Monthly Archives: September 2021

All My Sisters and Me

In March 1992, my Black sisters and I were in San Antonio attending the annual conference of a professional women’s organization. Historically, the organization’s membership had been virtually all White, except for a couple of notable Black women who were the best in their field. By 1992, our coterie of Black sisters had increased to a small minority with some status.

During a free afternoon, five of my sisters and I decided to shop for pottery and jewelry while enjoying the sights along the River Walk. 

Not too far from the hotel, we encountered an Asian American colleague who was usually in solidarity with us because the same issues and concerns Black members raised also plagued other nonmajority members. The number of Asian American and Pacific Islander women in this organization could be counted on one hand.

My sisters and I greeted our colleague warmly and we embraced all around. A fellow member of the program committee, I asked if she knew what time the meeting was that evening. Expressing dismay that I didn’t get the notice, she let me know it was to be at 7:30 p.m. After more hugs, she moved on. 

Now knowing the time of the committee meeting, I suggested to my sisters that we get something to eat while we were out during the afternoon so I could eat with them.

We continued to meander down the River Walk, stopping to look in shops along the way. In one of the shops, “Diva” expresses great admiration and interest in a lovely bracelet. I encouraged her to buy it, going so far as to ask the clerk if he would give her a discount because she really liked the bracelet. He agreed to give the discount and she bought the bracelet. I felt happy for her, and I’m sure I beamed with satisfaction.

As we continued our shopping, it seemed that Diva was determined that I also buy something, no matter what it was. Eventually, I became annoyed. My motive in encouraging her to buy came from a good place. I did not feel that her motive was the same.   

Sometime after I had suggested that we eat while we were out, a couple of my sisters began making comments such as, “Gwen is hungry, so we better get something to eat.” I was accustomed to the teasing, so their comments didn’t bother me.

We chose a Thai restaurant. During the latter part of what was an amiable dinner, Diva, who was new in the organization, apparently feeling comfortable with us, said that she felt unwelcome when she first joined, feeling that the organization was “cliquish.”

“Elegant “responded in a friendly tone, “I was friendly with you.” I followed up her comment with, “I also befriended you. Do you remember that I invited you to lunch?”

Diva responded in a less than friendly tone, “Yeah, but that was business.”

Taken aback, I mused, “I thought I was being friendly; how did you get the idea that it was business?”

Two of my sisters said nothing and just stared as “Admiral” and Elegant tried to convince Diva that things were not as she perceived them. When I sensed that Diva felt strongly about her initial feelings and seemed to want to be able to express them and be heard, I wanted us to empathize with her and give her experience the respect it deserved.

Sage that I must have thought I was, I said, “You know, Diva, you really might have felt a chilliness toward you because it’s not uncommon for people as strikingly attractive as you are to cause some people, perhaps unconsciously, to wait and see before they extend a welcome and acceptance.”

Diva’s lips turned down and her eyes seemed to float out of their sockets as she responded, “Yes! I’ve experienced this before, and I think people who put themselves up as important and as ‘sisters’ are just hypocrites because they usually do this kind of thing.”

I had apparently touched a nerve. I tried to close this box of snakes that I had opened, saying, “People are human, and this can be a natural and unconscious reaction….,” but Admiral cut me off, declaring, “This is not true in this group. Maybe when males are in the group, the competition is there but not in this group of women professionals.”

The mood definitely changed, and I could smell the stink of anger in the air. 

When we are outside the restaurant, Admiral got in my face, saying, “Gwen, I can’t believe you said that!” “How can you think that?” I’m a part of this organization and I know this is not true.”

I felt apologetic and tried to explain that I was just trying to make Diva feel better. Admiral cut her eyes away from me and walked ahead with Elegant. From their postures and movements, I gathered that they were talking about me and rejecting me for my comment.

