ACPA’s Influence on Equity and Inclusion: “Becoming More Fully Human:” Transforming Student Affairs through Social Justice

Brian J. Reece
University of Oregon

Finding its roots in a partnership with the National Association of Deans of Women as the National Association of Appointment Secretaries in 1924, ACPA-College Student Educators International (ACPA) has perhaps always had a predisposition for social justice education (ACPA, 2013c). As early as 1937, public documents like the American Council on Education’s Student Personnel Point of View, for which ACPA was a contributor, discuss financial issues faced by students and urge higher education institutions to prepare students to engage in “cultural interests” of their communities and “to assume those individual and social responsibilities which are essential to the common good” upon graduation (p. 9). Of course, when this document was written, there was very little racial, economic, or gender-based diversity to speak of in higher education. Still, Torres, DeSawal, and Hernandez (2012) argue that the statements of this document “take on a more complex understanding today with an increased diversity” (p. 27). Just over a decade later, in its second iteration, we can see this Point of View evolving already by asserting that institutions should develop in students “an appreciation of cultural values, the ability to adapt to changing social conditions, [and] motivation to seek and to create desirable social change” (American Council on Education, 1949, p. 20).

ACPA’s history of contribution in words has been admirable, but the Association has also done its best, often ahead of its time, to take to action. ACPA has a strong history of its words being full of both reflection and action, what Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire (1993) calls the “praxis” of authentic dialogue: “To speak a true word is to transform the world” (p. 68). Indeed, ACPA has transformed its own world—that of student affairs. The profession of student affairs overall has almost always considered the student in a holistic sense, but ACPA has long focused on equitable and inclusive visions of that whole. For example, in 1968, at the height of the Civil Rights movement, ACPA commissioned a Task Force on Race and the College Community, which eventually morphed into the Standing Committee for Multicultural Affairs (Bennett, 2012). Bennett (2012), who is Past Chair of the commission, wrote that it “has evolved into one of the key components in the mission and vision of ACPA, to foster college student learning and to provide advocacy, outreach and professional development.” This committee, of course, was followed by several others centering on social identity and social justice, including committees on women, disability, men and masculinities, and LGBT awareness.

One area of focus for ACPA over the decades following the establishment of the Commission for Multicultural Affairs was to develop in the profession a new ability to support the diversifying student population at higher education institutions in the United States. This identity-based approach mirrored that of colleges and universities, which began erecting centers and offices dedicated to specific identities and ways of being. As Laird Bridges, Morelon-Quainoo, Williams, and Holmes (2007) assert, recreating a sub-culture similar to the environment of Historically Black Colleges and Universities may in fact increase success for students of color at Predominantly White Institutions. Centers like this, which have found support in ACPA for some time through standing committees, can do just this, and their contribution to the development of an overall social justice effort within ACPA is certain. Still, this approach is naturally a fractured methodology. With the emergence of theories of intersectionality and an attunement to the intersection of multiple oppressed identities, a new way of thinking about social justice education began to emerge. In 2005, the Commission for Social Justice Educators (CSJE) was established “to provide a collaborative home for college student educators working in the areas of diversity and social justice education” (ACPA, 2013a). The core function of this newest commission is to bring together the various factions and to focus on social justice education as a whole—to bridge the gaps within ACPA’s identity-based work. We also see this mirrored by colleges and universities who have created social justice positions, offices of equity and inclusion, and even senior administrators working on diversity-related issues.

ACPA’s commitment to this new way of thinking about social justice education can be seen far beyond the formation of one single commission. In its latest statement of core values, ACPA (2013b) lists “diversity, multicultural competence, and human dignity” and “inclusiveness in and access to association-wide involvement and decision-making.” Further, the position of Director of Equity and Inclusion has become a crucial role on the Governing Board for ACPA—indicating that its words are not merely reflection, but are also calls to action. Recently elected to this position, Kathy Obear has begun an overhaul of ACPA’s equity and inclusion work in an attempt to both streamline the Association’s efforts and to develop new and exciting initiatives. Other examples of actions taken by ACPA after much reflection include the recording of CSJE-sponsored programs at the convention so that those for whom cost is a barrier to attendance may yet learn something, the creation of guides for sustainability in host cities, brochures on socially just eating options in host cities, and a plan for incorporating issues of social justice into the process of selecting host cities and venues for future conventions. These efforts, though grounded in the experience of oppression by individual identities, have taken on a more holistic social justice approach with an understanding of multiple and intersecting identities.

As ACPA looks toward the future of its social justice efforts, a focus on intersectionality clearly continues to be at the forefront of discussions on how to better serve both its members and, more importantly, students in higher education. Intersectionality, born from the realization that our distinctive and multiple identities are overlapping in complex and unimaginable ways, is obviously an important aspect of social justice education; however, it should be foundational rather than directional (Torres, Jones, & Renn, 2009, p. 588). ACPA’s Commission for Social Justice Educators in particular has begun exploring more conceptual frameworks for social justice. Paulo Freire’s (1993) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, for example, serves as an excellent theoretical foundation for this conversation. Integrating ideas and theories across disciplines, Freire (1993) equates Western educational philosophy with that of banking, a method in which information is held by teachers (the oppressors) and passed along to students (the oppressed). At the same time, he introduces a “problem-posing” educational philosophy in which teacher-students and students-teachers work together in order to create new knowledge—the pedagogy of the oppressed (see Chapter 2). What can we learn from Freire and how can we apply this to our social justice education efforts? How have our efforts utilized the banking model, which is inherently oppressive, and how can we transform our efforts into problem-posing ones?

More recent contributions by scholars like Kevin Kumashiro (2002; 2004) have explored how anti-oppressive pedagogical frameworks can contribute to the development of a social justice orientation in a classroom setting. Considering Kumashiro’s foundational work may give the Association a direction and a framework with which to consider the multiple, complex, and overlapping identities of its membership and of the college and university populations at large. Synthesizing psychoanalytic theory, feminist thought, queer theory, poststructural theory, and more, Kumashiro (2002) works toward a new approach to education that counteracts the oppression students have heretofore experienced and internalized. One suggestion utilizes a poststructuralist approach, suggesting that “antioppressive educators can use the notion of citation to examine the intersections and interrelations of multiple forms of oppression and the situated nature of oppression, as well as to explore the changes made possible when laboring to alter oppressive citational processes” (p. 117). What Kumashiro (2002) refers to is the notion that oppression is “produced when certain discourses (especially ways of thinking that privilege certain identities and marginalize others) are cited over and over. Such citational processes serve to reproduce these hierarchies and their harmful effects in society” (p. 50). As ACPA recommits itself to social justice and as student affairs professionals embrace their roles as social justice educators, it is imperative that we begin to think about how the choices we make in our roles as educators are antioppressive and/or oppressive. How are we as individuals, as commissions, and as an association citing oppressive practices and thus reinforcing the very oppression we seek to eliminate?

