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1/26/2022

Castro committed to collaborative, relational approach as college’s inaugural inclusion, equity and diversity leader

Written By: Tom Ziemer

At age 18, Chris Castro boarded a plane bound for Miami with his family, unknowingly a one-way journey from Colombia that would upend his life.

When they landed, Castro’s parents told him and his 13-year-old sister they wouldn’t be returning home to Bogota, the South American country’s bustling capital. His mother had received death threats from the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), then a violent guerrilla group who didn’t look kindly upon the couple’s work empowering women in marginalized communities to become financially independent to lessen their reliance on—and loyalty to—the rebels. The family would seek political asylum in the United States.

Instead of attending college in his homeland, Castro suddenly found himself working to support his family as its lone fluent English speaker, bouncing between jobs hawking novelty goods at a mall, translating electronics instruction manuals, filing papers at offices and teaching English to native Spanish speakers. When he had saved up enough money to enroll at Miami Dade College, he squeezed in classes between jobs, borrowing a used graphing calculator he couldn’t afford to pass a required math class and battling Miami traffic to try (often in vain) to beat one instructor’s arbitrary deadline for locking the classroom door 5 minutes before class.

“That was a hell of a semester for me,” he quips.

So Castro brings an intimate appreciation, grounded in lived experience, for the unique challenges facing many students, faculty and staff from minoritized backgrounds into his new role as the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering’s inaugural associate dean for inclusion, equity and diversity.

He also brings a varied background—he holds master’s and doctoral degrees in theology and started his career in academia teaching music theory—and more than a decade of experience leading efforts to strengthen teaching and learning practices rooted in the principles of inclusion, equity, diversity and justice. He’s spent the previous six years working for Madison Teaching and Learning Excellence (MTLE), a UW-Madison fellowship that helps early career faculty members professionalize their educational skills.

Castro, who took over as MTLE program director in 2019, also serves as a facilitator and educational expert for the National Science Foundation-funded program Aspire: National Alliance for Inclusive and Diverse STEM Faculty, helping to disseminate inclusive teaching practices at the national level. He started his new role in the College of Engineering in January 2022, succeeding Jennifer Sheridan, who served in an interim basis since 2021.

“For me, there’s no such thing as good teaching if we’re not starting with the students as human beings,” says Castro. “As my colleague Dr. Rosemary Russ in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction says, ‘There’s no such thing as good teaching if it’s not teaching that’s grounded in equity, diversity, inclusion and justice.’ Starting a conversation about teaching from any other angle has never made sense to me.”

While integrating those two perspectives in MTLE, Castro also built relationships with 41 engineering faculty members (from six departments) who participated in the two-semester fellowship program. Additionally, Castro has collaborated with six engineering faculty members on the educational impact portions of their National Science Foundation CAREER Awards.

“I can’t tell you how much he has transformed how I do things,” says Jesse Hampton, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering who participated in MTLE during the 2020-21 school year and has seen both his student course evaluations and his confidence in his teaching soar as a result. “Chris has probably singlehandedly made my experience as a tenure-track assistant professor a positive one. His excitement for things is just contagious. I’m so amped up about him joining the College of Engineering.”

Line Roald, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and another former MTLE fellow, was among the campus colleagues who encouraged Castro to apply for the associate dean position.

“He has this unique and special ability to talk to people with a great deal of respect for who they are and where they are at,” says Roald, who’s chairing her department’s committee for inclusion, equity and diversity and has frequently consulted with Castro to inform the group’s work. “I think he will be fantastic in this role.”

As associate dean, Castro says his first task is to meet with a broad range of students, faculty and staff to identify the biggest threats to equity in the college and then develop strategic responses tailored to those needs, rather than pushing preconceived initiatives. He’s keen to take a collaborative and transparent approach to creating communal solutions while elevating and empowering others.

“I am not a top-down person,” he says. “I will lead and make decisions, but my commitment is, unapologetically and relentlessly, to including folks, so really walking the talk in the process of getting to inclusion.”

Castro sees better supporting and addressing harm among those students, faculty and staff from historically underrepresented groups who are already in the college as the immediate focus. But he’s also quick to note that existing efforts at both the college level and within individual departments are producing some positive results. He’s eager to elevate and amplify those initiatives to reach more members of the UW-Madison engineering community and create a stronger sense of belonging.

“I’m going to be on the ground, talking to folks,” he says. “I’m not going to be in my office, closed behind a door. I’m going to be building relationships and really getting to know the humans who make up the College of Engineering, so that we can make this a human work, human process, rather than just a policy-driven or metric-driven process. All those things are important, but they’re not the most important.”


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