. She was in Panama during a controversy involving whether the American or Panamanian flags should be flown over the Canal District.

“It opened up my eyes. It helped me see issues in a global context,” Barcelo says of those years.

But the real eye-opener involved a move from California to Iowa. It was 1969, and Barcelo was taking her freshly minted social work degree from Chico State University and going to graduate school at the University of Iowa. It didn’t take long in the Midwest for her to feel like a displaced person.

“One day when the thermometer over the Iowa State Bank read minus 5 degrees, I knew I didn’t belong in Iowa and I called home to tell my mother that I would be returning at the end of the semester because it was too cold,” Barcelo recalls. “My mother said, ‘Rusty, where there’s one Mexican there’s probably another one.’ And I didn’t know what being cold had to do with being a Mexican.”

A week later a care package arrived from her mother containing Mexican foods and decorative items, but no note. In her struggle to understand her mother’s message, Barcelo went to the census data and found to her surprise that there were close to 30,000 Spanish speaking people in Iowa – a state with a population of about 2 million at the time. And she discovered other minority populations as well.

“Then I had to ask myself if there were so many of us, why was I the only Chicana at the University of Iowa in 1969? Why was there only one native American, one Asian American and 42 African American students?”

Barcelo united with other concerned students to form an organization, then took their concerns to the person in charge of minority affairs at the time. He hired Barcelo, who began recruiting students of color while she was still a graduate student. After she got her master’s she was assigned to develop social services within the Office of Special Support Services for minority students, meaning helping them find housing, working on health issues, etc. That was the closest she came to being a social worker.

Instead she earned her doctorate in higher education administration and went on to become an assistant dean in the office of academic affairs focusing on enrollment management and director of the summer session. The job dealt with general enrollment, not just minority enrollment, but when the university decided to reassess its diversity efforts in the wake of the Reagan backlash of the 80s, Barcelo was tapped to be on the committee.

The result was a new program, Opportunity at Iowa. “I realized then that diversity work was my passion and I asked the provost to be assigned to the new program,” Barcelo says. “Some of my colleagues discouraged me, saying I was jeopardizing my career by doing this work, but I decided that the work was legitimate and we needed good people in it to begin doing the things that needed to be done.”

Barcelo was associate director and then acting director of the program and had spent more than 25 years in Iowa when a new opportunity arose. The University of Minnesota was starting a program run by the provost’s office that used a model of multiculturalism cutting across group lines. So ethnic minorities were working with sexual minorities, people with disabilities, women, etc. A friend nominated Barcelo – who at that point believed “I’d probably die in Iowa” – for the job, and to her surprise she got an interview.

“After that first interview I was hooked. I was really excited about the possibilities,” Barcelo says. “I decided this would be a great opportunity to try some of the ideas that I had been doing informally – to have a staff that came from all these different groups.”

Barcelo says she is “thrilled” with the work she and her staff did at Minnesota during her five-year tenure there. But she was lured to the UW by the opportunity – as a vice president – to work directly with the President’s Cabinet on diversity issues

“I think this program has the capacity to be the number one program in the country,” she says. “There’s an incredible history here and a larger population base to work with than I had in Minnesota. I really appreciate all the work that has already been done and want to build on that foundation.”

Since arriving in July, Barcelo has held a retreat for her staff and is in the process of assessing all the diversity programs under her supervision. She’d like to see greater coordination and better tracking of students enrolled in different programs. And she says she’s told her staff that new programs are to be offered with partners. She’s especially interested in creating more focus on academics through collaboration with the different colleges on campus.

But along with her enthusiasm, Barcelo is mindful of the climate she’s working in. “I believe we need new models for the 21st century,” she says. “With I-200 we are having to look at this work in new and creative ways. Budget is an issue for all programs. The question is, how do we begin to work together as a unit and move beyond providing direct services to providing leadership on the campus.”