In our own synthesis of theory from across disciplines, we can begin to place the oppressed into the center of our conversations. It is not necessarily enough to wonder how a decision may impact an individual. Instead, let us ask, “What does this decision feel like for a lesbian female of color?” or “How does this decision change the way in which a student from China who utilizes a wheelchair interacts with this campus physically, emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually?” Kumashiro (2004) asserts that being prepared for uncertainty is crucial to success in teaching and learning toward social justice; although applied to the classroom, its extension to student affairs is evident. Writing about unintentional lessons, such as those taught about gender binaries when men are always asked to move desks and women to tidy up the classroom, he reveals that “the goal is to conscientiously make visible these hidden lessons and the various lenses students use to make sense of them” (p. 41). Reframing the conversation around oppression can help make it easier to understand why arguing the equity of something or the reasons for not including someone are insufficient paths toward social justice.

While this approach obviously does not work for everyone, it is easy to see how an argument for gender-neutral housing options, for example, may be more successful by contending that not offering them is a form of oppression against LGBT students rather than simply an offer of equity and a way to include them. At the very least, it can bolster such an argument and help refute ideas like the following: “We already include LGBT students by allowing them to live with us! They can live in singles if they want.” This response is framed around equity and inclusion—LGBT students are offered similar options and are allowed to be a part of what “we” offer. Still, what does the experience feel like for a student who identifies as transgender? Such a student may feel that they are being isolated or treated differently. Such an option is, of course, often more expensive, which for many, particularly those who are historically oppressed, is not always financially viable. Inviting the oppressed to the center can begin to provide clarity for those who wish to remain blind to the real experiences of oppression within their campus borders.

ACPA is well positioned to be a social justice education leader in the profession of student affairs. With a long history of advocating for the whole student and of being at the forefront of ensuring that all aspects of that whole student are considered and respected, the Association’s position as a change agent in higher education and for college students remains strong. ACPA should continue to push for research that is inclusive and representative of a diversifying student population by paying close attention to the voices of individuals with oppressed identities. In particular, ACPA should continue to be a role model for student affairs educators by demonstrating how social justice education is an integral part of the role of all student affairs educators. The Association already does this in many ways, but it should begin to consider how to do more than advocate for the support of individuals. How can ACPA utilize its influence to make an impact on structures that perpetuate oppression? What can ACPA do to shift its own banking education philosophies toward problem-posing ones? Freire (1993) writes,

Banking education inhibits creativity and domesticates (though it cannot completely destroy) the intentionality of consciousness by isolating consciousness from the world, thereby denying people their ontological and historical vocation of becoming more fully human. Problem-posing education bases itself on creativity and stimulates true reflection and action upon reality, thereby responding to the vocation of persons as beings who are authentic only when engaged in inquiry and creative transformation. (pp. 64-65)

Informed by its own research and scholarship in social justice education and that of many others, ACPA can offer a place in higher education for oppression to meet its end—for all students to become more fully human.


ACPA-College Student Educators International (2013a). Commission for Social Justice Educators. Retrieved from

ACPA-College Student Educators International (2013b). Core Values. Retrieved from

ACPA-College Student Educators International (2013c). History of ACPA. Retrieved from

American Council on Education. (1937). The student personnel point of view. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

American Council on Education. (1949) The student personnel point of view. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

Bennett, Marquis L. (2012, December). Donation letter. [PDF document]. Retrieved from

Kumashiro, K. (2002). Troubling education: Queer activism and antioppressive pedagogy. New York, NY: RoutledgeFalmer.

Kumashiro, K. (2004). Against common sense: Teaching and learning toward social justice. New York, NY: RoutledgeFalmer.

Laird, T. F. N., Bridges, B. K., Morelon-Quainoo, C. L., Williams, J. M., & Holmes, M. S. (2007). African American and Hispanic student engagement at minority serving and predominantly white institutions. The Journal of College Student Development, 48(1), 39-56.

Torres, V., DeSawal, D., & Hernandez, E. (2012). Reflections on the 75th anniversary of the student personnel point of view. K. M. Boyle, J. W. Lowery, & J. A. Meuller (Eds.). Washington, D.C.: ACPA.

Torres, V., Jones, S. R., & Renn, K. A. (2009). Identity development theories in student affairs: Origins, current status, and new approaches. The Journal of College Student Development, 50(6), 577-596.

About the Author

Brian J. Reece is a graduate student in Counseling, Family and Human Services with a specialization in Prevention Science at the University of Oregon. He received his Honors B.A. in English and M.Ed. in Higher Education Administration from the University of Delaware as well as a graduate certificate in Nonprofit Management from the University of Oregon. His research interests include gender and sexuality in literature, psychology, and education and the relationship between language and oppression. He currently serves as Vice Chair of Member Services for ACPA’s Commission for Social Justice Educators.

Please e-mail inquiries to Brian Reece.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

Women as Leaders & Caregivers: Casting Ebony Pillars in the Ivory Tower—Reflections of a Sister in the Academy

In celebration of our 40th Anniversary, members of the Standing Committee for Women are pleased to sponsor a Series in Developments. Our Series, “Women As,” explores how women’s intersecting identities (race, class, gender expression and performance, sexuality, religion, etc.) impact women’s experiences in different roles. Thus, authors share their ideas as women who are leaders, faculty, caregivers, and/or students. In support of a feminist approach to research and learning, articles will reflect an array of insights including practical strategies, research findings, lessons learned, arts-based research, visual inquiry, narrative inquiry, and reflections. We encourage you to utilize the discussion questions included in each article to stimulate your thinking and enhance your work in the classroom and/or workplace.

Aya—the Ghanian axiom for endurance and resourcefulness. These words are a fitting description of the spirit and achievements of Black women in higher education. Though Black women have played an active role in developing the postsecondary sector in the United States, exclusionary measures have negatively impacted racial minorities since the inception of higher education (Anderson, 1988; Collins, 2001; Lucas, 1994). As a result, Black women in the academy often mediate dissonance between their conceptualizations of self and the institutionalized mores of higher education (Clark & Corcoran, 1986; Collins, 1986; Gregory, 1999; Jarmon, 2001; King & Ferguson, 2001; Patton & Harper, 2003). Although the experiences of Black women are not monolithic, several studies suggest that they cope with similar difficulties, such as addressing racial and gender microaggressions across the postsecondary system (Solórzano, 2000; Thompson & Dey, 1998); balancing career with familial obligations (Finkel, Olswang, & She, 1994); obtaining tenure-track positions at a slower rate than their colleagues (Finkel et al., 1994); experiencing a lack of mentorship (Jarmon, 2001; Patton & Harper, 2003; Woods, 2001); and failing to obtain systematic socialization within the academy (Gregory, 2001; Singh, Robinson, & Williams-Green, 1995; Thompson & Dey, 1998).

It is within this context that this article shares my narrative as a Black woman in higher education. In a very organic manner, I bridge my experiences with Black feminist thought in an effort to demonstrate ways in which Black women may name individual instances of empowerment within their own lives. After briefly exploring my personal accounts with identity intersection, I present The Pillars of Indigo, a conceptual model that connects practical performance strategies with lessons learned. As such, this work is a dialogue between me and any woman who has ever struggled to dance to her own rhythm.

