Miami, Florida is about a diverse community as one might find in the United States. A true melting pot of cultures, religions, and backgrounds, the vibrant city allowed Bobby Kunstman the freedom to flourish throughout his early years. Identifying as Black, Cuban, biracial and gay, he felt fortunate to be exposed to others who shared his background…as well as those who didn’t. “I felt a sense of belonging and that I could be myself,” he said. “It wasn’t until I moved away to [Tallahassee, to attend] Florida State that I realized how much growing I would undergo there and continue to do to this day.”
An only child and a first-generation student, his parents were supportive of whatever path he chose to take. An early indication of the direction his life would eventually take occurred when he joined the Boy Scouts of America and quickly discovered a passion for leadership. Once that seed was planted, it held firm and became the trigger for what would lead him to earn a Master’s in Leadership & Ethics from North Central College and, in 2017, a doctorate in Higher Education & Student Affairs Leadership from the University of Northern Colorado. Before arriving at UNC in 2014, he served as an Assistant Director in the Student Leadership, Involvement & Community Engagement Office at Colorado State University.
In building solid skills and unique insight into how diversity, equity and inclusion inform student support leadership, he arrived at his current position as Director of the Student Union’s Student Life and Leadership with the ability to allow students to thrive and feel a sense of belonging at Carolina.
After the murders of George Floyd and so many others, he introduced the Plan of Action, a multi-faceted Diversity and Inclusion workshop series to improve the cultural competence of the Carolina Union staff, and he has creatively approached funding opportunities to support programming for heritage month programming and special keynote speakers. “What I love about the Carolina Union is that many of our students see us as the ‘heart’ of campus,” he says. “It’s important to ensure that the heart is values-centric and operates to support students, staff and faculty. We support students with programs and services to help them become their best selves.”
What was your college matriculation process like?
I started by attending Miami-Dade Community College and eventually transferred to Florida State [in Tallahassee]. I remember trying to figure out what residence hall I should choose and my father staying up with me to help me process what type of living situation I wanted and helping to figure out if I could afford it. When my parents dropped me off, I remember it being harder on them than it was for me. I was excited about this new opportunity.
How did your lens of diversity and inclusion form?
Growing up in Miami, I was always surrounded by the Cuban side of my family. People in Miami always spoke to me in Spanish, and it felt natural. It wasn’t until I moved up to Tallahassee for school that others saw me as Black first. It took me a while to find a home at FSU. I tried a variety of organizations that included a few identity-based [ones], including Cuban American Student Association and the Black Student Union. At the same time, I was also coming to understand what it means to be gay. Navigating all of this was a challenge and that’s when my lens centered on diversity and inclusion began to form. These core experiences are the foundation to what informs how I approach my work today.
How did you develop your plan to work in Higher Education and, more specifically, a student-facing position?
I took a break from FSU as an undergrad to figure out what I wanted to do next on my journey. During that break, I had an opportunity to work in two areas that I loved and discovered that higher education was my calling. Within a week of my arrival at North Central College, I got a call from the president of Raza Unida (now known as NCC Latinx Student Association). She said, “I heard you were Cuban, and we are in desperate need of an advisor.” That was probably the first time since leaving FSU that someone acknowledged the Latin side of my identity. At North Central, I learned so much from the students there and grew personally and professionally. It opened me up for new opportunities so that I didn’t have to remain in residence life but could also explore leadership development and student organization support. In addition to advising Raza Unida, I advised the Students of African American Brotherhood (SAAB), the newly formed Gay Straight Alliance (GSA), and the Illinois Residence Hall Association. Being able to work with so many different students solidified my excitement for being in student-centered positions.
You earned a doctorate in Higher Education & Student Affairs Leadership from the University of Northern Colorado in 2017 while working at UNC. What was your focus and how did it inform your work?
My dissertation was “How Biracial, Multi-Racial, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Queer Student Leaders Make Meaning of their Experiences.” Having the opportunity to learn from the participants about their experiences and share their stories was meaningful for both me and them. Completing the dissertation process also reinforced the idea of being able to co-construct research with participants and continue doing research [eventually].
How did you face challenges in this field that may have resulted from your intersecting identities?
One element of the social change model of leadership focuses on controversy with civility. I have always found it easy to stay in that space and have the hard and necessary conversations. I think about myself and a part of my identity that I do not frequently discuss is that I am an educator. I thrive in asking folks to engage in hard conversations because when we can do that, I believe we are models of how to have meaningful interactions. At one institution, one of the challenges I experienced was around my sexual identity. There were certain leaders at the institution who were covert in their tactics of exclusion. It took me a while to be comfortable sharing my full self in a professional setting. Although I was public about my sexual identity at the time, I made a conscious decision to also be out in a professional setting based on a conversation with a student. This was my “a-ha” moment about how visibility matters. When I came to Carolina, I perceived that I was going to face the same challenges. Although in certain meetings, it was hard for folks to say “gay” and often leaned on “your other identities,” but I never felt that I couldn’t be my whole and authentic self.
What was the campus climate like when you came to UNC?
