TIFFANY: At a higher education conference — this was just two years ago — at a conference where we go to network and engage with others so that we can get ideas to advance our practice and help our students succeed. Why am I being asked to go get more coffee? Why is it that the assumption of me is that I'm there as support staff to get you coffee as opposed to your colleague or your peer that may be able to share some incredible information about helping students.
I’m Dan Baum and you’re listening to Redefine U. Join us as we continue to explore what happens when we’re challenged to change our thoughts, beliefs or even who we think we are.
Sometimes, it’s not the stories we tell ourselves, but the stories that others tell that can hold us back. How do we move forward when negative messages pervade our culture?
In this episode, we’ll hear how Dr. Tiffany Boykin, AACC dean of Student Engagement, persisted despite the negative messages all around her. We’ll also talk to Kellie McCants-Price, associate professor of Psychology, to learn how we can slow down and address our biases.
First, Tiffany’s story.
DAN: I'm excited today because we're joined by Dr. Tiffany Boykin, Dean of Student Engagement. Welcome.
TIFFANY: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
DAN: What exactly do you do as Dean of Student Engagement?
TIFFANY: You know, I ask myself that question often. Essentially, as Dean of Student Engagement, I work with students to ensure that their experience while here at AACC is one that's positive and one that's responsive to their needs and ultimately helps them to achieve their goals.
DAN: Did you always see yourself in education?
TIFFANY: No, not at all. Education is a career path and way of life that I never saw myself in but it ultimately is exactly where I'm supposed to be. It took me a while to realize that but initially when in school or at least as a small child, I remember my dreams when people asked, "Well, what do you want to be when you grow up?" I said, "A lawyer."
DAN: What drove your initial interest in law?
TIFFANY: Well, I think at the tender age of three between being chastised and admonished for not following directions and getting this understanding that you know, you have to follow the rules and follow directions. I didn't quite understand why I had to do that and at some point I somehow learned that I needed to be part of the people that help make the rules and if I couldn't be that, then I at least needed to be part of the people that help you advocate and get across your point if someone alleges that you broke the rules.
I lived in the Park Heights neighborhood of West Baltimore. Anyone that's from there can share stories about that area. I grew up in what was traditional for me but maybe nontraditional for others. My grandmother raised me. I also live with other family members including an aunt. And I began to learn that there were certain rules that people who look like me or came from the areas in which I lived had to follow and sometimes those rules didn't appear to be applicable to others who didn't look like me or didn't come from those communities.
And I'll share with you that while in high school even though I have all of these accomplishments with regard to education and earning degrees, that was not the person in high school. In high school I had no interest. Sophomore year I was actually dropped from the roll for not attending. I simply was not enjoying school. I really didn't see the value of it where I was in my life and how I understood what I thought I was going to be was quite different than it is today. And so I let those rules, other people's rules, I’d begun to let them define how far I would go.
So, it wasn't until talking with a high school counselor that just kind of sat me down and explained to me that they did see the potential in me and knew that I would go far if I kind of got up my own way and identify that college would be that first step.
DAN: What were they seeing that they said you needed to get out of your own way? What do you think you were putting in your way that they were picking up on?
TIFFANY: Well, I think that, like many teenagers, I was just kind of grappling with that whole, where do I fit? I was looking at what was happening in my community. I was looking at what was happening in my home life and it wasn't that my home life was just absolute despair, because it wasn't. However, I did feel like I was missing something. No biological mother there, no biological father there. Others that I've known that come from similar circumstances, they weren't talking about college. It's not like I had all these role models or mentors that were telling me about all these great things that would happen if you go to college.
And so I think that they saw in me what I'm telling you today, that those circumstances don't define your outcome simply because you may have a nontraditional upbringing or maybe you come from an underserved community or one that is impacted by violence or drugs or poverty or whatever else you know that may be, it doesn't necessarily mean that that automatically determines your outcome. It certainly has added to my experience and it is a part of who I am and where I am today, so I would never discount it, but it's not the only thing.
DAN: What changed for you? What was the turning point?
