New School of Education professor studying experiences of minoritized populations in higher education

Dafina-Lazarus Stewart, Professor, School of Education

The School of Education at Colorado State University is pleased to introduce its new Student Affairs in Higher Education professor, Dafina-Lazarus Stewart. One of two hires through the School’s cluster hire initiative in late 2016, Stewart is the first full-time, tenured faculty member in the SAHE master’s degree specialization.

Background and early career

Stewart earned an undergraduate degree in sociology, with a minor in economics and a secondary teaching certificate. While earning the certificate, Stewart student-taught at a local high school in zir hometown of New York City (Stewart’s preferred pronouns are the gender neutral ze, zir, zim). Stewart said ze loved the experience of working with students but realized ze wanted to focus on what happens to people in the college environment.

“I recognized that the issues I saw in the high school were about educator preparation. I wondered, ‘What does it mean to prepare people to work with young people and college students?” said Stewart.

After graduating, ze worked as the multicultural coordinator at a private liberal arts college in central Ohio, something ze enjoyed as it put zir in the field of student affairs.

“Everyone else in the division had a master’s in the field,” ze said. “I was told I wouldn’t be able to advance in the field without a master’s degree.”

Moving to The Ohio State University, Stewart earned a master’s degree in higher education and student affairs, followed by a Ph.D. in educational administration and higher education. Stewart was able to spend one year at OSU as a visiting faculty member, which offered zim the opportunity to test the full-time faculty work experience and decide if ze wanted to pursue teaching in higher education.

Mid-career

Stewart was hired as a tenure-track faculty member at Ohio University, where ze taught for three years in the counseling and higher education department. Teaching a variety of courses, including student development theory, multicultural student development and diversity in higher education, and advising 25 master’s and doctoral students offered Stewart the opportunity to continue developing the skills needed in a higher education teaching environment.

Next, Stewart moved to Bowling Green State University, where ze spent the next 12 years moving through the tenure track and earning full professor status in 2016. During that time, ze held roles as program coordinator for the higher education administration doctoral program, and affiliate faculty member for American Cultural Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies programs.

Phase two

The move to CSU, said Stewart, is “Phase Two of life and career, and I’m really excited for that.” During zir first semester, Stewart is teaching student development theory to first-year, residential SAHE master’s degree students. Later, ze anticipates co-teaching an administration course with Blanche Hughes, vice president for student affairs at CSU and SAHE faculty member. With the School’s recent announcement of new leadership to its Higher Education Leadership doctoral specialization and closer collaboration between the SAHE and HEL programs, Stewart will be advising HEL doctoral students and perhaps occasionally teaching in the program in the future.

For Stewart, this new phase also includes sending zir son to college in Ohio at zir graduate alma mater, The Ohio State University.

“It’s definitely a new journey,” ze admitted. “I have all of these corkboards and calendars to keep track of his activities that I don’t need anymore.”

Beyond the “empty nest” experience, however, Stewart is experiencing the parent-side of university life, seeing how higher education institutions handle certain issues from the student and parent perspectives.

“Being the parent of a minoritized student, I’m looking at the assumptions and the norms baked into applications, orientations, protocols and processes around gender, around sexuality, around race, around social class – it’s been very interesting,” ze said. “It’s enhancing my research and my teaching.”

Impacting present and future through research

Aside from teaching and advising, Stewart’s impact as the first tenured faculty member in the SAHE specialization will be most felt through zir research, particularly related to student affairs topics.

Stewart’s scholarly interests and research generally focus on issues of equity, inclusion, and justice at colleges and universities. Specifically, ze researches the student experiences of minoritized populations, especially race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, and issues of ability and spirituality, faith and religion – and areas of intersection among these identities.

This work, said Stewart, centers the philosophy and history of higher education, institutional transformation toward realizing equity and justice, and how higher education environments function within society and as a vessel for learning and development for minoritized student populations.

“I’d like to try to answer the question, ‘What is the role of higher education in society?’” said Stewart. “What do we provide, and why does it matter? How is education contributing to the health of the nation, of society? And for minoritized populations, is that value-add muted by issues of inequity and injustice happening on college campuses?”

Stewart feels equipped to tackle these tough issues, having spent nearly two decades studying the field of student affairs and how it affects minoritized populations.

“I have done my best to try to push the field to think with more complexity and with greater nuance about certain issues, particularly in the use of intersectionality,” ze said. “For me, it’s important to use my voice in as many ways as I can – not just through my scholarship and teaching, but also in my work with professional associations, to push the conversation and to push us to do better and be better, to live out our values.”

About the cluster hire initiative

The cluster hire initiative is a way for the school to add faculty members specifically tapped to contribute to advancing the school’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion through research, teaching, and outreach within and across relevant program areas, all with the goal of further advancement of the School’s social justice initiatives. This is the second such cluster hire in recent years, with the first adding four new faculty members to various specializations within the School.

The School of Education is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.