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The Natural’s Job Search

Region IV-E Region IV-E
February 27, 2015 Jaymee Lewis-Flenaugh New Professional and Graduate Student Knowledge Community, Region IV-East

My graduate assistantship in housing offered their second year students the opportunity to conduct mock interviews. Why not participate? There were many great moments: getting through my nervousness, receiving critical feedback, and being asked by my Director how I was going to wear my hair at the Oshkosh Placement Exchange (OPE). The latter moment was a far-cry from the usual gawking at how big my hair was. It was not the touching of the strands to see how my pigtail curls bounced or the blank gaze of wonder on how long my hair really is if straightened. Her question was one of connection to the only Black graduate student in housing who happened to have natural hair.

As a person with naturally tight curls, I have always considered the impact of my hair on my environments. My hair somehow manages to creep into conversation slowly but surely. Sometimes it is more surely than slowly, as is the case for many others with natural hair. So when my Director, a White woman, asked me about my hair at the end of my mock interview, I laughed and immediately exclaimed, “I have no idea!” There were so many options and that was something I would decide soon enough.

Students and new professionals often choose to go into the field of higher education because of how welcoming our campus environments can be. Yet the same people, who just happen to have naturally kinky/curly hair, opt to go into the field with one caveat: wear your natural hair at your own risk. We embrace diversity and dialogue as a way of life {or at least university policy} in order to foster critical learning in the lives of students. Yet there is still major resistance to the many ways that female staff and para-professionals wear their hair in the workplace. Perhaps this dialogue around diversity is our next step.

Countless young women share with me that they straighten their hair during interviews or at work because they do not want any one limitation to exclude them from being hired for a job; that they do not want their hair to be distracting from what they have to say; that they want to avoid being noticed solely because of their hair; that their choice was really made by their mentor’s recommendation; or that they do not want to be seen as too fill in the blank.

These are not bad decisions, not at all. But it does point toward how the subtle and silenced conversations amongst current professionals may be impacting one group of people. So suddenly this welcoming environment that we display to our undergraduate students may not be so welcoming for our para-professionals and staff. Suddenly our kind words of advice become internalized messages of difference.

There were many other ways my former Director of Residence Life could have framed her question. And perhaps she took quite a moment to situate herself with a proper way to ask. However, she attempted to make a connection with me in that moment as a way to say I am genuinely interested in you. She smiled and looked me in my eyes, waiting for my response. From our conversation, I felt supported to be myself. So much so that when it came time for OPE , I decided to wear my hair naturally curly with a many bobby pins shaped into a nice tuck and roll.  The benefits: It could be done in 5 minutes, kept the ends of my hair protected, and gave me a polished but curly ready-to-interview look.

I encourage every young or young-at-heart woman to wear your hair how you personally prefer. The assumptions and recommendations can often lead us to do what is socially acceptable in the larger society. However, if a department would judge you solely based on your hair, is that an environment best suited for you? Remember that you are great and that you are interviewing the school as well for a place that will allow you to grow. Growth develops through nurturing care in the most freeing spaces. Growth comes from love and it comes from personal choice. If you are naturally curly/kinky or interested in the conversation, please comment below with your hair stories during the interview process!

About the Author:  Jaymee E. M. Lewis serves as Residence Hall Director at Dominican University.  She is a recent graduate of Western Illinois University, where she earned her Master of Science in College Student Personnel. Jaymee is a member of the NPGS KC within Region IV-East, where she has served passionately for over two years on the NPGS IV-East Leadership Team. In that role, Jaymee has established and currently coordinates a successful social initiative, MeetUps!, within the region, maintains email communications for NPGS IV-East membership, and represented the KC at regional conferences.


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