Cultural conversations: Alumni provide an important voice in virtual discussions with students

Maeya Bland (left), Cristelle Brown, Jenaé Harrington, Alex Boothe and Anita Nadal

The VCU Office of Multicultural Student Affairs sponsored a series of identity-based virtual discussion groups this summer, offering students a safe space to discuss issues related to the social, cultural and political aspects of their identities with supportive peers. A number of alumni volunteered to moderate the discussions, ranging from dispelling myths of Afro Latinx identities to women of color and political activism, and recently talked about how their cultural identities have shaped them and why they wanted to share their experiences with students.

How did the experiences and relationships you engaged in during your time as a student have an impact on your career journey? How did they impact your personal journey? 

Cristelle Brown (B.A.’15/H&S), program manager for My School Votes, When We All Vote: As a student at VCU, I was involved in a number of student groups and organizations. However, the experience that molded me the most was with the Office of New Student and Family Programs. I served as an orientation leader for two years before becoming a team captain, ultimately spending my last year with the department as the graduate assistant for the orientation experience. Outside of the fun that I had with my team, I gained and developed an incredible number of skills during this time. I became a stronger leader, a better listener and an all-around more dynamic person. It’s funny, because in the year that I initially applied to become an orientation leader, I wasn’t immediately selected. I was wait-listed before being brought onto the team. Someone saw something in me that I did not yet see in myself. With that said, that experience also taught me how to see the best in others, to push them outside of their comfort zones and to be a true support to those in my community.

Anita Nadal (B.A.’05/WS; Cert.’07/WS), assistant professor of Spanish in the VCU School of World Studies: My experiences were joyful. I remember having many close friends, and I was very involved with OMSA, too. I would stop by the OMSA office and have wonderful discussions with Dr. Napoleon Peoples [the OMSA director at the time]. I really enjoyed the many events and dialogues that were offered to students. I went on to teach Spanish, initially as an adjunct instructor, and in 2006, I began my career as a full-time Spanish instructor and later an assistant professor. My personal journey as a community advocate began to grow as I became more involved with students and the community in Richmond and abroad.

Alex Boothe (B.S.’16/H&S), customer experience specialist for VCU Dining Services and a personal trainer at Clutch Fitness LLC: The experiences and relationships I developed during my time at VCU really shaped the driven individual I am today. When going into my freshman year, I had a plan for my life and that changed drastically (in a good way) when I started to surround myself with the people I now consider my chosen family. 

Jenaé Harrington (M.U.R.P.’09/GPA), coordinator for student governance with VCU University Student Commons and Activities: I attended VCU as a graduate student, while working full time in the Division of Student Affairs, which impacted my engagement as a student. My cohort of mostly working professionals was small, and our schedules outside of courses rarely aligned. I made a few connections, but the most impactful connection was with a professor. Her research and course offerings focused on housing and community development. She also intertwined components of social justice that filled an unrealized void for me. She led a study abroad experience in London that further framed my career and personal journey as an advocate for equity in all spaces. Although we don’t speak on a consistent basis, I’m thankful that she remains a part of my network.

Maeya Bland (B.S.’13/H&S), qualified mental health professional-child (QMHP-C) at Infinity Counseling: My experiences during my time at VCU really shaped me and prepared me for the field that I am in now. Maybe not as “large scale,” but having a glimpse of what my life/career would look like. I was surely influenced by my time at VCU. Interactions with professors as well as my peers really helped me be prepared for what working in the community might look like.

How has your cultural identity and background shaped you and your career path?

Brown: I’ve always been very vocal about my experience as a Black woman — in and outside of the professional realm. During my time at VCU, I completed several internships and held down many part-time roles, each of which allowed me to learn more about what it meant for me to be a Black woman in my chosen industry; and I’m grateful for every microaggression, for every uninvited pat to my Afro and for every single person that referred to me as “one of the good ones.” Reflecting on those interactions prompted me to deepen my thinking around what I wanted my career to look like and how I wanted to show up in it. After graduating, I was very adamant about being my most authentic self. I’ve shown up to so many interviews with box braids, colored hair or a picked-out Afro. The elders in my family couldn’t understand it. They always attempted to sway me to straighten my hair in an effort to make it “more presentable” to the hiring committees. Nope. Never. I haven’t done it once, and it’s one of the things I’m most proud of. I know what I bring to the table, and I know that if an employer chooses not to hire me because of the color of my skin or the style of my hair, then I had no business being there anyway. Walking in this light and remaining true to myself has afforded me opportunities I would’ve never thought possible.

Nadal: As an Afro Latina, I have always been proud of my heritage and cultural roots. I am fortunate to be able to teach courses that allow me to incorporate my cultural roots and allow students to open up and share their roots in the classroom and the community.

