#ACLPhDToBe: Goals, Intentions, & Accountability
28 days from now, I will be sitting in my first class and officially starting the journey to become #ACLPhD.
As I think about sitting in my first class for my PhD program, I am returning to the people and work that has gotten me to this point. As I take this break from packing, I am thinking about the role of my communities and my (chosen) families in getting me to this point. While I am honored and humbled by those who believe in me, my work, and my persistence, I would be nowhere without the love and accountability of others.
This post is about extending that love, by sharing my goals and intentions for this experience, much of which has been locked in in-person, face-to-face conversations. This post is also about a step of accountability so that my villages and communities can help to remind me why I am starting this degree.
The post below describes why I want this PhD, why I want it now, and my goals and interests I seek to pursue while in this program. In truth, this is a meta-summary of my personal statements from my PhD applications. This post is not about locking me into these goals, interests, or desires. Rather, it is to remind me (and introduce others) to where I am starting, leaving open much room for change - because I believe a PhD program should change and refine what I seek to study and to make my lens sharper and more critical.
Who Am I?
I am a critical educator committed to working with and alongside students as they persist, resist, and graduate through the system known as higher education. Why am I pursuing a Ph.D. in Higher Education and Student Affairs? Because I am hungry. I am hungry for answers to questions no one seems to have explored. I am hungry for a space to co-/de-construct knowledge with and alongside others who have an interest in creating campus communities that are just, caring, and thriving for all members. I am hungry for theory and praxis that seeks to address the challenges facing higher education and students. And that hunger is about to be satiated with time and investment in a Ph.D. program at the University of Iowa.
During and following my master’s program, I strived to commit myself to a bold, intentional praxis. Specifically, this look(ed/s) like finding, embracing, and struggling with the both/and while understanding how this both/and relates to developing a deeper and interconnected view of higher education. Rather than opting for an either/or approach, my time in student affairs continues to be about recognizing multiple truths and ways of thinking to advance student development and success in a variety of dimensions.
In my experiences as Assistant Director of Michigan State’s Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, and Transgender Resource Center, it has been important to listen to students in the ways that they make meaning of their own individual experiences with racism, heterosexism, and transmisogyny from systems that enact that violence upon them while also hearing their experiences finding loving communities of support amongst their peers. It has been important to see students as neither successful nor as deficits to be expunged from our institutions. They are often called to be resilient superhumans who are charged with navigating institutions that were never made for them – and many still persist and graduate despite these systemic challenges.
I also attempt to translate the formal and informal theories I learned during my time at the University of Georgia into a realized practice that promoted student learning. I see theory and practice as inseparable sides of the same coin; they inform one another and in a circular process continually critique and improve one another across time and experience. However, I am also critical of theory and how it can be used to underestimate and/or diagnose students as being "less developed." In my experience, students have had good senses of what they need and want; often my role has been to help uncover and clarify those needs as well as suggest options and alternatives that may not have been part of their initial thought processes. Much of the dominant student development theory taught in many student affairs preparation programs sees students as people who come in with unsophisticated meaning making structures and lower senses of who they are in relation to others. However, many of the students I work with across identities (particularly marginalized and minoritized ones) and experiences prove that they are working diligently to practice resilience and leverage sophisticated meaning making to get through and survive the system of higher education.
Why the PhD? Why Now?
While I have a variety of interests and experiences in a variety of functions traditionally relegated to student affairs/services divisions in higher education, I continue to find myself drawn to and finding my greater purpose in the work of advancing and integrating equity and social justice on campus. In particular, my professional work and personal activism had led me to advance racial, gender, and sexuality justice on college campuses and in surrounding communities. In particular, my “why” in equity, inclusion, and justice work can best be summed up by two particular thoughts. First, Krista Tippett’s words in her book Becoming Wise: "I am unmoved when we ‘celebrate diversity' by putting it up on a pedestal and avoiding its messiness and it's depths." Second, Patrisse Cullors, one of the three Black women who founded #BlackLivesMatter (BLM), discussed how BLM is a rehumanization process, discussing how dominant narratives and imaginations continue to center Black death over Black life. When expanded, we find that movements for and towards social justice are about moving to humanize one another and answering questions of what we all deserve and what none of us deserve. When I think about conceptualizing, doing, and being in the work of equity and social justice, I want to engage the messiness on our campuses to help humanize all students and campus community members who have been rendered as less than human. I desire to do this work because I see it as a spiritual obligation of our postsecondary missions to ensure people feel they belong and that their individual perception is met with a communal, co-constructed reality. In order for that to be a reality on campus, students must be in genuine relationship with one another beyond that one time they come together for a campus photo shoot where their existing side-by-side will be seen as the presence of relationships that are natural to obtain that are absent the messiness that comes with creating communities across difference. Regardless of the office or division’s name, doing this work is imperative to me as the absence of this work is a guarantee that student success will be more of a dream and less of a reality for all students.
