When I was growing up, I was taught never to use the word “HATE.” It was the four-letter word that was taboo in our family. Whenever I would use the word, it was usually about some chore that I didn’t want to do. If my grandmother was within earshot of my profanity, she would say, “Honey, we don’t use that word in this family. Find another word.” Growing up this way makes the word “HATE” especially heinous and destructive to me.
Imagine how I must have felt when, as Dean of Student Development, I was told by four different administrators in the course of one week that a top-level administrator who was my boss’ boss “HATED” me. Naturally, I ruminated about what I had been told. Realizing that running these negative messages over and over in my mind was crippling me emotionally, I had to find a way to get back to what I had been focusing on before I received these messages.
The first thing I did to get out of the rumination rut was to reflect on what may have caused this person to express hatred toward me to other people. Thinking as objectively as possible about my last interactions with the person, I could understand why this person might not be happy with me. I had dared, in a meeting of several administrators, to strenuously disagree about an impending decision regarding student activities funds. Despite the fact that I thought I was in the right position on the matter, upon reflection, I could imagine that this person, by dent of the position held, would be extremely angry with me. For my part, I concluded that there were more effective ways with fewer negative consequences that I should consider when reacting to positions in opposition to my own. Nonetheless, for the administrator to express hatred toward me seemed over the top.
I then considered how I might put this situation in perspective because the backlash of my own behavior had distracted me from my goal of being the most effective administrator I could be. I didn’t think an apology would be accepted, and I couldn’t reveal how I knew that the administrator was angry beyond the pale. I thought my best way forward was to refocus on the expectations and responsibilities of my job.
When I look back at what I accomplished during this period of serious distraction, I might have intuitively known that I needed to shine brightly in bringing value to the college through my efforts to support students. I was realistic enough to know that I might be fired if I did not bring the kind of value that was over and above expectations. Receiving evaluations of “exceeds expectations” in the stated responsibilities of the positions would have been fine for most people, but I knew that I needed to bring more to the table.
I was already working as hard as I could, having accepted the added responsibility of being one of the academic deans in addition to being the Dean of Student Development. Having two entirely different staffs and two separate offices, working hard not to drop the ball in either area of responsibility, was hard and exhilarating. Having responsibility for some of the faculty, as well as the counselors and advisers in Student Development, put me in the best position possible to do what we all wanted in regards to supporting students.
I threw myself into trying the impossible, such as bringing faculty and counseling advisers together for student academic advising. The gods looked upon us with favor when a popular faculty member and an influential counselor coordinated the joint advising effort in a space dedicated for this collaboration. Despite the fact that this effort was fraught for a number of reasons, we were all passionately committed to how the collaboration would benefit all students.
During this same period, I initiated something else that kept me from being distracted by the negative messages I was receiving. I approached the director of the county schools’ program for gifted and talented students to pitch the idea of a Middlestart Program. The county schools’ director and I brought the idea to our respective institutions and the program was embraced by faculty, staff, and administrators from the college and from the county schools. It was not long before 50 junior high school students were taking summer courses taught by our college faculty. In addition to the courses, students were receiving an excellent orientation to college and would hopefully consider our college in the future.
I have reason to believe that anyone who is a member of an academic community, whether on college and university campuses or in association work, may find themselves distracted by negative interpersonal issues that block creativity and enthusiasm for one’s work. Knowing that I was contributing to larger goals in significant ways worked for me. Focusing on initiatives and being exhilarated by the challenge of doing two full-time jobs boosted my confidence and sense of safety despite functioning in an environment that was anything but nurturing. Though my focus might have been hijacked momentarily, remembering that my raison d’etrewas all about students removed all traces of the distractions resulting from messages about my being hated.
On Saturday, January 18, I went to “Awaken 2020” at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona. Kanye West and his Sunday Service Choir performed for just about an hour of the 12-hour event. To describe what Kanye and the choir did as a performance does not nearly capture the impact they had on the thousands of people in the stadium.
What struck me most was how the music of the Sunday Service Choir seemed to have the power to compel thousands of people to lose themselves in a common trance. On the jumbo video screens, we saw close-ups of the faces of individual choir members as the setting sun shone brightly on their uplifted faces; we heard the hypnotic and mesmerizing drum beats in the music that insisted that bodies move in sync; we responded to energetic invitations of the choir director to sing along; we stretched our arms to raise our right hands in unity.
There were other great gospel choirs before I arrived and, throughout the event, various people famous in particular arenas spoke their thoughts about Jesus, God, and the Bible, and gave testimonies of personal experiences of depths and heights.
As a participant observer, I was impressed not only by the power of the music spectacle to invoke ecstatic feelings among people as diverse as the universe, but also by how it caused me to reflect on the critical role a trusted mentor might play in helping one to discern messages.
What if someone were severely criticized by family and friends for attending Awaken 2020 because they did not trust the veracity of Kanye’s conversion? Having experienced such good feelings only to be admonished later by those closest could cause doubts and questions about who and what to believe.
I’m using Awaken 2020 and a possible subsequent experience to point out the benefits of college beyond exposure to facts and critical thinking based on a preordained curriculum. On college and university campuses, mentors are found, more often than not, in student affairs and among the faculty, administrators, and staff. Whether or not they see themselves formally in such a role, these “mentors” offer students of all ages the opportunity to share who they are beyond the traditions and often admonitions of family and long-time friends.
Stepping out beyond one’s inner circle is a way to learn the essential skills for a well-lived life. Being in a community of learners provides opportunities to constantly weigh opinions of others against personal beliefs. The act of daily living among people who are not one’s natural protectors gives students opportunities to self-determine what is important to their own well-being and their image of themselves as citizens in community with others. Whether on campus or online, college provides the context and laboratory to experiment with notions of who one is and what one believes in light of others’ opinions and perceptions.
I understand that a college education is not necessarily for everyone and no longer the defining asset for a financially successful life. But for those who elect and are fortunate enough to attend a college or university, what is learned in dialogue with others or when someone just listens helps one look inside oneself for the personal integrity necessary to glean the rightness of a situation or belief. These “aha” moments can also bring the wonder and awe of a religious experience.
