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Prepared to be a Pioneer™

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Prepared to Be a Pioneer™ | Monica F. Cox, Ph.D.
E-mail: monicafcox@gmail.com | Telephone: 317-721-3501
4315 Commerce Drive, Suite 440-205, Lafayette, IN 47905

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5 Unexpected Lessons I Learned from the U.S. Army

This week, I had the pleasure of attending the 39th annual George C. Marshall Leadership Conference in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. This conference brought together Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) cadets from universities across the United States for training in military history, diversity, and leadership. As a community partner invited to engage with the cadets in the area of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and to co-facilitate multi-hour classroom sessions over the course of two days, I learned valuable insights about the Army and its practices and identified several lessons that can be transferred to other professional communities.

Photo courtesy of Benjamin Faust, Unsplash
Photo courtesy of Benjamin Faust, Unsplash

(1) You are expected to look out for the soldier to your right and to your left.

Many of the cadets referred to their love of the military, their family’s lineage of military service, and their commitment to protecting their families. The phrase that resonated most with me, however, was one’s commitment to the soldier to the left and to the right. While in many higher education circles, day one begins by telling students that everyone won’t make it to graduation, the Army tells its leaders that it is an expectation that all of their soldiers reach their goals together and that together they rise and fall.

(2) Standards are explicit.

Protocols are documented explicitly in the Army, which celebrates its 242nd anniversary this year, thereby making it older than the United States. Even hairstyles are regulatory! How phenomenal it must be to enter an organization that boasts generations of members and contains time-tested documents that are available to its members. Nonmilitary organizations often experience hiccups, because they don’t have policies and processes in place. One caveat is that organizations with such tried and true standards must remain open to potential additions to current practices.

(3) Scalability is mandatory.

One of the biggest concerns of the Army is scalability. This means that instead of engaging in activities that impact individuals or small groups of people, the Army must identify ways to scale its practices, especially given its focus on standards, uniformity, and efficiency. For example, the Army recruits 10,000 cadets a month. This means that everything- training, recruitment, etc., has to occur at scale. There is no time for one-on-one practices that don’t produce results, and before anything is implemented leaders must think of the bigger picture and how new initiatives affect everyone.

(4) Being one-dimensional is not an option.

Surprisingly, the Army is more than what a civilian (note my Army talk!) thinks it is. They don’t just focus on push-ups and military drills. They emphasize reading, lifelong learning, mental preparation, and professional development in areas such as leadership. They recognize that in a changing world, they must change also and must demonstrate proficiency in numerous areas, especially if they are in the heat of battle and have to replace a fallen comrade quickly. Members of the Army are living, breathing people who are engineers, political scientists, helicopter pilots, and much more. We should strive to be as diverse in our own lives.

(5)Feedback is constructive even when it is rough.

Generals and leaders are sharp with their comments. They publicly call out cadets for their discrepancies so that later in their careers, lives can be saved. Every moment is a teachable moment. Training occurs every day in every way. This is expected and practiced.

In summary, although I had numerous stereotypes about the military prior to attending this conference, I realize that the tough love of the Army is necessary to ensure that lives are saved and that our country remains safe. Excellence is a key to success, and I think that civilians have much to learn from the military.

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If you enjoyed my post, feel free to share it with others. Also check out my other blog posts, and provide your contact information so that we can stay connected. Follow me on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest @monicafcox.

5 Reasons Every Academic Should Blog

My “Prepared to Be a Pioneer” brand and blog were birthed when I realized that I was prepared to be a professor but I had no idea what challenges I would face as a newly hired Assistant Professor in the College of Engineering at Purdue University. I discovered only after I was hired that no other black female had ever earned tenure in the College of Engineering prior to my arrival. After engaging in a professional experience that had its up and downs, in 2011, I became the first black female to earn tenure in engineering at the university.

blog, academic

During this time, I had numerous women of color (WOC) mentors whom I called with questions about almost any aspect of academic life. Nevertheless, I did not possess a repository of written responses that were available whenever I needed them. For this reason, I recognized the need to document my experiences and to share them with others who were experiencing professional challenges as faculty. To date, I have written about being a graduate advisor, working in an incompatible working environment, the importance of character development, and many other topics, including a miscarriage and the challenges that went along with that in 2015. Blogging serves as a form of therapy for me. I now know that blogging connected me to people in ways that I would not have connected to them otherwise. Below are five reasons that I think all academics should blog and at a minimum, journal their personal and professional experiences.

(1) A blog presents an opportunity to reflect deeply on life.

With the hustles and bustles of life, it is easy to work and never process what led us to where we are. My blogs have helped me to reflect on the lessons that I have learned in life, particularly during my years as an academic. I don’t just think about situations and what happened to me, but I reflect on what I learned from those situations and what I ended up doing based on those situations.

