Dr. Jamel Santa Cruze Wright

President, Eureka College

Leading a team that challenges students to be global citizens and servant leaders

Photography by Sonshine Portrait Design

I’ve always needed, benefitted from and appreciated the village. I am here today, the 27th president of Eureka College, first woman and African American, because of those who felt I was worthy of their support, time and prayers. I am forever grateful for the family, friends, advisors and kind strangers who have sacrificed for me and laid a successful path for me to follow. 

I was born the youngest of five children into an extremely supportive immediate and extended family—a strong village. My parents were entrepreneurs who owned and operated a cleaning and janitorial service that started small; but as I grew, so too did the business. From two years old, I remember being the only African-American family on my street and one of only a few in the entire neighborhood. I remember some of the white parents wouldn’t allow their kids to play with us, but our close neighbors were nice enough and my parents kept any concerns close to the vest. 

My mother was a teacher for many years, so doing well in school was a known expectation. I owe it to my mom for encouraging me to be an avid reader and for enhancing my lexicon by suggesting I read “fun” things like the encyclopedia and Disney’s Wonderful World of Knowledge (all 20 volumes…). Attending college was an early goal, but what I would be when I grew up was a lingering question. While I had a few hobbies, my mom would say that I wanted to do everything. 

I was always very inquisitive. Some of my biggest questions and frustrations centered on the reasons I couldn’t do things that my brothers were allowed to do. When I was a freshman in high school, I wanted to play football. I attended the informational meeting and was asked to leave because the coaches didn’t think I was serious. My mom, who didn’t understand my desire to play, appealed to the school to no avail. In addition, I grew up watching my fair share of television and was curious about the exaggerated features of black characters (or caricatures, as I now know) in a number of popular cartoons. There never seemed to be a purpose for such depictions and yet they were so prevalent. These experiences would later provide the motivation for my desire to be a professor and scholar. 

My mom was sure to talk often about the importance of giving what you can, when you can, to as many as you can. I remember having to find a volunteer opportunity and choosing to be a candy striper at an area hospital. Every holiday season, we would go to a homeless shelter and give turkeys and other food items and we would donate money to various causes. My mom was, and continues to be, extremely generous and has instilled in me the importance of sharing my time, talent and treasure in support of others. 

For years I admired Robin Smith, a popular St. Louis reporter and anchorwoman, and told people that I wanted to be a journalist like her. She was pleasant, engaging, professional and knowledgeable, and she clearly loved the career she chose. She was also a positive representation of a woman who looked like me. 

While she was a great role model, there is no doubt that my mom, Shirley Santa Cruze, is a great aspirational female image and has influenced me the most. I was in awe of her ability to take care of all of us, to be the face of her and my dad’s business, and later to have her own business. I learned so much from her about being professional, a woman and an overall good-spirited human being. I learned to be strong, and to love and respect all people from watching her. 

Tell us about your college years. What did it mean to be the first in your family to earn a degree?
I am a proud first-generation college graduate. I felt the first day of college, as I do now, that I was representing my whole family and had to do well. I made lifelong friends and mentors, learned a lot about who I was and wanted to be, made some unforgettable mistakes, suffered through a couple of unbelievably tragic situations, and came out of it with confidence, a thirst for knowledge, new curiosities about the world and my place in it, a deeper appreciation for family and the powerful influence of education, a stronger belief in God, and owing a debt of service to others that will take me a lifetime to repay.   

Missouri Western State prepared me well, both academically and personally. The professors and everyone in the community gave me confidence that I could graduate from a small school and compete at a top-notch graduate program. I was fortunate enough to know the president at Missouri Western and to have worked for the executive vice president, Dr. James McCarthy, who took a genuine interest in me and provided me unique opportunities that set the path for my career. After working with the university’s adult literacy program, I was given the responsibility of establishing the America Reads program at Missouri Western, which was a President Clinton initiative designed to address the K-12 illiteracy crisis. I went on to lead the program and was elected president of the St. Joseph, Missouri-area Literacy Coalition. 

My blessings continued at the University of Kansas, where I had a chance to establish relationships with leading scholars in the field of communication. They taught me how to be a scholar, but more importantly, they showed me how to be a great teacher and mentor. They exhibited just the right balance of toughness and love, and I was challenged in ways I had never before been. They became like family as they supported me through two traumatic experiences—the death of a close family member and viral meningitis. In both instances, they rallied around me in a way I won’t ever forget. 