TIFFANY: College, I'll tell you … And it wasn't an exact moment, it was over time but that first step absolutely was college. I recall her vividly saying, "Well, if you go to college, you can live on campus and then you don't have to be in this community that you're talking about. You'll meet with a lot of new people, different people, people from all over and you'll be exposed to things that you may not have if you stay here." And I said, "Well, where do I sign up? What do I have to do?" She's said, "Well, the first thing you have to do is you have to start coming to school." Because colleges …
DAN: Step in the right direction.
TIFFANY: "Colleges want people that attend high school and so you're going to have to start coming to school. No more this just kind of taking off and playing hooky for ... You can't do that. You've got to come to school." I was able to maintain good grades, pretty solid grades and so with that I was kind of well on my road to college.
But I'll tell you, even moving in, I can remember freshman year and I had all my stuff packed up and like my grandmother had taken me to Walmart and that was a big deal. We had a list of all the things and I got my things and I packed up and I drove down to move in day and I saw the other students moving in and I was moving in and I remember my roommate, her parents were there, her mother, her father, her brother. They said, "Where are your folks?" And I didn't know what to say. "What folks?" And then it dawned on me, people have folks that move them in to college. Your experience is different, not wrong, not bad. It's just different.
College was the turning point for Tiffany, because it opened the door to people and possibilities beyond her Baltimore neighborhood. She came to realize that while our experiences help mold who we are, but they don’t determine where we can go.
Through the courses she teaches, Kellie McCants-Price encourages students to expand their minds beyond stigma and bias. Do we all have biases? If we do, how do we challenge our thinking to recognize our own blind spots?
DAN: So tell me what you do here?
DAN: I kind of knew that.
KELLIE: Kidding. I'm an associate professor of psychology and I primarily teach developmental psychology. So looking at everything that happens across the lifespan, so how your body grows, how your mind, and your thinking, and sort of your presence of mine grows and also how your social emotional relationships and your understanding of yourself develops.
I also am trained as a clinical psychologist, so I teach abnormal psych, which is all about mental health and mental wellness. So going through the whole spectrum of all the different mental health disorders, neurodevelopmental conditions, and we spend a lot of time in my class also talking about stigma, why people do or do not approach therapeutic services, why people sometimes are hesitant to accept their diagnoses as labels. And then one of the other courses that I recently started teaching, probably about three years ago, is human sexuality.
DAN: Tell me a little more about what you encounter around stigma.
KELLIE: So, I told you I'm a clinical psychologist, that's my training. I'm also African-American and so as I was deciding that I wanted to do clinical work, I would also sometimes encounter some interesting stuff in my own community where people would say things like, black people don't go to therapy, they go to church. Or, if you acknowledge that you have some mental health issues, that's a product of your sort of believing in a system that's trying to keep you suppressed. And so, I overcame a lot of that stuff because I knew that there was something that I wanted to do and I knew that there was a great need in the field and in the community for people of color to be therapists, so that patients of color could kind of say, Hey, I've got this, there's this therapist who looks like me, acknowledges my issues and will help me to sort of process them.
DAN: You also teach some of the things that help faculty address those issues, the model course program. Tell me a little bit about that and what you're trying to do there.
KELLIE: So I will say, I don't lead model course by myself, I see myself as more of a very small slice of the pie.
DAN: So tell me about your slice of the pie then.
KELLIE: I'm one of the mentors, I've actually been a participant also in the model course program, and model course is a program that was sort of the brainchild of our vice president, Dr. Gavin. One of the things that he was interested in doing was initially looking at courses that had high enrollments but didn't always have the best success rates.
So we spent a whole year learning about stereotype threat, and unconscious bias and about different ways that we could engage our students and be better at the education piece. How could we show up better in the classroom? How could we show up better for our students? In what ways were there processes, either at the college, or in our department, or in paperwork or in assignments, that were affecting the way that students were able to progress well through the course?
DAN: So clearly you're helping people overcome some inherent biases that they might have or what we might call blind spots. Have you experienced that yourself where you have discovered, “Oh I have a blind spot there. I didn't realize that.”
KELLIE: It's interesting I think sometimes when you are supposed to be the subject matter expert, people think, “Oh, you're just perfect at this.”