(2) A blog allows virtual mentorship.

Physical mentors will not always be available to mentor their mentees at the exact times that they need them. Blogs, however, offer advice 24/7 to anyone who owns a laptop or smart phone. I realized the true impact of my blogs when I began to receive private Twitter and Facebook messages and hand-written letters from people who told me that they related to my blogs’ content and my heartfelt reflections. The ultimate joy, however, is always meeting a social media “friend” or a virtual mentee in person for the first time. We often take pictures together and form long lasting bonds.

I knew that I was onto something with this blogging/virtual mentorship connection when a couple of my former graduate students informed me that my blog content helped them when they began their positions as Assistant Professors. The content did not relate to them at the time they were my students, but once they were in faculty positions, they could refer back to the advice that I offered in my blogs. Similarly, in 140 characters or less, on Twitter I post about my personal and professional experiences and present my authentic views to people who may never meet me in person.

Now that I am a department chair in the Department of Engineering Education at The Ohio State University, I have new experiences to blog about. Although I still want to be my authentic self, I am more conscious of the responsibilities that I have as a leader by not referring to specific, real-time, confidential workplace situations in which I am engaging. Despite these challenges, I know that I still can offer advice to people interested in pursuing academic leadership positions in the future.

(3) A blog post transcends populations. 

Although I write about academic life, I have heard from business people, administrative assistants, consultants, and students about their ability to relate to my blog content. Since I present my personal views and experiences, the heart of the feedback relates to my authenticity and to the vulnerability that I display by sharing both my good and bad experiences. At the end of the day, blogging is about sharing thoughts and impacting people. My purpose is to inform people about what it’s like to be on a pioneering journey; to encourage people, particularly women and minorities, to consider and to pursue academia as a career; and to help people to be courageous about pursuing pioneering opportunities in their respective areas.

(4) A blog tells stories better than CVs or resumes.

When I applied for my current job, I directed potential members of my department and my future employers to read my blog. In my interviews, I shared that if they wanted to know who I really am and if they liked what they read on my blog, they should hire me. In 2015, I decided to “put myself out there” by blogging more authentically, and I have seen new doors open for me as a result. Blogging is a calling card because it allows a person to own his/her brand by writing about topics that are important. Blogging also demonstrates that someone is willing to communicate. Partners and employers know who bloggers are before they hire them, and as a result, there is a greater likelihood that expectations will align.

(5) A blog builds a legacy. 

A person’s words can outlive them. Blogging shows who a person was at a point in time. A blog can be archived for one’s children and grandchildren and for future generations who want to know what it was like to live during our time. Bloggers are historians who tell stories that are worth sharing.

In conclusion, I highly recommend that my fellow academicians share their stories with the world because so few people have access to the knowledge and to the experiences that we have. Like a peer-reviewed journal article, a blog is a form of knowledge dissemination, and as educators, we have an obligation to share our insights in ways that appeal to the masses.

3 Ways to Stop Competition from Ruining Your Life

This morning, I found one of my 2009 reflections about competition in the workplace. In it, I wrote about my insecurities as an Assistant Professor. I mentioned that I didn’t want to gain access to resources by kissing up to others and didn’t want to network in an insincere way. I also wrote about how I thought that the playing field within higher education was unfair to women, particularly those with assertive personalities. At the time, I felt lost and somewhat hopeless about how to play a political higher education game with rules that I was never taught.

My concerns were recently confirmed in a study and report  by Joan Williams, Katherine Phillips, and Erika Hall, Double Jeopardy: Gender Bias Against Women of Color in Science. In it, black women were reported to be penalized for being self-promoters but were encouraged to be assertive when they were promoters for a larger group. For years, I did not realize that people had empirically studied topics that I know about based on my everyday professional experiences. I am glad that many of these thoughts are not just floating around in my head.

Over six years later, when I stopped fixating on the higher education game and on the competitive nature of the academy, I began to succeed in my own skin, and I found my scholarly identity. A person who served on a departmental committee with me years ago recalls my having to apologize to people in our group prior to making points so that they would receive what I had to say. Now, when I make statements that others may misinterpret, I consciously allow myself to remain quiet and let the statement hit in the way that I intend it to hit. Yes, there are potential consequences; nevertheless, I’m learning to be okay with those consequences. This year, I refuse to apologize for being confident. Below are three tips that I believe will guide people, particularly those working in academia, as they explore ways to overcome their professional insecurities.

competition, professional

(1) Surround yourself with people who celebrate you and don’t tolerate you.

