He stepped into his guidance counselor’s office with the aspiration to become his family’s first college graduate. Instead of discussing that goal, the high school junior was asked about how he spent his free time. After mentioning graffiti art and his job at a restaurant, there was a pause.

“She told me ‘Maybe you should consider making that a career. I do not think you are college material.’

“And I believed it. Being from the culture I am from, educators are the subject matter experts. If they are saying you’re not right for something, they know best.”

Yet, Jorge Sanchez’s grades alone were impressive—near the top of his class. And his talents extended beyond the classroom. When it came to his job, the money he earned from that gig was helping to support his family.

“She never bothered to find any of that out,“ he said. 

A short time later, he decided to put to his academic journey on hold, instead enlisting in the U.S. military.

But after his service ended, something changed. Sanchez resolved to put the prejudicial words of his counselor in the rearview mirror. He earned his bachelor’s in business as well as multiple master’s degrees (four, actually). In 2021, he will become “Dr. Sanchez” as a graduate of the Leadership Equity and Inquiry (LEI) program, a higher education Ph.D. housed in the Department of Educational Administration and Foundations (EAF) at Illinois State University.

He’s not alone in his experience. The discouragement Sanchez faced mirrors those of many other students of color across the U.S.

And the problem is perpetuated at the higher education level.

Graduate enrollment remains rather homogenous, as do the faculty who teach college students. The trend stems from a centuries-old system of higher education resistant to change.

“Higher education in our country has been built to support the values, and echo the standards of white Americans, and especially white male Americans,” said Jamillah Gilbert, also a student in the LEI program. She previously has served as a special education teacher at Bloomington Junior High School. She now serves as the assistant director of curriculum services in University College, a position which enables her to support the successful transition of all students new to the University.

“Higher education was established that way.  So, when something from the very foundation has been established, the institutional structure is really immovable, making significant, and oftentimes important, change difficult–but not impossible.”

A statewide effort

One promising source of progress is the Diversifying Faculty in Illinois (DFI) Fellowship. The Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) program provides financial, networking, and collegial support exclusively for underrepresented students who aspire to be education administrators and professors.

Beyond the value of tuition dollars, Fellows attend multiple conferences, receive mentorship, attend professional development workshops, and gain a robust professional network of higher education colleagues within Illinois’ communities of color.

“What Illinois is doing is important,” said Dr. Pam Hoff, a professor and the coordinator of EAF’s LEI program.

“IBHE is really concerned with and is actively doing something to ensure that its professoriate reflect and mirror the demography for the larger community.”

Hoff adds that for many students, financial support is the main reason graduate school is not attainable. The issue is largely systemic.

“When you bring in diverse faculty, you are bringing in a presence, a voice, especially of leadership, that can definitely disrupt these environments. That is what some of these environments need, is some disruption. Disruption to improve, and sometimes to destroy and rebuild more perfectly.”

Jamillah Gilbert

“Due to structural racism, and some classism, our students in particular do not have access to many of the resources that other students have,” Hoff said.

“They are often ignored, or they do not fall under a particular financial range. So having DFI provide that support within a structure that has historically said ‘You are not welcome’ is significantly important.”

As a point person for the department’s DFI students, Hoff knows first-hand that Illinois State, and particularly EAF’s programs, is a destination of choice for Fellows.

All nine of the 2019-2020 DFI Redbirds chose to earn their graduate degrees from EAF. For 2020-2021, it’s 7 out of 10, including Sanchez and Gilbert.

Sanchez is part of ILACHE, a Chicago-based cohort of Latino doctoral candidates EAF recruited specifically to serve college students of the same cultural and ethnic backgrounds. 

“We recruit and actively retain, value, and center the experiences of students who have been historically othered or marginalized. They came for that particular focus in their learning,” Hoff said.

Life-changing dialogue

The value of the DFI program extends beyond the spreadsheet. Fellows gain access to the perspectives of underrepresented faculty and administrators, too often a rare resource in higher education.

Gilbert’s first experience with the diverse DFI group was at its annual conference in 2019. The event led to a significant shift in her career aspirations. 

“Before I attended this year’s DFI conference I was insisting that I wanted to take a role in higher education administration,” Gilbert said. “I did not want a tenure track position.”

She said the decision was impacted by trends across the U.S. where faculty of color are oftentimes assessed in ways unrelated to their actual performance as scholars and teachers. 

“Our graduates bring a diverse set of experiences, ideas, and skillsets to the academy, and they hit the ground running. They have been armored up and have the language to contribute to their communities and families, and to do so in ways that will make their communities and families proud.”

Dr. Pamela Hoff

After the conference, she was inspired to adjust her goals. She’s now locked in on pursuing a tenure track position after graduation, likely in special education teacher education.

“I just have to go in with my eyes wide open understanding that I am not always in friendly territory, but that I am there for a reason, to exact change. And hopefully I can help to guide institutions, especially historically and predominantly white institutions, to walk toward more equitable decision-making when it comes to those high-stakes decisions, promotions, tenure, grants, all types.”

Synergistic support

Sanchez believes the DFI experience complements the goals of EAF course work in practical and powerful ways.

