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Mindy Heggen, Iowa State University

Mindy Heggen.jpgWhite. Middle-class. Master’s degree. Married. Heterosexual. Female. These are the visible identities that I walk with every day. However, there are many identities that are not visible and have led to the way I experience the world. I haven’t always been a member of the middle class, and I am the first in my family to be a member of the educated group. Growing up, I was put into an identity box based on my parents’ identities. Those boxes did not give me much hope for a future. As a result of my situation and under-preparedness for college, my academic advisor told me that they did not believe in my ability to succeed, which means I did not seek help when I needed it most. My advisor put me in a box with a label that I felt I didn’t deserve. It is hard to reach out to someone when there is a misconception about your abilities.

However, I did have valuable supporters. My junior high literature teacher stated that I could do better.  That I was smart. I began to believe in myself during challenges. These adversities spurred me to think more about my identities throughout college and my full-time careers. As I started my studies in higher education, I began to learn the struggles racially underrepresented students experience in American higher education. While I didn’t have their racial identity, I had also had to fight against labels and stereotypes that were assigned to me. I could see how the system was broken and I wanted to help other advisors be the advisor I needed. This led to me attending my first National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education (NCORE) in 2018.

My first NCORE, I went as the white savior. I intended to attend, absorb information, come back to my safe space, and make change. I have never been so wrong in my life. The experience opened my eyes to what it means to be white! My white fragility shined brighter than the sun and I completely embarrassed myself. I learned more than I ever imagined in that space.

Upon returning, I could have given up. Retreated to my safe space. A predominantly white space I naturally belonged to. A space where nobody talked about what I did wrong or how hurtful my actions could have been. Instead, I remembered what my mentors said to me: “You can do better.” I picked my sorry self up and humbly attended debriefing meetings to discuss what went wrong and what could have been. I pulled out my notes from all the sessions I attended, and I began looking at my sphere of influence to determine how and where I could share what I learned.

Years later, when I transitioned to an academic advising role in the largest department on campus, I found there were not many opportunities to engage in conversations about our students and the challenges they face on our campus. Iowa State University has a 5-year strategic plan which includes a goal to “create, expand, and invest in opportunities for faculty, staff, and students to connect and build meaningful relations with others.” This goal made me think of the student development theories I learned in graduate school.  Reason (2009) theorizes how organizational context, peer environments, and pre-college experiences impact a student’s college experience. Considering this theory and our strategic goal, I took what I had learned previously and expanded it to the college advisors. I started what we now refer to at Iowa State University as our multi-media club.

The multi-media club is an interdisciplinary opportunity that engages with advisors across the College of Engineering. It started with eight participants using a book borrowed from the local library.  Since then, it has expanded to fourteen advisors and is funded by the Associate Dean for Diversity Equity and Inclusion. I find many of the book discussion questions and movie guides online. My role has been to pick a book, movie, or short story; read/watch it; research online for questions; add my own set of questions; arrange a time and location for us to gather; and facilitate a discussion.

While using Phinney’s Model of Ethnic Identity Development, I have watched and evaluated the participants’ growth in understanding their ethnic identity (Bernal & Knight, 1993). Phinney’s Model was created for youth development; however, the growth through the three stages has been evident in the participants throughout the semesters. Most participants are in stage two where individuals take time to look at their own identity and seek information pertaining to other identities. With all of us being academic advisors, the questions and discussions always come back to, “How can we use what we learned to better serve our students?” As participants go into stage three, they begin to express an understanding as to why some students act the way they do or don’t ask “the right questions.”

Cost is an important factor when creating new initiatives. I am excited to say that there are a lot of free resources on the internet and at the library. For example, many libraries offer book club sets for The Nickel Boys. There are discussion questions already in the book. If a group watches a moved based on a book, like The Hate U Give, book discussion questions may be slightly altered and utilized. This has been key to our initial success.

While there are free resources, a beneficial conversation cannot just happen without ground rules and preparation. I have a mentor who facilitated a similar experience, to whom I ask questions and watch for methods in addressing difficult conversations. I have attended conferences such as NCORE and CoNECD (Collaborative Network for Engineering and Computing Diversity Conference) to learn more about productive conversations with peers. There are free TED talks and podcasts that can help as well. Ibram X. Kendi (2020) is one of my favorites.

The goals of this initiative are:

  1. Participants will engage in discussions around identities that they may not belong to.
  2. Participants will evaluate how the information read, watched, and/or discussed applies to their daily lives.
  3. Participants will evaluate how the information read, watched, and/or discussed applies to their work as advisors.
  4. Participants will become more comfortable being uncomfortable while having difficult conversations. 

To evaluate the success or lack of success in meeting these goals, I do a retrospective pretest as an anonymous survey through software Iowa State provides. I’m also a full participant observer who notes the growth of the participants based on their involvement in conversations and words used in discussions. Results indicate that the participants have met the goals each semester of participation.

There is a lot of time and energy that goes into creating spaces for difficult conversations. The payoff is realized when students can come in, be recognized for their identities, feel a sense of belonging, then go on to graduate. As an academic advisor, I believe I have a chance to impact every student’s sense of belonging on campus by investing in my peers who then invest in their student. My advisees go to class with peers who also feel they belong. This makes all the time worth it. I once heard the late John Lewis say “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”

Mindy Heggen, M.Ed
Academic Advisor II
Department of Mechanical Engineering
Iowa State University
[email protected]


Bernal, M. E., & Knight, G. P. (1993). Ethnic identity: Formation and transmission among Hispanics and other minorities. SUNY Press.

Kendi I. X., (2020). The difference between being “not racist” and anticracist [Video]/ YouTube. https://www.ted.com/talks/ibram_x_kendi_the_difference_between_being_not_racist_and_antiracist?language=en

Reason, R. D. (2009, November-December). An examination of persistence research through the lens of a comprehensive conceptual framework. Journal of College Student Development, 50(6), 659–682.

Strategic Plan 2017-2020. Iowa State University. https://strategicplan.iastate.edu/

Cite this article using APA style as: Heggen, M. (2022, September). Overcoming identities and impacting spaces. Academic Advising Today, 45(3). [insert url here]


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