It goes without saying that what is occurring in the larger environment will have an impact on the attitudes, beliefs, and motivations students bring to their college life. Regardless of the inevitable challenges to be addressed, I see a positive vision for the work of student affairs remaining committed to promoting learning and development of the whole student.
Two of the pillars on which my optimism is based are the flexibility and adaptability of student affairs in meeting the needs of all students and, upon reflection on years as a student affairs professional, what I have discovered about the nature of perennial challenges to be addressed. In my article for the 50th Anniversary edition of Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, I describe how many of these challenges appear to be predictable and finite in number, falling into the following categories:
When asked why they are so passionate about their work, student affairs professionals generally reflect on the opportunity to change students’ lives. In order to continue in this critical work, it is instructive to heed the lessons of the past in anticipating future challenges facing higher education.
We must realize the importance of external and internal environments and the likely reactions of colleges and universities to these stimuli. Student affairs – with prior awareness of these categories of challenges – has an opportunity to proactively and innovatively create ways to blunt possible negative impacts and use the challenges as vehicles to address needed change or transformation.
Students and Student Affairs: Facing Perennial Challenges in Ever-changing Contexts
In reflecting on student affairs as an organizational entity within higher education, I am keenly aware of the impact of the environmental context on the strategic directions and responsibilities of professionals who do student affairs work. In this essay, I offer observations on how the environment has, over time, had an impact on the tenor and content of the work of student affairs.
A significant strength of student affairs has been its ability to adjust education and support strategies as students and the context in which they are learning change. Professional development and the diversity of backgrounds, skills, and routes into student affairs enable student affairs professionals to be flexible and adaptable in effective ways.
While those of us in student affairs and higher education often speak about “change” and “transformation,” we typically pivot and adjust when nudged. In fact, many of the challenges that bring about shifts and adjustments appear to be predictable and relatively few in number:
Demographic change is a constant;
Student activism ebbs and flows;
Resource constraints arise at unpredictable intervals;
Government intervention in higher education is as predictable as clockwork; and
Catastrophic events and crises demand concerted reactions.
The best hope for student affairs is that in responding to this perennial set of challenges we are innovative and generative in building on strengths. We must preserve best practices, learn about new perspectives, and create ways to more effectively and efficiently meet the needs of all students, all while promoting the overall mission of our particular institution.
Defining Student Affairs: Student Affairs through the Decades…
The Sixties and Seventies – Demographic Change and Student Activism
…As a result of the important roles student affairs played during the height of student activism and the Civil Rights Movement, as well as in the implementation of new government guidelines for student equity, student affairs could no longer be narrowly defined. Instead, student affairs administrators began to be seen as campus leaders who had their finger on the pulse of what students needed. They were indispensable to helping institutions address students’ demands and remain committed to the ideals of higher education and institutional mission. …
Another significant and unanticipated change was how student affairs professionals viewed their roles. …They emphasized the congruence between what was occurring in their programmatic interventions and theories on human development. These professionals claimed their roles as specialists who supported both academic success and personal development of students. …
The 1980s – Resource Constraints
Near the end of two turbulent decades marked by demographic change and student activism, the nation’s attention turned toward constraints on resources in the midst of a recession in the early 1980s. Additionally, fewer high school graduates threatened a decrease in college and university enrollment and, consequently, a reduction in revenues.
… some administrators were concerned that critical functions of student affairs might be in jeopardy if those making decisions about restructuring or eliminating programs did not understand how student affairs contributed to the mission of the institution.
In response, a group of leaders in what was then the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) reexamined the 1937 Student Personnel Point of View. Fifty years after publication of this original philosophical statement that underpins the profession, this group of leaders reaffirmed in A Perspective on Student Affairs (1987) that the academic mission of the institution was preeminent, and the role of student affairs was to support this mission, as well as to address the affective and cognitive growth of students.
The 1990s – Student Affairs Educators and Expanding Diversity
With continuing changes in the demographics of students, the overarching goal of many colleges and universities during the 1990s was to reduce the achievement gap between newer populations of students and those who had traditionally had access to higher education.
Diversity – defined broadly to include LGBT students – was a priority for a critical mass of students in the 1990s. Marginalized students advocated for their own spaces on campus, often housed in the student union or student center under the umbrella of student affairs. Student affairs and faculty worked closely together to facilitate intercultural dialogues. …
Approaching the Millennium – Constraints, Catastrophes, Crises
… the late 1990s were lean years for higher education. Resources were once again constrained. Following previous patterns, higher education took its cues from business: re-engineering, re-structuring, re-forming, and re-imagining organizational structures.…
During the last decade of the twentieth century and through the millennium, student affairs and higher education were influenced by national events that either threatened to be catastrophic (e.g., the Y2K scare) or were catastrophic. Campus communities felt the impact of the unthinkable tragedy that disrupted the entire nation on September 11, 2001 and shared in the nation’s collective grief. …
Adding to the anxiety students felt about the outside world, a mass shooting by a student at Virginia Tech in 2007 disrupted the apparent safety and security of colleges and universities. When this was followed shortly by another attack at Northern Illinois University, campus safety and security aspects of student affairs became more prominent. The challenge of creating preventive measures to keep students safe from attacks was more than a nudge.
The Twenty-first Century – The Old is New Again
…Calls for accountability required higher education to show evidence of effectiveness through data instead of anecdotes. Although assessment plans were being developed, it was difficult for student affairs to measure the effectiveness of interventions beyond head count and student reports of satisfaction…
While student affairs divisions were adjusting to new demands and needs of students in an atmosphere of external calls for accountability, …I convened a group of higher education graduate faculty, student affairs administrators and practitioners from both generalist student affairs associations, NASPA and ACPA, [which resulted in] the publication of Learning Reconsidered: A College-wide Focus on the Student Experience (2004). …
Student affairs professionals’ enthusiasm for the concepts and suggestions in Learning Reconsidered could not mask the reality of the 2008 recession. Student affairs made adjustments and shifts in order to accommodate new demands and resource constraints. During this period student affairs professionals demonstrated their selflessness and commitment to students and their institutions. They shared ideas about how to use innovative approaches to do more with less, guided by the precepts of Learning Reconsidered.
