Women of color talk careers in higher education
Last Thursday and Friday, close to 75 women of color convened at Dartmouth to discuss their experiences working at colleges throughout New England, as part of the “African American Women in Higher Education New England” conference.
This is the organization’s 14th annual conference, but the first time that it has been hosted at the College. According to its website, AAWHE aims to support the professional development and advancement of African American women working in higher education and seeks to provide a network of connections for these women.
The conference began Thursday evening with a reception with Provost Carolyn Dever at the Hanover Inn. On Friday, executive vice president Rick Mills gave an opening speech, followed an address from the keynote speaker, executive director of the Center for Hope and Healing Isa Woldeguiorguis.
Vice president for institutional diversity and equity Evelynn Ellis provided support to the members of the organization who brought the conference to the College this year. She met the organizers a year ago and worked with them to plan the event here.
She led a workshop at the conference offering advice on how to remain calm and make progress career-wise even when under stress in unsupportive environments.
Ellis noted that often African American women do not have mentors or a community to turn to within their institutions and are very isolated as a result. This conference helps provide attendees with a network and shows the women on Dartmouth’s campus and throughout New England that they are not alone and are part of something larger, she said.
“You can also have a support system outside your institution, so you feel the network support that cannot replace but can definitely fill a void,” Ellis said.
She said these issues are not typically on anyone’s radar, so there is usually not enough support to organize this kind of event. It is only recently that these topics are beginning to gain more attention and be addressed, she added.
Woldeguiorguis first became involved with the organization because one of the board members is a colleague of hers. She based her keynote speech around the main themes of the conference, discussing the importance of African American women maintaining their identities and claiming space in higher education.
She said an important purpose of the conference is to support the leadership of African American women in higher education.
“The goal is building their resilience and really maximizing the incredible assets that they are, we are, to higher education,” Woldeguiorguis said.
She added that it is important that places of higher education hold panels such as those at the conference to ensure that the problems that face African American women in the workplace can be highlighted and addressed.
“They minimize and help to avoid some of the factors that weaken African American women in higher education, particularly the professional isolation that we face at times,” she said.
Theresa Hernandez, a panelist at the conference and Dartmouth intramural and club sports coordinator, spoke of her own personal experiences working at the College in a discussion about leadership and inclusivity. Dartmouth alumni admissions ambassador coordinator Theodosia Cook moderated the panel, which also featured Kari Cooke, advisor to black students at the Office of Pluralism and Leadership, and Rachel Edens, OPAL advisor to first-generation and low-income students.
“The questions were geared towards unapologetically being yourself,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez said that it is important that African American women are self-assured in the workplace and have the confidence to assert themselves.
“A lot of what you see is separating your affirmation versus your professionalism, for example not being ‘too black’ or ‘too much of a woman’ and any other things that aren’t being a white, straight man,” she said.
She said she found Cook’s workshop, called “Leading While Black,” especially helpful. The workshop centered around navigating relationships in the workplace with superiors and confidently giving feedback and expressing ideas.
Hernandez said it is important that these conferences exist to show women of color that there are others in the same positions facing the same challenges.
She added that it demonstrates that there are people that want to support women in these situations and encourage them. She said that while many black professionals hold conferences, she does not see as many conferences organized by professionals of other racial groups and ethnicities, possibly because they are struggling to find a support system as well.
Woldeguiorguis said that the panel impressed her as the panelists shared their real life experiences.
“I think it was impressive in terms of real life experiences and engaging the audience in thinking and in dialogue about networking and supporting one another,” she said.
She highlighted the networking aspect of the conference as an important benefit.
Hernandez echoed this sentiment, adding that the conference helped her connect to other women doing similar work at other institutions. These connections could prove beneficial in helping to push forward similar diversity and inclusivity initiatives, she said.
Ellis hopes that the conference provided a positive atmosphere for the attendees, as this would encourage them both to return to the College and recommend it as a welcoming environment for women of color, as well as set a precedent for similar future events to promote diversity in higher education.