Reflections and lessons from the diverse faculty at Pacific Oaks on their lived experiences after spending a year socially distanced
At Pacific Oaks College, we are proud of our diverse faculty, including our deans. What lessons have they learned in a year apart? How have their lived experiences provided them momentum to carry on through these challenging times? How does identity come into play in the workplace? How are they meeting the moment, and where do they see the intersection of identity and leadership? In these personal essays, Terry Webster, Ph.D., Jerell Hill, Ed.D., Marcia Bankirer, Ph.D., and Rebecca Rojas, Ph.D., share their perspectives.
Terry Webster, Ph.D.
On growth and dreams placed temporarily on hold
I have always been curious about human behavior and driven by an urge to care for others, whether that be people, animals, or nature. These passions inspired me to pursue a career in psychology, but I have found the work of educating students most fulfilling. It has become my identity. I experience no greater reward than seeing my students fulfill their dreams.
Getting here was not a smooth journey. I learned from a very early age that life can be highly unpredictable, that sudden events can turn plans upside down. I’ve had to set important life goals aside, but I promised myself that I would achieve those goals someday, somehow. I learned to get up in the morning, every morning. No pity party—time to move forward, one step at a time, no matter how frustrating it was. Yet some wonderful and exciting things happened along the way, things that may not have happened if my plans rolled out as I had intended them to.
2020 certainly caused me to look back and reflect on my identity and my life. Again, I find several of my dreams and goals on hold. At the same time, witnessing continued racial and social injustice and inequity has sparked a deeper commitment to the work needed to create a better world. It is my duty to utilize my past experiences and skills for the good of my students, faculty, colleagues, and society.
If one word sums up how this past year has influenced my leadership, it is compassion. Everyone is facing their own challenges, and it is my deep belief that everyone is doing the best they can. I have witnessed the irregular rhythm of challenge, growth, and regrowth among my colleagues and students. I am awed by the teaching and learning that has happened during one of the most difficult chapters in history.
A leader needs to be fully present. Any personal concerns need to be checked at the door, so to speak. This has been especially challenging during the past year. I have learned to allow myself to be vulnerable, not something that comes to me easily. But if I want my team to express themselves authentically, I too must carry myself in a genuine manner. I have also had to overcome the belief that I have the answers to all questions and the solutions to all problems—a mindset that’s all too common in academia. I have had to admit that I don’t know everything. I possessed no schema for the pandemic, but instead have found endless opportunities for growth.
As I did as a young girl of years past, I still get up in the morning, every morning, placing one foot in front of the other, and do whatever I can to provide encouragement and support to those in need. And I am grateful to do so.
Jerell Hill, Ed.D.
On being a perpetual pupil and creating a space for learning
The driving force behind my work is a passion for learning. I believe that wherever there’s an opportunity for learning, there’s an opportunity to change. For me, learning has been a way out of the extreme circumstances I grew up in. It opened doors for me. I intentionally use the word “learning” instead of “education” because I think sometimes people of color have to recover from their education. We are often educated in a way that doesn’t take in account our beliefs, values, attitudes, or actions. Finding a way to recover from that becomes learning. It’s more than just taking a class. I’m continuously learning.
My identity has played a huge part in how I approach my leadership role, and as an African American man, 2020 only made me more passionate about learning and access to education. I believe a societal silence exists around race that’s really tearing at the soul of America. People say time heals all wounds, but inequality plus time doesn’t equal justice. We’ve been dealing with generational trauma and disparities for more than 400 years. The intersection of race, educational access, and opportunity runs deep.
My passion here translates into the education of teachers. I really think that teachers can be “a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.” I think of Amanda Gorman, the first National Youth Poet Laureate. Thousands of Amanda Gormans are out there in classrooms, and if we create space, the genius will show up. It’s our responsibility as teachers to create these spaces where kids can excel. That’s what I’m passionate about—looking at the next generation and giving them the space to learn and grow.
Part of the fabric of Pacific Oaks is how we talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion. We really want to translate those conversations into tangible, realistic practices, and part of that is mastering your own inner work. We constantly have new opportunities to reassess our position and see people as humans. I think the past year taught me that you have to be willing to stay in a position of learning—that the best position for leaders is to be in a position of learning. We had to switch from on-campus to online learning in a matter of days while still ensuring that our students were getting the best education possible. We as teachers were constantly learning.
