Author Archives: gwendungy

A Helper’s FIRE

I’ve talked with people who after many years in a particular kind of work feel unsettled as if they are not doing the kind of work that fulfills their passion. Others I’ve had conversations with have changed the kind of work they do many times. They say that they get restless after the bloom of doing something different begins to fade.

Like those I’ve spoken with who wonder if there is something that they should be doing rather than what they are doing with their lives, I’ve had these thoughts. But for me, these thoughts have been fleeting. During my career journey, I took many of the assessments that purport to help career searchers begin to narrow their focus. Interpretations of my various assessment results showed a consistency in that whatever I chose for a career, I would be a “helper.”

I defined being a helper as someone who would provide support to others in reaching their goals and human potential. The question for me was how this might be realized in a specific career. Coming of age in the 1960s, I didn’t believe that the universe of options was open to me. Going into the medical field was my teenage dream. However, the reality of my financial situation made that dream unrealistic as a goal.

Being a teacher was one way that I could become a helper. However, it was a choice for which I settled rather than one for which I had a strong inclination. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was during these years that I thought I was settling that I found my passion. Teaching helped me realize that young people found it easy to relate to me and sought my counsel beyond the classroom. During these one-to-one sessions with students, I learned that many of them worked to the level that was expected of them rather than to the level of what they were capable of doing. They had more potential than they realized. Helping these students see beyond their current circumscribed existence brought me joy.

My sense of satisfaction in these relationships with students and their positive response to me confirmed for me that I was in the right place. Attaining a degree in counseling, I was prepared to be a helper. I found real congruence between who I imagined myself to be and who I could be in my career as a mental health and career counselor.

Even at this early stage of my journey, my touchstones of FIRE were part of my inner process:

I accepted the situation that I was in (fate).

I believed that I would be led to the right outcome (faith).

I focused on living a life infused with integrity.

I took initiative to get the required credentials to do what I wanted to do.

I was constantly reflecting on circumstances in a manner that I could glean lessons from my experiences.

I always tried to respect those with whom I interacted regardless of age and position.

I applied energy to achieve career goals and to carry out my responsibilities as a spouse and parent.  

I freely expressed empathy for others, and I allowed myself empathy when it seemed that I had lost my way.

My hopeful wish for young professionals is that you will find the path that will lead you to your place of passion and fulfillment in your professional and personal life.

Student Affairs and Social Change

When I was new to student affairs, one characteristic that my colleagues and I had in common was our background as student activists. With such a background, we understood the impatience of our students who wanted social change now and not later. As students learn the history of this nation and the history of the world, thinking critically about what they are learning often leads them to take actions in efforts to make a positive difference.

As I moved through the career ladder in student affairs, I kept thinking about the connection between student activists and student affairs professionals. At one point, I became inspired and excited about the idea of writing a book on student affairs and social change.

It was on Saturday, December 18, 1999, near the end of a five-hour beautiful dinner and conversation. L., our host, had “pulled out all the stops for J., K. and me,” Standing in the foyer of L’s home at the bottom of the stairs preparing to say our goodbyes, I was thinking about the year 2000 that promised a new and significant decade.

Suddenly, I asked everyone what they wished for in the coming year. All of us responded without hesitation:

  • J. wanted to have the book she was writing published and have Oprah love it.
  • K., who had lost a loved one and feared for the health of her spouse, wanted good health for her family.
  • L. wanted to win the lottery in order to establish a fun house for children and adults.
  • I wanted to write a book about the pivotal role of student affairs and social movements initiated and fueled by student activists.  

My response to this impromptu question was the first time I had articulated this idea. The idea had not surfaced so clearly before this moment.

Several days later, on Christmas Day, I was still thinking about the book that I had said I wanted to write. I was inspired.

On December 29, I wrote in my journal that I could write the book within a year despite all my other responsibilities. In my self-talk, I noted:

There is nothing to stop me but myself. Perhaps this book will be the doorway for future writing which could be my purpose. I want to make a selfless contribution to posterity in my lifetime. Maybe writing this book is my light that I must let shine.

