By Stephanie L. Krah, interim associate dean of University College at Central State University OH
“In my dreams, I never have an age.” ― Madeleine L’Engle
When I wake up each day, I think about the goals I have set for myself in life. I reflect on being within a few months of completing my PhD in higher education.
As I process my next careers moves to achieve my ultimate goal of being a university president, very rarely does the idea of my age come to mind.
It is my dream to impact the lives of students and change the future of higher education. In these dreams my age is never a factor. Throughout my professional career, I have often found myself being in situations where I was the “baby” around the table.
During 2011, I figured it was time to look for something new and different. I thought, “Well, I’m young, no commitments, I can pick up and go.” Never would I have imagined what was about to take place.
Happy 28th birthday
In May 2011, two weeks after my 28th birthday, as the access and investment educator, I was participating in a recruitment trip. We were eating lunch when I answered a phone call from campus.
“Hi Stephanie, this is the provost,” said the voice on the other end. “I would like to discuss with you an opportunity in my division. “
My heart began to race with excitement. Although I did not know what she would share with me, I still was ecstatic.
“It was my initial intent to ask you to oversee our summer program,” she continued. “However, I would like you to serve as the interim associate dean of the University College.”
Hearing her words, I almost fainted. With no hesitation I said, “Yes!”
I would be charged with the creation of a new academic unit, The University College, designed to increase the university’s retention, course completion and ultimately graduation rate.
I received a two-month timeline to complete the implementation process. This included leading seven implementation teams comprised of faculty, staff and students; restructuring a currently existing academic unit; creating new positions; and reconfiguring the budget structure.
Needless to say, my plate was loaded with somewhat unrealistic expectations. I began to feel so many emotions from the moment I answered the phone: happiness, fear, doubt, confidence, weakness.
I was about to be a dean at the age of 28!
My friends, family and mentors were so excited for me. They reassured me that I could succeed in this role.
Despite the major support I had from the administration and others, I was a cub entering a lion’s den.
Many people did not believe in my abilities. Some doubted me because of my lack of experience, some didn’t feel I was the right fit and others brought my age to the forefront as an issue.
Instead of shielding my mind from the negative words, I embraced them; for the first three months of my leadership, they consumed me.
Part of my new role was to attend Deans Council meetings, often held in the same room where the trustees meet. I recall sitting in these meetings, realizing that people whom I had admired from a distance— since I started at the university—now surrounded me. The collective wisdom around the table exceeded 200 years.
Intimidation covered me like a cloud.
Here I was in the same room as the provost and AVPs, full of fear, doubt and apprehension, yet also empowerment and excitement. I felt a sense of honor and privilege to be in this inner sanctum.
A baby in the boardroom
These individuals were now my “colleagues,” but to myself I was a baby in this boardroom.
I was someone who could not fully engage in the conversation, because I had yet formulated my academic voice. I lacked the confidence to be able to put one foot in front of the other, to walk with these “grown ups” before me.
Like a baby placed in an unfamiliar environment, I became very uncomfortable and squeamish. At every meeting, I felt that I did not belong, thinking to myself, “Why am I here?” and “I can’t handle all of this. I am too young to be here.” And “Maybe in five years I can handle this responsibility!’
I became my own worst enemy. It was difficult for me to focus on my strengths and understand that out of every faculty and staff member in the university whom they could have called upon, they chose me. They must see that I possess the qualities and potential to succeed in this role.
Baby grows up
After several months of attending these meetings, I began to feel more at ease for these reasons:
• I researched things that I did not fully understand after each meetings I made sure that I would no longer feel inadequate, and I would be well-informed in the future.
• I engaged with other deans outside of the meetings. I knew that in order for me to be comfortable in this environment, relationship building was a must. I had to find ways to interact and learn more about my colleagues so that I could understand their perspective in the meetings.
• I made the choice to have a voice. I concluded that since I am in this role of influence, I need to work toward creating change to improve the experience of our students.
In addition to the Deans Council meetings, there were many other times where I found myself as the youngest person in the room. My goal was to add value while I was there.
I began to enhance my public speaking skills, to develop my knowledge on academic programs and policies, and to improve my leadership abilities.
My close relationships with many students allowed them to share with me their thoughts and feelings on the University. They were willing at times to speak with me rather than other administrators because I was closer to their age and they related to me.
I was then able to take the information I learned from students into various meetings to encourage changes in programs, policies and practices. In more scenarios than not, my youthfulness became an asset rather than a hindrance.
Over time, I began to win over the people who initially did not believe in me. I showed that I was talented in many areas and that I had the ability to help the university move forward in a positive direction.
After two years in this role, I established a work ethic and reputation that has helped me to transition to another professional level. I recently accepted a position as director of retention at an East coast university.
I would give young women who are beginning their careers in higher education some advice for success:
1. Do not be your worst enemy. There were so many times I looked in the mirror and didn’t believe what I was capable of achieving. Believe in your own talents and abilities. Tell yourself, “Yes, I can!”
2. Let your age work for you. Many people may see your youth as a roadblock that limits your contributions. However, in higher education youth can work in your favor to develop relationships with students.
3. Build connections. Do not allow your age to stop you from creating relationships with those people who may seem intimidating. I found many senior faculty/staff members who wanted to pass on their knowledge and wisdom to me as an up-and-coming professional. It was essential for me to be open to creating and capitalizing on these relationships.
4. Build your intellectual muscle. No matter the age, ignorance is a very dangerous thing. In many meetings I was very hesitant and unable to participate because I had no clue what was being discussed. I left the meetings to research the issue, so that when the issue resurfaced, I could join the conversation.
5. Use your voice. It was important for me to realize that I was in this position for a deeper purpose, both personally and professionally. In order to grow, I had to assert myself.
I am not advising anyone to become an outspoken person in every setting. I did not want to be seen as the rebellious young person in the room. But when I had vital information that could help to move the school’s agenda forward, I had to speak up! I couldn’t allow the department or school continue to make poor decisions when I had data for an effective solution.
This experience as a baby in the boardroom has been scary and intimidating at times, but very worthwhile. I know this will not be the only time I am in the position, but at the end of the day, I thrive in this situation. This shows me that my hard work is being recognized and that I am making inroads into the right places.
A baby can be very important to a family, knowing that the baby is key to the family’s survival and success.
My dream is to be a leader and change agent in higher education. I must be a dynamic contributor, no matter my age.
Krah, Stephanie. (2013, June). A Baby in the Boardroom. Women in Higher Education, 22(6), 1-2.