Boothe: Being a queer masculine-presenting Black woman in the fitness industry is somewhat difficult. I feel like we have to work twice as hard as our male (and, honestly, straight) counterparts, especially when it comes to wanting to get into the sports performance realm of the industry. However, it has given me the drive to open up doors for myself so that I can open up doors for more folks who look like me. 

Harrington: I’ve always viewed life through an intersectional lens; however, the opportunity to unpack and fully understand intersectionality came much later in life while working in the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs. Navigating life as a Black, Christian heterosexual woman who grew up in a lower-middle-class household has been interesting. Yes, privilege is attached to several of my identities, but I still dealt with imposter syndrome. Unfortunately, I lacked the appropriate strategies to cope. From these experiences, my professional passion evolved into improving the lives of others and providing the exposure that I missed out on. Identity development has and will continue to shape my work as an educator because it’s difficult to authentically engage with others without true self-awareness.

Bland: Growing up in an environment where mental health was not openly talked about, I wanted to change the stigma on it and be the change I wanted to see. Working in the mental health field literally saved my life. 

Your discussion topic in the OMSA series focuses on political activism (Cristelle Brown), women of color and radical self-care (Alex Boothe and Maeya Bland) and Afro Latinx Identities (Anita Nadal). Tell us more about your interest in that topic area and why you want to engage students in a conversation about the topic?

Brown: I’ve been working in this politically adjacent space for a few years now, but I’ve always been drawn to students and young people — whether at the collegiate level or K-12 — because they’re so resilient and ready to make a difference. Working in this subsection of the nonprofit industry has opened my eyes to many of the ways young people are being left out of the conversations happening around voting. It’s more important now than ever for young people to participate in our democracy; and while I’m no expert, I’m committed to sharing the knowledge and resources that I have in order to deepen their civic engagement as well as the impact that they’re making in their communities.

Nadal: I want to engage students in the topic of Afro Latinx identities and cultures because many aren’t aware of the over 37 million Afro Latinx peoples throughout the Americas. Over the years, students have told me that they had only learned about African Americans in the United States from slavery forward before coming to college. As such, they are not aware of and were never taught about the many great African descendants that were explorers, writers, artists and poets (to mention a few) who were not slaves, were multilingual and successful well before British colonization began. It is invigorating to have discussions on the little-known underground railroad that ran south to Mexico and to have them learn about Esteban, the first African explorer to come to America in 1539. Consequently, the students are intrigued! It is a delight to expose my students to the African diaspora in the Americas and hear them say, “I wish I would have learned these things when I was a child, and I’m so grateful to learn about it now.” It is by means of these discussions that a sense of pride in our roots is developed.

Boothe: Being a trainer, I often see working out and staying active being looked at as a chore more than it being self-care. I want people to understand your physical is just as important as your mental and vice versa. As someone who lives with anxiety, I know how important it is to have an outlet, and I want others to understand that working out can be fun and be a form of self-care.

Harrington: Colorism, like many of the “-isms,” is a byproduct of white supremacy; it upholds whiteness as the standard in essentially every institution or system that we engage with. Although colorism can’t be avoided, it’s very rarely talked about or recognized as an ongoing issue. I thought [the] Women of Color [group] was the perfect space to discuss colorism because there are implications between and within racial groups. While it’s important to recognize that colorism has infiltrated almost every system necessary for survival, it has also been used to divide us. I want students to grasp the importance of cultural community and how colorism opposes it. 

Bland: I am interested in career advancement for women of color.

What advice do you have for students and recent graduates on how to be successful during their time in college and/or after?

Brown: One, don’t be afraid to make mistakes or fail. If you’re not failing, you’re not learning, and if you’re not learning, you’re not growing. Everything that happens in this life should be viewed as a lesson. When you win, you learn. When you fail, you learn. Embrace it all as a part of your journey. Two, be you. Show up in your passions as your most authentic self and watch what magic happens. Three, remember, there’s always a silver lining.

Nadal: I advise my students to be a part of the community via service learning and internships. I believe that their exposure and experiences in the community, along with the knowledge that they gain in college, gives them a well-rounded education that prepares them for the “real world.”

Boothe: Honestly, just take it a day at a time. Don’t compare yourself or measure your success to other people. You are on your own journey and what is for you, will be. Just work hard and give 110% in whatever you’re doing, and the rest will fall into place. 

Harrington: Attending college is a unique (and expensive) opportunity that can be personally curated, based on interests. To be successful, it’s important to stay involved, make intentional connections and explore. Joining a student organization, attending university-sponsored events, studying abroad and conducting research under the leadership of a professor can transform the college experience. Also, learning the significance of networking early on will contribute to success in college and after. I encourage students to connect with as many people as possible, at all levels. Lastly, college presents the perfect opportunity to try new things. There is a misconception that students should enter college with everything figured out, but there’s no better time to make mistakes and take risks. 

Bland: My advice is to please always chase your dreams. Even in college: Pursue what you want, not what makes others happy, but really chase your dreams! Your dreams will be what your life either thrives or falls apart on.