Future Visions of Student Affairs
In the future, student affairs will be defined largely by advances in technology and by students themselves. …
Student demographics, especially the increasing age of college students, will have significant influence on how student affairs will provide educational support programs….
The second half of the twentieth century demonstrated how student activism ebbed and flowed. … Student affairs will continue to play a critical role in helping students acquire the tools and skills necessary to sustain the movement they have begun.
With institutional mission as a foundation, and educating the whole student as a basic principle, student affairs has had a key role in addressing the perennial challenges facing higher education. However, anticipating the same challenges is like looking to the past to predict the future. A strength of student affairs is learning about new perspectives. Dropping assumptions about students based on status such as the first in their family to attend college; what groups have been marginalized and privileged in the past; and the belief that education is the equalizer will enhance the ability of student affairs to be innovative and generative in building on strengths.
Finding new ways to integrate co-curricular experiences into academic course work will be the way to educate the whole student whose focus is on life after college. Listening intently and continuously to students and helping them find a way to help create the learning environment that is most congruent with their needs will help student affairs address perennial challenges and create opportunities to more effectively meet students where they are in order to help them reach their potential.
Source: Flickr/ via U.S. Department of Education (CC BY 2.0)
Enrollment managers hold an important and key role to helping colleges and universities enhance the student experience. Every institution has them. They are key players not only in helping the institution meet enrollment goals, but graduation goals as well. These professionals share values and accountabilities with faculty and student affairs, as well as every functional area of the college or university. They are, therefore, favorably positioned to help faculty, staff, and administrators provide the return on investment that today’s students expect.
Several years ago, I was to be the commencement speaker at a college. It was a bright sunny day, and there were rows and rows of people as far as I could see. The stage was full of robed dignitaries and student speakers. I was one of the two African Americans on stage – both getting honorary degrees. In addition to my being unnerved by my own audacity in accepting the role of commencement speaker, the other African American who was receiving an honorary degree was none other than the excellent speaker and brilliant astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson! To say that I was anxious is an understatement.
Once the preliminary remarks and introductions were over, students’ names began to be called. As they walked across the stage, I forgot about my own stage fright and began to enjoy the celebration. As each student’s name was called and the happy student walked across the stage to receive the diploma and shake hands with administrators, some were beaming with grins and others were crying tears of joy. I was so happy for them that my face began to hurt from smiling so broadly for so long.
I noticed that the line that had been going rather swiftly up to the point of shaking hands with the administrators was backed up where students were exiting the stage on my far right. I peered around to see what was happening and saw that, as the students were exiting the stage, an admissions professional was standing where the students descended, smiling, shaking hands, fist bumping, high fiving, and being enthusiastically hugged by many of the graduates. I smiled and thought to myself how right and fitting that the first person students encountered during the critical time of choosing this college was there to congratulate them as they graduated.
The idea of being there at the beginning and at the end makes me recall a conversation I had with a student at this same college who had been told that he should take this college off his list of possibilities for all the usual reasons first-generation students might not attend highly selective colleges. The student, however, left the college on his list and his high school counselor scheduled an appointment at the high school with someone from the Office of Admissions. He was late for the appointment and the admissions director asked him why. Usually reticent to talk about himself, especially with strangers, this simple inquiry from the admissions director opened the door for him to share more about himself than he ever would have expected. He thought his chances were not great for being accepted and, if he were accepted, he knew he could not afford to attend. He couldn’t even afford a trip for a campus visit. To make a long story short, he was accepted, received a scholarship, and received funds to visit the campus. Seeing the campus was love at first sight for this student. But something was bothering him.
He said he hated systems and didn’t want to be just another number in an affirmative action system where he wasn’t really seen for who he was. He said that this feeling was a like a cloud overshadowing all the good that was coming his way.
He told me that, early during his first semester, he had an occasion to see the admissions director who interviewed him at his high school. She remembered him and everything they had talked about. He was amazed that she remembered him, and this made him feel good. Shortly after the conversation with this admissions director, he had an encounter with another director from the admissions office. When the director learned the student’s name, he said with a friendly smile, “Oh, yes, I remember reading your essay.” The student said that he thought, “Wow! Maybe I’m not just a number in a system after all.” The student said that these same admissions directors reached out to him to see how he was doing throughout the semester. He said that their genuine attention was a strong motivator for him to do well because his family was in another country and had no idea what life was like for him as a college student in the United States. I can imagine the long hug at the end of the line during commencement when this student crosses the stage and sees his admissions directors.
So, if you find yourself confounded by how different your incoming class is than previous classes of students, don’t wait for the next popular publication: talk with your colleagues in enrollment management. They can give you information about students who are attending your college or university rather than a generic broad-brush description of a new generation of students.
Enrollment managers, more than anyone else on campus, know why students choose to come to a given college or university. It would serve institutions well, then, if enrollment management staff were significantly integrated within the academic community. We all know that a major reason why students do not persist in college is because their expectations are not met. Congruence between expectations and what students find is what is ultimately called “fit.” We speak of “fit” during the recruitment process, but “fit” is really not determined until the retention process is in play.
Professionals in enrollment management do much more than recruit students and provide a pathway to aid. They share the responsibility for students’ success with every other part of the academic enterprise.
It was not the first time my supervisor accused me of secretly thinking that I could do his job better than he could. He advised me, “You need to practice having a poker face,” often saying that I would surely lose all of my money in an actual game.
Despite little experience as an administrator, my strong references eventually afforded me the opportunity to become an acting administrator. Finally, I would be able to do things my way. Being an administrator felt like the sweet spot for me, and the “leader” designation provided a natural high.
It was not long after landing that dream job as an administrator in my own right that I began to read the faces of those who reported to me. I couldn’t believe that they secretly thought that they could do my job better than me, just as I had thought of my supervisor. This realization made me question whether or not being an administrator really was the right path for me.