I like the Merriam-Webster definition of celebrate: to praise (someone or something) : to say that (someone or something) is great or important. This means that although you may have weaknesses, the people who around you spend most of their time highlighting the positive aspects of your life and your unique skills and gifts. They don’t learn of your weaknesses and then expose them in ways that embarrass you or place you at a professional disadvantage. In the same way, tolerating someone sounds like a burden. You want to connect to people who look forward to engaging with you and seek ways to strengthen your relationship. If you aren’t around these people, seek them now. We each have talents, and people should be drawn to the lights that radiate from us. Believe that these people exist, and you will soon connect to them.  To learn more about ways to attract quality people to you, watch this video from leadership guru John Maxwell.

(2) Identify what you do well and perfect that.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, offers great insight about how people become experts in their respective areas. After approximately 10,000 hours of consistent engagement within an area, people have acquired the skills to become masters of their craft.

Many of us look for shortcuts to success and for ways to push ourselves into personal and professional circles that grant us access to resources reserved for only a select few. Instead of spending most of our time looking for these opportunities and being disappointing when we do not gain the recognition that we seek, we should put our hands to the plow and work. While others are sleeping, we should read about advances in our fields. We should connect to people who advise us of courses and resources that shed light on ways for us to become better people. When we do this, competition is not as important as the crafts that we seek to perfect.

(3) Realize that you have one life to live and competition should not be the focus of that one life.

One hundred years from now, we will all be dead. This means that our insecurities will no longer matter to anyone, especially us. We are given one life to live, and how awful would it be to draw your final breaths wishing that you had living life on your own terms- free and not caring about what others thought of you? One of the best legacies that we can leave is the knowledge that we lived our lives with no regrets.

Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland presents this well when he writes, “In the end…we only regret the chances we didn’t take, the relationships we were afraid to have, and the decisions we waited too long to make.”  When we think of life this way, competition should not intimidate us since we should give no one the power to make use feel insecure or unsure of our futures.

Ten Points to Consider as Faculty Transition from One University to Another

A transition from one position to another as a faculty member can be stressful and overwhelming. I experienced this firsthand a few months ago when I decided to transition to a new position at Ohio State. As I planned my departure, I searched on-line resources for a transition checklist or for guides to facilitate my move. I asked people in various offices on my former campus for advice about what I needed to do to take care of every issue that might be relevant to me. Although many people were helpful, no single person could offer me a comprehensive perspective about the magnitude of my transition and about how all of the pieces of the move connected.

Although numerous orientation resources are available for new faculty, few transition materials are available for these same faculty. One of the most comprehensive general faculty departure documents that I found was created by the University of Virginia. I located a few other resources by conducting a Google search for “faculty departure checklists” and for “faculty departure offboarding.” Many of these checklists were housed in Colleges of Medicine.

Some people may say that it’s not the responsibility of the university to assist people in their transitions. Yes, I understand that this person will no longer be affiliated with the university. I also acknowledge that a departure may not be a positive reflection on a unit or a university. When a university offers no transition plan, however, it sends a message to a faculty member that he/she was just a (fill in any identifier here). It also might make a faculty member wonder about the sincerity of the relationship in the first place.

If I had invested thousands, if not millions of dollars, in something or someone, wouldn’t I want to remain connected to that person in some way so that I could retain some aspect of the investment that I made? Without a clear transition plan and assistance post-departure, bridges are burned, and the likelihood of ongoing relationships and accolades or recommendations for future faculty recruitment in that organization are diminished. How short-sighted it is when organizations are more anxious to remove a faculty member from a directory or website than to assist that faculty during a professional transition, particularly when that faculty members’ students still remain at the university! Such behaviors are harmful since that faculty member most likely brought some level of visibility to the organization at some point in their career.

In a last ditch effort, I decided to solicit my Facebook friends, many who are faculty and administrators across the world, for transition resources. Many of them agreed that such a resource was needed but did not exist.  A few of them suggested that I write one. For that reason, I’ve compiled a list of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned over the past 6 months of my transition.

transition pic
Image Credit: Unsplash

(1) Check your voice mail messages and document any pertinent information for future use.

You may have saved messages during your time at your institution, and now is the time to retrieve them. If you have to, make sure that you send e-mails or make calls to people who may not be aware of your pending transition.

(2) Contact your Institutional Review Board (IRB) to identify what needs to occur with current projects.

Human subjects research is no joke. You must make sure that your research is conducted with integrity even as you transition. Call your institution’s IRB office to make them aware of your move. Some of your research options might be to close old research studies, transfer the Principal Investigator (PI) status to another researcher at your current university, or transfer your research to your new university. If you have students who are still at your current university, resolving IRB concerns is of the utmost importance.

(3) Update your professional magazine/ publication subscriptions so that your mail goes to your new workplace.

