Ten Questions with Chaplain Alex Hernandez-Siegel

“I want to be part of students’ lives that they take with them even after they graduate,” says Chaplain and Associate Dean of Students Alex Hernandez-Siegel, “that’s why I got into higher education.” After over two decades in higher education, with the past seven with roles in both the administration and chaplaincy, our newest chaplain discusses his experiences in academia, his relationship with his faith, and how we can strengthen our own community.

With his transition into the small, centralized environment of Colorado College, Hernandez-Siegel hopes to create connections of empathy and mutual understanding within our college and greater world.  After two months, Hernandez-Siegel has found himself in a place that “just feels right.”

Photo by Daniel Sarché

The Catalyst: What is the intersection between your role as Associate Dean of Students and College Chaplain? Have you found yourself to be more or less accessible to students thus far given these two positions?

Alex Hernandez-Siegel: To answer the second part of your question, I don’t think accessibility is an issue at all. I found the title [of Associate Dean of Students and Chaplain] interesting because when I got the notice from the recruiter, I was thinking, “that’s really unique.” Because usually you have a chaplain and dean of religious life or something.  I hadn’t seen an Associate Dean of Students and a Chaplain, and how those two things work out, and I had a lot of questions about that, like ‘how do students view you?’ And the structure is really viewed as a chaplain, but the Associate Dean of Students part is thinking beyond the chaplaincy, about issues, about student wellness, inclusion, and also thinking about student safety as well, and overall college student development. I think the brilliant part about this is a holistic view of student life that’s one of support, but also you are still the guidance and provide the structure of a college dean. So when they did that I thought it was really exceptional and brilliant.

No one calls me “Dean Alex.” Some people call me Chaplain Alex, but the role really is one of the chaplaincy, one that leads this organization and helps intersect different aspects of college life with the chapel, and I think it’s a unique blending. But, to answer your question, I don’t think it’s one that’s hindered my ability to connect with students. I think still being new is a little, not awkward, but maybe difficult to understand how you run things and who you are as an administrator. But I’m very open and accessible, and I try to greet everything with a warm smile, even if things may be challenging.

TC: What are the parameters of your administrative role here given that chaplains are considered a confidential resource?

AHS: Yes, definitely. Yes. I had questions on how we work with things like the Clery Act for reporting crimes on campus, but like a counselor, the counseling services or any minister here, if they [or I] hear any student is planning to harm themselves or other people, like if you’re planning to bomb your residence hall for fun, you know, obviously it’s not confidential; we are caring for somebody else’s life and the people around them. But apart from that, everything is confidential. Say a student has been stealing bicycles, I wouldn’t turn that student in, but I would say to the student “maybe you want to turn yourself in,” and “why are you doing this? What are the deeper issues here?” Just like a pastor or minister, it’s confidential, but again – with the exception that they’re going to harm themselves or someone else – that’s the only exception. For the college, I am a confidential resource. Dean Edmonds and I have had that conversation.

TC: Has there ever been a time where you have questioned or become discouraged by religion or spirituality in any way? If so, how did you then reaffirm that for yourself?

AHS: Well, I think everyone questions their faith, often. I think it’s really healthy and important. It does make you stronger in that faith. It’s a huge part of the human experience to exercise and question things around you. I think Dostoyevsky was right, that we’re all a struggle of forces between good and evil. Life is a journey, and if everything was so wonderful and healthy and happy, would there be the need for a guidance to get us through this? I think sometimes I struggled in trying to find my niche within the Mennonite community. I am from Pennsylvania, [a state] with strong gender roles where people didn’t always work together. I think there was a fear of the outside world, but I think you have to remember religious organizations are also human constructed, and I think faith is really a personal journey and how you form it is for yourself. I see Christians saying they’re against people of other backgrounds—for reasons beyond me—but they call themselves Christians.

To me, religion is really expressing love and compassion and again finding the common goals with other groups, because I really believe in the truth. I think my discouragement comes from the fallacy of human ignorance and fear amongst these religious organizations. But my goal is really to emphasize that it’s really okay to question religious faith and organizations. That’s how we become stronger within them. But also be mindful of the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Buddha, Mohammed. I do sermons, I do benedictions. I say, “Creator that we know by many names” to emphasize that we define a path for ourselves that defines who we are, what our communities are. But I think we all do, but I’ve never strayed away entirely. You’re just finding your niche and that’s more important than anything.