In retrospect, one of the changes I made that helped sustain me during the times when I questioned my competence was to become less preoccupied with how others saw me and what they might think of me. I focused like a laser on the roles, goals, and day-to-day habits of our unit in support of students. My focus was so intense that an administrator from another area said that I was a zealot when it came to students. Yes, I was, and I took the comment as a compliment.
Having changed my focus, it became vivid to me that I had previously been preoccupied with simply becoming a leader rather than why I wanted to become a leader. While I had always approached my role with humility, it was naïve arrogance that made me think that I could motivate a staff to see the work of student affairs from my perspective and, in turn, change the way they had always done things.
If you begin to feel as if being an administrator is not for you, give yourself time. Among the lessons I learned during my first year as an administrator was that this is the time when we begin to learn who we are, where we should be, and what we should be doing.
In the recent inter-generational conversation on gender I had the privilege of facilitating, all of the dialogue participants were connected to education in some manner. The expectation, then, is that responses would resonate with students and those who work with students. To that end, I asked the following question directly related to student activism on campus today:
In a political climate where students take matters into their own hands, what do you see as critical for them to know about the risks and rewards of activism in their future careers? What difference do you think gender will make?
As the person still working directly on a higher education campus, Eboni’s is the first voice heard in the above clip, with a question from Jackie. The clip closes with Tangela’s observations.
Responses to this question clearly recognize that student activism is “cyclical and long,” as Tangela notes. Jackie asks if students know their history to inform their present and future. Eboni sees all kinds of students — those who are “grounded in understanding, as well as those who live only in the present.”
The Silent or Traditional (S/T) and the Baby Boomer generations on campus may see the rolling back of progress in the current climate of overt racist groups influencing students. Organizational and environmental characteristics of colleges and universities remain critical today, as they were when the doors began to open to provide more opportunities for all students. Current student activists, as those in previous generations, realize that they have to look to themselves for support because often the seats of power in academe are still occupied by people who do not understand, or do not care to support them in, their struggle.
Full Transcript for Activism Section
Gwen (T/S): Let’s talk about students on campus. As you know, students are quite active today in going after what they want. They don’t trust people to take care of them, as a lot of us didn’t trust people way back when to take care of us. So, what would you say the risks and rewards are for activism and these students’ future careers and, is there a difference related to – why don’t we say – gender and race if you’re an activist right now?
Jackie (BB): I’d like to hear Eboni’s answer, because she’s still actively on campus.
Eboni (X): Uh, sure. You know, I think that, particularly, kind of post-2016 elections, we’re seeing increasing numbers of students of all stripes, but particularly on the heels of Black Lives and Black Minds Matter, kind of post-Mike Brown and any number of us folks who have died at the hands of – unarmed – and have died at the hand of – and the Say Her Name – right? I mean, we talked about Me Too, but in terms of Black women, in particular, who have resulted in death in terms of interactions with police… I think that there’s been a way in which there have always been risks and rewards when it comes to activism, but that students are showing that, at least in the last couple of years, that they’re willing to go there. That the risks and the rewards in terms of what they seem keenly aware of, is that it’s still an uphill battle. That they have to assert with their whole selves demand for access to be afforded, level playing fields – or at least more level, that they’re not distracted by these superficial kinds of things in terms of what you might dangle in front of them to try to get them to retreat. Right? That they’re also thinking about how to redefine the risk in terms of strategy, in terms of ways that they can address specific challenges – some being mainly gendered in terms of, you know, wanting to see Black female leadership, or some, with a lot of the Black male initiatives – there’s a lot of activity on my campuses and on other campuses where students are rising up, there’s a new wave of activism, and I think that they’re coming up with some unique strategies to try to mitigate some of those risks because they also understand that their activism, their decisions today to do that, can result in ways that can limit opportunity later, depending on how they do it. And then there are others that are not trying to be that methodical about it. It is coming from a more organic, emotional place and, yes, they’re bright, they’re prepared, they understand risk and reward, but at the same time, they’re like, “No, we’re having our say.”
Jackie (BB): Let me ask you this: Do they know they’re history, and are they using it to inform their present and their future?
Eboni (X): I wouldn’t generalize to say that they all do, but I think that some, in particular, are poised and grounded in that understanding. I know in terms of just some of the students that I’ve interacted with – some of my advisees – that some of them feel the least amount of support for that kind of engagement, where they will have older generations tell them, you know, “Be careful” – to not take the risk, but they feel like, you know, that these are matters of public policy, that these are conditions affecting lives and, so, some of them feel like, for any number of reasons, that, you know, whether it’s they want to be active around speaking back – clapping back – at what they see as a growing wave of racial antipathy on campus, or a lack of inclusion efforts from central administration, or whatever it is that – some are feeling afraid to take those risks, and they see the risks as more so to themselves, not where this is something that their family or friends are necessarily subject to, and that the benefits of the risks to them make it worth taking, because, you know, they are just at that point of, you know, really wanting to stand up. And, so, I think every generation gets to a point where something where – and, again, that last election – it’s like you get a call to arms. And then it’s the thousand little cuts, you know, in between, of being inundated, where it seems like it’s a rerun, but it’s a first cut, but it happens so much that the way in which folks get kind of, you know, desensitized to seeing – and then being told, you know, “All Lives Matter”… I know when folk hear that and then we time and time again, there’s an acquittal and there’s an acquittal and there’s culpability, and you have campus police profiling you, you have, you know, right-wing student groups on campus, you know… I mean, we just had another Affirmative Action Bake Sale in the spring. We had chalking where very anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-Black sentiment and different campuses. And, so, I think we’re at a point where students are – they’re like, “Let’s roll,” “I can’t,” like, “My cup is runneth over.” And the you’ve got others that aren’t – they’re just not going to be actively involved in trying to be on the frontline or getting in the face of administrators or having people protest or stepping outside of their own comfort zone.
