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Dafina Stewart, Bowling Green State University

2011 Jon C. Dalton Institute on College Student Values Panelist

Dafina-Stewart-1-150x150.jpgStewart’s research interests include the experiences of and outcomes for students of color in higher education environments; identity intersectionality; and spiritual development, religious/secular pluralism, and interfaith cooperation in higher education.

Professional Title: Associate Professor in Higher Education and Student Affairs

Institution: Bowling Green State University

Can you define “identity intersectionality” and what insights your studies on this topic have generated for higher education research and practice?

I understand identity intersectionality as the recognition that, as Audre Lorde (1990) has said, I cannot “pluck out some one aspect of myself and present that as the meaningful whole.” In other words, that each of us is composed of multiple identities that do not come together in an additive fashion to compose an individual’s sense of self, but rather are multiplied together in a synergistic fashion Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE (Bowleg, 2009: McCall, 2005; Smith & Watson, 1992))—the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. My studies have focused on African American students and their perception and articulation of multiple identities and the intersections of those identities. I believe my studies on this have helped people to consider the role of spirituality in helping students to articulate an intersectional identity. I believe I’ve also raised some important questions about whether identity intersectionality is an outcome of a developmental process. For practice, I think my research has encouraged student affairs professionals to consider that African American college students may approach their multiple identities differently from other students, and that spirituality may be a very relevant component, not just of their identities, but also of how they make meaning of their identities.

How do programs that relate to spirituality play a role in development of students of color?

I believe that programs that allow students of color to engage their own spirituality and issues of meaning and purpose help students to integrate multiple aspects of development—cognitive, psychosocial, moral, etc.  I also believe that because many students of color have strong familial and cultural ties to religion and spirituality that programs that focus on this can assist these students in maintaining or reconnecting to cultural and/or familial roots. However, it’s important that such programs recognize that religion, spirituality, and other searches for meaning and purpose are not naked of cultural influence and manifestation.

Why did you choose higher education as your field of study and research?

I chose higher education because I believed in the power of education as a liberating force. As bell hooks has named it, “education is the practice of freedom.” Moreover, higher education is the vehicle that trains our K-12 teachers and youth advocates so it is the place where transformation, innovation, and reform must begin.  I thought I would go into K-12 education as I finished my undergraduate career at Kalamazoo College, but it was my first position after undergrad, working in multicultural affairs at Kenyon College, where I confirmed that I wanted to be a part of affecting change in higher education.  I wanted to make sure that every student, any student, experienced college as a transformative, empowering, and democratizing place.  So, for me, it was obvious that I needed to study and teach in the area of higher education.

How important is philosophical study of education in foundations of higher education research and practice?

I think the study of educational philosophy is paramount. We cannot affect change and reform in higher education without a clear understanding of the rationale for why our educational systems are structured as they are.  Educational philosophy provides insights into that rationale. It also requires us to consider how some of our foundational philosophies may or may not be relevant to the current conditions which influence higher education in the United States and across the globe today.

What types of interfaith activities have you engaged as a student, professor, or professional?

My most significant interfaith activity truly has been serving as chair of ACPA’s Commission for Spirituality, Faith, Religion, and Meaning (CSFRM) since 2009. We are a group of 15 professionals from a beautiful variety of faiths and beliefs, including secular humanism, paganism, Judaism, and several denominations of Christianity which don’t necessarily naturally see eye-to-eye on things. I have learned so much about how to participate in and facilitate interfaith dialogue, particularly related to including atheists in a set of conversations in which they are often excluded. I have stretched and grown in remarkable ways personally and professionally. It is by far one of the most meaningful professional experiences of my career in higher education.

What were your experiences at Ohio State that prepared you for your career as a professor and researcher?

I think the experience at Ohio State that shaped me most as a professor and researcher was being a Holmes Scholar. Through the Holmes Scholar network and Project PROFS (Preparing and Retaining Our Future Scholars) led by Dr. Bob Ramsey, director of the Office of Diversity in the College of Education and Human Development at Ohio State, I had opportunities to serve as a teaching assistant, to be involved in research projects with my faculty mentors and with my fellow Holmes Scholars at Ohio State, and the value of collaborative scholarship.

What were your favorite courses to take as a student and favorites to teach as a professor?

I had a lot of “favorite” courses as a graduate student and many wonderful faculty —all my faculty in the higher education program were enjoyable in their own ways. I think of myself as intellectually curious, so many different topics provoked my interests and kept me engaged. However, if I had to choose my top 4 courses and faculty (in no particular order and with no disrespect to the other fabulous faculty I had while at Ohio State), it would be Mary Leach’s history of higher education where I was first exposed to the writing of Michel Foucault; we read Discipline and Punish. Another would be a course I took with Paulette Pierce in African American studies for my doctoral program cognate. As a third, I would have to go with Susan Robb Jones’s course, where we studied theories of diverse college student populations. Fourth would be the qualitative research courses I took with Patti Lather.  I had fabulous teachers and courses at Kalamazoo College, as well which would take another two paragraphs to name them all. And I’ll never forget my senior year course in high school at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City with Sr. Eleanor B. Fox, RSCJ (now deceased), where our textbook was the New York Times. I have never looked at U.S. foreign or domestic policy the same way since!