Black Feminist Thought in Higher Education

Issues stemming from the Black-White dichotomy have shaped the racial fabric of the United States for over 400 years, and institutions of higher education have not gone unaffected by these dynamics (Anderson, 1988; Collins, 2001; Lucas, 1994). Complex relationships between Black women and the academy have always existed as a result of multiple-often conflicting-expectations that limited their level of involvement in curricular and co-curricular activities (Collins, 1986; Collins, 2001; Holmes, 2003; Jarmon, 2001). Lucy Diggs Slowe and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander serve as vivid illustrations of Black women who were expected to adapt to infrastructures built for Whites (Mack, 2012; Rasheed, 2012). Slowe was a revolutionary in higher education administration and Alexander was the first Black scholar to receive a Ph.D. in economics and the first woman to earn a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania (Mack, 2012; Rasheed, 2012). Slowe and Alexander set their own guidelines on how they would maneuver through paternalistic attitudes that catered to White men while progressing through the education system.

Both accounts act as examples of the “outsider within” paradigm often observed in varying United States systems and aptly identified in Black feminist thought (Collins, 1986; hooks, 1981; hooks, 1984). Parallels continue to exist between Slowe, Alexander, and other Black women in higher education. Black women have become perpetually situated in a space where they are able to observe behavioral, cultural, and sociopolitical patterns that often go undetected by their colleagues and students (Aquirre, 2000; Collins, 1986; Gregory, 1999; hooks, 1981; Jarmon, 2001; King & Ferguson, 2001; Woods, 2001). Sometimes known as “marginal intellectuals,” Black women provide a unique and valuable perspective on postsecondary infrastructures because increased visibility of Black women on college campuses has not immediately translated into acceptance and integration. Racism and sexism continues to prevent Black women from being regarded as major actors in the higher rungs of academia (Collins, 1986; Gregory, 1999; King & Ferguson, 2001; Mannheim, 1936; Patton & Harper, 2003; Thompson, & Dey, 1998). Overall, their experiences remain on the cusp of critical discourse within the annals of higher education (Anderson, 1988; Holmes, 2003; King & Ferguson, 2001; Patitu & Hinton, 2003).

She Writes in Color. She Speaks in Song.

According to Collins (1986), “Black women may produce certain commonalities of outlook [but] the diversity of class, region, age, and sexual orientation shaping individual Black women’s lives has resulted in different expressions of these common themes” (p. S16). Nonetheless, we all require nurturing relationships and networks inclusive of role models who are situated in the postsecondary sector (Aquirre, 2000; Clarke & Corcoran, 1986; Finkel et al., 1994; Jarmon, 2001; Gregory, 2001; Patitu & Hinton, 2003; Woods, 2001). As a first generation college student, I was unaware of the developmental setbacks that I had yet to overcome early in my career as an administrator. A new practitioner fresh out of my graduate program, I was not concerned with establishing a professional reputation or integrating theory into my practice. I did not care to stretch my frame of reference or challenge myself to think critically on my pedagogical philosophy. Honestly, I did not grasp how important these elements were because I viewed Black and mainstream culture as mutually exclusive. I had yet to come to the realization that it is possible to find connections between my experiences and university values. I have come a long way since then, and I attribute much of my growth to the women who have taken a special interest in me.

Literature states that it is rare for Black women to identify mentors because there are a shortage of Black faculty and staff at predominantly White institutions (PWIs) (Aquirre, 2000; Gregory, 1999; Gregory, 2001; Jarmon, 2001; Woods, 2001). One way that I was able to circumvent this issue was becoming an active member of professional associations. It was through my participation in ACPA – College Student Educators International, that I found a home in the Pan African Network (PAN). PAN generated several sisters and mentors through the years that I rely on for personal, professional, and spiritual advice. Recognizing that all budgets will not allow for travel to national conventions, I recommend that Black women become more involved with a regional affiliate. This option is more affordable and still provides faculty and staff with the opportunity to associate with a broad range of professionals that are in close proximity. These experiences are beneficial, as they provide educators with the space to engage in reflective discussions with individuals who may share similar backgrounds, viewpoints, or understandings. Networking strengthens careers and is effective in revitalizing educators’ commitment to higher education.

It is important to realize that mentorship does not recognize age. It is about ability, experience, and connection. Regardless of rank and title, it is important that Black women select several individuals who can provide them with an appropriate level of challenge and support in a variety of ways, as it is nearly impossible to identify one person who is equipped to address the holistic needs of an individual. For instance, several of my mentors have suggested that I remain current on the latest research and connect with those who are well-versed in subjects I wish to become an expert on. They have also pushed me to reach out to colleagues and request assessments and recommendations for scholars who could positively shape my professional experience. My mentors have positively influenced my ability to assert myself, to establish rapport, and to cultivate a substantial professional network.

I will be open in sharing that I have also experienced a great degree of dissonance in reconciling the intersection of my personal and professional identities. In deeper reflection, I point to this issue as one of the reasons why I found navigating the political climate of higher education so challenging. My demographic markers have traditionally placed me in several “at-risk” categories and working as a single mother in residence life has led me to make some difficult decisions, crucial mistakes, and complicated conclusions.

My transition has not been easy, nor has my learning been seamless. What has been most difficult for me has been reconciling my personal characteristics with my role in higher education. I have been described by students and colleagues as passionate, intimidating, beautiful, harsh, wise, and arrogant. I have yet to be employed by an institution where I have not been compared to the “other Black woman” in the department. And frankly, addressing me by another Black woman’s name has become cliché. I am from “the hood.” I am not “articulate for an African-American woman;” I am simply articulate. I have a sharp mind, a hearty laugh, and a determined spirit. Yes, I am a mother. No, I am not married, and no, I am not divorced.

I must unpack these exchanges on a daily basis…and it takes its toll.

The Pillars of Indigo: A Conceptual Framework of Empowerment for Black Women

In cementing themselves within the infrastructure of higher education, the very presence of Black women strengthens the postsecondary sector. They serve as pillars within its system. Any engineer recognizes that each pillar supports a different aspect of a structure. My understanding of the literature and personal experiences suggest that life’s lessons have been very instrumental in my success and have become symbolic mainstays in my career. While engaging in reflexive praxis to chart out my professional trajectory, I began to notice themes emerging from my past; themes that I have since organized into a framework. This framework has allowed me to make sense of the intersections between my life as a Black woman and my work as a higher education professional. It is my hope that Black women in the academy can also utilize this model as a tool for personal and professional reflection.

The Pillar of Influence: Connected, Inspiring, Dynamic

As marginalized intellectuals, the perspectives of Black women are powerful because they have remained steadfast amongst the rising tides of racial complexity in the United States. Black women come in many shades, sizes, and diasporic experiences, and upon recognizing the utility of their voices, it will become clear that they have the power to influence systemic change throughout the postsecondary sector. In unison, they can build intercultural communities, initiate interdisciplinary collaborations, and produce groundbreaking, empirical research. As individuals and as a collective, Black women have the capacity to become a dynamic presence in higher education.

