“In social justice, there is no neutrality,” affirms Dr. Kristina Ruiz-Mesa, Associate Professor and Graduate Director of Fairfield University’s Department of Communication. Freshly hired by the university this past semester, Dr. Ruiz-Mesa has already transformed its graduate program while teaching what she deems as “upper-level classes on identity.” Her work and research hold a strong focus on navigating organizational communication through inclusion and diversity.

On Monday, Feb. 5, Dr. Ruiz-Mesa delivered a keynote address at this year’s Annual Faculty Spotlight as its inaugural speaker. As a new faculty member, Dr. Ruiz-Mesa confirmed the honor that was being selected. Using her time, she informed her audience of students and faculty on the significance of achieving diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) on not just Fairfield’s campus but on campuses nationwide.

“We need to be really clear about what diversity is, what equity is, what inclusion is,” Dr. Ruiz-Mesa declared regarding organizational and communication scholars. “We need to be able to talk about these in a really comfortable way.”

The featured speaker began her discussion with a necessary distinction between the elements of DEI. While she nodded to models frequently used, such as the “sitting at the table” notion, she believes a stronger example stems from an image of a unicorn cupcake. 

Dr. Ruiz-Mesa highlighted the common knowledge that the ingredients of a cake all come from different places and provide different flavors; this concept can be seen as diversity. All of these ingredients require different amounts to build a cohesive cake; this concept can be seen as equity. Despite these differences, all of these ingredients must be mixed in together to serve their separate roles – a concept viewed as inclusion. 

While she used additional models and examples to serve her point, her overarching message described the importance of embracing these elements to expand our networks and eradicate tokenism: the idea that people serve as representations of ideas and, as a Latina woman, something she has experienced herself. 

Earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Communication at Villanova University, Dr. Ruiz-Mesa has always been fascinated with the ways people hold conversations. She grew up admiring how people built relationships and often studied movies to watch how these dynamics formed. Her favorite, she affirmed, is “My Girl.”

Through five transformative undergraduate internships, Dr. Ruiz-Mesa bounced from NBC10, to Ford Motor Company, to working with her state Senator – but never quite finding her professional home. It was not until she landed at the Philadelphia Zoo teaching in the animal house did she realize her true calling.

“I loved teaching about preservation,” she said about how one’s actions matter in helping others. From here, she gives credit to Dr. Terry Nance for convincing her to join Villanova’s graduate program in Multicultural Affairs as their first student. Dr. Ruiz-Mesa received a stipend to participate in the program, but the professional revelation it gave her surpassed any funds.

“This is it. This is what I love,” Dr. Ruiz-Mesa recalled. “I am best when I am teaching.”

Dr. Ruiz-Mesa’s passion for educating was in clear sight during her Faculty Spotlight address. Like a classroom, she posed knowledge-based questions about her subject to her student attendees and channeled her typical conversational atmosphere through sincerity and casual jokes.

In line with her success as an educator, Professor and Chair of Communication Dr. Sean Horan distinguished Dr. Ruiz-Mesa as a top competitive candidate during her own hiring process.

“She is the total package: an accomplished researcher, a talented and engaging teacher and someone who is deeply committed to Fairfield’s mission,” he expressed. “On top of that, she fits the collaborative, respectful and friendly organizational culture that is the norm among Department of Communication colleagues.”

A vast portion of Dr. Ruiz-Mesa’s speech emphasized the power presented by communication. She reminded her audience that communication equates to how organizations represent themselves and discussed the concept of communication policies and practices.

“How we name things, how we frame them, is going to change how we expect them to be,” she said. Further, she explained how this notion of organizational communication fits into DEI. “Communication is not one size fits all,” she continued. “When I think of my communication, I have to think about my audience, I have to put myself in my audience’s shoes.”

