Advisor Spotlight: McGhee promotes identity analysis

McGhee's typical day as House Advisor to Joss and Davi includes engaging with students to try to meet any needs residents might have, ResLife related or otherwise. Courtesy of Joshua Trowbridge

For House Advisor Atiya McGhee, every day is a busy one. When they’re not working with the Davi and Joss House teams to plan zodiac nights, Super Smash Bros. tournaments, smoothie gatherings and food study breaks, they are engaging in meetings and activities all over campus. If it’s a Thursday, McGhee is likely chatting with a student or perhaps with their cat Jinxy, who has office hours in Joss. “I meet every single student possible before Friday hits, and they leave campus,” McGhee said, emphasizing their focus on interacting with students.

McGhee grew up in the Bronx before attending Wheaton College as a low-income, first-generation college student. In addition to their undergraduate degree, they also earned a masters degree in Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration from the University of Vermont. Prior to working at Vassar, McGhee was Assistant Residence Director at Vermont, and then Coordinator for Social Justice Initiatives in Residence Education at Oberlin College.

During their educational endeavors, McGhee discovered a fondness for the small-school experience. This made accepting a job at Vassar less than a year ago an easy choice, because the college’s size allows for deeper personal connections. “I knew I was good at ResLife, and I get to connect with students on a one-on-one basis,” McGhee explained.

Although Oberlin and Vassar share the status of small liberal arts college, McGhee has noticed significant differences between the two institutions. The use of House Advisors, House Fellows and Student Fellows instead of Resident Assistants (RAs) is unique to the Vassar experience. “To come to a school that doesn’t have RAs meant changing my framework for working with students, which is something I’m still learning a lot about and working through,” McGhee commented.

McGhee also praised Vassar’s shared governance model. Shared governance means that when it comes to decision making on campus, Vassar is student-centric. This is particularly evident in student organizations on campus, which are, in fact, completely run by students.

McGhee enjoys taking advantage of the shared governance model to connect with students more deeply. “I want things to come from student orgs in a way that is not me giving information, but we are constructing things together,” McGhee emphasized. They highlighted the importance of collaboration for a flourishing campus community.

Currently, McGhee and fellow House Advisor Elizabeth Jáuregui are working on a decolonizing fat-phobia workshop, which the two advisors hope to eventually transform into a long-term retreat. “One of the things I want to work with campus partners on is how [to] counsel people to not be ashamed of where their body currently is at,” McGhee said, laying out their aims for the workshop. “You don’t owe anyone a state of healthiness or you don’t owe anyone a state of ‘perfect body.’”

Discussing body image is indicative of McGhee’s philosophy as a student affairs professional; they believe in vulnerability, story-sharing, social equity and curiosity. “I don’t necessarily care about inclusion, because inclusion to me means inclusion into white supremacist spaces, usually patriarchal,” McGhee noted. “If the space wasn’t created for me, I would rather you just destroy the space and and create a space from scratch that is actually welcoming to all.”

Building spaces for all students is just one part of McGhee’s role at Vassar. They also advise residents on matters reaching far beyond ResLife. As a House Advisor, McGhee often encounters students at their most vulnerable. “I’ve seen a lot of times where I’m checking on people who are always crying or who are emotionally distraught, or mute,” McGhee said. “I’m rarely getting to see those people, in those crisis moments, at their peak happiness.” McGhee explained how, unlike other faculty, House Advisors see students at all times and places. “I get to see you at 8 a.m., and I get to see you at 8 p.m.,” they commented. McGhee perceives themself as an approachable person to whom distressed students open up. McGhee described of students who come to speak with them, “For the most part it’s like, ‘Hey, I’m sad, and I hear you’re a good person to talk to.’”

McGhee builds community through a foundation of individual relationships with students. They introduce students to each other and to organizations based on their individual interests. McGhee also pegged themself as the “geek” House Advisor. “I can talk to you about anime, video games. It’s not that [other House Advisors] don’t watch anime or play video games, but I super play video games and watch anime, okay?” These interests allow McGhee to bond with students over geeky conversations.

McGhee’s ideology as someone working in an educational setting also includes “healthy play.” This means that people should be able to explore their self-expression—whether it be dress, gender expression or any other identity—without being categorized. McGhee elaborated by explaining that healthy play is someone saying, “I want to figure out my journey with you. I want to practice a new haircut, a new makeup, and it not be seen in a negative light.”

In the future, McGhee has aspirations to be a director of a multicultural and identity-based center. McGhee is also interested in getting a PhD, where they could research how social justice educators create social justice in practice. Another research interest of McGhee’s is the development of conflicting identities. “I identify as asexual, and I’m also fat and Black,” McGhee said, using themself as an example of what they are looking to research. “The image of the mammy in my head has always made me feel like I can’t have short hair, and I can’t be asexual. But if that’s who I am, and it confirms a stereotype, how hard am I working to fight that stereotype while also denying my identity?”

In other words, according to McGhee, nobody should feel like they need to conform to or contradict with any model that is traditionally associated with their identity.

McGhee’s dedication to authentic identity is further exhibited through their approach to working with students. “If someone’s like, ‘I haven’t met someone who can listen to me in my fullness,’ I say welcome. I think I could be that person,” McGhee said. “And if I can’t, I will challenge myself to be more open to be that person.”

[Correction (Saturday, Apr. 13): The original version of this article implied that McGhee personally planned the zodiac nights, Super Smash Bros. tournaments, smoothie gatherings and food study breaks for Davison and Josselyn House. In fact, the entirety of the Davi and Joss house teams planned these events.]

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