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Alain Aguilar on Fetzer Field at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

 

The people in his predominantly white Columbus, Ohio neighborhood tended to peg Alain Aguilar as Samoan or Pacific Islander, though he was neither. In fact, his father is from the Yucatan peninsula and his mother is Filipina, yet he didn’t feel like he looked like a “typical” person from either ethnicity. This may have shielded him from excessive negative stereotyping, he says now, but it also meant that he only really felt comfortable in small spaces, like Boy Scouts, church and on sports teams.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Alain managed to combine the achievement aspect of Boy Scouts with the empathy and compassion of church and the physicality of sports in his role as a teaching associate professor in Exercise and Sport Science (EXSS), a fitness professional in Athletic Training, coordinator of the Fitness Professional Concentration and director of the Undergraduate Fitness Professional Program. In his department, and as a member of the EXSS Diversity Committee, he has been instrumental in introducing rubrics for non-biased hiring procedures, parameters in course redesigns for better faculty understanding of student diversity, and listening sessions where students, faculty and staff have a safe space to discuss issues relating to diversity, equity and inclusion.

“Inclusion is about understanding and responding,” he says. “For whatever reason, I’ve always had the gift of making students, whom I personally work with, maximize their strengths to make our group more effective. This gives them a sense of acceptance and productivity, and in many cases I see students mature and thrive.”

How did your lens of diversity and inclusion form?

I’ve certainly felt some levels of exclusion as I’ve grown up. I feel fortunate, however, because it wasn’t a daily, constant experience. When I was working at a large fitness club as a facility maintenance person, people would sometimes speak very slowly to me, as if they [thought] that I wouldn’t understand English. People would [also] offer me hand-me-down clothes. They were genuinely trying to be kind, but I thought, “Do you really not think I can buy my own clothes?” But those moments were [rare] and don’t compare to some of my friends of color’s experiences.

Can you recall any specific moments when you realized there was disparity?

As part of my church’s decision to increase diversity, we all read Divided by Faith, which has interviews with both Black and white Christians about racial discrimination. It gives concrete evidence of how people could live in the same world but have very different experiences. I later had a conversation with a friend of color that opened my eyes even further. They told me how they go out of their way to make sure people around them are comfortable, because if they didn’t, they might be perceived as dangerous, which might invite dangerous and potentially fatal actions against them. They also told me how they “code switch” away from comfortable demeanor and language in the work setting because they may be perceived as “unprofessional” and jeopardize their job security. It’s no wonder they described being “exhausted.”

You earned your undergraduate degree in Athletic Training from Ohio State University and a Master’s in Exercise and Sport Science from UNC in 2006. You also have numerous certifications in the field of athletics. What drew you to athletics as a career?

I thought I wanted to be an architect until I got into my first design class and realized producing “architecture” was wildly stressful. I was fortunate to have my parents pay for my undergrad education. [Since] I didn’t feel the burden of paying tuition, I kept putting off selecting an [alternate] major. I was about halfway through my sophomore year when my mom told me to either “pick a major or pay for school.” My parents advised me to pick a major that I enjoyed and find a profession that would give me the life I wanted. I reflected on what I enjoyed in life and realized that I love sports, helping people, solving problems, building relationships, being part of a team and thinking outside the box. When I considered what profession embodied all these things, my path became clear: athletic training.

What were your family expectations in terms of higher education and career?

My father was a surgeon and my mother a nurse. It was never stated explicitly, but certainly implied that I’d attend college. My mom attended college so she could have the opportunity to move away from the Philippines and experience something different. My father’s path was dictated by my abuelo (grandfather), a doctor who ran his own clinic in Merida, Mexico. [My dad] was supposed to finish residency in the States and then move back and help him run the clinic but didn’t return because he met my mom. This caused a rift between my Dad and Abuelo that took some time to heal. It’s interesting to think how my life would either not exist or be very different than it is now, had he returned. [My parents] just wanted me to be happy and select a profession [in which] I could support myself and my family.

Did you have mentors? If so, how did they guide you?

I’ve had numerous mentors, even if they didn’t know it! In high school, the Christian ministry I was involved with taught that it was important to both receive and give mentorship. Their method was more natural and spontaneous than structured. Instead of learning a set curriculum, I just spent extra time with them as they “did” life. I was able to see how they responded in certain situations and ask a ton of questions, so I learned from their example. Similarly, when I got into athletic training, I spent time with my supervisors and learned nuanced ways of applying my classroom knowledge. When I got on faculty, the mentorship program was more structured. The best piece of advice I got was “stick to my strengths.”

Alain Aguilar with Master class 2016
Alain with Athletic Training graduate and undergraduate students under his supervision.

What was the campus climate like when you came to UNC in 2008?

I was a faculty member and athletic trainer for a varsity sports team. In both of those arenas, I felt supported and included. Whenever graduate applicants or faculty candidates ask me what the best part of Carolina is, I always [say,] “the people.” In the athletic training room and on faculty, we’re a group that strives for excellence but doesn’t get too “full of ourselves.” We’re also family-friendly and like to spend time together outside of work. So, to me, the climate was just right.

What issues concerning diversity, equity and inclusion did you recognize as needing attention within EXSS…and how did you address them?

It started with a meeting I had with a few undergraduates who identified as Black, Indigenous or a Person of Color (BIPOC) with the goal of understanding the barriers to their involvement in EXSS research. I anticipated students might have just been unaware of the opportunities, but once conversation got going, I realized it was much more than that. They described several instances of not feeling comfortable in the department and at UNC, in general. Honestly, I had no idea and it broke my heart to hear that the students carried burdens that we may not see and may even be contributing to.