In the meantime, Diva fell in step with me, saying, “I believe what you said, and I want to talk with you further about this.” Not wanting to keep this line of conversation going, I escaped from Diva and began walking in step with the silent sisters. Diva kept talking with anyone who came near her. My other four sisters got very interested in the pottery we passed along the way, ignoring what Diva was saying.

I deliberately walked next to Admiral and said, “I know you want to kill me for making that comment, but when you think about human behavior, what I said could be a possible motive for the chilliness that Diva felt. Jealousy and envy are real.”

“I’m not going to kill you,” responded Admiral, “but you have so much going for you—you have this nice little shape, shapely legs…. You don’t have any reason to feel as you do.”

“I’m not feeling that way!” I protested. “I’m speaking generally!”

Admiral ignored my comment and told me that I wouldn’t be late for my meeting because we’re only a couple of blocks away. I had no idea how to get back, and told her so, but she only said, “It’s easy,” and turned away. 

No one said goodbye to me. With a sigh of exasperation, I began my search for the right direction to return to the hotel for the 7:30 p.m. program committee meeting.

Reflections on Possible Pandemic Harbingers

Although I received my COVID vaccination in March 2021, I have continued to shelter-in-place except for a road trip with family to California in mid-June. Optimistically, I set July 1, 2021, as the date on which I would brave the new world and get outside of this personal bubble that has been in place since March 2020.

Like many others, during my time staying at home I adapted to doing essential shopping online. However, I did not do what I consider elective shopping online. I saved that for the time I would be free to shop in person. While sheltering, I made a list of all the things that I wanted to shop for when I could finally go out and feel relatively safe.

Beginning on July 1, I set out to get myself some “retail therapy.” From furniture to kitchen utensils to hair and skin products, I indulged my desire to shop and felt absolutely wonderful that, though masked, I could comfortably go into stores to browse and buy.

I think I’ve been coping well with the isolation but, while shopping, my feelings surprised me. It seemed to me that being around other people, in the flesh, triggered dormant emotions that I can only describe as a sense of being vitally alive! For example, though I think I’m usually polite to store employees, during these excursions, I was extra polite and friendly. My behavior was akin to how one might react when seeing friends after an extended period of time. My smile, though no one could see it, never wavered at annoyances that might have caused consternation in the past. It never faded, no matter what obstacles were thrown in my path that might hinder me from reaching my shopping goals.

Sadly, my euphoria was short-lived. With recommendations to continue wearing masks even when vaccinated, the apparent strength of the new virus variants, and breakthrough infections in vaccinated people, I am, once again out of an abundance of caution, only engaging outside my home when absolutely necessary.

While feeling pandemic whiplash like others, I’m preparing to make the best of resuming my digital life and will reignite my self-reflection and self-care.

Notwithstanding my mature attitude about being isolated, again, in some of my reflective moments, I wonder if those of us who shelter in place more vigilantly are being profoundly changed. Is our hypervigilance about avoiding being infected or infecting others making us less inclined to seek out opportunities to be physically present with others even when it will be safer to do so? Is our success in adapting to the requirements of this pandemic a harbinger of the crisis to come as we become less and less social beings? Are we getting more comfort and satisfaction from being alone with ourselves than we once experienced being with friends and family? Are we reveling in the utopia of isolation?

Or, is this pause in heretofore normal social contact allowing us to awaken to the joy, appreciation, and satisfaction of being in the same physical space with one another as sentient human beings?

We will have to wait and see.

After September 11, 2001

After September 11, 2001, everyone had a story about where they were, the efforts they made to get home, and what they did to connect with loved ones upon hearing the devastating news about the attacks made on American soil by foreign terrorists. The senseless tragedy was almost beyond comprehension.

After September 11, 2001, I witnessed a NASPA staff that was shaken but not defeated. Although there were a multitude of anxieties, such as fear of being in Washington, DC, doing work on Capitol Hill, taking the Metro to and from work, flying on behalf of NASPA, and even opening mail because of anthrax, staff members adapted and redoubled their efforts in support of student affairs professionals who were needed more than ever on their campuses.