This past national/state/local election cycle has both challenged and encouraged me to recommit to my own ways of thinking about and doing dialogue with and alongside students now and in the future. I have found myself thinking about the ways I de-humanize others to make it easier to dismiss and disagree with them – this past year for me has continued to be about how I think about humanizing everyone; this has not been without its challenges and tears. This past summer, as someone from South Florida, who has danced at Pulse nightclub, who had best friends and siblings present in the club that week, it was difficult to think about anything less than wanting to answer violence with violence, that retributivism should win the day and our response. It has continued to be critical for me to think about how the work of social justice, the work of anti-oppressive pedagogies and strategies for liberation must be based on understanding individuals based in the systems in which they operate. The work must be based on social justice as a rehumanization process for us all, a spiritual responsibility to work towards the end of systems rooted in fear, ignorance, violence, scarcity, and insecurity. And as Paulo Freire suggests, this work must be done being in community and dialogue with one another across difference. In that dialogic process, it has been critical for me to make my own understandings and then bring students into dialogue about the differences between someone saying something they do not agree with to someone who is being a jerk in conversation to those who espouse and enact rhetoric that seeks to destroy their identities and ways of existing in the world. These differences are key to naming harm in spaces while simultaneously engaging authentically with dignity.
I am also not disillusioned that the work for liberation, humanization, and student success must also be based in a critical interrogation of our higher education environments. In particular, understanding how higher education has been and continues to be shaped and reinforced by Whiteness is a cornerstone of my practice. In my undergraduate studies, I learned about Whiteness as a systemic and cultural organizing principle nationally and globally. The critical examination and deconstruction of Whiteness are paramount to address the White supremacist capitalist cisheteropatriarchy continually enforced through settler colonialism. For instance, what many call "the achievement gap" – the distance between White students’ persistence and graduation rates as compared to students of Color – is framed through Whiteness. This puts an individualistic onus on the student to succeed meaning that if students do not persist and graduate, they are bad students and could not persist. This is reinforced through settler colonialism in the ways that this framework positions and enforces a narrative where White people must be naturally superior to all other races of people in higher education. Resisting a framework of Whiteness helps us talk about this gap as an opportunity for institutions to take greater responsibility for students’ success.
Research Interests (for now)
My research interests focus on creating just, caring, and thriving campus communities where all community members thrive. In particular, I seek to do integrative work across functional areas in student affairs. First, I am interested in examining how particular pedagogies as well as programmatic and curricular interventions influence and move students to reflect and act upon anti-oppressive and anti-racist worldviews. It is one thing for students to “check” their privilege lists and unpack their McIntosh-brand invisible knapsacks. It is another thing for students to commit themselves to spending their privilege in such a way that the systems that provide them that advantage and dominance may one day disappear. Relatedly, I wish to study and explore how students understand their conferred and internalized dominance (e..g, Whiteness) and how that affects their understandings of their multiple identities. It is imperative as an educator to understand how salient dominant identities can both support and hinder the development of campus communities in the name of social justice while developing strategies to allow students to reflect on how their dominance influences spaces.
Second, I have a strong interest in utilizing overlapping critical and poststructural epistemologies and theoretical frameworks to examine student development across different dimensions of theory. In my commitment to a both/and model of praxis, using overlapping, sometimes contradictory, frameworks provide a more holistic picture of student development across outcome, place, and time. At the same time, using overlapping theoretical frameworks mirrors what has occurred with my own development as well as others – I am/we are fluid, contradictory beings who make different types of meaning at different points in our life and we rarely view all parts of the world through one single lens. I also wish to bring this overlapping theoretical practice into praxis, to translate and transform theory-based practice into the ways in which we (de)construct learning and systems with and alongside students.
Finally, I am interested in the student success and leadership outcomes of those who engage in peer-to-peer facilitation of sociocultural dialogues and those that engage in student activism. While generations of student activists have come and gone, their experiences have not been as deeply studied from a leadership and success perspective, such as those involved in registered student organizations. In addition, there has been strong evidence that peer-to-peer interventions lead to deeper learning in college students. As student affairs practitioners seek to help students develop genuine relationships and build communities within and across difference, it is imperative to equip student facilitators with a number of practices to effectively facilitate dialogues that promote understanding and opens people up to be truly changed by listening to others.
I have both short- and long-term goals within the scope of higher education. Long-term, I hope to eventually become full-time faculty in the field, both preparing the incoming generations of future scholar-practitioners into higher education and student affairs as well as committing myself more fully to an interdisciplinary, integrative research agenda. In the shorter term, prior to becoming faculty, I want to continue to work as a practitioner and educator with and alongside students to help them achieve and rumble with their passions, pursuits, and the reasons they enrolled in postsecondary education. I aspire to rise to the senior student affairs officer level, becoming either a dean of students or assistant vice-president, roles in which I may serve as a bridge between upper-level administration and the students with whom I work in a variety of functional areas and offices. Throughout the short- and long-term, I am committed to finding, challenging, and utilizing theory to better inform practice that leads to both deep and broad outcomes for transformative learning experiences.
During my time as a full-time professional, I was continually called to enact multipartiality for the students and administrators I work with and alongside. While challenging the students I worked with on issues of freedom of speech and expression, I also challenged our administration, those above me on the organizational chart, to take greater responsibility for the costs of certain students’ speech. My desire to better understand the benefits of peer-led facilitation, multiple theoretical framework analysis, dominant identity salience, and interventions that lead students to anti-oppressive worldviews all stem from what will be demanded from me as a 21st-century student affairs educator and administrator – to cultivate campus communities where students can (better) identify and actualize their needs, passions, and purposes.