The conference focused much needed attention on issues facing women of color in higher education administration and highlighted the achievements of key women leaders in the state. It was an opportunity to meet and celebrate outstanding women, to share strategies and concerns, and to increase the visibility of women of color in Virginia higher education.
Participants started their day with a welcome from Pat Hyer, President of the VA Network.
Dr. Shirley Pippins, President of Thomas Nelson Community College, and Belle Wheelan, Secretary of Education for the state of Virginia, served as keynote panelists.
Dr. Shirley Robinson Pippins assumed the role of president of Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton, Virginia in 1995. She is the fifth president, the first woman and the first African-American to lead the college in its 32-year history.
Dr. Belle Wheelan was appointed as Secretary of Education for the Commonwealth of Virginia by Governor Mark Warner. She is the first African-American female to serve in this capacity and was the first to serve as president of a two- or four-year public institution of higher education in Virginia. She has been president of both Central Virginia Community College and Northern Virginia Community College.
Participants took advantage of the opportunity to network with women from other institutions.
by Valdrie N. Walker
Vice President of Student Affairs, Sweet Briar College, and Member of the Virginia Network Executive Board
"All of my life experiences prepared me to be president of a college," was Belle Wheelan's response when asked, "What led you to a college presidency?" Dr. Belle Wheelan is Secretary of Education for the Commonwealth of Virginia, and former President of Northern Virginia Community College (one of the largest community colleges in the nation) and Central Virginia Community College. Using a talk-show format, Dr. Wheelan and Dr. Shirley Pippins, President of Thomas Nelson Community College and long-time contributor to activities sponsored by the ACE Office of Women, regaled the audience of nearly two hundred women with stories of their careers that were funny, touching, and always instructive. These two exceptional African American leaders, and friends, were the keynote panel for the Virginia Network statewide conference, Thriving! Not Just Surviving, held on April 4th at Virginia Union University, one of Virginia's historically black colleges, located in the state capital of Richmond.
Many of the women of color converged on Virginia Union's campus along with their white female colleagues, all having great expectations of attending a conference specifically focused on issues of importance to women of color in higher education. As the registration closing date passed and the calls continued to come in, Network Executive Board members realized that attendance would far exceed anticipated numbers, setting off frantic activity to accommodate the larger crowd. This was indeed a positive omen for it clearly indicated that the Board was on target in focusing the state conference on issues for women of color in higher education, drawing many new participants to the event.
The keynote panel set the tone for the one-day conference, engaging the audience with their humorous dialogue reflecting on their professional and personal experiences as women of color holding top administrative positions in higher education. The panelists openly shared how difficult it is to balance work, family, and self when assuming such visible and demanding roles. Both have children whose activities must also fit into their demanding schedules. Each stated the need to find friends and partners who support and understand the demands made on a college president and how much their lives are lived in a fishbowl. Dating as a college president has created some of the biggest challenges and funniest incidents. Dr. Wheelan and Dr. Pippins laughingly cautioned that, "As you move up, you lose your privacy. People watch everything you do; including what you buy at the grocery store, what movies you go to, who comes with you to events, and where you get your hair done."
Both panelists provided perspectives on their career progression which reflected their willingness to take risks in both their personal and academic lives as they sought or were offered ever more challenging opportunities. While neither began with an explicit goal to become a college president, both expressed a love for education, teaching, and being open to opportunities that led to various levels of administrative work. For Pippins, a less traditional career path made securing a presidency a special challenge and fit with the right kind of institution essential. The great variety of experiences each has had all proved useful background, even though a college presidency is an especially challengingly role for which hardly anyone can really be fully prepared in their experience.
The easy and open conversation between the two women continued as they responded to questions posed on note cards from conference participants.They gave wide ranging advice on how to deal with unsupportive colleagues and supervisors, how to manage older men who report to you and resent it, and finding appropriate mentors. The current climate for affirmative action in the state and nation was also a topic for reflection and comment.
Afternoon sessions provided yet more opportunities for discussion about dialogue across difference, resume preparation, career paths for mid-level administrators, and managing change. Graduate students especially appreciated the opportunity to meet and hear from such extraordinary, strong women who shared their experiences so openly and offered many useful insights. Throughout the day women of color and white women reached out to one another in genuine collegial and personal affiliation borne out of a desire to support and to nourish one another's efforts. The one-day event clearly provided a needed forum for networking, sisterhood, bonding, and sense-making opportunities for and with women of color. Many left the hall asking for the conference to be an annual event.