Immediately after the holidays, I talked with respected colleagues who were authors of books related to higher education and student affairs about my idea. During each successive conversation, it became obvious to me that there was no support for the idea of the book or for my writing it.

Following these conversations, the energy and inspiration began to dissipate. I wrote a list of what I feared if I wrote the book and what I wanted to happen if I wrote the book.

In my next blog, I will share what happened…

Shifting models of beauty

The saga of the pandemic continues to have innumerable impacts on people all over the world. It seems that not a day passes in which we don’t hear about some change resulting from the pandemic’s effects. From the exacerbation of mental health disorders and COVID long haulers to people refusing to return to work, the pandemic is leaving its mark.   

One seeming universal change is the great technological revolution available to ordinary people as well as organizations. This technological wizardry gives people the ability to not only communicate with one another and participate in meetings and other group discussions through voice but also visually. The downside to seeing one another is that people can also see themselves. People who didn’t like much about their facial features before the pandemic now spend hours looking at their own faces on various virtual platforms. Some people dealing with this “Zoom dysmorphia” don’t like what they see and decide to do something about it.

One of the most prominent facial features on a virtual meeting platform is the nose. Back in the 70s, one of my White friends had rhinoplasty. Before the surgery, her nose was naturally straight and narrow like many White people’s. After the surgery, the tip of her nose turned up slightly showing more of her open nostrils. I didn’t think that this was an improvement, but I kept my mouth shut.

On the topic of change and noses, I read an interesting article written by Mridula Amin for Quartz titled, Nose jobs: Breaking the beak. Assuming that a large percentage of nose surgeries are for cosmetic rather than health reasons, I was still surprised to see the following statistics:

              2.5 billion: Number of uses of hashtag #nosejobcheck on Tik Tok

              352,555: Nose re-shaping surgeries performed in the US in 2020

              67.9 %: Share of total rhinoplasties that are performed on 19–34-year-olds

I would wager, with a great sense of certainty, that the number of rhinoplasties historically and currently have been to change the nose to be more like what is considered attractive in noses endemic to Caucasians, and that’s why “approximately 66% of nose job patients in the US are white.”

The Quartz article mentions that “ethnic rhinoplasty” is “gaining popularity among people of color that aim to preserve their ethnic identity with their noses.” The idea of ethnic rhinoplasty is confusing to me. If one already has a nose endemic to one’s ethnicity, why is it necessary to have nose surgery to preserve that identity? Confusing or not, it may mean that fewer people of color are wishing that the bridge of their nose was not as flat and that their nostrils were narrower.

In describing what he calls the “Instagram Face” ideal in The New Yorker, celebrity make-up artist Colby Smith says, “We’re talking an overly tan skin tone [for white people], a South Asian influence with the brows and eye shape, an African American influence with the lips, a Caucasian influence with the nose, a cheek structure that is predominantly Native American and Middle Eastern.”

The pandemic changed a lot of things, but it didn’t seem to change the fact that people still want to look like what the majority holds up as models of beauty. It’s at least encouraging, as one can see from Colby Smith’s quote, that today when people opt for facial plastic surgery or choose makeup to emulate what they see as attractive, there is ethnic and racial diversity.

“There Is No Time!”

Depressed because my best friend was not returning to college with me. Broken-hearted after finally realizing that my boyfriend was the worst thing that ever happened to me. Being alone on a train was the best place for me to be after being devastated by these changes in my life that were beyond my control.

The only thing left for me to do was to feel sorry for myself and pray. I prayed for a true friend and companion who would be someone I would love and someone who would love me.

As the train slowed, I saw a guy in faded jeans and gym shoes. When the train stopped, I was looking straight at Charles William Dungy, Jr. When he took the seat next to me, we had our first real conversation.

Arriving a few days before classes started, there was only one place to get something to eat near campus. We were both famished. Looking at the menu, we saw that the prices for just about everything exceeded what money we had. We both worked on campus and wouldn’t have any money until that first check of the quarter arrived. We decided to pool our money and get what we really wanted. We shared a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich and swore it was the best sandwich we’d ever had.

That was the beginning. Fifty-five years later I can say without reservation that Charles William Dungy, Jr. is the best thing that ever happened to me. Fate looked upon me with favor when he came into my life.

