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James Francois: Promoting the strength of diversity

Director James Francois helps support students at the Office of Multicultural Programs and Services. Emory Photo/Video.

It's Friday afternoon, and Emory's Office of Multicultural Programs and Services (OMPS) pulses with the crowded, happy chaos of students — laughing, chatting and devouring pizza, with an impromptu freestyle poetry jam thrown in for good measure.  

New OMPS Director James Francois studies the vibrant scene — there isn't an empty seat to be had — with a look of contentment. In many ways, the sheer volume of student engagement is the sound of success.  

This fall, Francois advanced from his former position as OMPS associate director to succeed longtime director Donna Wong, who has retired.  Under his guidance, the office strives to build an inclusive, equitable, culturally competent community that empowers students to succeed.  

For Francois, who was born in Haiti, this marks a year of big changes. Not only does he take on a new role at Emory, he and his wife, Gizelle, recently welcomed the arrival of their first child, a daughter. Already, he laughs, students are volunteering to babysit.  

As the University community celebrates Unity Month during November, Emory Report sat down with Francois to talk about his vision for the office:  

So what's going on here in your office this afternoon?

We call it Freestyle Fridays  — my staff and I always get on our students about not taking enough time to just be students. Academics at Emory are extremely intense, and as a result, our students can be extremely intense. Sometimes, there's a lack of balance between the academics and everything else. So when they come into this space, we challenge them — encourage them — to break from everything, even if it's just for 15 minutes.  

How does an event like this help you achieve your goals?  

I love the amount of interaction I have with the students because it not only allows me to be a better administrator, it allows our office to truly support and help them maximize their experience at Emory. And I think it also helps me to be a better man by having the opportunity to really see some of the challenges our young people are experiencing and share some of their successes.  

How were you drawn to working with students?  

Actually, my first love was architecture. After my sophomore year of high school, one of my teachers encouraged me to do an internship where I had an opportunity to work with a children's psychiatric ward, and I fell in love with the kids. From there, I changed my focus. I wanted to be a child psychiatrist.  

I went to Northeastern University in Boston for an undergraduate degree in psychology and a master's in public administration. I moved to Atlanta after graduate school to work in youth development for Refugee Family Services in Clarkston, eventually working with three or four different nonprofits. From there, I found my way to Oxford College, where I was the assistant director of residential education and services (for four years).

What is your vision for your new role as OMPS director? What do you hope to achieve?  

My job is to be the face of the office, to build community across departments, to build community even outside of Emory, because I think we have a responsibility to our neighbors in the metro Atlanta area. I also have to set the right vision for this office, so it can continue to grow and live up to its mission. I have a huge responsibility towards students, but also to make sure my staff grows professionally. And to create an environment where people are not afraid to disagree or afraid ask questions.  

My goal is to continue to build human capital. This role is definitely giving me an opportunity to do so.  

What kinds of issues and challenges do you address?

Our office is truly a reflection of the diversity on campus. I think one of the challenges students face is learning how to find the proper support. Because at Emory, our students are so brilliant, a lot of them arrive with the mindset that they need to figure things out on their own. We stress that it's okay to ask for help. We see it a lot in our underrepresented students — some of them feel that if they admit they don't know something, folks will say they didn't deserve to get in. So there's a sense of pride from being here, but that pride can sometimes keep them from being successful.  

The other challenge our students face is a sense of belonging. They feel our campus is extremely diverse, but that folks stay in their own little niche based on their affiliations and identities. So for some of our students, it's finding that space they can truly call “home.”  

What are students looking for when they come to your office?

They're looking for diversity, to meet new people, learn new things. I think it's extremely important for students to be exposed to this type of environment, because a good number of our students do study abroad. That's why I say our office is not just here for underrepresented students. Yes, we came into existence in 1979 to support black students, because at that point Emory was about 95 percent Caucasian. But as the diversity of the University has changed, our office has changed.  

When majority students feel our office isn't for them, I like to challenge them. We can grow and learn from each other.    

What are your interests outside the office?  

I'm a home and garden television junkie. Because I used to want to be an architect, I spend a lot of time watching DIY and HGTV. On the weekends, I love to do yard work. That's my stress relief. My neighbors probably think I'm crazy, because I'm out there every weekend, regardless of the weather.

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