Day in the Life Of: a college administrator: Aneesah Smith
by Angela Thomas
Apr 17, 2014 | 1371 views | 0 0 comments | 118 118 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Aneesah Smith’s office is a sea of rainbows: Rainbow flags drape over her office chair, and her walls are adorned with signs of encouragement and pride.

“I want people to know whose office and what kind of office they are stepping into when they meet with me,” she said.

Smith is the assistant to the vice president for student affairs for LGBTQA services and special projects at West Chester University.

She walks confidently throughout the halls of Sykes Student Union, leading the way to the LGBTQA Office, which is stockpiled with food, brochures and decorations for the second annual Rainbow Connection Leadership Conference.

“Students like to hang out in this office during their breaks. It is a very safe office and we’re the only office that has complete confidentiality,” she said, pointing to the beams that extend to the ceiling, giving students privacy.

Smith has had an extensive dedication to student services — as an active student activities coordinator and alum of the university.

She graduated from West Chester University in 2002 with a bachelor’s in health education and earned her master’s in counseling/higher education three years later. She has worked professionally within the realm of student activities since 2005.

Smith, 33, came out as a lesbian at age 25.

“It was one of those things where I didn’t think the family or friends socially or culturally would agree so I just kind of waited,” she said. “Then I fell in love with a girl and came out.”

Smith grew up in the Germantown section of Philadelphia and was raised in a religious household. Her grandmother being Islamic and her mother a practicing Christian, Smith said the reception was mixed.

“It was kind of tough for them both, so family-wise was harder at first,” she said. “Friends were very accepting of me and of it and then family came around. My mom is one of my biggest supporters and my grandmother is not so much but you can’t win them all.”

Smith was an active student leader on West Chester’s campus and a member of Sigma Gamma Rho, a national collegiate sorority founded in 1922. Smith said reaction to her LGBT identity varied among her sisters but, for the most part, members were accepting.

“People in the sorority thought about how it reflected upon the sorority, but then because I started dating someone within my sorority,” she said. “And because of that, they became very accepting. I joined Sigma Gamma Rho because they accept you for who you are. They weren’t a sorority where you had to change yourself to get in.”

Smith served in many leadership capacities throughout her years in Sigma Gamma Rho, including as president and vice president. Smith also sat on the board of West Chester’s Black and Latino Greek Council. She said her leadership at WCU as an undergraduate connected her to other leadership opportunities.

“That opened the door for opportunities to network and I found that I loved to educate in the sorority, so that is how I started to work with students right after graduate school,” she said. “I was doing a lot of work advising the undergraduate chapter because we have a graduate level, and there are opportunities to be an advisor. I started working with incoming sorority women.”

Smith began to consider a career in the world of academia.

“I think that experience working with college students let me know what I would be good at it in the long term.”

Smith started her career as an alcohol and drug resource educator at Rosemont College from February-November 2005.

After a stint at Penn State University, Smith’s venture into LGBTQ services started when she became an academic advisor and health educator at Temple University in 2007.

“My office at Temple became the hub for the Queer Student Union and at that time, I was just discovering my identity and coming into who I was and being able to say, ‘I like women,’” she said. “So I began to support those students and got involved with them. The group was mostly white and they wanted to incorporate people of color and so they came to me about how I could help them out and I think the rest is history.”

After Temple, she worked at Community College of Philadelphia, where she served as a program coordinator on a grant and as advisor of the Lesbian Sisterhood Club.

“I made it into an alliance so it would include everyone in the spectrum,” she said. “Students would gather and do programming in my office and I was working on a peer-mentor program, so being an advisor to the club wasn’t a job; a lot of what I did was because I was passionate about it.”

Her experiences at Temple University and CCP helped prepare her for the position at West Chester. Smith replaced Dr. Jackie Hodes, who was the helm of the LGBTQA Services at West Chester for 26 years.

Smith said the job was a dream come true.

“When I saw this position, all the rainbow lights went off and I thought this was for me,” she said. “I never thought I would be in a full-time capacity working on these issues.”

The position originally started as a nine-month gig but has been extended.

Her first day on the job in 2012 was filled with trainings, getting acclimated with students and staff and immediately jumping right into programming for the LGBTQA.

Smith works four to five days a week, with Mondays, sometimes a 15-hour day, being the busiest.

The LGBTQA has its general assembly meetings on Mondays, which last an hour and are followed by its executive-board meetings.

Before LGBTQA meetings, Smith meets with her graduate assistant for a one-on-one, followed by meetings with her practicum students. She currently advises two practicum students and one graduate student.

Smith serves on and runs several committees and said her duties often vary day to day — but always include communication with students.

“Texting with students starts at 8 a.m. I use 75 percent of my phone for work,” she said. “I am a one-person department so I have no administrative support. I do my own admin stuff, like budgets, and I am responsible for all the reports my boss wants. I love it because no day is the same, but they always consist of talking to students.”

Smith helps conduct Ally 101 trainings two or three times a week. The ally program encourages straight students to be allies for LGBT students. Smith currently communicates with the 350 allies to keep them up to date on LGBT issues and programs.

“We have a great ally program here, which I take a lot of pride in. I think that the major way to fight homophobia and transphobia is though your allies,” she said. “A straight person standing against homophobia and a cis person standing against transphobia may have more impact than someone within the community.”

Smith said this semester the ally program has expanded, including outreach to student athletes and those involved in Greek life.

Smith noted, however, instances of LGBT discrimination are very rare on campus.

“If we could be waving the rainbow flag out there, it would probably be there,” she said about the college’s accepting atmosphere.

Although she has been impressed with the number of allies who have come forward, she said her LGBT students continue to inspire her.

“The students here are just so creative,” she said. “Here on campus, students are so good. If they see a need for something, they take a stand and go for it. I just learn so much from them daily and the learning never stops.”

Smith said education is key in empowering her students.

Antigay protestors from Repent America usually visit the school twice a year, and Smith said she works with the students to identify proactive steps they can take to counter hateful messages; students often take the opportunity to sell pro-LGBT T-shirts and fundraise for LGBT programming.

“When students come right out of high school and they see the Repent America protestors on campus, they want to scream and yell and the way they want to approach it is not the right way,” she said. “So I think educating youth about their rights and what they can do is important. Just like adults can write letters and make phone calls, so can the youth but they are not taught that. They have a lot of power but they are not educated about that power.”

Smith said making a difference for the students she works with has continued to fuel her work.

“I do know I make a difference. When I hear students say that without this space, they wouldn’t feel safe or would not be here, that is something special,” she said. “Just knowing we are doing things that are impacting students, and seeing them grow through it, has helped. When I see my students present at conferences, I am just in awe of them.”

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