Tangela (M): Uh, Gwen, to your original question, I’m on the University of Chicago, one of their professional division’s board. So, we are interfacing with those students. What I’ve been inviting them to do is have a plan – even a loose one – and then to remember that history is cyclical and long. And, so, with respect to social media, what we’re communicating is still the same throughout history, for the most part, but the medium is what’s changing. And, so, whoever’s Googling your name or Googling your account, all of that will come up – that’s following most times, even when you think it’s not there. And then, the next piece I tell them is to be strategic in your alignment, be good allies, and to build a good coalition – including faculty and staff, because those folks have lots of institutional knowledge. You may only be there for two years, you may only be there for four, and the change that you’re seeking to have is to make it better for people who look like you who may want to come to that university. And, the last one is just to be aware of the criticisms that you receive. Everyone is not going to afford you constructive criticism. To let go of the idea of being coddled – that people ought to correct you and tell you what the error is. It should be enough for you to know that you’ve made an error and that you need to come up with a new solution.
Gwen (T/S): Fantastic, fantastic. I think this should be very helpful for students, because I’m hoping that students and those who work with students will be able to hear this blog.
In the recent inter-generational conversation on gender I had the privilege of facilitating, the generational differences among the three African American women were perhaps most evident in the responses to the following question:
I’ve spoken with several women of color who have been given incredible responsibility for achieving goals without the power of authority to accomplish the goals. They work themselves to the point of exhaustion fearing the consequences of failure. Some become emotionally drained and suffer illness as a result. As successful Black women, what advice would you give to other women of color who experience something similar to what I’ve described?
The Silent, or Traditional, Generation and the Baby Boomers were the first to have the doors opened to more opportunities for education and careers. We were entering a world in which the climate was overtly racist and sexist. We knew that we were always working against negative stereotypes. While we could never be fully prepared for the challenges we would face, we understood that we would have to stand out among the best; that we could not be tardy; that we could not be unkempt; that we would have to speak clearly; and that we would have to always be seen as giving our best efforts. We knew that we would not be given a second chance if we failed. I’d like to believe that, as Jackie said, we no longer have to be the smartest person in the room.
Millennials, such as Tangela, regardless of race, having not experienced being shut out of opportunities on a broad and overt scale, do not feel “gratitude” for being “allowed” in the game, seeing it, instead, as just as much their right to be where they are as anyone else’s. They demand justice and equity in treatment. They want reasonableness in expectations, and they have strategies to create some balance between their personal well-being and their career success, as you can hear in the following clip.
As a Gen Xer, Eboni understood both the age-old admonition of having to work harder and that the generations coming along after would not be influenced by the same kind of thinking. Having found herself in the middle of these generational shifts, as the discussion delved deeper into different strategies, Eboni offered thoughts on racialized role strain, noting that as we consider whether things have gotten better or if it is just as difficult or harder now that there are nuances to the persistent challenges that are more specific to time, space, place with each generation.
Full Transcript for “Advice” Question
Gwen (Traditional/ Silent Generation – T/S): I know you’ll be able to relate to this because you’ve all had very illustrious careers, but I’ve spoken with several women of color who’ve been given incredible responsibility for achieving goals, but they haven’t been given the power or authority to accomplish the goals. They work themselves to the point of exhaustion, fearing the consequences of failure. Some become emotionally drained and suffer illness as a result. As a successful Black woman, what advice would you give to other women of color who experience something similar to what I’ve described?
Jackie (BB): Gwen, this is Jackie. That question is almost like you took a page out of my life, because it definitely describes many of the things I’ve gone through. My response will be evident based on the old adage that our mothers and our grandmothers used to give us that we had to be twice as good in order to be considered relevant. And, at least from my generation’s point of view, I think that is so important and so relevant – that, in my career, I heard that I had to be twice as good in order to be accepted at the table or to be considered as someone equal to the rest of the people at the table. Unfortunately, I’ve heard many of the young women who I’ve mentored or developed friendships with say that it still applies to them, as well, but I know that for my generation, that was extremely relevant and important. And we were told to work hard, and I don’t think we had the same filters that the young women have now in terms of drawing back and – doing you best, but – not necessarily overwhelming yourself with so much hard work and trying to be the best at the table.
A new phrase that I use on a regular basis – and I didn’t develop it – to young women is that you don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. And, so, I think it’s critically important that you show that you can be a strong participant, and that you’re good, but that you don’t have to show and demonstrate that you’re the smartest person in the room.
Tangela (M): So, the question is like multi-fold to me. I would say that a woman going through that should do a few things, and the first is to right-size the task. What that means to me is having a conversation about the extent and limits of your authority for even accepting an assignment – and getting it in writing, and then taking the temperature of the person that is delegating you that authority, so that you have the right bandwidth to do what you feel your responsibility is, but also understanding that responsibility is the ability to do the work. And multiple people can do the work; accountability is monitoring those folks responsible, and authority is having the power to make decisions for those who are accountable and are responsible. And so, any one of those levers can be pulled so that whomever is doing that work is more meaningful. And the last point is self-care. Know who your support is. Be vocal in reaching out to them. Ms. Woods here is definitely mine. I’ve had many a hard day where the job felt like it was hell, and so she reached me to call and I needed that reset. The answer I think is two-fold: we’re talking about your emotional health and your ability.
Gwen (T/S): Fantastic. Thank you so much.
Eboni (X): So, I guess my response would be, we’ve seen some improvements, but overall, our positioning could still stand for improvement, right? So, by that I mean, if there’s a way in which oftentimes, when women ascend to leadership positions, in particular Black women, that there aren’t significant investments in advancing support and rewards for our hard work and commitment, so that we have ambitions that have – resources that have not kept pace with those ambitions. And, I think sometimes that, in part because of these age-old tropes of Black women as being strong and inheriting situations when we do say we want to lead, we’re given, you know, the Hail Mary – the devastating context of “turn it around,” you know, “it’s on its last leg” and has the least resources. And so, I think that there’s much more to do where the rhetoric follows the reality of what we have in terms of a commitment that, in some form, in terms of the value we bring, advancement and support that is needed, and the resources so that we’re not having to lead and also be in unchecked situations of resource dependency.
