Willie Cruz

Cultural Programs Administrator
for Housing and Food Services

If Willie Cruz's background has taught him anything, it's that the world is full of people with wildly varying perspectives.

Cruz, a first-generation Mexican-American, has always enjoyed working with people of all backgrounds and witnessing the innovation that results. Now, as cultural programs administrator for Housing and Food Services, Cruz makes sure the division's employees work in an environment that is welcoming to — and benefits from — all perspectives.

Willie Cruz

What are your duties as cultural programs administrator?

I'm responsible for developing and implementing diversity training across Housing and Food Services, which is composed of about 800 full-time staff members.

For example, we do a panel series each semester called Diversity Lunch and Learn, which invites HFS staff engage with student and staff panelists on different topics related to diversity. We'll have four panel discussions this semester about a variety of issues. For example, we'll look at the role of the Americans with Disabilities Act in providing access and opportunities to this marginalized group. In the past, these panel discussions have been very successful because they provide our employees with an opportunity to fully engage with the panelists and to ask questions they might not ask in a different setting.

How has your personal background shaped the way you approach your job?

I was born in Mexico and raised from the age of 13 in San Diego. My dad was a farm worker and didn't complete middle school; my mom completed some high school but didn't graduate. In my family, there was always the thought that, if my siblings and I could go to college, we could have a better life. However, when you're not familiar with the American higher education system and neither is anyone in your family, it can be difficult to make that happen. I ended up getting bachelor's and master's degrees, but I had to learn a lot of things along the way that many students already knew from the start. Even today, when people ask me about how I made it to college, I still have to pause and think.

That experience, and now my experience in HFS, really taught me that everyone has different experiences going through life. None of those experiences are better or worse, they're just different, and everyone brings different strengths and weaknesses to the table. I've also learned that treating everyone exactly the same is not always fair — you have to treat the equals equally and the unequals unequally. That's a concept I learned in graduate school, by the way. It's quite powerful.

What other projects have you tackled here at Purdue?

About five years ago, I helped develop something we call cultural nights in our residence hall dining courts. We work with our dining staff to come up with a theme and menu. Usually those events take place in our individual dining courts. This semester, though, under the leadership of our new director of dining services we hosted a division-wide Lunar New Year celebration on Feb. 11 in collaboration with various Asian student organizations on campus. This was quite an experience for everyone, including our staff members, who worked very hard on the menu and decorations.

We also try to make our cultural nights coincide with wider heritage month celebrations. For example, Wiley Dining Court will feature an African lunch menu on Feb. 26, and Hillebrand Dining Court will feature a soul food dinner menu on Feb. 27 to coincide with Black History Month. The Feb. 27 event is being done in collaboration with the Black Cultural Center. A movie screening and discussion also will be part of the event.

Last semester, I also worked with Purdue's Staff Benefits office on various initiatives to help our hourly staff members, including our bilingual staff members, better understand their employee benefits. Trying to decide which medical plan to choose or how make contributions to retirement plans can be quite intimidating. These initiatives have yielded great results so far. This is what excites me in my role: being able to assess our staff members' needs and developing programs to address those needs.

What's the most rewarding aspect of your job?

Both personally and professionally, it's getting a chance to work with people who may not always share my perspective. This not only challenges me to think outside my own parameters but it also gives me an opportunity to assess and reassess my own convictions. It's that learning element that I find both rewarding and exciting.

I know this is going to sound clich√©, but HFS really feels like a big family — we have fantastic employees and fantastic supervisors, and everyone is invested in championing diversity and making sure everyone feels comfortable in their environment. It's a great team to be part of.