Reflections on NC State’s “Building Future Faculty” Experience

Building Future Faculty program cohort 2019

Stephanie Helms Pickett, associate vice provost for diversity engagement, training and education, reflects on the Building Future Faculty program’s 2019 campus experience. The Office for Institutional Equity and Diversity hosts this annual conference, which brings promising young academics on the verge of entering the professoriate for three days of workshops, seminars, departmental visits and networking opportunities. Numerous NC State faculty members have initially connected with the university through this program, which began in 2006.

‘Twas the day after Building Future Faculty (BFF) and all through the campus, not a creature was stirring, because we were all slammed with exhaustion from an amazing experience. NC State welcomed 33 doctoral students and postdoc scholars from all over the country in various disciplines for its annual professional development experience, held on April 3-5, 2019.

Since my arrival at the Office for Institutional Equity and Diversity in November 2018, I’ve been tasked with working to coordinate and execute BFF, a program initially spearheaded by Marcia Gumpertz, professor of statistics. BFF topics include information regarding what to expect as a faculty member, a discussion of the wealth of resources available to faculty for teaching, and expectations of productivity for faculty engaged in research. During the experience, participants spend time with current faculty and department chairs in their disciplines, discussing effective strategies to prepare for an academic career and the realities of life as a faculty member, as well as receiving personal tips and feedback. BFF aims to increase faculty diversity and inclusion and to create a faculty that mirrors our increasingly diversified student population.

As a new employee to NC State, it was imperative to recognize the importance of this initiative, and as a woman of color in higher education, it was even more critical to create space through the experience for each participant to feel valued, empowered and affirmed. I understand this paradox. I tell people when asked that I went away to college and fell in love, but not with a significant other — instead, with higher education. As a first generation college student, I knew little of what to expect, but with interactions with those who practiced what I later learned are the tenets of Lewin’s Theory of Challenge and Support, over time, I developed competence in navigating spaces and experiences that were foreign with the tools to be successful.

As the granddaughter of a sharecropper in rural Arkansas, higher education was a dream, and when invited to join the elusive community, I accepted and never departed. Yet, as much as I am passionate about this space, I have been a recipient of hate, bigotry, racism, sexism, ignorance, stereotypes and disrespectful treatment. I’ve been made to feel as though my presence didn’t matter. I’ve been questioned about my intellect, my leadership and my competence. And, yet here I stand, twenty-five years since my first job in higher education, and I’m still committed to ensuring that all who enter, no matter their identity, leave empowered in their best self, prepared to do amazing exploits in the world.

On day one of BFF, a participant shared via social media:

“Drained, but worth it. Sometimes things come right when you need them. Grateful to have heard @DrGrantEmpowers tonight. Looking forward to the next few days. I can tell I’m going to leave feeling supported, seen, heard and motivated.”

I was overjoyed! I knew that I had opportunity with my colleagues in the Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity — special shout-out to Nicole Robelo, program assistant in diversity engagement, training and education — to create something magical, for magically diverse scholars. Another participant shared, “It’s so rare to feel so enthusiastically included and understood.” 

Throughout the experience, our NC State faculty were incredible. Juliana Nfah-Abbenyi, Distinguished Professor and assistant dean for diversity in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, brought us to what I would coin “church,” when she unapologetically stated to our scholars who inquired about the intersection of race and gender, “Remember, you were hired for your intellect! Don’t forget it! You are the gravy!”

Pings of imposter syndrome were mitigated by handwritten notes to each participant by Christine Grant, associate dean of faculty advancement in the College of Engineering and professor of chemical engineering. Katharine Stewart, vice provost of faculty affairs, shared her personal narrative of failure and employed the participants to create supportive networks and offer themselves grace in times of tribulation.

Additionally, table talks on topics such as wellness, work-life integration, self-care, grant funding for international scholars and the realities of assistant professorship rounded out the experience in an intimate context with expert faculty leading the dialogue. The program culminated with a closing ceremony facilitated by BFF alum Tony Ferrar, assistant professor in mechanical engineering at Temple University.

While we certainly have cracks in the higher education framework, I am hopeful that what we offered through the Building Future Faculty experience, coupled with the gifts our participants carry, will when enacted ensure that people like me, who begin with a dream, can walk boldly into their wildest imagination knowing that whatever they carry in their identity and existence will be valued and celebrated.

It is impossible to capture the fullness of the Building Future Faculty experience in words, but I will close with these words by one participant, “I can’t believe how amazing the Building Future Faculty Program @NCState has been…. The group of future faculty present was unparalleled, as were the unique conversations that only happen in these spaces. Can’t wait to see where you end up as faculty!!”

We can’t wait either.

Stephanie Helms Pickett is associate vice provost for diversity engagement, training and education in the Office for Institutional Equity and Diversity.