The Pillar of Admiration: Impressive, Captivating, Valued

As I continued to engage in my professional journey, I came to regard Black women’s contributions to the field as original works. Within academia, the creation of knowledge is the most prized commodity that an educator can produce. Innovative designs are particularly valued and Black women’s position in the academy prime them for making significant contributions to postsecondary pedagogy, policy, and practice that are original and include diverse viewpoints. In understanding that Black women remain underrepresented in the academy, it is especially pertinent for Black women to present the ways they have improved the foundations of higher education. By marketing their wins, Black women require institutions to demonstrate how much their efforts are valued.

The Pillar of Strength: Fortitude, Resilience, Precision

Although history clearly points to the resilience of Black women, contemporary Black women also exhibit high levels of resolve and talent. Consequently, it is important for Black women to acknowledge the ways in which they serve as a source of support for their peers and the wider academic community. Notably, Black women also serve as beacons of support for underrepresented students and staff within higher education. Through the construction of best practices, synergistic mentorship, and interactive teaching, Black women play a substantial role in increasing the retention rates of Black students, faculty, and staff. Balancing their professional responsibilities with the obligations of civic service requires a tremendous amount of fortitude. As scholars and practitioners, Black women should realize that the higher education system continues to stand because of their involvement, emotional strength, and spiritual power.

The Pillar of Grace: Poised, Balanced, Distinguished

One of the difficulties in living as an underrepresented group is that the experiences of Black women often go misunderstood, are generalized, or are trivialized. Many Black women in the field have encountered the “Angry Black Woman” moniker, have been labeled, or have observed the stereotyping of a peer. Black women continue to contend with the task of dispelling stereotypes, but in the midst of facing these challenges, Black women execute the time-honored tradition of demonstrating poise during difficult times. There may be moments when a negative interaction with a colleague or supervisor causes Black women to question their skillsets and purpose in life. It is important to continue to treat these situations as moments that temper women to “keep your head, when all about you are losing theirs” (Kipling, 2007, p. 1).

The Pillar of Sovereignty: Freedom, Expertise, Leadership

It is within this final passage that I encourage Black women to acknowledge that their jobs do not define them. Their careers are wrapped around the essence of their identities. Living in a self-identified post-racial society, Black women combat issues that are closely tied to their social roles. For instance, Black women in the performance arts have experienced open criticism for their physical features, including skin-tone, facial structure, and size. But worst of all, Black women have been known to assault one another. In attending a pre-conference at an internationally-recognized convention, I observed a woman of color advising Black women to lose weight and wear skirts in their pursuit of collegiate presidential positions. Black women must recognize that the intersections of their professional and personal identities can cause conflict. However, they must realize the importance of each, and work diligently to reconcile the dissonance.


As an up-and-coming scholar, I willingly share my narrative with the hope that shedding light on the issues affecting Black women in higher education will have a transformative influence on the inequities impacting the broader system. I believe that once we have engaged in the constructive exploration of critical issues prevalent in the academy, faculty, staff, and executive management should be challenged to establish solution-based approaches to addressing these concerns.

I hope you are inspired to become more involved in professional development options available to you at the institutional, regional, national, and international levels. These opportunities will encourage you to build upon your professional repertoire and prepare you to engage in authentic dialogue when supporting underrepresented populations. In addition to reviewing texts and articles focused on critical theory and praxis, I became more familiar with current events and best practices in higher education through expanding my network and connecting with colleagues on the ways in which they have approached pertinent issues effecting people of color. With the failure of the Voting Rights Act, the Trayvon Martin trial results, the bankruptcy of Detroit, and increases in accessibility to information through technological advances and social media, educators must be aware of how trending national issues influence the experiences of students, faculty, and staff of color. Becoming skilled in observing how these issues contribute to the intersection of personal and professional identities will assist you in competently addressing the concerns of minorities in the academy.

Discussion Questions

  1. Who is responsible for developing–and assessing– mentor-matching initiatives and the professional socialization of new practitioners and faculty members?
  2. In what ways could graduate programs assist students in recognizing the intersectionality of identity within the profession, paying special attention to the complexity of identity development among minority populations?
  3. Acknowledging the significant contributions Black women have made within the higher education sector, how could colleges and universities better integrate the experiences of Black women into the academy, particularly in the domains of support services and research?


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Clark, S. & Corcoran, M. (1986). Perspectives on the American socialization of women faculty: A case of accumulative disadvantage. Journal of Higher Education, 57, 20-43.

Collins, A.C. (2001). Black women in the academy: A historical overview. In R.O. Mabokela & A.L. Green (Eds.),Sisters of the Academy: Emergent Black Women Scholars in Higher Education (pp. 29-42). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Collins, P. (1986). Learning from the outsider within: The sociological significance of black feminist thought. Social Problems, 33(6), S14-42.

Finkel, S., Olswang, S., & She, N. (1994). Childbirth, tenure, and promotion for women faculty. Review of Higher Education, 17(3), 259-270.

Gregory, S. (1999). Black women in the academy: The secrets to success and achievement (Revised Ed.). Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Gregory, S.T. (2001). Black faculty women in the academy: History, status, and future. The Journal for Negro Education, 70(3), 24-138.

Holmes, S. (2003). Black female administrators speak out: Narratives on race and gender in higher education.NASPA Journal, 6 (1), 45-65.

hooks, b. (1981). Ain’t I a woman: Black women and feminism. Boston, MA: South End Press.

hooks, b. (1984). From margin to center. Boston, MA: South End Press.

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Lucas, C.J. (1994). American higher education: A history. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Mack, K.W. (2012). A social history of everyday practice: Sadie T.M. Alexander and the incorporation of Black women into the American legal profession, 1925-1960. In T.L. Brown, G.S. Parks, & C.M. Phillips (Eds.), African American Fraternities and Sororities: The Legacy and the Vision (2nd Ed., pp. 267-288). Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky.

Mannheim, K. (1936). Knowledge. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace & Co.

Patitu, C. L. & Hinton, K.G. (2003). The experiences of African American women faculty and administrators in higher education: Has anything changed? New Directions for Students Services, 104, pp. 79-93.

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Rasheed, L. (2012). Lucy Diggs Slowe: Not a matron but an administrator. In T.L. Brown, G.S. Parks, & C.M. Phillips (Eds.), African American Fraternities and Sororities: The Legacy and the Vision (2nd Ed., pp. 249-266). Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky.

Singh, K., Robinson, A., & Williams, J. (1995) Differences in perceptions of African American women and men faculty and administrators. The Journal of Negro Education, 64(4), 401-408.

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Thompson, C. & Dey, E. (1998). Pushed to the margins: Sources of stress for African American college and university faculty. Journal of Higher Education, 69(3), 324-345.

Woods, R.L. (2001). Invisible women: The experiences of Black female doctoral students at the University of Michigan. In R.O. Mabokela & A.L. Green (Eds.), Sisters of the Academy: Emergent Black Women Scholars in Higher Education (pp. 105-116). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.

About the Author

Shawna M. Patterson has sustained over eight years of student affairs administration experience within the functional areas of residence life, athletics, and multicultural services within the Big 10 and ACC sectors. She has served multiple roles on projects centered on improving the experiences of faculty, staff, and students of color on predominantly White campuses. She is currently completing a Ph.D. in Higher Education at The Florida State University, with a focus on social justice, critical theory, and student of color identity development.

Please e-mail Inquiries to Shawna M. Patterson .


