I have now spent 17 years in higher education and seven as a college president. In some people’s eyes, being a college president at 40 is a fast-track career. Once they discover you are a woman, and person of color, they try to figure out either what’s wrong with you or whether you have some secrets you can share.
To answer both of those questions, first, there is plenty wrong with me, and while I don’t have enough room here to discuss the list, I do work hard to overcome my failings every day. Second, I do not really have any profound secrets to share. The most important things I learned on my path to becoming a college president you probably already know. I suspect I already knew them, as well, but sometimes only the test of the journey proves the lessons.
To that end, here are five of my most important lessons on the way to the presidency.
“Only tall women can be beautiful.” That is not really true. But everything that isn’t true isn’t necessarily without its merits. My mother repeated this aphorism when I was a little girl growing up in Little Rock, Ark. Gwendolyn Brown Twillie, my mother, well, she is tall. She is beautiful. And she is black. But those identifiers tell only part of the story.
This aphorism made sure that I never shrugged my shoulders or tried to make myself shorter than I really was. I was a 5'10" black girl, and I more than stood out. But Mom, she’d have none of it. In my house we were taught to embrace who you are and stand tall in all things. Tall in your womanhood. Tall in your blackness. Tall in your humanity.
Mom didn’t tell me every battle she fought growing up as a little girl in Searcy, Ark., but somehow she learned to embrace who she was and stand tall. And she learned to pass that down, as sure as it was passed down to her.
“I would think long and hard if I were you ….” I heard those words from a senior university administrator. I had taken a stand against the elimination of Douglass College, the historic women’s college at Rutgers University. I was now being “asked,” as the dean, to agree to its elimination. It was something I could not do; it was a point of integrity. I was to have a long and prosperous career, and I certainly wouldn’t want it to end so prematurely, this administrator implied. He had power, not just at the university, but also over me. He was being clear about what he expected.
Contrary to his expectations and recommendation, I didn’t have to think long and hard, despite his concerns about my career. It was a question of integrity, and those questions answer themselves. May you be richly blessed with such moments in your career. I find haggling over more self-interested items far more taxing. Decisions around questions of integrity, I find to be very easy.
“Plow to the end of your row.” My father, Manuel Twillie, came from Forrest City, Ark. But that isn’t really true. He grew up on a farm on the outer rim of the tiny town of Colt. The black section. It was called Dark Corner.
Dad would tell us, “Plow to the end of your row.” He had been plowing behind a mule since he was six. My grandfather would remind him and his other brothers, “Plow to the end of your row.” No shortcuts. Everybody had to be accountable for their own row. There’d be more work. Picking cotton. Slaughtering hogs. I remember my father telling me that he’d get an apple, an orange and a few nuts for his Christmas present.
Nothing changes lives and family trajectories more profoundly than a college education. I’ve seen it in my own family. Those “plow to the end of your row” and “stand tall” parents of mine graduated from Philander Smith College in Little Rock. They went on and got advanced degrees. Before long, their children did as well. No more Dark Corner.
That’s one generation. As the president of Cedar Crest College, the historic college for women in Allentown, Pa., I see what can happen to the young women who attend our institution, many of whom are first-generation students. God bless Georgetown, Princeton and Columbia Universities, where I earned my degrees, but these students have not been the key focus of the missions of those institutions. At Cedar Crest College, it is exhilarating to see a young person, degree in hand, walk across the stage and into a different world -- one her parents could not have imagined. We transform students at Cedar Crest, and more than anything else, we show them how to plow to the end of their row.
“Your background is curious.” Some people look at my career and say curiously, “You went from being a lawyer to a college president?” Or “You have moved back and forth from elite Ivy League institutions to state institutions to a small private women’s college.” If you know anything about my history, you know it isn’t curious at all.
When you think about Little Rock, then you understand why I have devoted my career to education and equal access. There is no doubt in my mind that women’s colleges have a special place in the landscape of higher education. I have the audacious belief that the world needs more women leaders, and I know that women’s colleges play a huge role in developing future leaders.
Also, while leading two women’s colleges, I have had a front-row seat to study and observe other women leaders. What I have come to realize is that there is no straight, conventional path to leadership in higher education. And that is certainly true for women. Whatever your background, it is probably not too curious to keep you from finding your way here.
“There they are: one, two, three.” The technician was counting a shocking number of fetal heartbeats. If memory serves me, I said, “I don’t have time for this today.” My husband, said half jokingly, “Someone get a doctor.”
We were having triplets. Talk about the luck of the draw. My father is a twin, and so is my grandmother. “This is what I get for waiting until 39 to have children,” I thought. By some renderings, this should have sidetracked my career a decade. But I began my presidency when the triplets were 1 year old, and the kids are 8 years old now.
Thankfully, women have many more choices today than my mother or her mother had. There is nothing wrong with plowing to the end of your row at your own pace or even choosing a different row. Being a woman or a mother doesn’t have to mean hanging up your professional plow, unless you choose to do so.
Carmen Twillie Ambar is president of Cedar Crest College. This article has been adapted from Women in the Academy: Learning From Our Diverse Career Pathways, published by Lexington Books.
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