Cultivating the next generation of change makers in higher education
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
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.”