“You’re getting the knowledge through EAF, and now through DFI, you’re getting the tools by which to apply that knowledge,” he said.

Sanchez gives the example of publishing. The topic is one first generation students—many of whom are from underrepresented groups—may not focus on without being encouraged to do so. As a result, the Fellowship provides a workshop breaking down the publishing field “to a science” for aspiring college professors.

Sanchez’s research is tied to his own experience as a Latino who graduated from Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and spent several years working in K-12 education. He wants to help break down the roadblocks between the K-12 pipeline and universities, especially those affecting matriculation for first generation and underrepresented students.

“The K-12 system is focused on getting students to graduate, and we forget that there is this huge barrier in accessing higher education,” he said. “We are not communicating with the other agencies. We need to create programs that essentially erase those lines and make those transitions seamless.”

Partnering faculty and students

Faculty and students’ goals are largely aligned in EAF, something Sanchez recognized during the application process back in 2016.

At the end of his in-person interview, he asked the group what they were looking for in a Ph.D. candidate.

“Dr. Venus came out and said ‘I want individuals who, when they walk into the room, people know that they are the ones who will not shut up; they are the ones who are not standing for the status quo; and they are the ones who are making things better for students of color.’

“I had been doing that throughout most of my professional career,” Sanchez said. “Working to essentially dismantle and disrupt systems of oppression. Her words spoke to me.”

Sanchez is continually impressed by the department’s attention to student needs, as well. He said his dissertation chair, Dr. Beth Hatt, is an inspiring example of a white professor who is using the influence she holds to support positive change for communities of color in higher education. In addition, he lauds the department’s chair, Dr. Len Sutton, who has followed through on a promise to “support students to the max.”

“Dr. Sutton has just been readily available,” Sanchez said. “He spoke to each one of us individually and said, ‘This is where we are at in the situation for higher education right now, and this is what we are trying to do in EAF.’”

As it relates to the LEI program, Hoff said the work is about preparing scholars activists and scholar practitioners to meet everyone’s needs by helping to create a more just community.

“Our graduates bring a diverse set of experiences, ideas, and skillsets to the academy, and they hit the ground running,” Hoff said. “They have been armored up and have the language to contribute to their communities and families, and to do so in ways that will make their communities and families proud.”

“Our students are going to see a Black person, a Brown person teaching, and it’s going to show them the possibility, and they’ll think ‘Hey, I am going to go get my doctoral degree. Because if this Brown cat can do it, why not me?’”

Jorge Sanchez

The impact of increased diversity among faculty and administrative teams in higher education is a more equitable and well-rounded college experience for all students.

“The true ethnic and cultural diversity that is our beautiful country is not being reflected and it is not being valued,” Gilbert said.

“When you bring in diverse faculty, you are bringing in a presence, a voice, especially of leadership, that can definitely disrupt these environments. That is what some of these environments need, is some disruption. Disruption to improve, and sometimes to destroy and rebuild more perfectly.”

Heavy hearts, resilient minds

The year 2020 will leave an indelible mark on everyone for multiple reasons. In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, LEI students’ spring semesters ended amid nationwide unrest following police violence against Black citizens, including Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Jacob Blake, and Alvin Cole.

For Gilbert, the events have caused her to step-up her advocacy for communities of color. 

“What’s happened has helped me to recognize how endemic racism is in our country and to actively move against it,” said Gilbert. “That movement takes many forms through speaking out, writing, mobilizing, protesting, boycotting, educating, deconstructing, centering and amplifying black voices, and simply living unapologetically Black.”

Sanchez said the ILACHE group was going through comprehensive exams shortly after Floyd was killed.

“We included in our papers that it was with heavy hearts that we wrote,” he said. “But we were writing for them; we were writing for our community.

“And that’s the one thing we discovered throughout this process is that these Ph.D.s are not for us as individuals, they are for our communities. It’s for us to be able to pen the narrative of possibility’ for brown students of color.”

Sanchez said ILACHE students were also inspired by the socio-economic reform efforts spearheaded by youth, including Black Lives Matter.

Sanchez said some members of the group marched while others posted bail for students who had been arrested.

“We felt our role in the activism was to support those who were leading the movement,” he said.

Leading by example

Sanchez will never forget the moment he was told he was not college material. But he is also optimistic for things to improve for K-12 students as a result of programs like EAF and DFI.

“Through this work, we are learning about the things that we’ve experienced, people of color have experienced, I’ve experienced. But now we are putting a name to it,” Sanchez said. “We’re realizing that a lot of the issues we are facing are systemic and have a long history. And we are also centering all this within our identities, we can now understand how to better navigate and dismantle it.”

Programs like DFI and LEI are empowering talented educators like Sanchez, Gilbert, and their colleagues to unlock their professional potential. Their leadership and sheer presence promise a positive impact on untold numbers of students within communities of color.

“It is so important to see yourself in front of the classroom,” Sanchez said.

“Our students are going to see a Black person, a Brown person teaching, and it’s going to show them the possibility, and they’ll think ‘Hey, I am going to go get my doctoral degree. Because if this Brown cat can do it, why not me?’”