Dr. Ruiz-Mesa went on to say that the more perspectives she hears and the more experiences she gains, the more equipped she becomes to handle DEI-related topics and discussions. Although her following point acknowledged the discomfort that these conversations bring to a majority of people, she challenged that perspective with the thought that no one is born having these conversations- no one, not even Dr Ruiz-Mesa herself. “I had to learn. I had to read,” she shared. Late nights and early mornings in the library defined her college experience; she is “so glad” they did.

According to the scholar, communication is not only power but something we all must utilize with thought. “Once it’s out there, there is little you can do to take it back,” she advised. “With a single word, you can make or break a relationship.”

Communication, however, extends far beyond managing interpersonal relationships. In the nature of DEI, communication allows all voices to be heard. In order for an organization to correctly claim its value of “inclusive excellence,” for example, it must be “holistically excellent:” meaning, it incorporates a variety of ideas, perspectives and people. 

The Jesuit values of Fairfield University align with social justice and thus DEI. A lover of Catholic social teaching and its preferential treatment for the poor, Dr. Ruiz-Mesa includes this type of teaching within her classrooms and attributes Jesuit values with attracting her to a private institution.

“Social justice is why I do this kind of work,” she said. 

In part, her lecture was a question for all communication scholars in the room to ponder how they are fulfilling their part in the strive for social justice. Her presentation was a call to, or challenge for, them to take initiative. 

“Every day we have the opportunity to engage in conversations,” the speaker announced with urgency. “Think about the power of those [words].”

Dr. Ruiz-Mesa believes an incredible step for Fairfield University in terms of social justice was hiring its first Chief Diversity Officer this year. This move ultimately confirmed her decision to come to Fairfield; its recognition of the need to guide the campus was “huge for her.”

Chief Diversity Officers are typically chosen from communication professors because, according to Dr. Ruiz-Mesa, they already know how to discuss those particular topics. Again, she explained that talking about DEI will vary by audience and that how those messages are framed has a profound effect on how they are delivered. 

Professor of Communication Dr. Michael Pagano agrees that Dr. Ruiz-Mesa’s work on organizational DEI deserves critical attention. Furthermore, he applauds the professor for her admirable work at Fairfield.

“We are so grateful that Dr. Ruiz-Mesa chose to join our Communication Department,” he said, “and we hope that she will be able to work across the Fairfield University community to help the organization attain its stated social justice and DEI goals and values.” 

  Throughout her time as the Graduate Director of the Department of Communication, Dr. Ruiz-Mesa has transformed the program from on-campus, hybrid and face-to-face to entirely online. This transition, she believes, has really helped the graduate program to grow. 

Something she is particularly interested in improving, however, is the development of Bellarmine Campus.

“Fairfield has a lot of opportunities to continue to live our values,” stated Dr. Ruiz-Mesa. “Bellarmine is an incredible way for us to really lean into our social justice practices and to recognize the value of having a diverse, inclusive campus.” 

During her address, the Graduate Director noted that 80 percent of Fairfield undergraduates are white. Being so, she reported a necessity to expand our networks and think about how we are engaging with individuals and how our messages are hitting. 

From her talk, she further hoped that students realize the true power and influence of their words. 

“How [students] interact with the world matters,” she declared strongly. “They have a powerful position in society to influence others,” and added that power is especially tied to their actions.

Personally, her talk forced her to think about how she could utilize her research specifically for Fairfield’s campus. She advised those with authority to express inclusion and to use their power to invite diverse voices. She advised students to use social media and television shows to follow DEI creators and initiate meaningful conversations.

Yet, at the heart of it all, she concluded, is kindness. 

Dr. Ruiz-Mesa deems herself spoiled from a first semester of focused and open-minded students. “I really care about being a good teacher, and that for me is really important,” she confided. “I love connecting with students.”

Of all the work she has accomplished, from published books to DEI research to establishing the St. Thomas of Villanova Scholars pre-college bridge program, her major message to students is to make the change they hope to see. To the people who complain that “society is not doing well,” she responds: 

“We are society. We get to dictate how we communicate … the kind of energy we want to bring into a space … model what we want, not mirror the chaos around us.”

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