He has been gone three years this past February and this is the first time I’ve been able to allow myself to recall and write about the person he was. Until now, I only allowed sneak peeks of who he was, and I fed on comments others made about him. A couple of weeks ago, a colleague from many years ago and I reconnected. In expressing her condolences to me she said that she remembered Charles as distinguished, charming, and a wonderful host. She said that she would always remember a comment that a mutual acquaintance made about him—that he was easy on the eyes.

I used the condolence comments of my dear friend, Caryn, for his Obituary. In remembering  him, she referenced the emptiness formerly filled by his warmth, gentleness, keen intellect, wide-ranging interests and deep devotion to his family.

There is no doubt that he was blessed with good looks, charm, impeccable taste, enormous intelligence, and boundless curiosity and interests. I used to call him Mr. Smithson because his interests were as many and as varied as those housed in the Smithsonian.

His varied interests may make some think that he was a dilettante. He was not. He just didn’t have the time to go as deeply as he would like to go in his many areas of interests. He needed many more lifetimes to satisfy his need to know and desire for experiences.

When he would get frustrated about time pressures, we’d often say, “There is no time!” We picked this expression up after watching the film Killer Angels regarding the Civil War. This was supposedly said by General Robert E. Lee when talking strategy for attacks at Gettysburg just before the war ended.

Charles was the most intelligent person I had ever met. When the rest of us were just learning what a computer was, his job at the university was running data for professors’ research projects. He was indispensable to them at that time as he later was indispensable to our family. He majored in math, physics, and engineering. He also attained an MBA. These degrees were just stops along the way for his prodigious mind.

We will always love him and feel indebted to him for putting his interests in a small pouch that he would only dip into every now and then because he wanted to support me in my career, and he wanted to hoist our son up so he could strive to reach his unlimited potential. This beautiful and talented man drew his ambition small and bent his will to support us.

It grieves me when I think that he didn’t have as much time as he needed to explore the wonder of everything that interested him. I will always love him, miss him, and respect him for the man he was.

Carnes Avenue

The third place I recall living while in second and third grades was Carnes Avenue…

Miss Loraine’s Sundry was the place where my Daddy took my baby brother and me when he brought us back from Chicago.


In back of the Sundry up a few steps was a small bedroom. Outside the bedroom in a short hallway was a cot.

There was a large window next to the front door of the Sundry where I would search for signs of Muhdear.

Miss Loraine while talking baby-talk, holding and kissing my baby brother.

Miss Loraine while talking baby-talk, holding and kissing Queenie, her small dog.

My Daddy trying to comb and braid my hair.

Miss Loraine up late at night adding numbers and ordering stuff for the Sundry.


It was cold in that short hallway where I slept on the cot. I coughed so much that Miss Loraine, put a glob of Vicks Vapor Rub on her finger, made me open my mouth, and pushed it down my throat.

I had pneumonia and was in the hospital.

Mama Rosie brought my Daddy’s father by the Sundry to see my baby brother and me. I had never seen or heard of him before. She took me outside to the curb where he was waiting. She said he could look at me, but he’d better not touch me. Miss Loraine would not allow Mama Rosie to take my baby brother outside to see my Daddy’s father.


I longed for connection with Muhdear, Mama Bennie, and Daddy Gilbert.

I was confused about everything.

I would stand outside the Sundry and look down the road toward the cabstand where my Daddy worked and if a woman was walking towards the Sundry, I hoped it would be Muhdear coming for us.

Miss Loraine helped customers in the Sundry; I took care of my baby brother in the back of the Sundry. There was nothing to do and no one to talk with. I was lonely.

I choose not to remember

I was trying to become lovable like Queenie, Miss Loraine’s dog.

1630 W. Fulton

The second place I recall living while in second and third grades was 1630 W. Fulton:


It was a tall skinny white building. When you opened the door, there were a lot of steps to climb to reach the attic apartment where Daddy Gilbert’s brother and sister-in-law lived. Daddy Gilbert’s brother was very pale with straight black hair. He was sick and always in bed.


Daddy Gilbert’s brother died.

