60 for 60: As first male Latinx vice president, Dones brings focus on equity, access, and ‘opportunity to serve any individual’

headshot of abe smilingIn celebration of Durham Technical Community College’s 60th anniversary, the College is publishing 60 for 60 – a storytelling campaign that highlights the people, places, and events that have progressed and shaped the College’s six decades of impact. The following story has been republished in its entirety. To view more 60 for 60 stories, visit www.durhamtech.edu/60for60

Abraham Dones came home from school one day in the seventh grade and found the dinner table set with food, but the house was eerily quiet. His mother was nowhere to be found. He checked all the rooms in the house before finding her sitting in front of a typewriter in the corner of the back bedroom – she was studying.

His mother had just enrolled as a student at the Community College of Philadelphia to pursue a degree in education.

“I didn’t understand back then. I said, ‘What are you doing? Why aren’t you at dinner?’ Sometimes I wouldn’t see her until the next morning when I was getting ready for school. That’s how committed she was,” Dones said. “I think I get that from her, the yearning to become educated. She always told me, ‘Abraham, pursue your education. It will open doors and opportunities for you.’”

She was right.

Last month, Dones was named Vice President and Chief Student Services Officer at Durham Tech – making him the first male Latinx vice president at the College.

“This brings it all home for me,” he said. “My affinity for education is indebted to my mother. I saw how she impacted people in our community and I think that carries on for me.”

Rich in culture

Dones’ grandparents were born in Puerto Rico and migrated the family to New York for better work opportunities. They later settled in Philadelphia. Though far from home, the Puerto Rican culture was alive and well in the Dones home.

“Mom and dad were instrumental in making sure we understood who we were, where we came from, and the world they navigated. They never let go of their culture throughout migration,” he said. “At home, we only spoke Spanish, ate traditional Puerto Rican cuisine, shopped at supermarkets that catered to the Puerto Rican community, and I attended a bilingual elementary school. All of these things helped me understand the richness of who I am.”

Growing up, Dones wanted to be an engineer.

“I was always in the books and studying. Everyone encouraged me to pursue engineering and then I had an opportunity to attend a STEM-centered magnet school,” he said.

Dones later earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of Pittsburgh, but wasn’t sure where to go from there.

“I graduated but I wasn’t networked enough,” he said. “I didn’t take advantage of resources like career services or understand how to network with classmates. I just didn’t understand how to maximize the opportunity.”

Two people standing and smiling, one has cap and gown in hand
Dones (left) and his mom, Miriam, celebrating her college graduation in 1988.
After his father fell ill, Dones moved back home to Philadelphia and accepted a teaching position as an emergency certified bilingual math high school teacher.

“This was the open door for me to go into education and where I learned my love for education,” he said.

He taught for three years before deciding to explore his engineering degree. Dones accepted a position as an I.T. Programmer Analyst at Drexel University.

“One day my supervisor approached me and said, ‘I love the work you do, but I don’t see you in a technical field. You have the skillset of working with people and I see you as an educator,’” he said.

Dones took her advice.

As an employee of Drexel University, he had the opportunity to earn his master’s degree at no cost so he earned a master’s in Higher Education Administration.

‘Representation has an impact’

Dones and his wife were vacationing in North Carolina in 2008 to visit her family and often talked about relocating to the area. During one of their visits, his wife, Toya, saw a job opening with the Wake County School System and decided to apply.

She received a job offer before they left to go back home.

Dones moved to Raleigh 10 months later, after completing his master’s degree, and soon received a job offer from North Carolina State University as their Assistant Director for Native American and Hispanic Student Affairs – his first leadership role in higher education.

“That position was extremely humbling because I was going to be able to support students who I could identify with culturally, ethnically, and racially. For me, one of the things I have yearned for all my life in education was to have an experience of someone in front of the classroom that represented me, but I never had a professor or teacher that identified as a Latino Puerto Rican male,” he said.“Representation has an impact. I was humbled because I was now serving in a role that I had yearned to experience.”

Dones worked at NC State for nearly six years when his former colleague, K. Leigh Forell, told him about an academic advisor position at Durham Tech where she worked as the Assistant Dean of Admissions. Dones started working at Durham Tech in 2015 and just a few months into the job, Forell relocated to another state and encouraged him to apply for the Assistant Dean position. He served in that role for nearly six years.

“I’ve had the opportunity work in K-12 system, a continuing education arena, a four-year university, and now Durham Tech. The community college student is so unique because of the access we provide at the very foundation of who we are,” he said. “When I think of the diverse student population we serve, and each student having unique needs, each student setting their own specific goals, I think there’s no other place than I was destined to be than at a community college.”

Durham Tech President J.B. Buxton said Dones stood out in the field of applicants for this position.

“In a search where we were looking for a leader who could build on the College’s long-time commitment to student supports and foster innovative new approaches, Abe Dones stood out in the field,” said Durham Tech President J.B. Buxton in an announcement. “He has been instrumental in advancing key student supports, including the development and implementation of the Student Resources Center, the success coach model, and new efforts to attract and support adult learners.”

Dones said he looks forward to making a lasting impact in this new role.

“When you think about the capacity to have impact, this position will not only transform the lives of the students we serve here, but it will transcend to those students’ families and communities,” he said. “When I reflect on my mother’s experience as an adult learner, I think this was destined. I really appreciate how we’re designed as an institution. It’s the opportunity to serve any individual who walks through our doors or comes through our processes. Those are the things that drive my passion, my desire to serve in this capacity, and the ability to impact community, and create holistic support services for our students.”

Dones said he is also grateful for the opportunity to make an impact on the Latinx community.

“In North Carolina, the Latinx student population continues to grow, but research is also informing us that a large majority of our Latinx students are in the community college system, so how are we equipping our colleges to ensure that representation is afforded to our students, as much for the Latinx student as everybody else?” he said. “If we created that level of diversity, and that exposure for all of our students then we can better understand each other, and better shift the dynamics of our nation and conversation around racial and social justice equities.”

Dones is also pursing a doctorate degree from NC State University in Community College Leadership. He anticipates completing the program this summer.

Fostering purpose

Dones is as passionate about children as he is education. While living in Philadelphia, he was a foster parent to two teens and in North Carolina he has fostered several children, two of which who are forever family through adoption.

“Even before I was married, I always knew I wanted to be foster dad. The love my mother had for children carried over. I have a deep love for children and ensuring a child’s safety,” he said. “Kids are such a blessing to us because they teach us about who we really are. It’s our way of learning. When you can bring someone into your heart and love them like they’re your own, it’s something unique and wish everyone could experience.”

Dones lives in Holly Springs with his wife and children.
Contact Marcy Gardner, Content and Social Media Coordinator at gardnerm@durhamtech.edu