DAN: That's why I ask. It's never happened to you, right?
KELLIE: Just like your students, they look at you and they're like, "You got it all together." Which is why I tell them about how I didn't do so hot in physics. But I have had experiences where I have made assumptions about like, in a conversation with a couple of faculty members, someone says something and I go, gosh, what are they thinking?
Or experiences where I have … like one in particular, I have a student who... And I usually use name tents, so the student puts the name and circles their pronouns, and I forgot to introduce myself with my, mine or she, her, hers. And so I thought the student had, he, him, his pronouns and I used an example in a class and said, this person, we'll call him Tim, is the husband and Jane is the wife. And shortly after class I got an email saying, Hey, I don't know if you know this, but you misgendered me. And I'll be very candid with you, Dan. In the moment I was like, “what do you mean?” Like hands on hips and everything, like “what do you mean you mis ...”
That's not what I sent back to the student.
DAN: That's good to hear.
KELLIE: What I did though is I slowed down a little bit, took a deep breath, re-read the email and immediately responded with some humility. I apologize, I'm so sorry. I'd ask that you accept my apology, but if not, I understand that too. Please let me know how you prefer to be addressed. Whether it's all the same across the board or if you'd prefer to be addressed one way public facing, and one way in private communications, whatever works for you, that's great.
DAN: I often ask people what risks or challenges they face and I can't help but feel that in acknowledging our own blind spots or admitting your own experience, like you just had, there's some risk in that. There's some fear of acknowledging that we might have some of that bias. Do you encounter that? And if so, how do you help people overcome that?
KELLIE: So, I encounter that in myself, I encounter that in my household, I encounter that in workspaces and family spaces. One thing that I let people know is, and you said you've talked to some of my social justice and diversity, equity and inclusion friends. And one of the things that all of us will admit to you, if you push us enough, is that we all make mistakes and that the kind of work that we're doing with diversity, equity and inclusion, anti-racism work, anti-sexism work, creating brave and safe spaces, and inclusive spaces for people either on campus or just in the world, is that there's a lot of self-work that you got to do, right? So, just because I do this work, just because I'm forward facing and I see students every day who come from a variety of backgrounds and I'm expected to teach them, and love them, and help them and do all these other wonderful things, does not mean that I have never had a bias in my life. And that even as I do this, that I don't still have biases that I have to challenge every day-
What's interesting though is that even when I make that admission to people, some folks are still on the defensive.
DAN: How do you help someone in that situation?
KELLIE: Let me tell you, if you're trying to make some other type of behavior changes, like I'm trying to save more money, or I want to exercise more or I want to eat better, drink more water, just know up front that there's going to be some resistance, right? So, your brain is sort of hardwired to make these really fast kind of categorizations.
And if you think about it, on some level it's a little helpful to look at some neighborhoods or some places and say, "I probably shouldn't go there because my safety might be at risk." And your brain does that to protect you, right? But it doesn't always do the best job possible.
And I think we also have to recognize where that system goes wrong and what influences there are that help to create some glitches in the system.
So, I think the news is a wonderful thing, it keeps us well informed. But, if we are presented with the same story about the same single incident of murder that happened three days ago and it's presented at 5 a.m., 5:30, 6, 6:30, 7, 7:30, 8, 8:30, 9 and 9:30, and then again in the evening news, then we may start to overestimate how dangerous that neighborhood is.
What also happens is that sometimes we're very siloed in the way that we interact with other folks. So, all of our friends look like us, they all come from the same places as we do, they have the same type of education or level of education as we do. And so, the more we hang with the same people and other influences, our friends, our family members, the media, movies portray certain groups in certain ways. We start to think they are dangerous and my group’s better.
So when you hear people talk about racism, or sexism, or homophobia or transphobia, even if it's something that you've never experienced on your own or in your own space, hear them, hear their experience, listen to it, and it's OK to accept that you can have a both/and situation in your brain. Both, I have not experienced classism, and this person has. And so, I feel like we can grow a lot when we put ourselves in a position where it's OK for both of our experiences to be valid.