Even though these courses were very different in terms of content, the teaching styles of the four faculty who taught them were very similar. They all emphasized what Marcia Baxter Magolda would call the development of self-authorship in their students. In their classes, I discovered myself as a knower and one who could contribute to the creation of knowledge. I am the teacher I am today because of these women and men and the courses I took from them.

As a faculty member, I think I enjoy teaching all my courses, but the ones I’ve most enjoyed have been Multicultural Competence in Student Affairs, now a required course in our master’s program and for which I implemented significant revisions. I also really enjoy teaching our master’s courses in student development theory and educational outcomes, as well as our doctoral core course on the foundations of higher education.

Please comment on findings relating to your current research topic:

“Examining the causal and predictive relationships that may exist between participation in student affairs-sponsored activities and satisfaction, cognitive development, and interpersonal development among students of color.” Why is this topic important for student affairs research and practice?

Manuscripts reporting research from this study are in development or under review currently, so I’d rather not discuss the findings here explicitly so as not to undermine the blind review process. However, I will say that I believe this topic is important for student affairs research for two reasons: (a) given the current focus on accountability and data-driven decision-making, student affairs professionals must be able to speak to the ways that co-curricular engagement produces meaningful educational outcomes; (b) we must recognize the differential ways that students of color experience college and their involvement. Doing so will allow student affairs professionals to engage students of color in ways that are relevant to their experiences and educational needs.

What main ideas do you hope to convey to your audience at the Institute that might translate to programs or practices that relate to moral development?

I think the main ideas I hope to convey to the panel’s audience at the Institute is the importance of defining moral development in ways that include searches of meaning that are secular and not religious. I also want to emphasize the intersections of intellectual or cognitive development, psychosocial development, and campus environments with moral development.  In other words, moral development involves the total development of the individual and takes place in an environment that either supports or hinders that development.

What advice do you have for students today in searching for meaning and fulfillment in their lives?

I encourage young adults and older adult students to remain open, in a way, to always be searching for meaning and fulfillment. As we continue to learn, develop, and grow over the course of our lives, our pathways toward meaning and fulfillment may take on nuances that we could not have imagined when we began our journey. I also advise students to learn the value of deeply engaging with others whose searches for meaning and fulfillment take them on very different paths. Learning respect and appreciation for difference requires the practice of civility, which we cannot do when we are constantly in the presence of likeminded others.

What advice do you have for faculty and student affairs administrators in helping to guide students to pursue meaning in their lives?

For faculty and student affairs administrators I advise them to stay deeply engaged in their own journeys. I cannot empathize with a student’s struggle with faith and doubt if I have never doubted. I cannot recognize when a traumatic event may trigger new questions about meaning and purpose if I refuse to be generous with acknowledging that I have had similar experiences. I also echo what I said above for students: as faculty and administrators, we have to stay open and we must, perhaps even more than our students, commit ourselves to engaging with people who are on different journeys toward meaning and fulfillment than ourselves. We must role model what it means to be, in Parks’s language, members of communities that are open to others.

Please add any information that you would like to include in the featured interview not covered above.

I think the only other thing I would add is that my role as a mother has significantly shaped who I am as a faculty member and how I approach my research and professional service in higher education. I got into this field first and foremost because I wanted to ensure that when she went to college, she could enter any institution and be assured that she would be treated with respect and dignity, that her college experience would be democratic and transformative, and that the student affairs professionals she meets will be conscious of intentionally shaping her college experience to help her learn, develop, and grow. My daughter is the reason I do the work that I do; I’m trying to leave a legacy for her, not that her mom was some well-known scholar, but more so that the work her mom did made her college journey not just fun, but also meaningful and developmental.


Bowleg, L. (2008). When Black + lesbian + woman ≠ Black lesbian woman: The methodological challenges of qualitative and quantitative intersectionality research [Electronic version]. Sex Roles,59(5/6), 312-325. DOI10.1007/s11199-008-9400-z

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York, NY: Vintage Books.Lorde, A. (1990). Age, race, class, and sex: Women redefining difference. In R. Ferguson (Ed.), Out there: Marginalization and contemporary culture (pp. 281-288). New York, NY: The New Museum of Contemporary Art and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

McCall, L. (2005). The complexities of intersectionality. Signs30(3), 1771-1800.

Smith, S., & Watson, J. (1992). Introduction. In S. Smith & J. Watson (Eds.), De/colonizing the subject: The politics of gender in women’s autobiography (pp. xiii-xxxi). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.