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College of Education

Q&A with Toby Jenkins

The National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education name
d Toby Jenkins the recipient of the Individual Leadership Award. Jenkins serves as the director of the College of Education’s Museum of Education and the interim associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion of The Graduate School. In her role as associate professor, she focuses on the use of culture as a tool of social change and a transformational space within educational settings.

The Individual Leadership Award is presented to an NADOHE member for outstanding contributions to research, administration, practice, advocacy and/or policy, and whose work informs and advances the understanding of diversity, equity and inclusive excellence in higher education for a minimum of 10 years.

Tell us about what initially drew you to the University of South Carolina’s College of Education?

First, I am a Gamecock. Columbia is my hometown. I’ve often shared that, for those who live in Columbia, the university is “ours.” We claim it, support it and love it. But beyond this being my hometown university, I am from a Gamecock family. My older sister is an alumna. My husband was lettered in football here at UofSC in the 1990s and I earned my undergraduate degree here from the SC Honors College and the College of Journalism and Mass Communications. After I graduated, I left and built my career in higher education for 20 years at other universities University of Maryland, Penn State, George Mason, University of Hawaii and Georgia Southern.

A few years ago, the university awarded me the Outstanding Black Alumni Award at homecoming and it brought me back here from Hawaii for the event. The warmth that I felt during that visit from President and Mrs. Pastides and the Alumni Association was incredible. The excitement and energy I felt being back at Williams Brice for the game and re-connecting with my friendship community was all I needed to affirm that it was time to come back to my higher education home.

I am a higher education scholar. As a researcher I study the administration of colleges, universities and the experiences of college students. I was familiar with the stellar higher education program at UofSC as those graduate students were my leadership advisors when I was an undergraduate. I also wasintrigued by the social justice focused educational doctorate in curriculum studies offered by the College of Education. So, I was excited to pursue an opportunity to join the faculty. What is most magical about coming to the College of Education is that the experience has actually been more than I imagined. My colleagues and leadership in the College of Education have been the most outstanding of my career. We have a true community here, with colleagues that I genuinely respect and love.

What has been your most powerful experience during your time as Director of the Museum of Education?

Working with my faculty colleagues and encouraging them to translate their traditional research into aesthetic exhibitions. The Museum is an official research center here at the university. And so, the work that we do isn’t peripheral to research and scholarship, it is centered in scholarship. The museum creates a space to encourage a wider public audience to engage with research on important issues and topics related to the historical and contemporary educational experience. I have developed a structure where, one semester, we host a Faculty Guest Curator who takes their research and works with me to develop it into a museum exhibit. The next semester is always an exhibit researched and curated by me. So, the museum allows me to tap innovative ways to research and explore various educational topics and to provide a venue for others to do the same. 

What does the Individual Leadership Award mean for you personally?

I very much appreciate this award because of its cumulative nature. This isn’t an award focusing on recent memory a few things that I have done in the past year or two that excited people. Instead, this is an award that looks at the entirety of your career at the minimum, the last 10 years. I have been working in diversity and inclusion since my first job at the University of Maryland in 2000. That’s 22 years of giving my absolute all toward transforming every campus that I enter. That’s two decades of pushing to continue to innovate and advance this fieldfirst from a campus level and, over the last 13 years,nationally. Your present campus tends to really appreciate what you do for them, but don’t always know everything you have done for the field at large and for other institutions before them. I am always aiming for my presence to matter on my campus. It’s not important that folks know who I am, but I do want them to feel the change that happens because I am there. This award acknowledges and awards that collective work. So, it feels great to have all of those years remembered and valued.

What is something you wish others would understand about your work in inclusivity?

First, working on inclusion is deep work and it sometimes can be heavy. I do a lot of training nationally and it’s not only physically exhausting prepping the sessions and delivering them, but it also can be emotionally draining. I am not an outsider to this issue — I am part of the groups who have been impacted by oppression, exclusion and harassment. So, when you do this work, and you are a part of a targeted group it’s not actually “easier” for you. It is just as hard for us to remember these histories and the impact of current exclusionary policies. But it is necessary and important. Secondly, because of how heavy learning all of this can be, I have always started with and centered joy as an act of resistance. I begin by trying to add cultural inspiration, cultural energy and cultural creativity to organizations and environments to make folks feel good about where they are and who they are. This helps to move people to participate and to show up. Particularly when it comes to groups that have been traditionally excluded, the first step of inclusion is to make the environment a space that brings them joy and fulfillment. Transforming institutions from spaces that some students, faculty and staff just “get through” to get to their goal, into becoming a place they actually love and value, is important. It’s almost foundational or a Maslow hierarchy first step. Then we move to the deeper work of policies, practices and critical education.

What are you most proud of during your career in higher education?

Several years ago, a colleague commented that I have done a great job creating sustainable initiatives. I honestly had never considered what was happening to the campuses after I left. I assumed many places just replaced me and created new programs. After considering his comment, I conducted a web search and realized that, indeed, many of the initiatives that I created were still serving college students who didn’t even know me. A program that I developed at the University of Maryland has been adopted as an official university homecoming tradition. I created it in 1998 as a graduate student and it is still running on their campus 24 years later. I’m proud of that because at long-standing, predominantly white institutions, the experiences of ethnically diverse students aren’t often seen as an official tradition. They often happen in addition to the more major traditions. For a university to recognize how beloved an experience is to ethnically diverse students and to make it a tradition of the entire campus is meaningful. I’m proud of what I contribute to each campus I love.

What is something that any university student can do to advance inclusive excellence at UofSC?

Learn. This is a moment in time where you have dedicated four years or two years or five years to growing and developing yourself. Take advantage of that. There aren’t too many times in life where you are afforded the privilege to just spend time learning. So read as much as you can. If you can’t take an African American studies class, that doesn’t stop you from googling “African American studies reading list” and buying some of those books to read personally. And read texts that teach you new things and expose you to different perspectives. If you are learning about the European Renaissance, make the personal effort to look at what was happening for other people in other places at that same time. How were other folks living during this “rebirth”? If you looked at, let’s say, Africans, what was their experience during this Renaissance? Did the wonderful things happening for Europeans link to the experiences that others were having in other parts of the world? Seek to stretch your mind and knowledge widely. Also, students should take advantage of the many campus events and lectures happening on our campus. This campus really is dynamic in all that it offers outside of the classroom. This, again, is what is beautiful about the college experience — you are surrounded by intellectual opportunities. 

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.