Cultivating the Next Generation of Change Makers in Higher Education

Not just research for research's sake

Cultivating the Next Generation of Change Makers in Higher Education

Chrystal George Mwangi, assistant professor, channels her background as a college administrator into improving the college going experience of students of color.

Chrystal George Mwgami in a hallway discussion

Assistant Professor Chrystal George Mwangi has dedicated her career to making higher education institutions more welcoming, comfortable, safe spaces for diverse student populations. She is passionate about challenging colleges and universities to examine their barriers to equity and inclusion and about nurturing a generation of administrators who will reshape higher education.

It’s more than a little surprising, then, to learn that she majored in international business as an undergraduate.

Nearing her graduation from Rollins College in Florida, George Mwangi began pursuing the career she trained for, but it wasn’t what she expected. “I remember in my senior year of college going out for interviews with all of these different corporations, and coming home crying every time because I really felt the corporate culture just wasn’t for me.” Fortunately, George Mwangi had another option that was a much better fit. She had worked for four years in the admissions office as a work-study student and when they offered her a job as an admission counselor and director of multicultural recruitment she jumped at the opportunity.

As an admission counselor, George Mwangi saw the process of how students of color came to be at an institution, but became increasingly concerned about what happened after they enrolled. “I was interested particularly in thinking about issues of diversity in higher ed and supporting diverse students,” she recalls. “As an admissions counselor, I was seeing a lot of inequity in students’ preparation for college.”

George Mwangi returned to school to earn a masters in higher education and student affairs administration at Florida State. She went on to complete a doctorate in higher education, student affairs, and international education policy at the University of Maryland, focusing on the college choices and college going process of African immigrants in the U.S. In her work, George Mwangi reframed how we conceptualize that process. “The way that I approached the study was thinking about college choice and college going as a family process versus the choice and process as an individual,” she explains. “In the literature we tend to think about it as the choice of one person, but especially for many immigrant families, it is more of a collectivistic family perspective.”

When considering a professorship at UMass, George Mwangi was attracted by the College of Education’s social justice education program and the Center for International Education, but she was particularly drawn to the college for the community she found here. She appreciated that faculty were open to engaging in collaborative work and how invested they were in their students. She was also drawn to the students, especially their insight and their enthusiasm about working with faculty on research. “The students seemed very activist oriented, very community engaged,” she thought at the time. “Those are the type of students I want to be working with. Students that are invested and committed to their communities.”

Even though I’m not doing it in the same way that I was as an administrator, I have this new way of engaging and making change in the field by helping shape the next groups of people who are going to be the change makers.

Chrystal George Mwangi
Chrystal George Mwangi

In her current research, George Mwangi examines the experiences of African and African diaspora populations in higher education. As she explains, she intends her work to “help engage, critique, and reframe traditional theories and frameworks that we use to understand students in higher education, to ensure they really reflect contemporary student diversity and diverse pathways to and through higher education.” She wants to challenge scholars and practitioners to scrutinize their preconceptions about black students on campus—to move from a monolithic image of a homogenous population to one that truly presents the diversity within the community.

George Mwangi also looks at the experiences of students of color in STEM fields, especially the role that their families and communities play in their lives while they’re in college—how they remain engaged, what support the families provide, and how the students role model college going to their communities. “How do those connections remain or are sometimes weakened in the college setting?” she asks. “What role do higher education institutions have in those relationships and those connections?”

Additionally, George Mwangi is interested in broad questions in international education: How internationalization in higher education can be reframed to focus more on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, how we can critique the partnerships between institutions of higher education in the U.S. and those in other countries, and how do international students experiences campus life.

In her teaching, George Mwangi ensures that her students have extensive hands-on experience in working with students of color in their college going experience and in the process, engaging in community service. This is particularly true of her College Access and Equity course, in which students focus on theories and frameworks related to college going and the college choice process, looking at the elements that impact college preparation: the individual, family, school, outreach programs, financial aid systems, and state and federal policy.

As part of the course, George Mwangi’s students participate in a project with Holyoke High School, “thinking about culturally relevant and culturally sustaining ways to engage the college preparation process.” For the project, George Mwangi developed an afterschool program on the UMass campus for 10th and 11th graders, where they participate in activities and workshops on college preparation, financial aid, standardized testing and where the graduate students engage with them about college prep and college going. The UMass students develop college preparation initiatives for the high schoolers and then get feedback from the high schoolers on whether they think it will meet their needs. “It’s a way for the students in my class to not just think about things in terms of theory, but also in terms of practical implications and applications.”

George Mwangi’s approach to teaching has been deeply influenced by her experiences as a college administrator. “I’m not interested in research for research sake or just thinking about things conceptually. I always think it’s important for students to be able to think about how what they’re learning can be useful for not just themselves but to their community,” she asserts.

Moving from her role as an administrator to her role as a professor has allowed George Mwangi to go from transforming campuses on a small scale, to having a far broader impact at institutions across the country. “Even though I’m not doing it in the same way that I was as an administrator, I have this new way of engaging and making change in the field by helping shape the next groups of people who are going to be the change makers.”