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Lisa Brockenbrough Sanon-Jules, Rutgers University

Lisa Brockenbrough Sanon-Jules.jpgInstitutions of higher education are well recognized for the ability to provide economic and social opportunity for students. More recently, institutions have focused on intersectionality in higher education and how issues of race, class, and gender play into the lived experiences of students. In some cases, research has also centered on how race and gender affect not only students in higher education, but also faculty (Turner, González, & Wong, 2011). The lens of intersectionality used in this context advocates the view that one’s experiences are inextricably linked to race, gender, and class and that these factors affect one’s privilege and experience in the academy.

My prior experience as a first generation female undergraduate of color highlights the complexities of marginalized identities as one experiences the administrative life of a student affairs professional. This piece will look at the structural challenges that hinder the personal and professional growth of first-generation women of color in higher education administration. This piece will then explore actions that institutions and individuals can enact to counteract those challenges.

First-Generation Status

The U.S. Department of Education defines first-generation students as those whose parents have never enrolled in post-secondary education or those who have parents who enrolled in post-secondary education, but did not complete a degree. Research shows that these students are often, although certainly not always, Hispanic or African American and from low-income backgrounds (Horn & Nuñez, 2000; Nuñez & Cuccaro-Alamin, 1998). Oftentimes, first-generation status is invisible, as students may elect to self-identify in the absence of federal financial aid forms (Schauer, 2005). Just as first-generation students and students of color face unique challenges in integrating academically and socially into college, these challenges are often rebirthed in the professional settings of higher education. First-generation undergraduates tend to have difficulty navigating the unfamiliar academic and social demands of the university (Sanon-Jules, 2010), but colleges have been successful in creating support systems and structures to assist in their successful transition. However, first-generation student affairs administrators may once again face difficulty in adjusting to the politics and institutional bureaucracies of the collegiate environment in which they work. First-generation professionals may also lag behind in taking full advantage of the social, personal, and occupational benefits available in institutions of higher education.

Hite and McDonald (2003) discovered that a navigation of family roles and expectations was particularly complicated among students with a first-generation status. This is also the case among first-generation professionals who struggle with adjusting to the social and professional expectations in academia. Many must find a way to balance family and cultural expectations while addressing feelings of alienation. For example, one such first-generation administrator confided that she did not know how to request the use of vacation time. Her parents had worked blue collar jobs where not working meant missing a paycheck. Situations like this show that first-generation professionals also lack a clear road map and formal support structures. The experience of being first can once again lead to increased feelings of vulnerability and isolation.


The experience for women in higher education is often one in which unforeseen challenges can overwhelm the potential for growth and opportunity. Similar to first-generation students, women also face challenges in navigating the unwritten rules of the academy. While struggling to find the magical balance between work and family, they also face challenges in developing and maintaining a level of confidence and in finding mechanisms for personal and professional support.

Women in higher education tend to be clustered in fewer and lower-paying positions than men. The literature indicates that women are underrepresented in academic and administrative structures with limited opportunities for upward mobility (Gorena, 1996). Family is sometimes cited as a career restraint, as some women feel that they need to turn down certain educational or career opportunities to remain available for raising their children (Hite & McDonald, 2003). Opportunities for advancement may necessitate additional time spent attaining educational accreditations or the decreased flexibility that may come with a promotion or new opportunity. It is not uncommon for women to express ambivalence about wanting to move forward in their careers, while also having a strong desire to remain in positions that appear to offer stability.

Women of Color

Intersectionality is a key determinant in the experience of first-generation women of color, and gender is lived in the context of culture (Ferdman, 1999). Nowhere is this more evident than in the labor market. While white women have made advances in areas of management, women of color have not advanced as quickly (Catalyst, 1999). Research has found institutions to be marginally effective in retaining administrators of color (Bridges, 1996), and it has been established that female African-American administrators encounter significant barriers within academia that discourage their professional development (Gorena, 1996; Lloyd-Jones, 2009). Other research found that factors such as racism, isolation, sexism, and a lack of trust interfered with African-American women’s participation in academia (Edwards & Camblin, 1998).

Women of color face double jeopardy in confronting the multitude of structural and institutional barriers present in higher education. These barriers restrict the progress of underrepresented individuals as they cope with challenges that range from the discomfort of being one of a few in a room, to an inability to find appropriate gender and cultural resources for support, to instances of implied or abject racism. First-generation women of color face a triple threat of sexism, racism, and classism that is virtually unacknowledged in the academy. Few researchers have studied the challenges and negative social messages about race and ethnicity that are experienced by administrators from marginalized populations (Lloyd-Jones, 2009). One challenge cited is the absence of social capital, similar to what is found among first-generation and underrepresented students in higher education. Other challenges are a fear of failure, low self-esteem, and a sense of insecurity that may cause many first-generation women of color to self-select out of positions of leadership (Howard-Hamilton & Williams, 1996).

Coping Strategies

You cannot become what you cannot see.
Marian Wright Edelman

Meeting the needs of our administrative professionals in higher education is extremely important. It is important for the retention of our students, who arguably spend more time with student affairs professionals than faculty members. It is important for the retention of skilled and dedicated professionals, whose very presence in the academy is essential to increasing diversity throughout the institution. Jackson and Flowers (2003) offered several suggestions to retain diverse populations among student affairs administrators by addressing professional and social barriers. The first suggestion was to communicate and integrate a philosophy of fairness into the campus culture. It is important for first-generation women and administrators of color to know that they are appreciated and highly valued. One way to achieve this is to actively empower professionals with marginalized identities with opportunities for success. A clear signal that an employee is valued is the investment in that employee’s professional development. Institutions can develop and support mentoring activities for marginalized professionals. Programs like OASIS at Rutgers University illustrate how women in administration and faculty can secure much needed support and mentoring. Effective mentoring relationships can help less seasoned professionals learn coping strategies for dealing with institutional dynamics, while simultaneously providing a safe space and a cultural connection to others.

Second, universities can find ways to make salaries more representative of the contributions made by student affairs professionals. First-generation women of color, like other marginalized groups, are often asked to assume additional roles and responsibilities that fall outside of their traditional job description.

Finally, underrepresented and marginalized communities must remain committed to their own advancement. They must make and take opportunities to attain the necessary academic and professional credentials. Professionals must take opportunities to learn the organizational and political processes of their institutions (Kaplan & Tinsley, 1989).

Lisa Brockenbrough Sanon-Jules, Ed.D.
Assistant Dean/Director of Advising
Honors College-New Brunswick
Rutgers University
[email protected]


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Cite this article using APA style as: Sanon-Jules, L.B. (2019, September). First-generation women of color in administration: Challenges & suggestions. Academic Advising Today, 42(3). Retrieved from [insert url here] 


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