As calls for representation among the marginalized echo in schools, the Illinois Board of Higher Education has announced the newest student group, Diversifying Higher Education Faculty, for local universities with the goal to increase faculty of color.
Stacey Wiggins is one of three students being awarded financial assistance at Illinois State University as she pursues her graduate degree in the School of Social Work, with intentions to teach.
Upon receiving the news of becoming a fellow, Wiggins said her first reaction was relief.
"I have a family, a need to pay for school and to live, so I was just relieved that I’d be able to get my tuition paid and have a stipend to help out with living expenses," she said.
After graduating from ISU in 1994 with a bachelor's degree in social work, going back to school was not in her plan.
Moving on to work at the Bloomington Housing Authority for 24 years, she eventually crossed paths with a former mentor who saw her potential and encouraged her to enroll in school.
"She said, ‘I really want you to go back to school to get your masters. You'd be great with your master's degree teaching at ISU,' and she just encouraged me to go back and I was like, 'Absolutely not, there's no way, I don't want to go back to school,'" she said. "The seed was planted and to be honest I didn't think anymore about it."
But what was once planted finally blossomed because months later, Wiggins enrolled again at ISU with a goal to use her experience on the frontlines to enlighten others.
"The revelation came to me that I could make a greater impact in social work by teaching other students social work than doing it frontline myself," she said. "I had been doing frontline service provision for many years, so it was time for me to come out of that and shift into a place where I could teach others how to do it."
It was important to Wiggins to make that transition because she witnessed the trauma a client could undergo if the social worker lacked empathy for certain situations being communicated.
“I’ve seen colleagues who can thrive and work with diverse populations, but I've also seen some pretty devastating effects with people who don't know how to do that," she said. "We're working with people’s lives here, people who have often dealt with trauma already."
As an African American woman, Wiggins said she understands the hesitation most minorities have when it comes to sitting down with a social worker. She said it was essential to ensure that future generations of color pursuing social work could see someone who looked like them excel in the field and learn traits needed to be effective.
"They need to be able to see diverse faculty so they have a comprehensible view of working with their clients," she said. "This is not to be taken lightly, we're dealing with people’s lives here and providing a service that could often make or break their future."
The mentors Wiggins had over the course of her life made a huge impact on her journey. She said without their embrace during her youth, she wouldn't be where she is today.
"I sat under very solid minority leadership. They trained me, they mentored me, they gave me constructive criticism at times but it definitely shaped who I am today."
In the future, Wiggins hopes to have her own classroom. Being able to learn from others' experiences is what keeps her going.
"I'd love to have a whole classroom of students to dialogue with, so I think it'll be really eye opening and exciting to be in a classroom and be the teacher and watch those eye-opening experiences," she said. "I'm really excited about it."
Recipients of the award agree to accept a teaching or staff position at an Illinois higher education institution as a condition of the award. A total of 103 fellows will share $1.46 million in academic support at 20 participating DFI institutions across the state.
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