I was an active graduate student, serving as an elected student senator and establishing a chapter of the National Black Graduate Student Association, in addition to attending every lecture, conference and university gathering I could. It was at Kansas that I realized I one day wanted to be a college president. 

Both my undergraduate and graduate experiences shaped me into the student-centered president I am today. I know how positively influential personalized attention can be for all students, especially those who are first-generation like me. I encourage students to have as much fun as I did and to take full advantage of every opportunity offered.

Describe your early career path and the challenges you experienced, both as a female and a person of color.
Some people may like to read that racism and sexism no longer exist; unfortunately, they do exist and I have experienced both over the course of my career. While some incidents were more overt than others, there is no battle of the “isms” because they are equally disturbing. That being said, no one should allow racist or sexist incidents to inhibit her growth or stop her from the pursuit of success. To the contrary, any such incidents should, ultimately, serve as motivation to fuel that fire in the belly that won’t allow her to quit. 

In spite of my preparation and excitement for my discipline, I must admit that being a female of color in the academy has been challenging—especially for someone who was interested in exploring difference and issues that affect people who look like me. Despite enduring countless microaggressions and a couple of highly questionable incidents where race and/or gender clearly mattered, I have been extremely fortunate to have people remove barriers and open doors for me throughout my career. Equally important to my success is my circle of advisors and amazing mentors, some women of color, who help direct my feet by providing a roadmap of expectations and the tools needed to navigate the higher education terrain and life’s unexpected turns.

As I began my career as an assistant professor of communication at Boston College, it was brought to my attention that I was the first African-American female in my department. I started to understand what it means to be “a first” and to appreciate the importance of students seeing someone who looks like me with a Ph.D. and in a prestigious position of a professor. I realized that it wasn’t just students of color who desperately needed to see me, but all students benefitted from my presence. It was always interesting the number of students across the racial/ethnic spectrum who never had a professor of color before me. This mattered to the extent that it made for a richer learning environment that exemplified the beauty of opportunity, hard work and diversity in its broadest sense. It’s important for students to see people of all racial and gender identities in all career fields and to know that they can do anything they choose.

As a female professor, I also recall having to command respect from some of my white male students who, curiously, wanted to refer to me by my first name. In conversation with my colleagues, it became clear that other female professors experienced the same issue. This became so prevalent that I began to use part of the first class of the semester to tell students the acceptable names to be used when interacting with me, I stopped putting my first name on my syllabi and requested a new name plate outside my office door that excluded my first name. While these solutions seemed impersonal, they were necessary. I worked hard to earn my Ph.D. and had to give myself permission to ask people and, in some cases insist, that my prefix be Doctor instead of Mrs., Ms. or simply my first name with no prefix at all.

My first taste of higher education administration came unexpectedly while I was completing my Ph.D. at Kansas. I was asked by Dr. J. David Arnold, then vice president for academic and student affairs at Missouri Western, to serve as his communication specialist. He became a mentor and affirmed my belief that one day I wanted to be a college president. Shortly after I finished my Ph.D. and began my career at Boston College, Dr. Arnold left Missouri Western to become the 26th president of Eureka College. Nine years later, he encouraged me to consider Eureka College, where in 2014 I became the college’s first chief diversity officer, and later, vice president for strategic and diversity initiatives. 

Describe some of your previous experiences with diversity/inclusion initiatives.
I, like everyone else, am a complex human being who happens to identify as female and African American. While both are important aspects of my identity, they are not the only markers that define me or my perspective. I’ve spent my career encouraging people to appreciate and not be afraid of difference. After all, the beauty of people is in their complexity and our country is in its multiplicity.  

My teaching portfolio includes several intercultural communication courses and others that focus on race and media, in addition to courses I developed around intercultural competence. I would tell my students on the first day of class that my job was to make them comfortable with discomfort. Professors have a unique opportunity to challenge students and a responsibility to lead them down a path of intellectual curiosity where their ways of knowing and seeing are questioned. In addition to my scholarly work and teaching, I have facilitated numerous inclusive excellence training and leadership development workshops. 