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

Exploring the Personal Perimeters of Women in Higher Education Administration: A Qualitative Study

Maureen A. Guarcello
University of San Diego

In celebration of our 40th Anniversary, members of the Standing Committee for Women are pleased to sponsor a Series in Developments. Our Series, “Women As,” explores how women’s intersecting identities (race, class, gender expression and performance, sexuality, religion, etc.) impact women’s experiences in different roles. Thus, authors share their ideas as women who are leaders, faculty, caregivers, and/or students. In support of a feminist approach to research and learning, articles will reflect an array of insights including practical strategies, research findings, lessons learned, arts-based research, visual inquiry, narrative inquiry, and reflections. We encourage you to utilize the discussion questions included in each article to stimulate your thinking and enhance your work in the classroom and/or workplace.

Former United States State Department official and university dean Anne-Marie Slaughter (2012) set digital records on The Atlantic magazine’s website with the release of her article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” This piece attracted more unique visits in a 24-hour period than the magazine experienced for any published article to date. The reflection upon Slaughter’s own experiences as a mother and professional appeared in the publication’s July/August edition, received 450,000 unique website hits, and more than 75,000 Facebook recommendations (Associated Press, 2012). Slaughter (2012) cites her own experience as dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs among the examples and challenges of motherhood coupled with a high-powered career.

Slaughter reflected upon how the dean’s role provided her flexibility to spend time with her children, compared to the professional and political undertakings she took on after she left her position at the university. She notes, however, that even as dean, attempts to balance work and family were challenged by faculty who explicitly balked when she mentioned her roles and responsibilities at home. Faculty considered her rhetoric to diminish the perceived “gravitas” the dean position required. As the first woman to be dean of the school, Slaughter disagreed with the faculty and any notion that women could not be productive participants within both the professional and the domestic spheres.

Slaughter’s experience highlights the need to further define the connections and boundaries women encounter while navigating professional roles within higher education administration and their personal lives outside of the workplace. This article presents a qualitative research study about female university administrators and work-life balance. It begins by describing the current context and theoretical perspectives that underlie the research, briefly outlining the methodology, and then addressing the findings and their application. This study may help the higher education community gain a deeper understanding of factors that impact women working in higher education administration roles.

Current Context and Theoretical Perspectives

Arguably, women are keeping colleges running. From roles as professors to university presidents, women occupy academic and administrative positions (Webb, 2010). Women have been tapped to head the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton University, Harvard University, and recently, Brown University. Brown’s newest president, Christina Hull Paxson, succeeds another woman, Ruth J. Simmons, who also served as the first Black Ivy League president (Stripling, 2012).

Although the press highlights the few women who accept presidential roles in higher education, there are also a number of leadership positions, including academic deans, assistant deans, and department chairs, where men remain the predominant gender. Given the significant role that university deans play in the governance of higher education, it is surprising that so little is known about these mid-level administrators and the experiences of the women who serve in these roles (Rosser, 2003). Research and literature surrounding women in higher education indicate women are getting stuck in the middle ranks, despite their education and aptitude (Cheung & Halpern, 2010; Dominici, Fried & Zeger, 2009; Eagly & Carli, 2007).

Work-life balance is often a factor that challenges women in higher education and top-level executives (Cheung & Halpern, 2010). This study begins to address the knowledge gap surrounding female higher education administrators and work-life balance. This research is especially important since women occupying dean and director roles are valued by faculty and staff as being more effective leaders than men in the same positions (Rosser, Johnsrud & Heck, 2003). A richer understanding of the challenges faced by women in administration also contributes to an understanding of retention and continued success of women in institutions of higher education.

Purpose and Methodology

The purpose of this qualitative study is to explore the experiences of women in higher education administration, focusing upon female academic assistant deans who are negotiating work-life balance and the boundaries of their professional lives.

Three research questions guided the study:

  1. In what ways do women who serve as assistant deans negotiate their professional and personal responsibilities?
  2. What obstacles have women who serve as assistant deans faced pertaining to their professional aspirations over time?
  3. What on-campus interventions have been useful for women who serve as assistant deans in negotiating their professional and personal obligations over time?

This study focused upon the entire population of female assistant deans at a private, four-year university, located in southern California. Eighty-three percent of the academic assistant deans at the university are women, and no more than two assistant deans represented the same college, school, or unit. The five women who participated were demographically diverse and represented a range of professional expertise and career stages. This variation allowed for a more comprehensive study (Patton, 2002).

A semi-structured interview guide framed both the focus group and the individual interviews. Five primary questions were posed during the 90-minute focus group. A 30-minute follow-up in-person interview was conducted with each participant the following day. After interviews were complete, notes and audio recordings from the focus group and individual interviews were grouped, coded, and analyzed to identify themes, similarities, and differences in the experiences of the assistant deans (Patton, 2002). Data were analyzed thematically, employing a provisional coding technique (Saldana, 2009).

Findings: Themes Emerging from the Data

Major coding themes were mentioned 10 or more times in the focus group. These included time expectations and scheduling, spouses and spouse support, personal growth, point person for problems, and setting boundaries and prioritization. Minor themes emerged from the data when participants mentioned them seven to nine times throughout the focus group. Minor themes represented strategic alliances on campus, children, dean’s impact upon role, student support as part of the role, technology, and assistant dean input and authority.

Three dominant themes emerged during the focus group and the individual interviews beginning to suggest why women in assistant dean roles may not move to a different position in university leadership. The first finding was both a surprise and a delight: to discover that perhaps these professionals were satisfied, as opposed to stuck in their roles.

When assistant deans were asked how they felt about their current position at the university and if they felt stuck, all of the women responded that they were happy with their role and could move freely if they chose. This finding counters the literature that points to women being stuck in mid-level higher education positions. Three of the five women in the study possess terminal degrees, making them eligible for faculty and tenure-track positions within the four-year institution. See Table 1 for each assistant dean’s professional and educational experience.

Table 1

Assistant Dean Experience and Education

Assistant Dean Years in Current Role Highest Degree Eligible for Tenure
Rosie 27 years EdD Yes
Tiffany 10 years MA Not at this institution
Mary 5 years MS Not at this institution
Julie 5 years PhD Yes
Priscilla 1 year, 6 months JD Yes

There was not a strong interest in moving up into the dean role, which may indicate that the assistant dean role represents an actual or perceived balanced occupation in higher education administration. One participant shared, “It’s a great career for people who want to balance their lives with something other than … just your career.” The assistant deans perceived limitations to the dean role surrounding time commitment and an aversion to university fundraising outreach.

The second finding delves deeper into the work-life balance theme, discussing where work ends and family begins. Each participant discussed the importance of family, but some of the women chose to have children and some chose not to have children. This is the area where the assistant deans shared the most difference in the ways they manage their demanding work schedules. One woman shared how her role allows her to spend time with her children, while another shared her choice not to have children, in part to support her career trajectory. The conversation that followed included this statement from Priscilla, who made a choice not to have children. “I have made a conscious choice in my life not to have children…I never want there to be a division with people that have children and don’t have children.” Priscilla’s comment was followed by Mary, who shared “I’m the one with kids at home that need me. If I sacrifice work time for family, then I am also going to sacrifice some family time for work.”