TC: In the wake of current events of both natural disaster and violence in our country and world these past few weeks, how do you believe we can encourage peace and camaraderie on our small scale of a campus?

AHS: I think people often come to me when these things happen, especially under the [circumstances of] the shootings that happened in Las Vegas or Orlando or Paris. As I mentioned in the email, why is it important for us to focus on the things we do every day? Like our studies, going to that club, for example. It’s more important than ever because when these things happen, especially when we talk about climate change and working with politics and that kind of thing, I think it’s important to continue on the paths that we have, because that really enforces positive action, which is done through the liberal arts, though working together. But I think especially when we’re trying to find answers that don’t have easy answers, we have to understand that we try to comfort each other with things that empower our human spirits.

There will be another shooting, there will be another earthquake, this emphasizes the imperfection of the world and makes us ask, what do we really attach ourselves to that do provide meaning for us and remind us that our lives and our communities are meant to be enjoyed? When these things happen, how do we counteract that by positive human action? Because especially, I feel the current generation needs to emphasize that there is hope out there.

I have three Spiral Fellows who are working with a family right now in fear of being deported, and they are making such positive change in the world. That’s the answer to your question. There are good things happening out there, we just have to emphasize them and counteract with the evil that’s happened.

TC: How has your identity as a Mennonite influenced your goals as a chaplain and administrator, both elsewhere and now at CC?

AHS: I love that question. The search committee asked me those questions, and I’m glad they did, because so much work of the Mennonites has to do with their actions versus their words. For example, Mennonite Disaster Service was one of the first groups to land in Puerto Rico for hurricane relief. They just go, they’re not preaching proverbs or Isaiah or Psalms; they’re really just doing the work. Really showing that our faith is also a practice.

So in terms of my Mennonite background and my approach to match it with the college is one about emphasizing growth of community and supporting that community, helping marginalized populations, really emphasizing a life of voluntary service. And Mennonites are called Anabaptists, along with the Amish, which is really committing to something upon confession of faith. You’re baptized when you’re older, as opposed to the Catholic Church when you’re a baby. And I think it fits in well here because I want people to make informed decisions about the commitments they make. Not just in terms of issues of faith and religion, but also the things that are important to them, that they’ve thought about it, they’ve really sought wisdom from a multitude of counselors and gotten their advice, knowing ‘this is what I’m about, and this is what I’m connected to.’

But Mennonites are very much about sustainability, protecting the earth, making more by using less – we even have a cookbook with that name – and really emphasizing multiculturalism and using that approach to leadership and togetherness. That’s just one way of doing things, but there’s many ways of examining ways to emphasize communication and community growth, whether we learn that from here, Canada, the Congo, or the Phillipines, and I’ve always respected that. There’s a simplicity to how we approach things, and we don’t do things by rankings or stratification. We do things as a team based on what every individual team member can contribute. So that’s the Mennonite piece that fits in very well here.

TC: When Kate returns as Assistant Chaplain, how do you plan to share responsibilities and work together to provide student services?

AHS: Kate offers a very strong history of the chaplaincy. She’s been here for over a decade. So in terms of working with Kate, I’m noticing my role here is one to be working closely with students, but also moving the engine forward in terms of where we’re going from here, and I’m emphasizing collaboration, religious pluralism, and helping students explore what faith means to them.

Kate is excellent in terms of working with meditation and practices. She also has a strong connection with faith leaders in the community. Something I really want to do is connect this chapel in a formal way with a group of faith leaders and how we could support them and how we could support the students here. For example, if there’s an incident – let’s say the Jewish synagogue in the city, there’s swastikas painted – how can this group come together to support the Jewish community? Or something happens to the Muslim community, how can we come together to support them as well as the students here? I think it’s a good model of how we can teach students to work together, even if we come from different backgrounds and different perspectives. How do we emphasize our common goals, versus our differences?

So that’s where Kate would really come in, especially. She really has connected with students in helping them explore different ideas, so I think we complement each other well in terms of the administrator in me, and the dean in me is minding the structure, but I also need people on the ground and working in a qualitative way with the students. And I wouldn’t just say that for Kate. I would say that for all the staff: from Kobi, from [the visiting] chaplain Nori, and Brandy, our office manager. I’m emphasizing a team effort here, that each of us have our individual talents in our corners, and how do we come together to find a really strong holistic whole.

TC: At what point in your life did you realize you wanted to integrate religion and spirituality into your career path?