Our brains are hardwired to categorize the information we receive, but often those categories don’t tell the whole story. They can lead us to assumptions that are harmful to ourselves and others. Kellie says we can redefine our thinking by spending time with people whose experiences are different from our own. We need to slow down and stretch past what is familiar and comfortable.
Let’s return to Tiffany. Once she got to college, what additional challenges did she face? How has she continued to redefine herself?
DAN: Clearly your journey has led to many degrees, credentials. You've told me before though, didn't you have a professor that potentially stood in your way?
TIFFANY: Yes. The journey came with several obstacles when I was thinking about this podcast and this experience and redefining moments, one certainly came to mind.
When I was in graduate school pursuing my master's degree, I had really began thinking about, “Hmm, maybe I should consider a doctorate.” You know, there are lots of things that you can do with it. I'll be able to accomplish even more goals. I've always had lofty goals, at least while in school.
DAN: Starting at three.
TIFFANY: There you go. As I was completing my thesis, I had begun exploring doctoral programs and even getting letters of recommendation from my faculty members. And at that time, I had a faculty member who was a trusted faculty member, one that I had taking classes with, that I had developed what I thought was a very positive relationship with. But she had sat me down and explained to me that she really didn't think that I should be pursuing any doctoral programs. She commented that she's not quite sure how I even arrived to where I was at that particular institution in that particular program.
TIFFANY: She explained that my work was subpar and that no doctoral program would take me seriously. Explained that she would not be doing a letter of recommendation and she couldn't foresee anyone else doing one either.
TIFFANY: That I should really take a step back.
I didn't know what to say. I kind of just looked at her and I couldn't understand why she was saying these things. I was floored. I didn't really say anything. I just kind of said, "OK" and I believed her. And I left and I went out into the parking lot and I cried. I sobbed for a while because I believed her and for a moment, I said, "See, this is exactly what I was talking about, that there is no sense in pursuing all of this, because the rules say..." Because I saw her as a rule maker. "You're not going to make it anyway and no one's going to seriously want you. Maybe she's right. How did you get here?"
DAN: But that could really level a person.
TIFFANY: Oh, it did.
DAN: So, what did it take to overcome that? How did you overcome it?
TIFFANY: I shared her thoughts with my aunt at the time who had a real role in helping to kind of raise me and she disagreed and she had some choice words for anyone that would say that.
DAN: I can imagine. Yeah.
TIFFANY: When your parents or others tell you that, "no, you're smart, you're beautiful, you're all of these things." You believe it but it's just, it's still kind of, "ah, I'm not sure there." She said that and I still said, "yeah, but I mean, she's a faculty person. She works at a school. She would know what these other schools are saying." And I still applied, but I'll tell you, those first two doctoral programs did not accept me and so I really said, "Oh my God, she's right."
It wasn't until by chance, once again, this higher education happened that I happened to be on the campus of Morgan State University. I was just up there milling about. I met a student at that time, graduate student, he said, "What are you doing?" I said, "I don't know. I'm just looking at doctoral programs. I don't know." And he said, "Oh, you should do higher education. That's the program I'm in. It's a great program. It has all of these opportunities. And he said, "Go and talk to this particular faculty member. Go and talk. They'll tell you." And so I did.
Since that time, never for a moment do I ever allow anyone to write my story, to say what it is going to be. No one has that power.
DAN: You've spoken before using terms that how I defined myself before and what you're describing now is a really big change. What do you credit most to that? Is it the helpers and mentors along the way? Is it the education? What do you credit most for that dramatic change?
TIFFANY: I think that ... It absolutely includes the helpers and mentors along the way and the messages and the experiences that you have to help affirm that you can do this. Sometimes a helper or a mentor is not necessarily someone that you might have that close interaction that I just referenced when I talked to the faculty member. Sometimes it can be an image in passing. Sometimes it can be someone that you don't even know. Sometimes you can have a sponsor that speaking on your behalf when you're not even in the room. Sometimes it's a praying grandmother that's reaching out to a higher power. Sometimes it's standing on the shoulders of your ancestors to give you inner strength to understand. And sometimes it's not even about redefining yourself. I'm sorry, I'm getting emotional.
DAN: Go ahead. That's why we have tissues here, so that's fine.
