Chrysanthemum's Journey to OWHE

In the time leading up to my first professional job post-grad school, I held a number of employment and volunteer positions: swim instructor, ELL tutor for migrant workers, pre-school aid, spinning teacher, running shoe salesperson, waitress, youth volunteer coordinator, soup kitchen cook, and intern at a non-profit policy think tank. Although perhaps not the most obvious of connections, I look back at that list and see some important common threads. In some way, these were all service roles. Many of them had to do with educating children, especially from underserved and underrepresented backgrounds. They were about giving, helping, and connecting with people in ways that I felt were meaningful and for the most part, contributed to a bigger purpose. I did not realize it at the time, but I had been extremely fortunate to spend my time largely working with organizations that tightly aligned with my values, opportunities leveraged my strengths, people who were similarly motivated, and causes that were close to my heart.  

I went to graduate school, as I think many people do, to gain skills for and access to work that could make an even bigger impact on the world. For me, public education has always been the place where I've felt I could do the most good, and so as I completed my degree in Public Policy, I focused heavily on understanding the history, policies, and challenges in the public education system. I had never studied economics or statistics before, but I worked hard to understand and learn the data analysis skills to highlight inequities and learn the disciplinary skills used to inform and shape better, more just education. I loved my program and felt motivated by what I learned. What's more, I had a spectacular mentor who encouraged my passion, challenged me, and supported me in every way. Especially my work with her at the think tank felt validating and encouraging of my path. I was so ready to walk off the stage at graduation and right back into a full-time job as an analyst where I had been an intern with her – and then two years later I would follow in my mentor's footsteps, start a Ph.D. program in California, and live happily, ever after.  

But that didn’t happen.  

I applied for the job that I had expected to get. The perfect next step in my journey. But I didn't even get a phone interview. I was a little bewildered, but I tried to take it in stride. People who know me know that I am hopelessly optimistic, and so I just chalked it up to a hiccup in the plan or a necessary lesson the universe wanted me to learn before getting back on track. Apparently, I had many lessons to learn.  

Thankfully, after graduation I was able to work for three months as an intern at Oregon State University doing a special project. It ended up being a very positive opportunity, and I thought it would give me some real-world experience that I must have been lacking on my first attempt at getting "a real job." That is, one that was more closely aligned with what I had envisioned and thought I would have. As a temporary gig after the internship ended, I accepted a role at Oregon State as an Assessment Coordinator - something that I really had very little interest in or experience in. 

I tried again to apply for analyst work, at Portland Public Schools and back at the think tank in San Francisco. This time I got through to the interview stage, but both ended with, "you were so great, but we went with someone with more experience" phone calls.  

Feeling a little stuck and uncertain, I kept working at OSU. The work was hard for me because I didn't feel connected to it or see the value. I had never had that before and wasn't quite sure what to do. My colleagues were nice, but I didn't feel close with them and we didn't have the same motivation for our work. I was no longer in grad school, so that network had pretty much disappeared. I distracted myself by teaching a first-year seminar class to incoming freshmen - which kept me connected back to what I was still sure was my calling. Still, I started to hate the feeling I would get from my day-to-day work. What made things even worse was that during this time my amazing mentor and friend unexpectedly passed away at age 33. I was heartbroken, felt alone at work, and found no joy or inspiration in something that I was accustomed to drawing inspiration and purpose from. This was a low point for me, and I absolutely needed a change. 

In January of 2015, I started doing informational interviews with all the people on and off campus who I looked up to. My goal was two-fold: learn how they carved their unique paths and find out what advice they had for finding my next step. It was in this process I learned how important having a wide range of mentors is: someone who inspires you, someone who thinks everything you do is wonderful, someone who challenges you and how you think, someone who works in the style you want to work, someone who leads others the way you want to lead someday, and someone who is at their core a true and forever friend. These conversations gave me hope and a little burst of energy, and one of these mentors suggested I sign up to go to the OWHE conference. I had attended once before as a graduate student and honestly was a bit uninspired by it at the time, but something in the back of my mind kept tugging at me and I ended up signing up just a few days before the conference.  

I only have a few fragmented memories from what actually happened at the 2015 OWHE conference, but the whole time I remember feeling more and more re-invigorated and inspired. The people I met, the sessions I went to, and the sheer positivity and support of the community built me up. Toward the end of the day, the Wise Women panelists were sharing some truth bombs and a little lightning bolt struck for me. In response to the question, "what can we do to make a difference in higher education?" Dr. Carla Gary told us to look around the room and notice who wasn't there. She said it was our job to make our community more inclusive and to make sure all the voices are represented because only then will we be able to start to see real change.  

Dr. Gary's words sunk in deep. After that conference, I started to re-frame my work, expanded my understanding of what it means to build an inclusive and more equitable system, and started to take control and create ways that I could infuse my perspective and strengths in my current surroundings rather than try to escape or replace it with something "better." I created and found room to do what felt meaningful to me. I also successfully ran for my first OWHE board position. I started in 2015 as the Director of Membership motivated by the desire to see OWHE expand both in terms of it its reach and its diverse representation. OWHE reconnected me with the purposefulness I had always found in service, community, and advancing equity in education. It pulled me out of a funk and helped me mature in my understanding of what it means to be a professional. It gave me a new community, connected me with an unbelievable group of women leaders, and countless opportunities to grow and give back.

Three years later I am still at OSU, but now in an amazing role that I helped shape through taking some risks, some initiative, and staying much more true to myself. Maybe it sounds cliché, but I know that OWHE played an important role in my mindset shift that resulted in much more joy, passion, and purpose. Once again, I feel extremely fortunate to spend my time doing work tightly aligned with my values, engaging with opportunities that leverage my strengths, surrounded by people who are similarly motivated, and giving my all to causes that are close to my heart.  

 

Chrysanthemum M. Hayes is the Communications and Engagement Manager of Institutional Analytics & Reporting at Oregon State University. She can be reached at Chrysanthemum.Hayes@oregonstate.edu

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