As I was preparing to come to UNC, I recall seeing this image of students in the Pit holding their hands up with a sign that said, “I am human, don’t shoot.” It was at that moment that I knew UNC was the right place for me to be and the right time for me to be here. In my first month, I met with many students, staff and faculty across campus and it was important for me to know what the climate was like. About a month after my arrival, the Wainstein Report was also released. And in the spring semester, the murders of Deah Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. Our entire campus community was in pain and, as an educator and practitioner, it reinforced my passion to be a continued visible presence and support for students.
What issues concerning diversity, equity and inclusion did you recognize as needing attention at the Student Union…and how did you address them?
I serve in a unique position to advise and support student self-governance while also leading a team that is creative and innovative to create programs that support our student body. Gaps that I saw when I got here relied on students to often do the heavy lift around DEI initiatives. I wanted to make sure that our team was doing the heavy lifting and doing our best to not put the burden on the students.
Your Plan of Action has been a huge success. How did you implement it?
After the murder of George Floyd, the Student Union wanted to create a space where folks can process what was/is happening in our country. The conversation didn’t go as planned and it ultimately caused more pain for our staff [rather than providing] a space for comfort. That propelled us into moving forward to creating a foundation of understanding, so we can dig into the deeper conversation. It was then that I reached out to my supervisor and asked if could work on the first draft of a plan moving forward. Although I drafted it, there was a lot of feedback from the Executive Team. Everyone was committed to living our commitment to the Union’s mission to create an inclusive community. We also activated our national association’s outcomes on social justice and inclusion to help guide our path forward.
Since we have been virtual for the past year, we [decided] to do this in smaller teams within the Union in order for folks to build trust with those they work with every day. The reading materials were translated for our non-English speakers so everyone could fully participate. We also broke up the readings into five different sets of conversations with activities focused on digging deeper and building trust. The final outcome was for each team to develop ideas on action steps for how we can move forward as an organization. This year, we will be engaging in a 15-step action plan that will continue to help us grow as an organization. The plan includes dialogue, service, continued learning, and working towards greater change.
You mentioned your national association – the NASPA, for which you were the chair of the Commission for Equity & Inclusion and a member of the Division for Equity & Inclusion. What have you learned in those capacities that you have been able to apply at UNC?
One of the things I loved the most about my work with the commission and division is that it created a foundation on how to activate my work with our national organization and more importantly, on campus. The commission was originally founded as a group of individuals from the identity-based knowledge communities to advise our national organization on when and how they should approach inclusion and equity work. The opportunity to participate in something like this helped me understand how to always bring that lens and approach to my work every day at Carolina.
You succeeded in obtaining funding through the TRIAD Foundation for Student Engagement and Community Building. How have you applied this funding to support DE&I initiatives and programming?
This semester, the team created programs for Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Campus Pride Programs, and Asian Pacific American History Month. Although most programming was virtual, we were lucky to have Dr. Johnson, Abby Stein, and Kal Penn as virtual keynotes. One of our most successful programs that the team put together included Pride-in-a-Box. They mailed over 100 boxes filled with a variety of Pride items to students around the world. Due to the hard work of the Student Life team, our heritage month programming served 852 students in the spring semester. We will continue to do this work as we return to campus. For the 21-22 school year, we will be celebrating Latinx Heritage Month, National Coming Out Day, American Indian Heritage Month, Black History Month, Women’s History Month, and APAHM Heritage Month. All celebrations will include a connection to a peer-led Book Club series, a West Lounge Grid Art Display, sponsored Kick-off celebration event, and more.
Did you have a mentor? If so, how did he/she/they guide you?
There has been one person who had a lasting impact and is one of the reasons I approach my work the way I do: Dr. Phyllis McCluskey-Titus. I first met her when I was an undergraduate at FSU. I was one of those eager students who loved building connections with staff, and she was the one [with whom] I had the strongest relationship. At the time, she was the Director of Residence Life and her office was in the same residence hall as mine. I could always drop by her office and have wonderful conversations. It meant a lot to me that she always had that open-door policy and I always took advantage of it. After I left FSU (and she did too), we ran into each other at a conference, and it was one of the best hugs in the world! She was excited to know that I entered the field and we have been in contact ever since. I am not sure she knows the impact she had on me, but she is the reason I do this work today.
Of which personal accomplishment (at UNC and/or at home) are you most proud…and why?
A recent honor that I was recognized by students for was my induction into the Order of the Golden Fleece. The organization is the oldest and highest honorary society at the institution. An excerpt from my nomination at the public induction stated, “[Bobby] demonstrates the highest level of commitment and dedication to developing the potential of students from across the Carolina student body.” It continued by sharing that I am “an innovative change agent who works collaboratively with students to ensure they are experiencing engaging, inclusive, and positive opportunities to grow throughout their Carolina journey.” I was extremely humbled by this unique honor because I do this work because I love it and not for recognition. I am honored that students see my work as valuable and am happy to continue serving in these roles in my career.
Written by Adrianne Gibilisco, University Office for Diversity and Inclusion