Gwen (T/S): That’s something that I hear resonating throughout your responses that, you know, as Jackie began about working harder, and Tangela’s talking about right-sizing the task, which is not usually the right size, and then that idea of turning it around – so many women I’ve talked with…they come in and they’ve been in horrible situations and they’re asked to make it work. They don’t want to turn down an opportunity. What would you advise these women? I think Tangela said about right-sizing the responsibility. How do you go about right-sizing that?
Jackie (BB): Gwen, I need to interject something here, please. As part of Tangela’s statement, she was saying that you need to get agreement on your topic, or your task and your goals, and then get it in writing, and you don’t have that luxury in most situations. When you report to a board of trustees or you report to a board of people, they’re not going to put it in writing for you. If you report to a governing body, they’re not going to put that in writing. And so that’s a very difficult thing – you can’t require that or ask that of them, because it’s not going to happen that way. I had several organizations that I was the titular head of the organization, and yet the governing bodies that I reported to basically said to me, “These are the goals of the organization.” One of the things that helps you self-direct, if you will, is to develop your own set of goals and present them to whoever you report to or who you are responsible for. And that makes a difference. So, I was able to, in a couple of instances, submit my own goals and talk about how they were achievable in that space, and get them to agree to my goals, rather than waiting for them to give me goals, because that makes a big, big difference. So often we sit and wait to be given our jobs, and sometimes we have to submit our own goals, and we have to do it in a caring and submissive way. You’re proactive, but you’re proactive not necessarily in an aggressive way. And so, a couple of times I’ve had to say, “As I’ve studied this organization – or as I look at where it’s been as an organization and where you want it to go – these are some of the goals that I think we might want to achieve to get there.” And then that starts a discussion in a very, very different way, and you can get agreement then on most of those things. But, to get them to put it in writing – eh, that’s not gonna happen…
Tangela (M): And, so, I think you misunderstood me. It’s not that they should put it in writing; it’s that you should have your own plan – right? – and when you have your own plan, you should be able to articulate your own plan and your vision, so that you get buy-in from both the top and the bottom.
Jackie (BB): We’re in agreement there.
Gwen (T/S): Right. Well., you know, this is something. When Jackie talked about doing this in a way that may not be as assertive as you would want to be, it goes back to what Tangela said about the messenger. There may be some people who could just come in and say, you know, “This is what I think needs to be done,” but, being a woman, being an African American woman, that may not be possible, so there are times when we have to, you know, be a little less assertive.
Jackie (BB): Oh, absolutely.
Eboni (X): That’s a lot, right?
Gwen (T/S): I know, I’m thinking, “Do I really believe it?” I haven’t done it well…
Eboni (X): Well, you know, I was thinking about this whole notion of racialized role strain. That there are ways in which there’s a representation for the group that we have, and that’s minimally two-fold, right? It’s for the race, it’s for the gender, you know, as women… And, so, reconciling what our various tools are in terms of the different roles and the different hats that we wear or roles that we have, and how much of that, in many ways, can provoke or produce kind of a racialized role strain – or at least that’s been my experience in some of what I have seen bubble up in some of the research that I have done. And, so, when I think about this question of, “Have we gotten better through the generations, or is it just as difficult or harder now?” in some ways it is, and in some ways, it’s become more complex. I know, this is probably a conversation for later, but as we think about some of the contrasting differences between the 20th and the 21st century in terms of challenges for women, and namely Black women, this whole social media piece – that’s a whole ‘nother beast, you know. And particularly for Black women in terms of cross-sections of Black women. So, not just professional Black women and women that lead, but I think about the imprint that it has on impressionable youth and Black girls, and what may be strengthened and what actually may be chipped away at in the way that they see themselves and what their worth and their value is, and who they can be and what they can be and what they should achieve. So, I think, it’s intergenerational – the challenges – but as we all face the challenges, there are nuances to them that are more specific to time, space, place with each generation. And, so, that there’s’ a different cross to bear that my daughters have that was just not even front-of-mind for me at their age as a teenager, or that my mom, when I was in my formative years, that just wasn’t on her radar that she didn’t have to contend with because of the time.
Jacqueline (Jackie) Woods, former executive director, American Association of University Women (AAUW); Jackie served as a senior consultant for Academic Search, and she shares her wisdom as a member of a number of advisory boards. Jackie is in the early-middle age group of the Baby Boomers.
Eboni Zamani-Gallaher, professor of higher education and leadership, and director of the community college research and leadership office at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Eboni falls in the middle of Generation X.
Tangela Feemster, lobbyist for Express Scripts; Tangela directs legislative strategy across eight states and the District of Columbia, and also is a member of the Associate Board of Young Women’s Leadership Charter School in Chicago. Tangela is an early Millennial.
I recently had the opportunity to facilitate an inter-generational conversation on gender with three African American women. The overriding assumption for the dialogue was that participants would represent multi-generational viewpoints on the questions posed, exploring, in particular, commonalities and differences in opinion regarding gender across generations.I will be sharing different parts of the conversation over the coming weeks, as well as some of my takeaways. All of the dialogue participants are connected to education in some manner, so I expect that responses will resonate with students and those who work with students.
Introductory Question and Audio Clip
I’m going to ask you just an open-ended question here about your life and career. It’s obvious that each of you has been successful in your careers. Now is there anything in your experiential journey that has implications regarding your gender – either positively or negatively? How did gender come up as you were moving forward in your career?
[The above clip is taken from Tangela’s answer to this question.]
These three generations of African American women have experienced both the positive and negative impacts of gender on their career journey. Strikingly, they did not separate gender from race. Jackie Woods spoke of a “combination.” Eboni Zamani-Gallaher found it hard to “decouple” race and gender. Tangela Feemster references both race and gender when she gives an example of the message and the messenger.
In my personal experience, when you don’t have a commonality of either race or sex with the receiver, it’s difficult for the receiver to hear and acknowledge the message you bring. Women, in general, complain about the phenomena of having their comments ignored until repeated by a male who is heard and often praised for his insights. During my career journey, when my comments were not recognized in a meeting or when I was making a speech, I used to say, “they can’t hear me for looking at me.” It was as if the people with whom I was speaking could not hold in their minds three things: woman; black; meaningful.