Journals and other publications may get thrown away if you don’t do this, so try to update your information as soon as possible.

(4) Extend your e-mail access until you can download your in/out boxes to portable media.

Before you leave, sign any necessary paperwork to retain e-mail access until you can transfer your messages. Talk to an IT professional at your current or potential job so that you can store your email in a secure location. Complete the process before you lose access to your account.

(5) Turn on an “Out of Office” notification so people know that you have left your university and can get in touch with you.

Instead of relying on people at your old job to refer your old contacts, be proactive about informing others of your new location. Below is sample text that I used.

Greetings! I am no longer employed at _____ University. As I transition, please direct business-related correspondence to me at (new e-mail address) or call me at (insert telephone number). Regards, (New Contact Information)

(6) Determine if your moving company will pack up your work office as part of a move to your new institution.

If you are moving from your current city, it is worth seeing if your moving company can pack up your work office as well as your home. If you have time, throw away old materials prior to your move so that you don’t have to discard them in your new location. Clearly label boxes that distinguish your work office from your home office.

(7) Talk to the information technology group at your old university to determine equipment transfer/ buy back rules along with your data storage needs.

It’s important to identify what needs to happen with your equipment. If you need to remove identifiable data from laptops, do so. If you plan to buy new equipment at your new institution, create an inventory of your needs so that you can purchase it without interruption of your research. Finally, make sure that you transfer your equipment safely so that it is not damaged in the transfer.

For those of you who work with on-line data or large electronic files, discuss your data storage needs and make sure that you transfer your new data only after you have retrieved your old data. Determine the storage size that will meet your needs, and move forward acquiring your necessary storage resources.

(8) Contact your sponsored programs office to see what you need to do to transfer grants or to spend remaining funds.

This has been a major issue for me. If you are working with other researchers, you need to communicate your transfer needs regarding money and other grant-related resources. Being on the same page is important, so think about possible group dynamics across team members when you initially form your research teams.

(9) Determine what faculty status you need at your former university to co-advise current graduate students after your transition.

This is another biggie for me. Since some universities will not allow you to advise your former students independently, you need to identify a potential co-advisor. This person needs to possess a complementary perspective about advising and should be a good communicator, since you may no longer have access to resources that will inform you of relevant departmental dates and activities. This person should also serve as your “legs” to the business office or to other on-campus resources that need to be accessed once you can no longer physically contact people quickly on your old campus.

(10) Contact your financial adviser to transfer your retirement saving to appropriate accounts.

After working at a university for numerous years, it’s important to transfer your retirement savings properly. I highly recommend talking to an independent financial adviser about how to manage remaining funds at your old institution and to determine what new plans you should enroll in at your new institution. Pay careful attention to any deadlines for retirement (and benefits) enrollment at your new university so that you select the best options for your future.

In conclusion, universities need to create transition plans for faculty, because by the time a faculty member leaves, students and other resources are topics of discussion. Although the reason for the departure may be unpleasant to one or multiple parties, there must have a plan for moving ahead in an amicable way post-relationship.  By clearly laying out the expectations for faculty post-departure, the likelihood for reducing inconveniences to multiple parties decreases.  Without clear plans, a faculty transition can increase the likelihood of overlooking important tasks that could affect others negatively. Proactively is always a great choice.

What the Loss of My Child Taught Me about Life

Christmas 2015 brought with it a loss until any other that I ahve experienced. Although many people know why others do not. Since authenticity and transparency are traits that I hold dear, I am finally ready to reveal that on December 25, 2015, my first child was due. Unfortunately, nine weeks into an ultra high risk, complicated, brief pregnancy, my baby died.

I was sad, but more than anything, this experience allowed me to reflect upon my life in ways that I had never done before. Since my brother-in-law, Lavelle, had died in his sleep only a few months earlier, I saw 2015 as a year of loss. While trying to maintain my research and professional life and to transition from one work environment to another, I experienced physical pain unlike any other. In the summer of 2015, I underwent two surgeries- (1) a dilation and curettage to remove the embryo from my uterus, and (2) a more intense in-patient surgery to remove a growth that my specialist suspected might have killed my baby.

Things that were major prior to this personal tragedy suddenly became minor. As someone who had to be strong for others at almost all times, I took time to mourn my loss with my husband and to find ways to live my life more purposefully. Below are some of the lessons that I learned. I hope that these will be particularly relevant for people who are “go to” people or have numerous responsibilities personally and professionally.

loss, miscarriage

Clean out your network.

When I was ill, my bandwidth was really low. I realized that many of the people who needed to ask me questions could find the answers to these “urgent” questions in my absence. I also realized that I had little to no tolerance for people who were extremely needy and had no desire to become more responsible in their interactions with me. My inner circle became tighter, and I found myself being really selective about with whom I worked. This is a practice that I’ve brought into 2016.