TIFFANY: Oh good. No, sometimes it's not always about redefining yourself. It's helping other people to see that's who you always were. That's who you always were and their perception is limiting, but it's a limitation of them and not you.
And so I think the totality of those — the mentors, the positive faculty, my aunt who's passed on since, my grandmother who's now 92 and still cheers for me, my family, other professionals and even people that I don't know that I might see in certain of arenas, see in certain positions or roles that I can see that and I can see me, those together with your intrinsic motivation of developing and getting to a certain stage where you really just appreciate all of the inherent talent that comes with you that you bring to the table before anyone else even gets involved. I think all of those together are what made and continue to make the difference in to how I see myself, how I see where I fit in these different spaces that I have privileged to be in and how I ensure that I'm going to help others.
DAN: Well, I can see and hear how you would be such a passionate advocate for others. To me, you really have redefined yourself. How would you say you describe or define yourself today?
TIFFANY: Well, Dan, I'm still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up, if you haven't noticed. But I would say that I am ... Well, I guess in short terms, I'm a wife, I'm a mother, I'm an advocate. I am a lifelong learner. I continue to learn more about myself and how that might be useful and impactful for others. I'm a person that has a lot more patience than I did before or at least then what I thought I had. I'm still a work in progress. I've got lots of areas for improvement but I've got lots of opportunity as well.
DAN: The external is a very narrow picture. It's kind of the tip of the iceberg. What do people not see or not know about you that you would say that this is what I want you to see?
TIFFANY: I don't know what people don't know about me per se. I work at a higher education institution and so here in this space, most people know that that's Tiffany. She's the Dean of Student Engagement, she has an earned doctorate, she's a lawyer and she probably knows stuff about student engagement. And because of my sharing, they probably know that I'm a wife and that I have two small children and other things.
They likely don't know my background. Very modest upbringing. You use words like very modest as opposed to just poor, right? Things of that nature. I think more so when I talked about how people present themselves, here's a fine example. I'm a wife, mother, I have two terminal degrees, several other degrees that we didn't even talk about and when I, today in 2020, step into court rooms across this state, I am still seen first as defendant. If not defendant, court reporter.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with a number of defendants and there's certainly nothing wrong with incredible court reporters, but why am I not immediately seen as attorney? Why is that a shock? It is 2020. Why am I still being handed papers?
And so, I think it's just important for all of us to have an appreciation that when we engage and meet with people, whether or not they present themselves in a way that makes us comfortable or that we find similar to that of our own, doesn’t mean that they don't have a wealth of other identities or experiences or characteristics that could somehow be a positive in our own lives.
So, when a student comes in, absolutely we need to acknowledge that they may be coming from a background that's different than our own, but not worse than our own or better than ours, but just different and that there could be beauty in difference, that there's an opportunity to see so much more and learn so much more about that person, which may in turn help us to learn more about ourselves.
Our words and actions matter and they can derail or inspire. It's a sobering thought for any of us who have children, students, friends, even strangers who look to us for guidance or encouragement.
Certainly, we all stumble. We speak or act upon biases we sometimes didn’t know existed. But those thoughts are lurking in our minds: these people are feisty. Those people are good at math. Those people think they’re better. Some thoughts are more negative than others. Best case, they keep us from expanding our knowledge of ourselves and those around us. Worst case, they hold others back and do significant harm.
Fortunately, we can redefine our thinking by asking ourselves why? Why do I think that? We can also stretch past our comfortable siloes to those whose appearance and experiences are different from our own. In doing so, we begin to recognize that our differences — within and without — are not good or bad, better or worse. They’re just different.
Redefine U is a production of Anne Arundel Community College.
Our executive producer and creative director is Allison Baumbusch.
Our producer is Jeremiah Prevatte and our writer, Amy Carr Willard.
Others who helped with this podcast include Angie Hamlet, Alicia Renehan, and Ben Pierce.
Special thanks to doctors Tiffany Boykin and Kellie McCants-Price.
Find show notes, how to subscribe and other extras on our website: aacc.edu/podcast.
I’m your host and creator of this podcast, Dan Baum. Thanks for listening.