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Stephanie Cox: Becoming a better leader

Research Technologies’ Stephanie Cox is one of the inaugural cohort of Next Leaders Fellows, a program designed for BIPOC IT professionals in higher education.

Next Leaders Fellowship (NLF) is a program designed to identify, develop, and advocate for IT professionals in higher education—particularly those who identify as Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC). Each year, a select group will be mentored by accomplished senior leaders who are committed to supporting their professional growth.

In February 2022, Research Technologies’ Manager of Virtual Platforms Stephanie Cox was named a Fellow in the inaugural 12-member NLF cohort. We talked with Stephanie about her experience meeting her peers at the NLF kickoff at the 2022 NorthEast Regional Computing Program (NERCOMP) annual conference.

Q: What first drew you to apply for the Next Leaders Fellowship?

Stephanie Cox: Last year at EDUCAUSE, I attended a session about diversity and equity in the personal development track, and it focused primarily on staff in higher education. That really spoke to me, because you don’t typically see that focus—a lot of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives focus on faculty instead of staff. That really drew me in.

I also volunteered as a facilitator with ARIA, a grassroots group focusing on anti-racism in higher education. The person I was paired with for group facilitation, a CIO at another university, encouraged me to apply for the fellowship.

Q: What’s your perception of the current environment for BIPOC professionals in higher education IT? What changes would you like to see?

Cox: It’s really like every other IT environment. BIPOC generally—and Black women in particular—aren’t fairly represented in leadership positions. I’ve been in this field for my entire career, and it’s hard to not have leadership that looks like me.

It has changed for the better in the last ten years, though. I’ve seen representation of women at conferences increase by 50 percent or more in the last five years. But there’s still not that level of increase for BIPOC, either as conference attendees or in senior leadership. We continually talk about this issue, and discussions bring awareness. But there needs to be more intentional work done and policies in place to make sure change happens.

I really love the idea behind NLF. Executives, including chief information officers and chief technology officers in academia and in the private sector, volunteer their time for a year to mentor BIPOC professionals. It’s wonderful to see the willingness of people in leadership roles, regardless of race, making an effort to mentor, to intentionally include people of color in affinity groups, hiring committees, and decision-making processes.

Q: What was your experience like at the NLF kickoff at NERCOMP?

Cox: It was powerful, walking into that room; hearing introductions and titles. It stirred so much emotion in me—gratitude, overwhelming thankfulness. As a manager, one of the lowest-level titles in the cohort, it humbled me to be in that room.

I’d almost say it was life changing. I’ve always been one of the only—if not the only—persons of color in my career. I’ve never had a boss who was a woman or a person of color, only white males. Seeing a whole population of people unlike those I work with on a regular basis was awe inspiring.

One of the first things we did was listen to the mentors’ life journeys, how they’ve grown and changed over the course of their careers. They took the time to be very candid, to express why they felt the need to commit to giving back to this program and to offer pathways for minority professionals. While not every mentor is BIPOC, it was wonderful to hear the different paths they took and the adversity they’ve had to overcome. And as Fellows, we were charged to talk with our own CIOs to get their leadership stories.

We also talked a lot about our own leadership paths and understanding who we are. Prior to the conference, the cohort took the StrengthsFinder [now CliftonStrengths] assessment, and we looked at the deidentified data to see where we all fall in the categories. Generally, IT staff tend to be heavy on strategy and light on influencing, and it was fascinating to map all our strengths to the general IT population. Our results mirrored that distribution almost exactly. I had always thought that was an anomaly for me, but I really do fit with everyone else.

We discovered a lot about knowing ourselves, understanding the different types of leaders we are and can become, and how we can lean on each other for inspiration and guidance through the shared struggles of being BIPOC in higher education IT.

I took part in the MOR Leaders Program in 2016, and NLF has some similarities—the same type of workbook, where you can look ahead at the subject matter. But overall, NLF just feels different, like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. That alone has been life changing. As I continue to progress in my career, I’m feeling like maybe there is another level, an opportunity to go higher and do more. I’d given up hope until I spent a week with my NLF cohort, being enlightened and encouraged. I’m more than thankful for the vision of the program director, Bowdoin CIO Michael Cato.

It’s wonderful to see the willingness of people in leadership roles, regardless of race, making an effort to mentor, to intentionally include people of color in affinity groups, hiring committees, and decision-making processes.

Stephanie Cox

Q: What are your plans during your fellowship?

Cox: In the short term, we’ve been charged to examine how to fix our current leadership paths. My plan is to seek a higher-level executive IT position in higher education, because I love higher ed. I feel intrinsic value of what I’m doing in academia. It’s rewarding and motivating.

I want to open myself up for future leadership opportunities, to be vocal, to work on my skill sets. I plan to do more writing—maybe blogging, professional writing for IT magazines. I want to be published in spaces that have up till now been a hobby for me. I can offer a different lens about what it’s like to work in higher education IT as a Black woman.

I’m also intent on working on my public speaking skills, taking additional classes, earning more certifications, and playing a larger part on committees and boards. I’ve always been interested in that, but until recently was never invited. It’s a whole new level of opportunity.

Q: What would you say to someone who’s wondering if they should apply?

Cox: Absolutely. Everyone who’s interested should apply. Filling out the application can be kind of painful—it’s a lot to think through and can be emotional. But it’s also therapeutic. And you never know until you try. If you apply and aren’t successful, try again every year.

Q: What do you hope to gain over the term of your fellowship?

Cox: More than anything, I hope to become a better leader. Better for the organization, for my family, and for myself. I want to pay it forward. I want to make it easier for women of color in IT to find spaces and have representation.