The third finding demonstrates that each of the assistant deans takes great pride in her work and the level of service she provides to the institution. Table 2 illustrates thoughts shared by each assistant dean shared about the position.

Table 2

Research Participant Thoughts on the Role of Assistant Dean

Mary addresses values and work life balance: “We are in this job because of who we are at home also. You know, that’s part of what we bring to it. The importance of family and the caring for others and all of those things that are important to us at home are important to us at work, the core values.”
Julie addresses creativity and authority: “You really get to think outside the box.”
Rosie addresses dean transitions: “It’s hard to go through those transitions…those are the hardest moments so, definitely, anyone will tell you, because someone gets used to you, they know you…but when a new person comes in, there’s always people that, and I don’t blame them, you know, that want to see changes, and they want to see change in your position too. So, you know, you have to prove yourself all over again. It takes about a year and half.”
Tiffany addresses surprises and problems: “That’s why I like my job. It’s never the same!”
Priscilla addresses work life allowances and children: “Women are leaving in droves to have kids and unfortunately they have to leave. I mean, that’s not fair. Higher ed does allow us to do that, to make those choices and to support one another.”


The focus group and follow-up interviews addressed the first two research questions in the study. Findings included themes surrounding spousal support, children and family activities, boundary-setting, and personal development. The third research question regarding how on-campus interventions may help women negotiate professional and personal obligations was not addressed. The remaining research question presents an opportunity for more research to learn how human resources and work-life balance or wellness workshops incorporate into the work lifestyles of female assistant deans.

The most significant finding from the study was learning that, counter to the literature, these assistant deans are satisfied with their roles. From one to 27 years of experience, the women shared that they have a great deal of responsibility and they have a strong commitment to their student constituents. The original purpose of this research was to learn more about the reasons why women, in this case assistant deans, move or do not move within the university administration ranks. The research participants were forthright and honest about their reasons for pursuing and maintaining their respective assistant dean positions, sharing the personal balance and professional satisfaction the roles brings them.

Limitations and Applications

This study represents a sliver of a larger picture dealing with gender, culture, higher education administration, and leadership. Each of these components is conditional, often unclear, and can be represented in a number of ways. The research from this study aims to begin informing factors in a layer of leadership which has not been widely studied.

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s (2012) article signifies the beginning of a larger, practitioner-based dialogue between genders, pivoting around the notion of having it all. Continuing to investigate what work-life balance means within the context of academic practitioners, and developing a better understanding of how female assistant deans came to be in their roles is a critical step in understanding support and retention efforts for women in the higher education community.

Discussion Questions

  1. Where does my own personal life intersect with my professional life, and how?
  2. How do I work with others when I recognize they are negotiating the personal-professional perimeter?
  3. How can higher education practitioners continue to proactively prepare for women administrators who will face these same obstacles?


Associated Press. (2012). Record hits on mag’s ‘Can’t Have It All’ story.  Retrieved from

Cheung, F.M., & Halpern, D.F. (2010). Women on top: Powerful leaders define success as work
+ family in a culture of gender. American Psychologist, 65, 182-193.

Dominici, F., Fried, L.P., & Zeger, S.L. (2009). So few women leaders. Academe, 95(4).

Eagly, A.H., & Carli, L.L. (2007). Through the labyrinth: The truth about how women 
become leaders. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Patton, M.Q. (2002). Qualitative research and evaluation methods. London: Sage

Rosser, V.J. (2003). Faculty and staff members’ perceptions of effective leadership: Are there
differences between women and men leaders? Equity and Excellence in Education, 36
(1), 71-81.

Rosser, V.J., Johnsrud, L.K., & Heck, R.H. (2003). Academic deans and directors: Assessing
their effectiveness from individual and institutional perspectives. The Journal of Higher
Education, 74(1), 1-25.

Saldana, J. (2009). The coding manual for qualitative researchers. London: Sage Publications.

Slaughter, A.M. (2012).  Why women still can’t have it all. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

Stripling, J. (2012).  Brown U. taps Princeton dean, an economist, as its next president. The
Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Webb, J.G. (2010). The evolution of women’s roles within the university and the workplace.
Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Roundtable, 5. Retrieved from…

About the Author

Maureen A. Guarcello is in the dissertation phase during her final year of doctoral study at the University of San Diego’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences. Maureen has more than a decade of academic, student, and external affairs experience at California State University, Long Beach; University of Hawaii; University of California, San Diego, and University of San Diego. Her leadership and higher education research is focused specifically upon gender and blended learning.

Please e-mail Inquiries to Maureen A. Guarcello.

Follow Maureen A. Guarcello on Twitter @mguarcello


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

Women as Leaders: Factors that Affect Career and Personal Success for Black, Female Leaders and Strategies to Overcome Them

Women as Leaders: Factors that Affect Career and Personal Success for Black, Female Leaders and Strategies to Overcome Them

Cheryl D. White
Wayne State University

Tonisha B. Lane
Michigan State University

Ayanna McConnell
University of Michigan

Shetina M. Jones
Michigan State University

Stacey N. Jackson
Oakland Community College

In celebration of our 40th Anniversary, members of the Standing Committee for Women are pleased to sponsor a Series in Developments. Our Series, “Women As,” explores how women’s intersecting identities (race, class, gender expression and performance, sexuality, religion, etc.) impact women’s experiences in different roles. Thus, authors share their ideas as women who are leaders, faculty, caregivers, and/or students. In support of a feminist approach to research and learning, articles will reflect an array of insights including practical strategies, research findings, lessons learned, arts-based research, visual inquiry, narrative inquiry, and reflections. We encourage you to utilize the discussion questions included in each article to stimulate your thinking and enhance your work in the classroom and/or workplace.

Many women who are employed outside of the home have the challenge of balancing their work life along with their personal lives. For Black women, balancing their work life also includes dealing with racism, tokenism, and isolation. Although White women have been subject to oppression because of their gender, they are still privileged based on their race (Accapadi, 2007). In contrast, African American women experience the lowest status in importance and standing behind White men, White women, and African American men (Zamani, 2003). Black women are often employed in small, four-year public institutions in urban areas that enroll large numbers of minority and female students (Henry, 2010). Although the number of White female administrators has increased steadily at all levels and ranks, the gains of Black female administrators, particularly at predominately White institutions (PWIs), has remained relatively small (Holmes, 2003). Due to their small numbers, African American women encounter many barriers alone (Henry & Glenn, 2009). They are often identified as “angry Black women” when they assert themselves in their management or leadership style (Henry, 2010). These issues and conditions make it difficult for Black women to feel supported and valued in the workplace.

