Austin Shepard never misses an opportunity to try to better himself. The Student Services Analyst Senior in Recruitment who has been with Estrella Mountain Community College (EMCC) since 2006, recently returned from NASPA’s inaugural Ujima Institute.
“I’m always on the lookout for a conference that will help me professionally,” Shepard said. “The Ujima Institute caught my attention because of its content. It was specific to African Americans and it was for people who aspire to be a vice president of a college or university.”
NASPA, an international program for student affairs professionals, held the Ujima Institute Nov. 7 to 9 at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla. Ujima is the third principle of Kwanzaa. It embodies an active commitment to the collective and to shared liberation. Inherent to the principle of Ujima is sharing in one another’s achievements and hardships.
Institute participants came from all over the country. Public and private, large and small institutes of higher learning were well represented. Shepard was the only attendee from Arizona. He’s been a NASPA member for more than 10 years and has attended many of the organization’s national and regional conferences, but this was his first time attending one of the organization’s institutes.
“I try to mix it up,” he said.
Shepard applied to the Ujima Institute last spring and found out over the summer that he was one of 75 to make the cut out of 125 applications.
“I knew it was selective, I knew it was competitive,” he said. “And when we got to the Institute, they told us this was the highest number of applicants for an institute like this in NASPA history.”
Topics discussed during the Institute included politics and conflict with Institute leaders offering suggestions to work through and overcome challenges. Resume dos and don’ts were also covered, and issues specific to African Americans working on predominantly white campuses were addressed. Institute leaders led conversations that revolved around topics such as feeling passed over on a promotion to being asked to chair multiple committees, all because of the color of one’s skin.
“When you’re one of only a few African Americans on campus, everyone assumes you’re an expert in everything black and it can be a burden,” Shepard said. “You get asked to be on this committee and that committee and it takes time away from what you were hired to do.”
Institute participants were encouraged to share their knowledge with college and university leadership upon their return, something Shepard has always been a proponent of.
“We’re all responsible for the sharing of knowledge,” he said. “Once you have it, you have to share it. I can’t make anyone do anything, but once you have that knowledge, you’re accountable.”
After Shepard returned, he gave EMCC leadership a synopsis of the institute’s lessons, along with attachments to a couple of articles that were required reading.
“I think I’ve done my due diligence in providing that information to start or continue discussions related to African Americans and our experience on campus,” he said.
Shepard hopes the Ujima Institute becomes an annual event, and is going to keep an eye out for it so that he can suggest his colleagues apply.
“I came back so energized,” he said. “It was so neat to be around professionals in the field where you are and where you want to be, and just having the honesty of the participants. Sometimes you get into a group and everyone has their shield up and they hide behind their titles, but everyone was just really genuine in a sense of, ‘This is what I do. I want to be in a higher position such as VP,’ and ‘How do I get there?’”