Muhdear and I began to sleep at the apartments of other relatives.

Muhdear and I stayed in one place long enough for me to go to school for a few months. For Halloween, Muhdear bought me a yellow plastic costume to wear to school. The kids at school tore it off me.


I was miserable.

I was confused.

I wished I was back in Memphis.

I loved that I could put Ovaltine chocolate in my milk.

I imagined that I was the girl in the after-school television show when she said at the end of the show, “Take me away Mr. Pegasus, take me away!”

I was trying to become

Anybody but me.

Castalia Heights

I recall living in four different places while in second and third grades. The first was Castalia Heights:


Muhdear, Daddy, Mama Rosie (Daddy’s mother), and baby brother all living together. Mama Rosie and I slept in the same bed in one bedroom and baby brother slept in a crib in the room with Muhdear and Daddy.


Uncle Richard (Daddy’s brother) came to the apartment one night and Daddy told him he had to leave. Mama Rosie was angry with Daddy for making him leave. Daddy said Uncle Richard was a thief, a liar, and no good. For most of the next day, Mama Rosie cried and prayed really loud. She scared me. When Daddy came home from work, he found Muhdear, my baby brother, and me sort of hiding out in their bedroom. This made Daddy really mad at Mama Rosie.

Then something happened where Daddy and Muhdear were angry with one another. Muhdear took my baby brother and me back to 494 S. Hollywood, where her parents, Mama Bennie, and Daddy Gilbert lived.


Before Uncle Richard came by, I was happy because we were all together. After, I was scared and confused because everybody was mad.

I choose not to remember

Muhdear told me that she became ill shortly after leaving my Daddy in Castalia Heights. She said that she lost so much weight that she was only about 89 pounds. One day she passed her own father on the street and, because she looked so drastically different, he didn’t even recognize her. She told me that her skin had darkened to black; her eyes were open wide and protruded out from her face; and her once long hair was so short it stood up like a crew cut. She had a lump under her neck, and she shook like someone with palsy.

I was trying to become


494 S. Hollywood

I am fascinated by what my memories reveal when I just stick a pin into something as unremarkable as my previous addresses.

Who was I trying to become when I lived at my various addresses?

What images do I remember? What events stand out? What emotions do I recall?

What do I choose NOT to remember?


Next door on the right, Miss Alice’s yard was just brown dirt with no grass or flowers, and her boys, Jesse and Curtis, always had dirty faces, hands, and clothes. Jesse’s skin was almost as white as Miss Alice’s, and his hair was brown and not too curly. Curtis had brown skin, but not as brown as mine. I liked his curly black hair.

Mama Bennie had very dark brown skin and she was kind of fat. Daddy Gilbert had very light skin and his eyes were scary because they looked green. He was very skinny.


I think I was four when the cousins from Mississippi came for a visit and burned the house down.

When I was five years old, my birthday party was in the back yard and all the children in the neighborhood were there. I wanted all the flowers on the birthday cake for myself. To my surprise, they tasted very bitter.

Daddy Gilbert made a wooden stool for me to stand on to reach the sink, and Mama Bennie taught me how to wash dishes.

The little brother that I prayed for was born when I was seven, and Muhdear said that since I prayed to have him, I had to take care of him. I washed his diapers and only let one of them go down the toilet.

I was able to go to the store by myself to get the “strik-a-lean strik-a-fat” salt pork for Mama Bennie to put in the greens she cooked.

I got my first two-wheeled bike. It ran away with me downhill and I crashed.


Since everybody in the house was tired most of the time, I was proud that I could do things to help.

I was always happy when my Daddy came by to drive me to school. Sometimes he came by when there was no school and he let me stand on the running board of his Dodge.

Mama Rosie, my Daddy’s mother, made me feel pretty and precious. When she visited, she kissed and kissed and kissed me. She always brought me something. She brought dolls for my birthday and for Christmas. I felt sad when Mama Bennie scolded her for bringing me candy.

I choose not to remember

that Muhdear often had migraines when she was at home, so I had to tiptoe and be very quiet.

I was trying to become

a good girl who was not lazy like some of the people Mama Bennie talked about.