Here, we celebrate the African American female leaders in the industry of campus recreation. Five executives from programs across the nation have come together to share their stories, experiences and encouragement in order to empower the up and coming generation of African American women in the industry. It’s the hope of each interviewee below that this story would both inspire young professionals in the industry, as well as continue to cultivate a culture of inclusion and diversity within campus recreation.
There have been plenty of times when Jocelyn Hill has looked around the room during her career and been the only person of her ethnicity and gender.
“It can feel overwhelming at times,” said Hill, the director of Recreational Sports and Fitness at American University (AU).
Initially, Hill’s career goal was to be a director of a corporate fitness program. It was AU’s assistant director of intramurals at the time who told Hill of the job opportunities in campus recreation. She’s now been at AU for over 20 years and has followed her father’s words. “I always believed what my father told me: ‘You can be anything you want to be with hard work,’” said Hill. “I made sure people judged me by how hard I worked and how I treated people.”
Tara Parker, the executive director of Sports and Recreation at Kennesaw State University (KSU), has had a similar experience in the sense she didn’t even know campus recreation was a career option at first. As an accounting major, she heard about the parks and recreation field and made the leap. After a few years in that industry, she then applied to be the intramural coordinator at KSU when her friend mentioned there was an opening. Since then, her position has evolved over the past 22 years into her current title.
However, starting in the industry, Parker recalled she only knew of one African American female director, Juliet Moore. But as the industry has grown, so have the opportunities for African American women, shared Parker.
In fact, she noted the younger generation must be bold about their goals to become a director and might have to meander a bit to get there. “Take leadership positions that are not directly in your path,” she said. “Those times when I did [push myself outside of my comfort zone] I reaped the success from it, or at least the learning experience that I could carry into the next situation or opportunity.”
Building a Network
For Felicia Tittle, hard work has just been one part of her journey toward becoming the executive director of Recreation and Physical Education at Duke University. “I realized early on it is important to build a professional network and to be understanding when things do not always go as planned,” shared Tittle.
That network started when Tittle was struggling to get her first recreation position after her undergraduate experience at Winston-Salem State University. To overcome this, she started working part-time in parks and recreation and campus recreation, as well as took on volunteer positions and coaching part-time. “I began to cultivate relationships with recreation professionals, and I gained an understanding of the true meaning of transferrable skills,” she said.
Networking has also been a large part of Tiffany Lomax’s career.
Lomax said she was introduced to the world of campus rec as an intramural referee at Delaware State University (DSU). Job opportunities took her to George Washington State and then back to DSU where she is the current associate director of Wellness Recreation and Campus Events. NIRSA, Jordin Williams and Stan Shingles all had large impacts on Lomax.
“NIRSA is a huge part of how I got to where I am today, and I would be remiss if I did not mention the director Jordin Williams or my mentor Stan Shingles in the roles they played — Jordin for not only understanding the importance of NIRSA but continually ensuring the students at DSU have access to all NIRSA has to offer. Stan for being a phenomenal example for African Americans in this field, and not only being in my corner but challenging me to exceed beyond his footprint,” she said.
In fact, that network has helped Lomax overcome the biggest challenge in her career, which was to be seen for her knowledge and abilities before her race or gender. “I truly believe I was able to overcome this challenge with perseverance and the help of my network, a network I built while attending the People of Color Social at a NIRSA annual conference,” she said.
Overcoming Unexpected Challenges
While Dr. Wendy Windsor, the director of Campus Recreation at Tulane University, said many would think her biggest challenge echoes Lomax’s, it has in fact been a much larger roadblock. “Many people within NIRSA are unaware I have an acute visual impairment,” she said. “Being diagnosed with a rare eye condition due to optic atrophy, my poor vision inhibits me to drive and presents numerous sight challenges on a daily basis.”
Early on in her career, Windsor explained she was able to navigate her disability on her own. Whether it was during her time establishing the first ever intramural sports league at Brenau University, or at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, Middle Tennessee State University, Louisiana State University or University of California, Los Angeles, she persevered.
However, Windsor said it became more difficult as time went on. She soon had to ask for help and rely on visual aid tools. “As a very independent individual, this new level of dependency was, and still is, the biggest challenge I navigate in my role as director,” said Windsor. “Acknowledging my disability for what it is, and accepting that it’s OK to ask for help, was the breakthrough needed for continual success at the director level.”
But, that’s not to say Windsor didn’t face similar challenges as the rest of her African American female colleagues. Through a strong professional network, serving in highly visible volunteer roles and constantly learning, she built respect and a positive track record. “This road or journey was not a smooth one, with lots of bumps and curves along the way, but having allies and support from those of similar and different races and gender allowed for a more achievable destination,” she said. “My best advice here is just to stay the path, as your goals can be obtainable.”
In fact, each leader shared her top three pieces of advice for aspiring Campus Recreation leaders, specifically African American women:
- Be willing to be flexible with a location for a job. Unless you have extenuating circumstances, you may need to travel to get that job you are really looking for.
- Make sure your job choices are getting you to your end goal. You want to make sure your job is challenging you enough to get to the next level.
- Be true to who you are but also understand you may need to adapt to any situation that challenges what you believe.
- Work hard. You never know who is watching or what opportunities will arise from it. Hard work pays off.
- We are all busy but find time to volunteer. Volunteer in your department, on your campus and on NIRSA committees.
- Build your network. Find a mentor and a sponsor. Intentional relationships with people above, below and across from you.
- Be confident you have the knowledge base and skill set to go for it.
- Be bold but know your audience.
- Push yourself outside your comfort zone.
- Identify a mentor — someone you can trust and tell the good, bad and ugly to.
- Identify an advisor — someone you can ask discreet questions, like how you should structure your resume.
- Identify a sponsor — someone who carries your name and resume into the room, and they are passionate about your success.
- BONUS: Check out this clip from Carla Harris.
- Find both a mentor and sponsor. Your mentor will provide both guidance, and constructive or “real” feedback as you progress throughout your career. While in contrast, your sponsor will provide you those opportunities that position you to “get a seat at the table.”
- Block the haters: Recognize early many may try to disregard or disrespect you as a leader. Prove them wrong by being a connoisseur of your profession and learning how to establish executive presence.
- Believe in yourself and stay focused on your “end goal.” Master the art of resiliency
As the industry continues to grow and change, Parker said there are many great women of all races that can be fantastic leaders. Believe you can do it, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
“Each of us is open to discussion and young women coming to us and wanting to have that one-on-one conversation about what does it take to get to this point or what could it look like for me?” she said. “Just know we’re open to having those discussions and wanting to see more African Americans leading campus rec departments.”