Accounting for the aforementioned factors, how do Black women in student affairs balance their professional and personal lives? This article provides an overview of the challenges Black women face in the workplace and strategies to overcome them. Specifically, it utilizes Black Feminist Thought and Intersectionality as frameworks to explore race and gender bias, tokenism, and workplace and personal life challenges. The article concludes with recommendations that could be employed to overcome these challenges. ¹

Theoretical Concepts

Black Feminist Thought: Black feminist thought can be used to explore the nature of one’s intersecting identities and experiences in postsecondary education work settings. Black feminism allows “African American women to examine how the particular constellation of issues affecting Black women in the United States are part of issues of women’s emancipation and struggles globally” (Collins, 1996, p. 13). Moreover, Collins (2000) argues that Black feminist thought “aims to empower African American women within the context of social justice sustained by intersecting oppressions” (p. 22). It is the assertion of Black feminist thought that Black women have occupied marginal positions in society (Collins, 2000). They are often considered to be outsiders, because they are African American women working in a White, male dominated world (Collins, 2000). Though higher education has made great strides to recruit, retain, and promote Black women to critical positions of power and influence in the academy, disparities and inequities that uniquely shape the daily lives of Black, female administrators still exist (Holmes, 2003). Due to the intersectionality of race, class, and gender, studies show that Black women continue to face racism, sexism, double jeopardy, isolation, and tokenism in the workplace, particularly at PWIs (Burgess, 1997; Gregory, 1995; Holmes, 2003).

Intersectionality: Intersectionality is an “analysis claiming that systems of race, social class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nation, and age form mutually constructive features of social organization which shape Black women’s experiences, and in turn, are shaped by Black women” (Collins, 2000, p. 299). The intersectionality of identities creates different lived experiences and social realities for Black women. Our interactions at work, in the home, and in the community are influenced by how we see the world and how the world sees us. Consistent with the literature and the experiences of the authors, Black women may take on more responsibilities, because they feel, and are often told, that this is the way to prove their worth and to be recognized (Holmes, 2003, 2008; Taylor, 2005).

Additionally, as one of the authors contends from her lived experience, women who are single and/or do not have children are often given more responsibilities than others within a department as employers may assume that these employees have more time, because they are not married and/or do not have a family. The oppression faced by Black women because of their intersecting identities is not only interrelated but bound together (Collins, 2000). Black women cannot separate their identities to render the benefits of one identity over another in a given context. Some scholars suggest that this inability to compartmentalize Black women’s marginality places them in a “double bind” (Collins, 2000). Furthermore, the oppression and resiliency experienced by Black women affirms their commonalities, yet no one experience is exactly alike.


Race and Gender Bias: African American women traditionally have faced both race and gender bias. According to Zamani (2003):

Black women have always been more conscious of and more handicapped by race oppression than by sex oppression. They have been subject to all the restrictions against Blacks and women. In no area of life have they ever been permitted to attain higher levels of status than White women. Put more bluntly, African American women traditionally have been preceded by White men, White women, and African American men in importance and standing (p. 7).

Furthermore, some scholars suggest that the intersectionality of racial and gender bias is a “double whammy” (Holmes, 2008). As Holmes (2003) stated in her study on Black faculty, “…African American women suffer the ‘double whammy’ being both Black and female in academic environments that place little value on either trait” (p. 104). Similarly, in a social psychology study, Sesko and Biernat (2010) asserted that Black women were invisible to White women and Black and White men. In particular, Sesko and Biernat (2010) found that statements made by Black women were rarely attributed correctly to their involvement and participation in meetings when compared to Black men and White women and White men. Unfortunately, there are missed opportunities for Black women to grow and develop and make a significant contribution to the workplace if they are unnoticed and unheard because of their race and gender.

Career Advancement: An examination of Black female student affairs administrators’ perceptions of career advancement revealed that this group is exposed to unique barriers to career advancement, including lack of a supportive professional environment, lack of professional networking support, and gender discrimination (Henry, 2010). Although there are many women entering the student affairs profession, African American women continue to be underrepresented and will continue to be disproportionately represented in relationship to the number of African American female students on campus (Henry, 2010).

Even Black women working at PWIs and/or research universities face challenges regarding career advancement and networking. For instance, some Black women discover that they can only advance in a leadership role after they leave an institution and then return. This was personally experienced by one of the authors of this article, who shared the following experience:

I was told by more than one administrator that advancing my career might mean leaving the university and coming back. This turned out to be true, and I was able to come back to the university in a leadership role after leaving for four years. There have been some programs put into place to help with internal career advancement, but it still seems to be a problem for people at entry-level and mid-level points in their career, especially women of color (A. McConnell, personal communication, January 2013).

Tokenism: Kanter (1997) describes tokenism as a perfunctory effort or symbolic gesture toward racial integration where there is less than 15% of the total group. Black women can be described as “double tokens” or “double uncomfortable” (Sulé, 2009). “Double tokens” is used to describe Black women in PWIs who experience the workplace as one of society’s exclusive clubs to which, even though they have as much right as everyone else to be there, will never gain full membership. Sulé (2009) describes “double uncomfortable” as one’s identity intersects with the climate presented. An example of tokenism is provided below as experienced by a Black woman student affairs administrator:

Sometimes my meeting starts at 7:00 a.m. and ends with a program and dinner around 9:00 [p.m.] and often later. Honestly, it’s wearing me out. But there are not that many of us here, so I am always invited to be a keynote speaker or something like that (Holmes, 2003, p.55).

Workplace Challenges: African American women student affairs professionals experience barriers and challenges in the workplace, such as feelings of powerlessness and alienation (Burgess, 1997; Gregory, 1995; Holmes, 1999; Nelson, 1993). Black women experience pressure to be the lone voice and prove themselves more than anyone else. Workplace challenges may also involve working with other Black women who may not be good colleagues or ask for promotional favors (Henry, 2010). With so few Black women in positions of leadership, they are often tapped to represent all African Americans, even if they have differing viewpoints.

African American women in leadership positions often feel that their power is regularly challenged. Black women have to constantly ensure that their voice is not being diminished when offering their position on issues. Additionally, African American women who attend meetings and do not say much may be perceived as weak. At the same time, if one is too vocal or opinionated, she will be perceived as overly aggressive (Crews, 2007).

Personal Life Challenges: Black female leaders also experience personal life challenges. They are expected to be “superwomen,” on the job as well as at home, especially for those who have spouses and/or children. Unconsciously, some Black women place this burden on themselves. Starting from a young age, many Blacks are taught, by their elders, that they have to be better and do more to be recognized in the workplace (Taylor, 2006). This message is often reinforced when Blacks discover that they do not receive opportunities for advancement and salary increases at the same rate as their non-Black counterparts (Holmes, 2003, 2008).

According to Taylor (2005), many Black women feel that when they advance to leadership positions in student affairs and other areas in higher education, they should shoulder the multiple roles and responsibilities without question. Taylor (2005) describes her own experience of trying to obtain her doctoral degree in two and a half years while working as a full-time administrator, adjunct faculty member, and also being a wife and mother. Because of her multiple roles, she began experiencing stress and physical exhaustion, and her husband and family were being neglected and never saw her. By the time of her dissertation defense, she was suffering physically and mentally. Her advice is to heed the phrase “put yourself first” (Taylor, 2005, p.203). Black women who have families are expected to handle the traditional roles of the household (i.e., cooking and cleaning) in addition to working full-time outside of the home. For instance, the authors juggle multiple roles and responsibilities such as caring for immediate family members, seeking advanced degrees, caring for aging parents, and being active in community organizations. Although women of all races may have to manage this juggling act, Black women must also manage and overcome instances of racism, tokenism, and/or sexism at their place of employment (Taylor, 2006; Holmes, 2008).