As a leader, you have to create a space of psychological safety. I want to create a space where you’re more uncomfortable being silent than speaking up—that you’re willing to find out that you could be wrong. We need to be open to reconsidering our thinking. If you don’t create those psychologically safe environments, you suppress different perspectives. If I want to create change, I have to hear what people are going through. If I want people, including myself, to learn and grow, we have to be willing to admit that we might be wrong.
Marcia Bankirer, Ph.D.
On repairing the world and sustaining networks—one community at a time
I think my Jewish values go hand in hand with those of Pacific Oaks—and both are salient in my life. The Hebrew saying “tikkun olam” means “repair the world.” We have a duty to repair the world. And whether that’s one person at a time or within yourself, it’s the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. For me, that’s through growth, education, and development. That philosophy is tied in all that I do.
While being Jewish is one facet of my identity, I have several others. I’m a wife, a mother, a grandmother. But my first identity is in the whole realm of education—lifelong education. I put all of my other identities in the context of how to provide education and how to support others in lifelong learning.
It’s why I’ve always held to the idea that in times of great change, it is the learner who survives. In times of uncertainty, being able to think critically, solve problems, and relate them to your own context helps you move forward.
Identity work as it relates to academics is critical to Pacific Oaks’ pedagogy. Research shows that when adults put what they are learning in the realm of their own experience, they learn it better. Pacific Oaks makes the student as much of a resource as the actual professor. When everyone is opening up their own life, reflecting on their experiences, and bringing it into a greater context, strong relationships are built—a crucial foundation to the networks that will serve them throughout life. As we all know, whether dealing with a personal trauma, a health issue, or a business or job loss, your network is going to help you move on.
With COVID-19 and the related shutdowns, we’ve seen how fragile some social structures around the world are. When the world went remote, entire communities lost their bridges to connection. But not Pacific Oaks. Pivoting from being a very relational-based institution—where everything we do is about our pillars of social justice, diversity, inclusion, and respect—to operating 100% virtual was challenging, but we had a clear way to transition.
Even if it’s on Zoom, we’re still building relationships and putting learning in context. That didn’t change then, and it’s not changing now. We’ve celebrated wins, big and small, remotely. We’ve helped students find the resources they needed to continue their academic journeys uninterrupted. And we’ve continued to find ways to strengthen our community and live our mission—helping others learn so they can do their part to “repair the world.”
As we continue to learn and grow in 2021, many people are speaking about being kind and listening more to understand others and the world around them. I think that the world would be better if we would think in those terms—if we all lived keeping “tikkun olam” in mind.
Rebecca Rojas, Ph.D.
On honoring the complexity of identity to serve all communities
“Who are you?” When that question arises, I look at it from a developmental perspective—that identity development is an evolving process and depends on your own self-awareness.
I identify as a woman. I identify as a Latina. I’m cisgendered. I’m middle-class now, though I wasn’t always. I came from a working class family. I’m able-bodied. I am highly educated and have a Ph.D. I’m a licensed psychologist. I’m a dean. I have a lot of privilege right now that I didn’t have at other times in my life.
All my identities interconnect. I remember when I was a doctoral student at the University of Southern California. I was the only Latina in the program and heard messages I didn’t agree with. It was some kind of identity crisis. I was in that academic environment with a lot of privilege, but on the weekends I’d go back into my neighborhood to visit my family. They had no idea what I was doing. These questions of, “Who am I? Where is home now?” were causing a lot of internal dissonance.
About a year later, I said, “Wait a minute. I don’t feel that angst anymore about where I belong or who I am.” I had evolved in some way to where I was able to say, “Who am I? I’m all of it. I can embrace all of it.” It’s not just one or the other, especially when you come from communities of color where you feel oppression, where you may experience a complexity of identity. But I can say there’s many aspects of my identity, and I embrace them all. I think my life experience is richer because of these multiple aspects of who I am, and I hope it continues to evolve.
This has been reflected greatly in my work. When I started at Pacific Oaks, a group of us with multiple multicultural experiences came together to say that mainstream mental health practices don’t work for everyone—that actually they work against some populations. We created a Marriage in Family Therapy (MFT) program and added some cultural courses for a specialization. It was an exciting time.
The Latinx Family Studies Specialization launched in 1999. In 2005, the African American Family Studies Specialization launched. It’s another population that has been really harmed by mainstream mental health practices, and research has shown that over and over again. We have now the Trauma Studies Specialization, and we just started the LGBTQIA+ Specialization in 2020.
We had, as a college, wondered how this pandemic was going to affect our programming? Well, it hasn’t. We’ve grown. A lot of people and families are struggling, so I think our programs are still very needed and very relevant for these times that we live in.
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