Help from former deans set the path for Aguirre


Published February 28, 2024

Tomas Aguirre.

Tomás Aguirre


Long before he became dean of students last year, Tomás Aguirre was once a struggling college student, not unlike many at UB.

A student of color and the first in his family to attend college, his high school experience didn’t fully prepare him for the rigors of higher education. Aguirre (pronounced ah-GEE-rai) struggled to find a purpose in what he was doing and a sense of belonging on a large campus. There were financial struggles to overcome and the distractions of living the college life.

In fact, after two years at the University of Texas at Austin, he left and joined the Navy.

But Aguirre credits the dean of students at UT who kept in touch and helped persuade him to return and finish his degree following his two years of service. Upon graduation, he was introduced to another dean — this one at USC — who not only convinced Aguirre to continue his education in Los Angeles but who made a lasting impression on him when choosing a career path.

“That’s when it all sort of came together for me,” Aguirre says. “I knew I wanted to serve. I wanted to have an impact on students — like me.”

Over the years, Aguirre has served in numerous senior positions in student affairs, including roles as dean of students at the University of New Mexico and associate vice president and dean of students at Texas A&M-Commerce.

He served as vice president for student affairs and chief diversity officer at SUNY Delhi before coming to UB last year to take on a newly designed dean of students role following the retirement of longtime dean Barbara Ricotta.

Aguirre is out and about on campus as much as possible and keeps office hours to meet with students by appointment. It’s a routine he learned from his deans back at UT and USC.

“I think what both those deans gave to me was access,” Aguirre says. “As senior-level administrators, they really made me feel like I could go by their office at any time and just sit down and connect. You would see them out and about on campus, they would go by the dining halls — which has been part of my practice ever since.”

UBNow recently caught up with Aguirre, who talked about being raised in an Army family in El Paso; making his home in Orchard Park with his wife, Cara, and three children; and his love for building Legos. The following interview was lightly edited for clarity and length.

How are you enjoying UB?

I was just really lucky to have the opportunity to come here. It’s kind of in this really dynamic phase of its history, right? It’s going through a lot of changes and a lot of transitions, and unlike a lot of other public institutions throughout the United States, we’re really blessed to have the resources and support to focus on what I think higher education is all about — which is student success and retention.

What are the issues you see confronting students today?

I think mental health obviously is something we all struggle with a little more. I think the financial piece of college is hard. And I also think just the way we’re all so connected with news and events through social media. I don’t want to conclude that there’s more negative things happening in the world than 20 years ago, but we’re definitely more aware of it. I find myself oftentimes trying to help students not to forget the task at hand and, at some point, just focus on being students.

Do you have any guiding principles as dean?

I think you have to be present. You have to be accessible. You have to be a good listener. And you have to be willing to learn and adapt your practice. You can’t always be like, “When I was an undergrad, that’s how we did it.”

What’s the best part of the job?

I think the best part of the job is just feeling like you were able to make a difference sometimes. That’s what gives me a lot of joy. It’s one of those jobs where every day there’s an opportunity to have a positive impact and I think that’s really special. There’s a lot of opportunities to mitigate crises and there’s a lot of opportunities to manage them. I don’t have to look for it. I don’t have to hold my breath for it. It just happens every day. That’s definitely a privilege.

What’s one message you want to get across to UB students?

We’re here for them. We have resources and support for what they might be struggling with, things that might be interfering with their ability to be successful. The only thing that they need to do is to reach out — and the sooner they reach out the more likely we are to be able to help them. They’re the priority. We only exist because of them.

What do you like to do when you’re not being the dean of students?

I love to be with my family — hanging out, supporting them and whatever they’re doing. My kids are very active. Diego is a junior at Cornell. Zavier is a freshman in high school and Paloma is a sixth grader in the middle school.

When I do have time to do something for myself, I like to read. I like doing things in the outdoors. I’d like to get back to sailing, something I did a lot of when I was on the West Coast. I like building Legos.

I also like trying new things. I got a steel drum during the pandemic that I want to learn how to play. I just need to find an instructor to teach me how to do it because I’m not having a lot of success teaching myself.