AHS: It started a little bit at Dartmouth because I was an advisor to an Asian-American Christian group, but that was the extent of it. But I think especially moving to New England where the Mennonite congregations are much more liberal and much more engaging and multicultural – I mean, the ones in Pennsylvania are too – but there’s more of a grassroots liberalism about the Mennonites I knew in New England and here. I think integrating all of this really happened more at Harvard, because when I was asked by the Mennonite congregation of Boston to fill this role for them, I really just grew into the role and enjoyed seeing the connection between student life and working as a chaplain, and I think for many years people just thought chaplains were focused solely on religion and faith, but really it’s about emphasizing the identity molecule in all students, whether it’s any of the different pieces through which you interact: your race, ethnicity, gender. But how do we engage liberation theology and help people to strengthen the other areas of their identity? So I think that time at Harvard did it, and religious pluralism research called Pluralism Project […] that I really started connecting these with my degree in anthropology. We really have to expand the term “applied anthropology” and how we take away what we know about cultures and our society and how we can use it in a way in education to promote student well-being and their learning.

TC: What are you most proud of accomplishing or setting the foundation for since assuming your new position two months ago?

AHS: It’s hard to say in the first two months. I am really in the period of assessing things we want to continue and things we maybe should retire and put something else in their place. I think what I’m especially proud of is I’m really fond of my colleagues here and how they’ve been really good about understanding how our collaboration will work in terms of a broader educational context. I think right now I’m proud of that we’ve got the engine running again, because there’s been a lot of transition in the chaplaincy.

I’m really proud that at least we’ve been moving forward with community groups. Students are starting to come in more, Shove Council has had really good numbers. Shabbat, I’ve noticed when I attended the three times, is overflow, so I’m especially proud that we’re doing more advertising. Social media is active again, but I’m also really proud that we are able to interact with students that are really good about being good partners with us in terms of things that haven’t been as popular, like meditation that Aaron [Farquar],  one of our Spiral Fellows is running Mondays and Thursdays at 8:15 a.m. We’re getting the numbers. We’re offering other programs during the rest of the week, doing mindfulness training with the staff in the library, so I’m proud we’re thinking— I would say outside of the box—creatively.

We’re looking at things that are going to benefit the foundation of the community, but there’s a great openness in exploring new avenues. Pluralism is really where we’re taking the chaplaincy in the 21st century. And that seems to be something that’s accepted and honored. I think I’m just proud of being here.

TC: What were your first impressions of religious and spiritual life in Colorado Springs as a city?

AHS: Well, you always have the stereotypes. I have family from Boulder, and that’s all I was familiar with Colorado. The rumors I was hearing was that it was a very conservative place. It’s going to a place very different than Cambridge, Mass. I pictured a lot of military, a lot of evangelicals, very conservative. I have found it to be a mix of the two now, especially downtown, around the college, on the west side. I joke there’s elements of a Berkeley, elements of a Cambridge, and people ask me if it was a big adjustment, no. It reminds me of a mix of New Mexico, California, and a little bit of Vermont with the flannel and the sandals. And that’s comforting, since I spent so much time in northern New England. But I think that’s really a good mix to have. I think if you’re constantly in your own bubble – and CC can be like that – everyone is going to be very liberal, Democrat, love Elizabeth Warren, for example. But I think it’s good to have a mix of opinions. I think you don’t grow without that, so I think my impressions were based on what people had told me, but now that I’m here I’m seeing it’s a bit of both and a lot can change because we have stronger conversations examining those differences. So, I’ve been very happy to be here.

TC: In what ways do you feel you personally can affect CC’s campus and community this year?

AHS: I’m very student-focused and students are priority, and I think what I like about the culture here is that it meets my philosophy on how we work with students. I think my biggest impact here will be forming a new chapter in terms of the chaplaincy and really seeing where we can go from here, but the fact of seeing where we can go with the culture making the impact, it’s really emphasizing a chaplaincy that emphasizes learning, community growth, and I really want to emphasize opening Shove Chapel [and] the Chaplain’s Office to areas of the campus who felt maybe that this wasn’t necessarily a space for them. And I’m not sure why, but I want this to be an inclusive environment, one that is holistic in terms of its thinking, but in terms of my own impact, I emphasize very much the counseling piece and bringing out the anthropologist in everyone here. Especially as we explore each other’s lives, each other’s cultures, I want students to know that they don’t just learn in the classroom; they learn from each other. This is a place for exploration and one for history, because when they’re alums, I want them to come back and have very fond memories of the college and this space. So, in terms of my impact, I want to be everywhere at once.

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