Full Transcript for Introductory Section
Our participants today, in addition to myself – I’m Gwen Dungy, executive director emeritus of NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education –
Jacqueline Woods, former executive director for the American Association of University Women – she says she’s in semi-retirement. She’s served as a senior consultant for Academic Search, and she shares her wisdom as a member of a number of advisory boards.
Eboni Zamani-Gallaher, professor of higher education and leadership, and director of the community college research and leadership office at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Tangela Feemster, lobbyist for Express Scripts. She directs legislative strategy across eight states and the District of Columbia. She’s also a member of the Associate Board of Young Women’s Leadership Charter School in Chicago.
The overriding assumption for this dialogue is that participants will represent multi-generational viewpoints on the questions I will pose. In particular, we want to explore where the commonalities and differences in opinion are regarding gender across generations.Now, all of our dialogue participants are connected to education in some manner, so I would expect that responses will resonate with students and those who work with students. When we think about who students are on college campuses, it’s generally agreed that there are five generations on campus today:
The Traditionalist or Silent (T/S) Generation are those born between approximately 1925 and 1946;
The Baby Boomers (BB), born 1946 to 1964;
Generation X (X), born between 1965 and 1980;
The Millennials (M) – sometimes called Generation Y – born around 1980 through the 1990s or later; and
Generation Z (Z), born late-1990s to 2010.
Now, notwithstanding the arbitrariness of these labels, it would be helpful to know within which generation we all might be classified. Now, I would be in the category of the Traditionalist or Silent Generation, and my birth year falls on the tail end of these years. So, Jackie, will you begin by sharing in which category your birth would fall and is it on the early, middle, or tail end of that range?
Jackie (BB): Okay, I’m in the Baby Boomer group; I would be in early-middle age group of the Baby Boomers.
Gwen (T/S): Eboni, could you say where you are?
Eboni (X): I’m a Generation X –
Gwen (T/S): Generation X? And would you be on the early, middle, or tail end of that?
Eboni (X): – in the middle
.Gwen (T/S): And Tangela…
Tangela (M): I’m an early Millennial.
Gwen (T/S): Okay, great…this is great. I’m going to ask you just an open-ended question here about your life and career. It’s obvious that each of you has been successful in your careers. Now is there anything in your experiential journey that has implications regarding your gender – either positively or negatively? How did gender come up as you were moving forward in your career?
Jackie (BB): It has impact on my career at every stage of my career. I definitely think that many of the opportunities and challenges that I experienced as a professional – that my gender had implications for them. And so, promotions that I received, advisory groups, boards, activities that I participated in, my gender played a heavy role in that occurring. And I think I had many positive experiences because of my gender, but I also think that I had some challenges because of my gender, as well.
Gwen (T/S): So, do the positive experiences outweigh the challenges?
Jackie (BB: Yes, I guess in many ways, but they were equal at certain times in my career. I’d have a positive experience one day, and a negative one the next, so…
Gwen (T/S): So, how did you determine that it was about gender?
Jackie (BB): Well, in my experiences, and because of where I fall in the categories that you read, I think mine was both gender and race. I think it was a combination of both that played heavily into both my positive and my challenges.
Gwen (T/S): Mm hmm. Okay. Well, thank you, Jackie. Either Eboni or Tangela?
Eboni (X): Okay, this is Eboni. Some of my experiences – you know, it’s interesting, because I feel that gender has always been salient. I know some people who, they think about their gender some of the time or often; I think about it all the time, every day, and I have a hard time decoupling it from other aspects of myself. And, so, every day, all day, I am filtering and experiencing everything as a Black woman. I think that some of the ways in which my successes or the things that have affected me positively or negatively, with regard to gender, they really come up where they’re “even-Steven.” So, there’s been some things where I’ve had messages that suggest that there are certain spaces I shouldn’t occupy, or there’s doubt regarding my capability, but on the other hand, I have been positively fed and fueled, and see that intersectionality as a strength that emboldens me to navigate and to persist.
Gwen (T/S): This is great. Thank you, Eboni. Tangela?
Tangela (M): I would say that there have been both positive and negative implications, but the overarching that’s hitting them both is sometimes it’s the messenger and not the message. So, there are instances where I’m the appropriate messenger and it’s well-received and it’s positive, and there are times when I am not the appropriate messenger, even though my message is correct, and that is going to be negative. And so, sometimes those instances happen daily, sometimes in a specific meeting, and sometimes they’re overarching in my career. But, every day, I get to do this job, so I’m going to go with positive for the overwhelming impact.
Gwen (T/S): Can you talk a little bit more about the message and the messenger?
Tangela (M): Sure. In my current space, I’m in health care. And so, historically, the folks that are walking into legislative offices have been “pale, male, and stale” – and I did not invent that phrase; a NASA director created it in 1992 when he was trying to increase diversity and inclusion in that agency. But, lots of legislators have told me personally how refreshing it is to have not only a young woman, but a young, Black woman to come in to their offices to talk about health care issues. And, so, you’re having them hear a different messenger and receive it differently than who might have been historically in their office discussion those issues with them.
When I arrived as Dean at this community college, the staff surprised me with a corn plant as a welcome gift. It was a tiny little thing that, over the years, grew to over seven feet tall, nearly touching the ceiling. I loved the plant both because my colleagues gave it to me and because it was so hardy and beautiful. During one winter, I was surprised to see that the tips of the leaves had begun to turn brown, and brown and yellow spots appeared intermittently throughout the leaf structure.
As the winter progressed, the spots became more prominent and the plant looked as if it were not going to survive. Despite my inexperience in resuscitating plants, I became more attentive to my corn plant. I changed the size of the pot to allow the roots to spread; I put fertilizer on the plant for the first time; and I watered it when it seemed to need it instead of when I just happened to think about watering it.
Interestingly, as unsightly as the plant became, it continued to grow tall. One day, while leaning in close to water the plant, I noticed something next to the bottom of the stem just barely on top of the soil. Upon closer inspection, I realized that it was a tiny shoot. What amazed me was that it had the shape of a fully developed corn plant. It was the tiniest corn plant one could imagine.
