The NASPA principle of inclusion states “seeking ways to ensure access, voice, acknowledgment, opportunity and participation at all levels” (NASPA, 2019). While this is a value that we should all work to encompass in the field of higher education, it can be difficult, especially when the institutional environments we navigate as student affairs professionals may not look the way our increasingly diverse student bodies do. In my graduate experience thus far, I have had both a challenging and transformative experience of being the only womxn of color in my graduate school cohort and at the same time working closely with undergraduate womxn of color in advising and mentoring aspects through my role in our university’s social justice center. This juxtaposition has taken some time to adjust to, however from a graduate level perspective; I’ve crafted three personal practices to help me through difficult situations in these conflicting spaces, and to celebrate the successes and progress of myself as a professional and of those around me.
- Fostering Allyship
Allyship is important in the context of the students we serve, especially those of marginalized backgrounds. To be able to employ allyship effectively as student affairs professionals, I believe it all begins with how this is formed at the graduate school level. While our student populations are becoming more diverse, many graduate school programs still have huge disparities in racial/ethnic representation, specifically for womxn. For me, I have found allyship with one of my cohort mates, who identifies as a white, Jewish womxn. While our experiences, backgrounds, and upbringing vary greatly, we both have ultimately fostered a strong friendship and allyship that has helped us both navigate the graduate school process overall. At the core of developing allyship has been the pairing of listening and advocating. Having an ally that holds different identities than mine and listens to my struggles and obstacles has been instrumental in advancing the overall development for both as graduate professionals. After constant “listening sessions”, developing this form of allyship then helped for support and advocacy in the classroom setting. Having someone speak up about injustice in several forms has proved to take away some of the “burden” that is felt when I’m the only one.
2. Advocate for Yourself and For Your Students
Having the privilege and opportunity of advising primarily womxn of color has also driven me to be an advocate for my students and balance that with being an advocate for myself as well. This has proven a useful tool and practice in creating an environment of reprieve for myself and for my students. My students have expressed to me countless times that they want to learn how to advocate for their community. This has specifically happened with Latinx womxn identifying students, which always causes me to tap into my understanding of my own identity as a Latinx womxn. When giving my students tools for advocacy, whether it be leadership development focused conversations, or how to build allyship/support from higher education administrators in a variety of roles, I always pause and reflect to see if I am role modeling that advocacy behavior too. If I am, I try to communicate that to my students so they see someone who can advocate and be a student at the same time. If I feel I’m not encompassing that at the moment, I try to show myself some grace and think about where in my professional life I can work a little harder to show this advocacy piece. My students will often also inspire me to advocate for my own needs as a graduate student and professional. In the last year and a half in particular, I have focused on advocating for myself in order to make sure that when I show up for my students I am showing up in the form of my best self.
3. Finding and Connecting through Mentorship
One of the aspects that working with womxn of color identifying students and being a womxn of color in the field at the graduate level myself has taught me the importance of mentoring connections and making space for other to access those same kinds of connections. Student affairs professionals should work to create multi-level networks by becoming mentors themselves or connecting other professionals with students. Many of the students I’ve worked with have mentioned that they felt mentorship when they felt a staff or faculty member valued, connected or appreciated their identity. In my role as a graduate student I have often felt the same way. Once I made this realization, I focused on ingraining mentorship into my professional philosophy. By centering mentorship as part of student advising – whether that be in academic or student organization advising – this creates a solid foundation of support for womxn of color at the undergraduate level and the professional level, no matter the functional area of higher education they may be in. This practice has allowed me the opportunity to engage in uplifting and amplifying the needs of womxn of color by understanding, valuing and connecting with a mutually shared identity. Furthermore, as a graduate student, incorporating this into how I navigate the professional context of student affairs has helped me in creating my own network of womxn of color professionals where my voice can be uplifted and amplified in the same way I do for my students.
These three practices have helped me better understand and work to improve the complicated nature of student affairs working and educational environments that can sometimes be so incredibly different. In closing, while I recognize that “self-care” has become an aspect of higher education and student affairs that is consistently mentioned and encouraged, but rarely genuinely practiced, I want to mention its importance as I reflect on the three practices detailed above. As a womxn of color, self-care has been especially difficult when trying to show up professionally, for your students, study and finish graduate school coursework, and trying to maintain some level of a social life. However, self-care is a necessity for womxn of color engaging in these kinds of spheres, and while it definitely is not always perfect, showing grace and allowing for self-care moments and experiences make these three practices all the more possible.
B. Antonella Valdivia is a second year graduate student in the Higher Education Administration at Vanderbilt University. She is passionate about student affairs and more specifically in the functional areas of multicultural/social justice work, leadership development, and Diversity and Equity. She also had done research on Latinx womxn leadership development and is passionate about merging higher education with supporting the need for community-building.