During LaShawnda Fields’ last semester as a Washington University doctoral student in social work (PhD ‘20), where she conducted work around identities, she was recruited by the School of Social Work at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, for a full-time assistant professor position. Her friends and colleagues were surprised when she accepted the job and moved to Arkansas, given that Fields had lived in St. Louis most of her life. “I wanted to go somewhere that was just beginning to do the hard work of ensuring and promoting equitable experiences for all.” The position was ripe for Fields who was looking for an opportunity to be a change maker and “in on the ground floor” of a place where she could make a real difference in the advancement of equality. “My representation alone speaks volumes as I am the second black person in the School of Social Work at the University of Arkansas,” she shared. Fields had been a part of WashU for close to 15 years, both as a graduate student (MSW and PhD) as well as serving as the diversity and retention coordinator, working with and supporting students who identify as first-generation or low-income. She was also very active across WashU in many diversity-related capacities.
In her new role, Fields is teaching (virtually) as well as reviewing department-wide diversity and inclusion plans. “We all have a lot of work to do here and it needs to be a priority, or else we will self-destruct,” she believes. She made it clear upon being hired that she wanted to be a key player in projects that promoted equity and inclusion, a role that allows her to draw on her administrative background as well as her research surrounding experience and outcomes of black female faculty at research-intensive schools of social work. “I am becoming a part of the very demographic I was researching – so it’s very personal,” she emphasized.
Working virtually hasn’t been an ideal way to start a new job at a new university. However Fields has hit the ground running drawing upon many of the tools she acquired and sharpened as a WashU Chancellor’s Graduate Fellow. “The fellowship taught me the value and importance of developing relationships outside of my own bubble to grow both professionally and personally,” she reflected. “As a fellow, I read books I wouldn’t have read, attended gallery openings, modeled in a fashion show as part of a student’s thesis and met people that I would never have come into contact with in my normal daily life.” At the University of Arkansas, Fields has identified similar engagement opportunities “across campus” to help her acclimate to a new city, school and role. Through two mentoring circles and a success team, she is focused on building her support system similar to that of the Chancellor’s Graduate Fellowship program. “Working with people who come from a different approach to problem solving along with the support of the University was the recipe for success at WashU,” said Fields. She reflected upon the fellowship, framing it as, “academically resourceful and socially necessary” in providing her with what she needed through the mountains and valleys of graduate school.
Fields offered two pieces of advice for graduate students soon to be starting new jobs. The first is to “get outside of your silo and expand your circle.” She believes this is critical to finding your footing and to being effective and productive quickly. Second, she believes you must “be authentic in your representation.” Fields reflected back to her job interview when she made it clear that she was looking to disrupt and not simply check the diversity box. She told her future employer, “diversity is one thing, but equity and inclusion is another.” Fields insisted on representing herself in her true form and ensuring sure she would have solid support for her goals if hired. She needed (and found) a team willing and receptive to change. She knows that the hard work ahead is an uphill journey with no map or end in sight. Yet, fueling her passion, this is the very trail that she was trained to blaze.