After September 11, 2001, student affairs professionals served as navigators and provided safe harbors for all members of their campus communities. Using their skills of empathy, understanding, and knowledge of crisis intervention, they were the first responders for students, faculty, and staff. They did what they were trained to do and shared strategies with colleagues across the nation on how best to respond to these unprecedented times, and the increased needs of the student and campus community amidst fear, uncertainty, and a range of reactions, including the bizarre and self-destructive.

After September 11, 2001, NASPA leaders looked beyond the tragedies of the day and sought ways, where possible, to reduce risk on campuses and, unfortunately, to prepare for the aftermath of future senseless tragedies.

After September 11, 2001, what did NOT—and never should—go unnoticed is the commitment of student affairs professionals to working with campus communities to create a climate that promotes learning and a sense of security and belonging in the face of adversity.  

Mixed Emotions

Zaila Avant-garde holding national spelling bee trophy with confetti coming down

I wasn’t surprised by my mixed emotions, several weeks ago, when headline after headline and several television stations were hailing the accomplishments of Zaila Avant-garde, the first African American champion of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee. My feelings were complicated to say the least:

  • Elation for Zaila and her family and what this means for her future.
  • Collective pride, along with other Black Americans, that her hard work was rewarded.
  • Shame that the screaming headlines that highlighted the fact that Zaila is Black may cause some to draw the illogical conclusion that what Zaila did was extraordinary because Black Americans don’t usually have the intellectual capacity for such a feat.
  • Resentment that the United States is still recognizing “the first” among Black Americans.
  • Anger because “until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Black children were routinely banned from participating in spelling bees. All winners were White until Puerto Rican Hugh Tosteson Garcia was named champion in 1975.” (Shalini Shankar, “Zaila Avant-garde’s Spelling Bee win sends exuberant message,” Opinion, CNN online, July 9, 2021)
  • Disheartened that “Indian American winners who have steadily won since 1998 have endured a litany of racism on broadcast and social media for not being ‘American’—code for not being White. Seen by many as outsiders, and as part of communities subjected to waves of anti-Asian violence, they are left to make sense of negative reactions to their success in the form of calls for ‘real Americans’ to regain control of this contest.” (Shankar, “Zaila Avant-garde’s Spelling Bee”)

Despite my mixed emotions, I’m glad that Zaila received so much attention because her success will alert other families and their children that they, too, can have the kind of success that Zaila, the scholar-athlete, has achieved.

David Keymer on Student Affairs: Identifying Your Institutional Purpose

I recently had the opportunity to talk with David Keymer, who served as a chief student affairs officer at SUNY Utica Rome; California State University, Stanislaus; and Zayed University (Dubai and Abu Dhabi) from 1983-2004. This is the final installment in a seven-part series in which I shared some of the wisdom gleaned from David’s experience in student affairs across these varied institutions.

Different people have different strengths.  You need to look at the institution really hard and find what your own strengths are within that context. Figure out what the institution is for. And what your role is in that. And don’t forget that.

It doesn’t come from the mission statement and it doesn’t come from any of the “official language.” It’s more like Cardinal Newman’s idea of the university in an ethical framework. What kind of a universe is a university or a college? What is it there for? What does it do for our society? What does it do for the people who go through it? What does it do for the people who work there?

And you need to remember that it is a community. It may be dysfunctional at times but it’s a community. Communities are good. We live in communities. You need to make your community work.

If you can keep a clear focus on what’s important, you’ll avoid the trap of slipping into a kind of imperial boat mode: “This is our Student Affairs Empire. Don’t you touch it because we’re in a pond of our own.”

We’re not in separate ponds, we’re all in one big pond (that connects to the larger world in myriad ways). And if you think that way, you have a better chance of understanding the concerns of the other players, and what language they speak. That’s something you run across in higher education frequently: barriers that are there because we don’t learn how to talk to players in the other boats in our common pond.