Just say “No.”

This seems obvious, but saying no is easier said than done. My husband, who is one of the most giving and helpful people I know, agreed that we needed to focus more on our immediate family whether we had children or not. Instead of traveling on every professional trip or responding to everyone else’s needs, we consciously decided to invest in our marriage and our future. We worked closely with a specialist to plan our family’s future, and we are pleased with the result. Something that initially began as a source of great pain ended in a place of hope. Stay tuned for updates about our decisions!

Evaluate your professional goals and positioning.

At 19, I knew that I one day wanted to be a university president. After 10 years in my current job, I desired to pursue new opportunities- ones where I could apply my formal and informal leadership skills. Last year, I received offers from two universities interested in promoting me to Full Professor (the terminal tenure-track rank in the academy) and a call from a search firm wanting me to apply for a senior leadership position at a prominent university. All indicators pointed to my move to a new position. Was the timing convenient? Of course not. Death, however, is never convenient. Through the support of my close friends, family, students, and colleagues, I pushed past my personal tragedy and embraced the biggest, long-term picture about my future. I had to move on for my family whether I felt like doing so or not. Now, I really am excited and at peace about my future, and I look forward to allowing my experiences to inform my leadership philosophy as the Inaugural Department Chair in the Department of Engineering Education at The Ohio State University, effective January 2016.

After a loss, take time to reflect.

Instead of ignoring my pain, I asked myself almost weekly what I could take away from this experience. What I know is that we all go through bad experiences in our lives. The key, however, is not to wallow in the negativity. I recommend that people do what they need to do to heal, whether that involves counseling, praying, journaling, or some other therapeutic activity. My healing came from my faith and believing that one day, I would see my unborn baby (who I nicknamed “Bertram”) one day in heaven. I believe that I will be a mother one day, and I hope that this experience will encourage others who may have lost hope about something in their lives.

What I know more than anything is that I am a whole person- one who has experienced high highs and low lows. I am a survivor and a conqueror who uses my experiences to help others and to live the best life that I can live. Please don’t grieve for my loss, because 2016 is going to be epic!

What No One Tells You about Being the First Professor in Your Family

When I travel to my relatives’ homes Alabama, it’s as if I have gone underground. Depending on where I am, I cannot use my telephone or obtain wireless access. Although I have hotspot capabilities on my cell phone, the phone won’t work if I have no signal. Forget about using a Nook app, watching a movie on Netflix, or connecting to a Virtual Private Network at my university. If what I need isn’t available in the house and communities where I am at that moment, I’m in trouble. Panera and Starbucks become my best friend, because I have to strategically find free wi-fi in nearby cities to connect to people in the outside world.

bog photo rural area

As an Associate Professor, it’s difficult to explain how I can go from working 12 hours a day in my home environment to checking in for maybe an hour on a given day when I am out of town in remote areas. Many of my minority professor friends mention that when they leave their home offices and situations, they are limited by the resources available to them among family members. In addition, since my family and in-laws don’t live in major cities, traveling to these cities requires either driving 11-13 hours one way or paying up to $1000 per ticket so that my husband and I can fly directly into cities closest to where our families live.

My point is not to complain about the lack of resources available at the homes of my family members but to inform the world of another type of diversity- one where people who grew up in rural areas or are the first to enter a field that requires advanced resources are expected to work at high levels of proficiency all the time. To maintain their jobs, they have to “be on” and not use their families’ environments as excuses, especially in jobs where they may already be marginalized.

These professionals often live in two worlds- one where they are “on call” and responsive to everyone’s needs and another where they must adjust to the stark realities of environments where technology is not the top priority. These cultural gaps need to be addressed in higher education, especially if we want to attract more students and faculty to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). (As far as I know), it’s not acceptable to say that you miss details, e-mails, or meetings because you are in a location that doesn’t have the resources that you need to complete your assignments.

As I sit in Panera writing this and wondering if I’m going to have to eat 3 bagels in exchange for the access to resources that I am using, I encourage higher education professionals to consider the fact that many people are experiencing situations behind the scenes that may seem minor but are very real in the United States. It’s time to support professionals in new ways so that they don’t have to choose between being a model professional or a great family member.

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If you enjoyed my post, feel free to share it with others. Also check out my other blog posts, and provide your contact information so that we can stay connected. Like me on Facebook, and follow me on TwitterInstagram, and Pinterest.