From a diversity standpoint, we understand that we need to increase our representation of BIPOC individuals in our faculty. To support that, we’ve tried to apply rubrics during our searches to focus more on a candidates’ qualifications and less on our own instincts about their quality and collegiality. We also recognized that the pool of BIPOC applicants seemed small, so one of our senior faculty members, Tony Hackney, reached out to local HBCUs to build relationships and promote our graduate programs. We’ve also discussed making connections with BIPOC academicians while at professional conferences. We also plan to expand our DE&I Committee to include students and staff.

Regarding the rubric for the faculty searches, you developed the objective review criteria for every stage of the search process, which has now become SOP at EXSS. How does this work to provide an inclusive and unbiased search?

I give credit to Dr. Anne Gilles for the workshop “Mitigating Bias and Advancing Diversity in Faculty Search & Selection,” upon which our rubrics were based. To do the process well, we needed time and leadership. [Most time-consuming] was discussing and prioritizing the qualifications for the job. We had to sort through our values and get consensus on definitions before each step of the interview process. It also took time to apply the rubric during applicant review, Zoom interviews and campus interviews. And, of course, more time to discuss our independent findings. All this time wouldn’t have been invested if it wasn’t for the leadership of the search committee chair, Dr. Jason Mihalik. He fully supported the use of rubrics and was transparent throughout the entire process. This helped mitigate bias because it forced us to continuously keep qualifications in mind instead of our own personal preferences.

How do you build a sense of inclusion and equity with your colleagues and students?

I maximize students’ strengths to make our group more effective. This semester, I had my students read an article about how society “sees” male and female bodies as well as an obese body. I had students submit their reactions and was astounded by their honest personal perspectives on these issues. Since I really wanted them to understand their peers’ perspectives, I de-identified their responses and combined them to tell a story of what [the overall] class thought. The key point I made was to keep those perspectives in mind as they performed a fitness assessment or prescribed exercises to clients they’ve just met.

With colleagues, I was able to share a short presentation of the My Course Analytics Dashboard (MCAD) at a faculty meeting. I showed my personal statistics of final grade distributions between my white students and my students of color, from the time period before and after I used a “high structure” and “active learning” curriculum (terms I learned from Dr. Hogan and Dr. Sathy, who advocated that these techniques would naturally create inclusive teaching). [The latter] showed a large reduction in grade disparities. I was happy that I could raise awareness of unintentional grade outcomes, as well as promoting quality teaching.

Alain Aguilar with graduating class 2015
Fitness Professional student graduation 2015

Your serve on the EXSS Diversity Committee, charged with examining the diversity and inclusivity policies and practices within EXSS. How has this work impacted students, faculty and/or staff?

This fall, we held several listening sessions for students, faculty and staff. Several people discussed how our classes don’t include as much health disparity information as they could. As a result, [committee member] Dr. Erik Wikstrom is running an independent study for students to create a database of exercise and sport science-related health disparity articles. They’ll also create a database of physical activity-related images and videos showcasing racially diverse people. The hope is to create a resource that faculty can draw from for their classes. We are also planning to create a strategic DEI plan for our department, based on our listening session findings.

Your DEI work isn’t focused on solely on UNC. You advocate in the surrounding community with a 5K walk/run to raise funds for affordable housing, health clinics and other resources for people in Chapel Hill. Can you tell us more?

I’ve met amazing people through this process. When I met the 5K organizer for the first time, they told me all about their progress toward building a community village that was going to help a lot of people in need. It was going to include recreation facilities, health clinics, housing and much more. All they needed was help promoting the run and facilitating it. I was able to promote this to my students and my church. Many signed up for the 5K and some volunteered to help before and during race day. It was great to see so many spheres of my life integrate on that day.

Of which of your personal accomplishments are you most proud…and why?

Physically, I’m most proud of finishing a 50K obstacle course race. It was a cold, wet, very muddy, and at times dangerous obstacle course. I spent close to a year preparing for it. When I think back on it, I can’t believe that I actually did that! Professionally, I feel a sense of pride whenever I get acknowledged for the effort I put in; whether that’s [in the form of] an email from a student or winning an award.

How are you raising your two sons to feel empathy and compassion, and to behave with kindness and respect?

I have an 11-year-old and an 8-year-old. On a good day, my approach to parenting is similar to how my mentors approached mentorship. I live life with my kids, pause at teachable moments and try to be an example. Recently, the little one got really mad about being excluded from playing with [his brother] and the older neighborhood kids. Words were said loudly, things were thrown and doors were slammed. That night at dinner, I created space for the little one to tell the older one how he felt and why. Lots of emotion was shown, and it almost turned into a debate on who was wrong, or who started it. So, I made the choice to only let the younger one speak that night. The older one had to listen and would get a chance to speak the following night. Fortunately, a few hours later, my older son understood that the younger one felt excluded. The following night, my oldest taught my youngest proper “big kid play etiquette,” which the youngest had apparently been violating, which caused his exclusion. Knock wood, we haven’t had any major problems since!

Do you have any special interests during your off-time? What draws you to them?

Pre-Covid, I really enjoyed training for obstacle course races and training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Now, I’m enjoying happy hour and date nights with my wife, playing virtual board games with my friends weekly and watching a movie that moves my soul. What draws me to these? They give me life.

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