Overcoming Barriers

Black women in student affairs must overcome barriers in both their work and personal life in order to be successful in both arenas. The following strategies, both from the literature and the authors’ experiences, can help to achieve balance at work and home.

Be strategic about what you get involved with and build alliances across departments.

It is impossible to be involved on every committee on campus, even those that focus on minority and/or African American issues. Although committee work may be expected in senior student affairs positions, consider your role and expectations on the committee. Build alliances across departments by periodically collaborating on projects or co-sponsoring events.

Understand the workplace environment.

Learning the culture and expectations of your particular work place is a key factor in senior student affairs leadership positions. Seek input from key stakeholders in the department before implementing major changes (Henry, 2010).

Seek multiple mentors and role models to help you navigate your career goals.

Mentors should be from a variety of cultural backgrounds and different areas of need as the diverse perspectives can help to develop a well-rounded sense of professionalism. Identify one or more individuals that know the culture of the department/institution (Henry, 2010).

Know yourself.

This strategy requires that you are grounded in a positive self-concept with an awareness of your skills, abilities, and goals so that you can ascertain what you may be lacking and improve in those areas. You should develop a five-year plan and conduct an annual review to evaluate your progress. Within your plan, you should venture to try new things and challenge yourself to step out of your comfort zone.

Become involved in professional development.

Actively participate in professional organizations that are aligned with your career and professional goals. Your state (or neighboring/regional) College Personnel Association or an ACPA standing committee or commission can provide such opportunities.

Remain close to family and friends.

They can provide nurturing and support especially when considering new leadership positions and advanced degrees (Henry, 2010).

Maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Many of the health challenges experienced by African Americans can be reduced by regular exercise, wise lifestyle choices, and maintaining a spiritual foundation.

Take advantage of employer programs that offer flexibility.

Telecommuting or an alternative work schedule may be an option (Axa-Equitable, 2012).


As African American women leaders in student affairs, we must keep afloat in the troubled waters of sexism and racism. In order to accomplish this;

…the myth of the ‘angry Black Woman’ must be demystified, debunked, and replaced with the image of an assertive and socially savvy African American female activist who exudes a strong, balanced self-identity and advocates on her behalf and for other Black women (Henry, 2010, pp. 13-14).

Furthermore, African American women must continue to research and document their experiences, with a specific focus on their contributions and successes in an effort to chisel away at the boulder of victimization that often obstructs the accomplishments of African American female student affairs administrators (Henry, 2010).


  1. Throughout this article Black and African American are used interchangeably.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you feel that the challenges discussed are specific to Black women only or can they be applied to all women?
  2. Do you feel that being a Black woman played a role in being hired for your current position?
  3. As Black women in leadership positions, what types of experiences have you had with your colleagues (Holmes, 2003)? In what ways are these experiences different across race and gender?


Accapadi, M.M. (2007). When White women cry: How White women’s tears oppress women of color. College Student Affairs Journal, 26(2), 208-215.

Axa Equitable Life Insurance Company. (2012). Balancing work and family. Retrieved from…

Burgss, N. J. (1997). Tenure and promotion among African American women in the academy: Issues and strategies. In L. Benjamin (Ed.), Black women in the academy: Promises and perils (pp. 227-234).  Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.

Collins, P. H. (2000). Black feminist thought. New York, NY: Routledge.

Collins, P. H. (1996). What’s in a name? Womanism, Black feminism, and beyond. The Black Scholar 26(1), 12.

Crews, L.C. (2007). The experiences of African American administrators at predominantly White two-year and four-year institutions. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan.

Gregory, S.T. (1995).  Black women in the academy: The secrets to success and achievement. Lanham, NY: University Press of America, Inc.

Henry, W. J. (2010). African American women in student affairs: Best practices for winning the game. Advancing Women in Leadership Journal, 30(24). Retrieved from

Henry, W., & Glenn, N. (2009). Black women employed in the ivory tower: Connecting for success.  Advancing Women in Leadership, 29(1), 20-18. Retrieved from

Holmes, S. L. (2003). Black female administrators speak out: Narratives on race and gender in higher education. National Association of Student Affairs Professionals Journal6(1), 45-65.

Holmes, S. L. (2008). Narrated voices of African American women in academe. Journal of Thought, 43(3), 101-124.

Nelson, J. (1993). Volunteer slavery: My authentic Negro experience. In K. M. Vaz (Ed.), Black women in America(p. 13). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Sesko, A. K., & Biernat, M. (2010). Prototypes of race and gender: The invisibility of Black women. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology46(2), 356-360.

Sulé, V.T.(2009).  Professional socialization, politicized raced and gendered experience, and black female graduate students. In V.B Bush, C.R. Chambers., &Walpole (Eds.) From diplomas  to doctorates: The Success of Black women in higher education and its implication for equal educational opportunities for all (pp.  111-130). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Taylor, C.M. (2005). Superwoman lives, (at least in my head): Reflections of a mid-level professional in student affairs  College Student Affairs Journal, 24 (2), 201-203.

Zamani, E. M. (2003). African American women in higher education. New Directions for Student Services, 104, 5-18.

About the Authors

Cheryl D. White, M.A., Ed. Spec. Cert., is an Extension Program Coordinator at Wayne State University (WSU) in Detroit, MI, and has over 30 years of experience in higher education student affairs, including academic advising, career services, and extension programming. Cheryl is a doctoral candidate in the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies/Higher Education Administration program at WSU. Her research focuses on the relationship of learning communities and retention of at-risk African American students.

Please e-mail Inquiries to Cheryl D. White .

Tonisha B. Lane, M.A., is a fourth year doctoral student in Higher, Adult and Lifelong Education at Michigan State University. Her research focuses on underrepresented students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields. She has over eight years of student affairs and higher education experience.

Please e-mail Inquiries to Tonisha B. Lane.

Ayanna McConnell, M.A., manages Student, Diversity and Young Alumni Programs at the Alumni Association of the University of Michigan, and has a 15-year career in higher education spanning student services and academic affairs. She is also a third year doctoral student in Educational Leadership at Eastern Michigan University. Ayanna’s research interests include succession planning and mentoring of African American administrators in higher education.

Please e-mail Inquiries to Ayanna McConnell .

Shetina M. Jones, M.A., is an Office of Cultural and Academic Transitions Area Coordinator at Michigan State University. Shetina has been in the student affairs field for over five years. Her research interests are African American female students, minority student higher education access, academic success, and challenges. She plans to start a Ph.D. program in Higher Education in Fall 2014.

Please e-mail Inquiries to Shetina M. Jones.

Stacey N. Jackson, M.A., is the Coordinator of Student Development at Oakland Community College. She has over 15 years of experience in higher education that includes work in multicultural affairs, student affairs, career advising, and as a part-time faculty member. Stacey is also a doctoral student at Eastern Michigan University in the department of Urban Education. Her research interests include mentoring, equal educational opportunity, social justice and college readiness.

Please e-mail Inquiries to Stacey N. Jackson.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.