 

 

Birth of a Brand: Prepared to Be a Pioneer

BIRTH OF A BRAND (1)

The creation of my Prepared to Be a Pioneer™ brand emerged from something that I’ve said many times as an Assistant Professor, “I was prepared to be a professor, but I wasn’t prepared to be a pioneer.” I elaborated on this idea in a post for Diverse: Issues in Higher Education- http://diverseeducation.com/article/60415/.

I have always been confident in my academic preparation. After all, my doctoral program at Vanderbilt University occurred in one of the top education programs in the country. I learned about theoretical frameworks, how to apply a variety of research methods, and engaged with internationally renowned scholars in engineering and education. On top of that, I loved writing grants and synthesizing literature, two fundamental skills for academics.

When I was hired as an Assistant Professor, and I discovered after I was hired that I would be the first African-American woman to earn tenure in the College of Engineering, I learned quickly about issues that I was never taught as a minority graduate student enrolled at majority institutions. First, how do you educate an 18 year old student about gender or racial equality when that student had never gone to school with a student of color? Also, what do you do when a local resident calls you “colored” because she is not familiar with the term “African-American?” Finally, how should you respond when everyone confuses you with the only other African-American female engineering professor on campus and one of your mentors debriefs with you by saying, “You do look the same from behind.”? It took me several years to realize that many people were not trying to be malicious in their conversations or exchanges with me- they just had never been exposed to diverse people and situations.

If I had known then what I know now, I think that my experience as an Assistant Professor would have been happier. I spent too much time worrying about why I was different instead of embracing my differences and recognizing that it was okay to bring my perspective to my institution. Today, I want to assist others as they navigate their processes so that they can remain healthy and build strong relationships with others. Being a pioneer is not a death sentence but is an opportunity to show the world something it has never seen before! Thanks for joining me on this journey.

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If you enjoyed my post, feel free to share it with others. Also check out my other blog posts, and provide your contact information so that we can stay connected. Like me on Facebook, and follow me on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.

Tips for Academics: Interacting with Family over the Holidays

For many graduate students and faculty, particularly those who are the first to pursue advanced degrees in their families, holidays can be as stressful as the academic year. Taking a final exam can be a piece of cake compared to an “in your face” relative asking questions that imply that all you do is sit in a library reading dusty books and wasting your time thinking about the meaning of life.

I’ve found that the more complex your discipline (e.g., biomedical engineering), the greater the confusion among relatives about what it is that you do on a daily basis. Questions such as “Do you still live in the same place?,”  “Are you still in school?,” and “When are you going to get a real job?” are sure to come up as the sweet potato pie is passed around the table.

This year, I’ve got you covered. Instead of stressing about how you’re going to grin and bear the jabs that are coming your way during the holidays, see this time of year as an opportunity to educate people about your academic life and your commitment to advancing knowledge in the U.S.

Below are a few tips that will guide you during some of the exchanges that are sure to occur over the holidays.

(For Grad Students) “How long are you going to be in school?” – Although you might want to say, “Until my advisor says that I can leave with a degree,” take time to explain big picture aspects of your higher education life (e.g., taking classes, conducting research, and writing papers). With a smile on your face, explain how your professional work is making a difference in everyday life.

(For Grad Students) “When are you going to get a real job?”– Inform your interrogators that teaching and research assistantships provide opportunities for you to pay for your education and teach and mentor the next generation of scholars. Although you are not yet called a professor, you are on a path to making sure that college students will become well-informed, educated citizens.

If this doesn’t satisfy people, become a little defensive and ask people if they have seen your face on the news for anything negative. Look at them with big eyes, count to 5 silently, and wait for them to respond. Say that in a world of negativity, TMZ hasn’t put your business in the streets, and if someone googles your name, they won’t find a mug shot (I hope!).

(For Faculty) “Why are you working over the holiday?”– Academic life is broken down into terms such as quarters or semesters. To make sure that the next term is successful, inform others that teaching preparation is vital for professors. This means that while your students are relaxing and sleeping late, you need to make sure that they have a class to attend when they return.

Tell people that if you don’t take care of your business during the holiday, you might need to reserve a permanent sleeping spot on their couch until next Christmas. I bet that this question won’t be asked again!

Although the scenarios above are light-hearted perspectives about possible exchanges, the reality is that many first-generation academics are expected to operate successfully in at least two worlds- one where they will forever remain a child, and another where a degree can be perceived by family and friends as permanent separations from familiarity. Although it may be difficult to convince people that you are a new, improved version of the family member that you always were, remember to remain patient with others as they learn about the idiosyncrasies of your academic lifestyle.

In sum, no matter how crazy the holiday gets, celebrate the blessing that you have to obtain an advanced degree, to educate others about your profession, and to represent your family and community. Although there are growing pains when you are the first to do something, remember that you are strong enough to handle anything this holiday season. After all, to whom much is given much is required.