While I continued to attend to the ailing larger plant, within months, the tiny shoot grew to nearly half the size of the original plant. The new plant was hardy with thick green leaves. In the meantime, the original plant began to bend its stem away from the new plant. This allowed room for the new plant to spread its leaves in new growth. I didn’t know what to make of it, but it seemed that the original plant had nurtured a new version of itself. I thought to myself that this was a perfect example of a transmutation.
What I think is happening in higher education today is like the transmutation of my corn plant. To some observers, higher education seems impaired and not as healthy as it once was. Yet, it continues to grow because of grant-funded research, exemplary scholarship by star faculty, increased endowments generated by gifted fundraisers, and increased numbers of students seeking a degree as a way to move a step up on the economic ladder.
If higher education leans in closely, as I did when I discovered the tiny new plant, it will see that it must recast its role to actually and truly put students at the center of the enterprise. Putting students at the center requires meeting students where they are today. Where they are today includes expecting that their unique place in history and their stage in development will be respected. While they share some commonalities with all students, they will not allow the system to paint them with the same brush.
Common among today’s students is the fact that they are learners, as well as producers of knowledge. Therefore, they want the kind of partnership with colleges and universities that will enable them to negotiate a better match between their personal goals and their desire to be activist citizens in the current social movement.
Colleges and universities can learn, and will, like the dying corn plant, know how to nurture its rebirth by bending away from some of its practices and traditions in order to become congruent with the needs of a new culture that is demanding something different.
You might say it’s generalized paranoia or an unusually heightened sensitivity to slights, but if you were born Black in the American South like I was, seeing the indignities of Jim Crow laws heaped upon one’s parents and grandparents day in and day out, every word and gesture of White people would be filtered through the cheesecloth of racism leaving a residue of threat. Racism is not only about skin color: I see it as using perceived power to deny other humans their rights, dignity, and respect.
Recently, a friend and I were on a small intimate tour of a man-made lake in the Southwest. We were the only people of color among the tour group; the tour guides also were White. For the tour, we were all seated at tables inside the boat. To begin, one of the two tour guides visited each table to find out where everyone was from. For easy reference, the guide wrote the various places down. Using a microphone, the guide recognized each table by saying where everyone was from and who came the furthest for the tour and who was the closest to home.
When the guide did not point to our table or call out our state, I raised my hand and, with a smile, proudly said, “We’re from Maryland!” Rather than apologizing for leaving our table off the list or making a self-effacing comment to account for the omission, the guide said, in what I thought was a begrudging or dismissive tone, “Maryland wants to be recognized.” Hmm, I thought. I see you.
The tour was just beginning and I was not going to dwell on what probably was just an innocent omission. The guide might have been having a bad day, as we all do at one time or another. I willed myself to be upbeat and told myself to remember the prevailing racist refrain, “Everything is not about race.”
There was a table with two elderly couples directly behind the table where my friend and I sat. While not intentionally listening to their conversation, our tables were close enough for me to hear bits and pieces of what they said. Some of the conversation was about unwelcome people in their neighborhood, such as folks who liked to ride motorcycles and the influx of gangs in nearby areas.
As the conversation progressed, one of the men said that he used to work with a Black man who did not have a car, and he would drive the man to a place to get his check cashed and then drive him home. I don’t recall his exact words, but he conveyed that he was uneasy at first about going into a Black neighborhood. He ended the story by saying that no one bothered him and nothing ever happened to him. Hmm, I thought. I see you.
My back was to the man, so I never saw his face, but I knew that the person telling this next story was the same person who spoke of his experience of going into a Black neighborhood. In this story, he and his girlfriend, many years ago, were in a crowd of Black people at some entertainment event and a riot started. He talked about how the Black people surrounded him and his girlfriend and got them to safety. As I sat there, I was wondering why this man was talking about his experiences with Black people. Was my friend’s and my proximity a trigger for these memories? Hmm, I thought. I see you.
As the tour progressed, the guides gave interesting facts about our location. When there was a negative fact about some blunder or catastrophic event that occurred near the site we were viewing, a woman at the same table of four directly behind us would say in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, “It must have been a Democrat!” I was shocked that she would do this during these times that are so politically polarized. Why was this woman making this comment? Hmm, I thought. I see you.
As I worked it out in my mind, I concluded without much effort that this woman was making the assumption that my African American friend and I were Democrats, and she was heckling us. My first instinct was to turn around and give the rude woman a look that I hoped she would interpret as my calling her an “idiot!” As she kept up the harangue about incompetence being equated with being a Democrat, I wanted to engage the woman in dialogue about why she had this opinion about Democrats, and why she thought it was necessary to comment out loud in this setting. I resisted the urge to turn around or say anything.
After the tour, my friend and I talked about what happened on the boat. I said that I felt as if I had been psychically assaulted because, whether I wanted to or not, I gave energy to thoughts about whether or not my experience on the tour had anything to do with race. I felt singled out and harassed, but mostly I felt impotent and powerless to even use my words.
Political preferences now function powerfully as identities, driving divisions that can be deeper than those defined by religion or race. The demarcation between words and actions has blurred, as psychologists and activists argue that language itself can be a form of violence.
Students are being assaulted daily by antagonistic rhetoric fomented by the current divisive political environment. They have to use brain space and energy to decipher if their negative experiences are acts of racism and, more importantly, whether they should react or not.
After the boat experience, I found an outlet for my feelings when I talked with my friend. And when I write about experiences such as this, I have an opportunity to do more processing and critical self-talk. Students also need a place to talk about what is happening to them, how they feel about it, and what, if any, actions they might take.
Listening groups, or whatever name fits the culture of your institution, are essential support services for students’ mental health. In addition to providing a place to be heard, such groups offer students an opportunity to practice skills that lead to effective interpersonal communications and intercultural competence. These groups can be built into classroom time as a laboratory or they can be part of the cocurriculum outside of class. If students are to maximize their learning and experience, they will need a way to attend to their emotional disruptions and psychic wounds caused, in part, by the current complex climate.