Black Excellence: University Program Associate Jewel Walcott
As a university program associate for the College of Natural Resources, Jewel Walcott provides administrative support to the assistant dean for college advancement and the advancement team. Her work helps secure gifts for the college and keeps advancement projects running smoothly.
We recently spoke with Walcott about her experience as a Black professional in higher education. The following Q&A is a part of a Black History Month series highlighting the outstanding contributions Black faculty, staff and students have made to the College of Natural Resources.
Tell us about some of your earliest memories of being outside.
Some of my earliest memories of being outside include spending time at the neighborhood parks in the Bronx, New York where I was born and the days I spent on farms in Michigan and Georgia.
The trips to the farmers markets with my uncle and his dad were like adventures for me, and I look forward to having my own family farm and garden because of my experiences as a child and teen. I also spent a lot of time on the road traveling with my family to different states. For me, traveling erased the boundaries that existed between communities and state lines, giving me an expanded view of people and cultures.
What has it been like as a Black, Indigenous, Person of Color (BIPOC) to pursue your career?
My work in advancement in higher education has been difficult in some ways and fulfilling in others. I have seen how the lack of education about diversity, equity and inclusion has affected employees’ ability to provide viable options to support students, faculty and staff.
I have also seen how implementing thoughtful, strategic practices related to those areas can improve an environment and result in more informed, productive employees. I am glad to see that there is more work being done in these areas.
What challenges have you faced in pursuing your career?
The greatest challenges I faced in pursuing my degree were a lack of guidance and finances. I graduated third in my class and was in the National Honor Society and Who’s Who Among American High School Students. I worked very hard in school, because I loved to learn and I believed a good education would give me more options in life. Unfortunately, when it was time to apply for college, I had no guidance as most of my family members did not go to college.
I went to a college that offered me a partial scholarship and struggled to pay the balance even though I worked three jobs. Somehow, I made it through the first semester with no books because I could not afford them. I made copies of pages from my classmate’s books and tried to take good notes. Transitioning to this environment was very difficult.
During the spring semester of my sophomore year, I got a call that there was a fire in my home in New York and I had no place to live there. That totally stressed me out and I had even more trouble focusing in class. My grades dropped [and] I ended up on academic probation for my partial scholarship. So with no degree, I decided not to return to school. I believe the work we do in advancement is so important and enjoy knowing that I am contributing to helping another student that may be in a similar situation to my own.
Do any have specific memories of experiences in your career that stick with you?
In my first job in advancement in higher education, I had an amazing supervisor that really cared about the people on our team. They would ask us what we needed to do our jobs effectively and include us in the process of achieving and exceeding goals.
When they left, I had a supervisor that was a very poor communicator and only acknowledged my presence if they were correcting me for doing something wrong. They would say racist and classist things and would insult my intelligence, because I was one of the few people in my unit without a college degree.
I also had the opportunity to work with students. At a point, I was feeling pretty defeated and was surprised when a student-led organization on campus awarded me for being an exceptional professional of color and for my impact on the students. It was an honor.
My experiences in that space taught me that there are leaders and there are bosses. I have faced racism, classism, sexism and ageism, all in professional settings. However, I decide the type of person I want to be; to work hard, inspire others and maintain control of my own professional narrative. I can choose to be a leader among leaders.
Tell us about someone who supported and encouraged you to pursue your work.
Marina van Zuylen is the director of the Clemente Course in the Humanities. From the first time we met, she has celebrated me and encouraged me to use my voice as a tool, not a weapon, and to advocate for people whose voices do not exist in the same spaces my voice does. I have been ready to quit and she has reminded me of the importance of people like me existing in spaces that may feel uncomfortable.
Why are you passionate about your field or work?
I am passionate about advancement work, because I love helping people. There was a time when I thought I would be a star player in the game of life. I learned later on that I like being a coach. Coaches support the players so they can shine. I may not go out and get a major gift for a scholarship, but in supporting the people who do, I am doing my part to help students get their education. Seeing others succeed is what drives me.
What advice would you give to young BIPOC professionals entering your field?
I would say two things: As a professional I would say, “Think with the end in mind”. That will help them stay focused on their goals and remind them on tough days that there is a bigger picture. As a person of color I would say, remember that the only fight that matters is the fight in which winning means victory for more than just you. Some fights are not necessary and are simply distractions. If you crash your car swatting at a gnat, you won’t get to your destination. But if your fight breaks down a barrier to success for someone else, give it all you got.