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Confession of a Southern Girl Who Doesn’t Cook Soul Food

I was born in rural Alabama, the home of collard greens, hog jowls, and (baked) macaroni and cheese- the place where you cook with real butter, real sugar, and anything that adds extra grease or calories to a dish. My mother’s specialities are banana pudding, potato salad, and cornbread dressing. My grandmothers were celebrated for their homemade cakes, fried chicken, and tasty vegetables.

My confession, however, is that I’m not a soul food girl. I’d rather learn a new computer language than prepare a holiday soul food dinner for 30 people. This was confirmed for me a couple of years ago when the women of my family sat around our kitchen table peeling potatoes and slicing eggs and pickles while other female members of my family washed gritty, sandy collards in the kitchen sink. Three hours later, we still were prepping all of these ingredients to create only two dishes. (Of course, the men were not expected to cook but were watching any number of sports events on television, but that’s a post for another day!)

 01233Don’t get me wrong. I love to cook. My preferences, however, are exotic dishes comprised of my favorite veggies- kale, mushrooms, onions, or peppers. Fortunately for me, my husband, a fellow Alabamian and advocate for women’s empowerment, is not a big fan of soul food. This means that I could cook a simple stir fry with rice for a holiday meal, and he is appreciative!

It has taken me over 10 years to realize that my professional choices and attitudes inform my holiday cooking perspective. First, I think that women don’t have to fulfill traditional homemaker roles. This means that my husband and I can share meal prep and can use the remaining time to reflect on our lives and on our futures. Second, as an industrial engineer with a passion for efficiency, I don’t believe that it should take days to prepare food. My name is not Ina Garten and the Food Network isn’t taping a holiday food special in my kitchen. For that reason, semi-homemade food can be combined with traditional homemade dishes to make the holidays bright. Finally, as an academic, time is precious. Instead of slaving over a stove, I prefer to talk to my Alabama family and friends, to walk around our yard, to reflect on the lives of my deceased ancestors, or to discuss end of life preferences for my parents (Yes, I’m a planner!).

This holiday, I choose not to feel guilty about being the nontraditional woman that I am. Not cooking a large soul food meal for my family doesn’t make me any less of a woman. My hope is that others who don’t fit into traditional molds will spend the holidays celebrating their uniqueness, not questioning it.

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Side Note: Although I don’t love to cook soul food, I do enjoy creating healthy variations of traditional meals. Check out these mouth-watering soul food recipes courtesy of Delish!

If you enjoyed my post, feel free to share it with others. Also check out my other blog posts, and provide your contact information so that we can stay connected. Like me on Facebook, and follow me on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.

Prepared to Be a Pioneer™ Is Open for Business!

When I started my business, I thought of working only with clients in academia- graduate students, postdoctoral professionals, and faculty. After all, this is the world that I have known my entire life. Little did I know that my first client would be someone completely opposite of my expected profile!

Meet Ashley G. Scott, a spunky, friendly Lafayette, Indiana, organizational queen who has a flair for all things beautiful. For the past few months, I’ve gotten to know her and have obtained solid feedback about aspects of my business from her.  A budding techie and entrepreneur, Ashley moderated a panel at the 2014 SXSW: South By Southwest conference and gave a dynamic presentation about the benefits of co-working space at the first TEDxLafayette event a few months ago. Most recently Lafayette’s Journal and Courier named Ashley one of the community’s top Movers and Shakers.

Ashley engaged in Prepared to Be a Pioneer’s™ coaching service and within a month launched a business that combines her skills and her passions. With a mission to organize the lives or her clients, Ashley is on her way to pursing her lifelong passion via a new brand called Organized Ashley (see testimonial below)!


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I want to be the ultimate accountability partner for my clients, because that’s what Dr. Cox did through Prepared to Be a Pioneer™ for me. With her, I was pushed to do things I have never done and with her guidance I excelled.”  Ashley G. Scott, Organized Ashley


What I’ve learned from this experience is that I have unique skills to offer my clients and that I want to personalize the experience for each client. What I know for sure is that every client will obtain the following:

  • Personalized Attention- Clients deserve boutique experiences where they feel that they every service is one-of-kind. Since people are different, they will not receive carbon copies of templates and solutions. I will get to know the whole person with whom I am working- one who has dreams and who needs to overcome fears and barriers to achieve professional goals. 
  • Honest, Constructive Critiques- My goal is to present Prepared to Be a Pioneer™ in the best way possible. This means that I will provide honest feedback to clients about where they are in their professional development and what they need to do to fulfill their goals within the timelines that they have set for themselves.
  • Actionable Plans- I am a doer, and I want my clients to be doers as well. Although talking about the issues is a major aspect of my coaching service, my end goal is to apply solid principles and to execute professional development plans that are measurable and actionable.
  • Ongoing Encouragement- I want to stay in touch with my clients and remind them that they are members of the Prepared to Be a Pioneer™ family. The long-term goal of my business is to create a community of individuals who can pay it forward and will assist others who want to become pioneers.

