Scholar-activist looks at campus racial climates, mentorship

Stephen Santa-Ramirez.

GSE faculty member Stephen Santa-Ramirez works with students and communities to investigate campus racial climates, mentorship, transitions and belongingness. Photo: Courtesy of Stephen Santa-Ramirez


Published December 9, 2022

“I never speak on anyone’s behalf. I advocate as an ally and as a co-conspirator. ”
Stephen Santa-Ramirez, assistant professor
Department of Educational Leadership and Policy

Perhaps finding and using his voice wasn’t always easy for Stephen Santa-Ramirez, but as a scholar-activist and advocate, he is willing to speak out.

“A lot of my work focuses on the activism and resistance efforts of racially minoritized students — predominantly those who identify as Latinx — and I thought that was important because I was a student-activist, and I identify as a scholar-activist now. But I never speak on anyone’s behalf. I advocate as an ally and as a co-conspirator.”

As an assistant professor of higher education in the Graduate School of Education, Santa-Ramirez’s personal and professional experiences and identity as a scholar-practitioner-advocate have played formative roles in the development of his research agenda.

“It’s important for us, as folks that work in higher education settings, to be intentional with what support we're offering students regarding mentorship,” Santa-Ramirez says.

Broadly, Santa-Ramirez investigates the historical, ideological and structural inequities that impact Black, Latinx, Indigenous, migrant and other marginalized communities. Particularly, by employing critical and asset-based frameworks, he investigates campus racial climates, mentorship, transitions and belongingness of first-generation students of color, college student activism and resistance, and the various ways race, ethnicity, im/migration status and policy inform the educational experiences of college students who are undocu/DACAmented.

“My work is about engaging in community and conversation with undergraduate students, about their own experiences with belonging, or the lack thereof, on their campuses,” Santa-Ramirez explains. “What do they engage with on campus? Where are they finding community, or not finding community on campus? What’s working? What’s not working? And the hope for these studies is to offer implications for policy, research and practice to my peers to better learn about these students’ experiences so we can offer ways to better serve these students, and not stifle their efforts but to learn more about their needs, their assets, their skills and their talents, too.”

Santa-Ramirez is a 2022 National Academy of Education (NAEd)/Spencer Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow and a 2022 Diamond Honoree via ACPA—College Student Educators International. In addition to teaching at UB, he has taught at the Philadelphia Freedom Schools, Michigan State University, the University of Texas at Arlington, and Arizona State University. His vast experiences in U.S. higher education and student affairs include work in multicultural and LGBT+ affairs, residential life and housing services, and migrant student services.

In addition to authoring a host of book chapters, he has published peer-reviewed articles in The Review of Higher Education, NASPA’s Journal of First-generation Student Success, Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, Journal of Negro Education, Education Sciences and New Directions for Higher Education. Santa-Ramirez is also an associate editor for the College Student Affairs Journal.

From student to scholar

Santa-Ramirez recalls being a student activist as an undergraduate. After graduation, he joined the corporate world, working at a Fortune 500 company.

“I thought that I was going to be this corporate person and just move up the ladder, and probably be a vice president of the company,” he says.

But the realization that he wasn’t intrinsically passionate about his work led him to re-think his future by visiting his past. After talking with a mentor from his alma mater, Santa-Ramirez decided that being part of a college campus might lead him back to the fulfillment he felt as a student.

“I don't necessarily remember the moment that I thought that being a professor was part of my professional trajectory, but my mentor showed me some of the ropes of working in higher education and I thought it could be an amazing opportunity to do some good work with student leaders and other folks.”

Santa-Ramirez pursued a master’s degree and worked full time in higher education administration as a senior leadership team member in the Office of Multicultural Affairs at The University of Texas, Arlington.

“I spent a few years there just doing a lot of social and racial justice work, men, and masculinities work, and ran the LGBTQ+ initiatives for the campus community,” he says. “It was those experiences that motivated me to pursue a doctorate and become a faculty member.”

Santa-Ramirez, born and raised in Philadelphia, is a first-generation college student. He recalls how difficult it was to obtain the information he needed to attend college and uses his personal experiences to help guide his research.

“I attended historically white institutions to obtain all my degrees and sometimes it was difficult navigating college and college culture,” he says. “I didn’t necessarily have family members or friends or anyone to ask questions on how to navigate important things like the bursar’s office, or financial aid resources, or residence life. This was all brand new. I came from a poor background, and we just didn't have the means. I had to figure it out on my own.”

Finding mentors and other Latinxs and students of color ultimately helped Santa-Ramirez stay enrolled.

“Getting that peer support through organizations like the Latin American Student Association and a Latin-based dance team on campus really made me feel like I belonged because we were all trying to figure things out as we went along,” he says. “Those relationships kept me coming back semester to semester and ultimately reaching that goal of graduation.”

Personally and professionally, Santa-Ramirez wants to continue making strides toward educational equity for underserved and underrepresented students.

“I aim to learn more about how policy impacts racially minoritized and other minority students on college campuses — how policies and practices either positively or negatively impact their access to persistence through college, and then what happens after they graduate,” he says. “I will continue to push forward in my work and in my talks, and to push out recommendations for policymakers, institutional leaders, and program and event facilitators on college campuses to best support these students.”