My experience with Ashley has excited me about the future of Prepared to Be a Pioneer.™ My dreams for the business are bigger than I originally imagined, and I look forward to traveling with others on this amazing entrepreneurial journey.

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5 Ways That 2014 Changed My Life

This past year was a successful and an insightful one for me. I completed a semester-long sabbatical with Paul Carrick Brunson, a naturally-recognized social entrepreneur who has worked with Oprah Winfrey and is the Host of Black Enterprise’s “Our World TV”. I graduated two Ph.D. students who are now postdoctoral professionals at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at Arizona State University. I even won a Leadership Award in the College of Engineering at Purdue University. Despite these successes, I have found it necessary to reflect upon what happened in 2014 so that I can have an even better 2015. Below are 5 ways that 2014 changed my life along with some takeaways that will help you can to start your New Year off right!

(1) Resurrected Dead Dreams

 After earning tenure in 2011, I asked my faculty colleague if I was now expected to engage in the same teaching, research, and service activities for the rest of my life. At that moment, I realized that I wanted to be an entrepreneur AND a professor. I started my business, STEMinent LLC, in 2013. In 2014, I trademarked several  aspects of my business and engaged in an Entrepreneurial Leadership Academy at Purdue that was absolutely life changing! I realized the importance of returning to the dreams that I had as a child and to being true to who I am.

Takeaway: My advice to budding pioneers is to reflect upon your innermost dreams. What are you willing to do even if no one paid you to do it? What ideas wake you up in the middle of the night?

(2) Hired a Professional Coach

Although I had general ideas about what I wanted to do in my life, I needed guidance about how to align my skills with actionable deliverables. More than that, I needed someone to offer me an outside perspective about ways to implement my professional goals. I now engage with my coach 2-3 times a month to discuss how my professorial and entrepreneurial goals align and how I can achieve my dreams of changing the world.

Takeaway: Whether or not you hire a coach, it is important to identify someone who has achieved what you hope to achieve and who can discuss ways for you to accomplish your goals. If you don’t have anyone in your life who can serve in these roles, make 2015 the year that you create your professional dream team.

(3) Removed Negative People from My Life

This was my biggest success for the year. In both my personal and professional lives, I identified the areas where I was being burdened- those places where I felt a heaviness after interactions or could not gain peace even after long discussions with people. Professionally, I began to collaborate with people with whom I thoroughly enjoyed working. I also found ways to fellowship with new people via coffee, lunch, and dinner dates. Personally, I realized that some of my closest family members were actually people with whom I had no blood ties. By removing labels, I began to add people to my inner circle who demonstrated unconditional support and love in my life.

Takeaway: Identify people who add value to your life, and find ways to connect to them in positive ways in 2015. At least once a week, engage in meaningful conversations or face-to-face interactions with people who leave you feeling peaceful, motivated, and positive about yourself. If you live in a small area, connect to others via social media exchanges.

(4) Laughed Much More

I can officially call myself a comedienne. My comedic side hustle began as a way for me to decompress from the professional stress on my job. Instead of internalizing comments, I would think about the funniest aspect of each situation and would laugh about it. Over time, I created a repository of jokes and vignettes that would make my friends and me laugh uncontrollably. In the same way, family drama that has occurred for most of my life became points of humor. Instead of becoming depressed, I became empowered.

Takeaway: In life, we can be victims or victors. You also can’t buy peace. Do what you need to do to keep yourself mentally, physically, and spiritually strong. This might include journaling, counseling, praying, meditating, exercising, or learning a new hobby. Regardless, do not allow the stressors of life to kill you. You have too much work to do!

(5) Agreed to Disagree

I don’t think that consensus is necessary in every relationship or exchange. I often work with people who have different values and opinions. Instead of hiding my views, I share them freely, realizing that they might be deemed controversial. A few months ago, I decided that no one will censure my thoughts. Although this has resulted in altercations and confrontations, I believe that the world needs more people who hold fast to their convictions and share why they think the way that they do.

Takeaway: Everyone has an opinion. Maturity occurs when you are able to listen to the viewpoints of even your worst enemy and still have a conversation with that person. Although it may be difficult at first, hear the person out while sticking to your convictions. If that person cannot engage with you professionally, you at least know that you have done your part to be civil.

In summary, 2014 was a wonderful year. I’ve had to make some tough choices, but I have no regrets. I look forward to 2015 and to the new lessons that I will learn.

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