After a great experience at Boston College, I went home to St. Louis and a professor role at Saint Louis University, where I made the connections that led to my work with the Ferguson Commission’s Citizens Law Enforcement Task Force. I grew up in the area right next door to Ferguson and am deeply honored to have served at such an important time in my city’s history. The beauty of the task force was its composition of diverse voices and experiences, from representatives of the Fraternal Order of Police to community organization leaders to scholars like me. Community members attended every meeting and were given the opportunity to speak or ask questions, and the anguish in some of their voices will stay with me forever. That experience reminds me that we must be unflinching, intentional and proactive in our efforts to understand different ways of knowing and to building community.

One of the things that drew me to Eureka College is its rich history rooted in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) tradition where all are welcome. EC was founded by abolitionists who offer an exemplary story of inclusive excellence, equity and justice. As the first college in Illinois and among the first in the nation to admit men and women equally, my presence and the way I’ve been welcomed is a reflection of our Disciples roots.    

As Eureka College’s first chief diversity officer and now president, my responsibility is to foster an environment that is welcoming of diversity in its various forms and to challenge students to be globally-minded citizens who possess the tools necessary to contribute to the communities of which they are a part.

Please reflect upon your major accomplishments of recent years. What are you most proud of in your career? Institutionally, the greatest accomplishments for Eureka College are yet to come. I am honored to lead such an amazing team of faculty and staff to achieve the wonderful things we have during my short tenure as president. For example, we received the strongest reaffirmation review by our accrediting body in the college’s history and implemented the Uniquely Eureka Advantage, which freezes tuition and provides an experiential learning grant to every student, as well as a roadmap to graduate in four years. In addition, we have established strategic partnerships with the Reagan Library and Foundation and the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, as well as completed significant capital projects.

A more recent accomplishment is the Uniquely Eureka Promise, which offers four semesters tuition-free to Illinois residents with an associate’s degree from an accredited community college, a 2.8 GPA and financial need. Additionally, I am extremely proud of our amazing faculty for creating over 50 new courses to introduce Eureka College’s signature capabilities-based curriculum, designed for students to gain in-depth understanding in areas like communication, intercultural understanding, civic engagement, aesthetic sensibility, scientific inquiry and sustainability. 

Personally, I am blessed to accomplish as much as I have over the course of my career. Earning my Ph.D. in 2004 is still one of my proudest achievements. I learned a lot about who I am, the things that motivate me, my ability to commit and strength to persevere. Of course, I am extremely proud to have been selected as interim president and later as the 27th president of a college with Eureka’s history. These accomplishments pale in comparison to what I suspect will be my greatest achievement, which is being a mother to Kaiya and stepmom to TJ. There is no greater joy.

What is your secret to maintaining a balance between your work and personal life?
I think of a quote from the late Barbara Bush who said, “At the end of your life, you will never regret not passing one more test, winning one more verdict, or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a friend or a parent.” Of course, I will add the regret of not spending time with a child. 

Maintaining balance involves ongoing effort, realistic expectations and mutual sacrifice. My role as president requires family sacrifice, so it just makes sense that Eureka College must sacrifice as well. This means that I am not able to attend every game, concert or meeting, and the campus community must understand as my family does. This mutual understanding will be needed until cloning becomes commonplace.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
The best piece of advice I ever received was a reminder that asking for help is a sign of strength, not of weakness. Ask for help.

What inspires you?
Young people inspire me. I am often amazed at their innumerable talents, intellectual capacity and technological savvy. They inspire me to continue setting a high standard so we may watch them excel well beyond it.

What is your leadership style or philosophy?
Effective leaders are inspirational, have vision and understand people. Eureka College’s most famous alumnus, Ronald Reagan, once said, “The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.” Effective and strong leadership is not necessarily about knowing how to do every job; it’s about the willingness to do any job to ensure the success of your team or organization. 

My leadership style is driven by several core characteristics that any good leader must possess: strong communication skills, care and concern for people, high emotional intelligence, exceedingly thick skin, a genuine spirit of collaboration, integrity and transparency, a positive mental attitude, and a desire to leverage the strengths of your team, while also identifying ways to support their continuous growth.

In your opinion, what is the greatest struggle working women face today?
Working women, on average, continue to earn less than our male counterparts. This gap is even more pronounced when considering women of color. Addressing the issue will require more than an annual study reminding us of this reality or passing remarks by a candidate during a political rally.        

Women must continue to rewrite gender role stereotypes—especially working moms. As I began my career and after having my daughter, it seemed that every year there was a study highlighting the negative consequences on some aspect of children’s development as a result of mothers working outside of the home. Everything from children being less smart to having more behavioral issues always seemed to guilt working mothers for pursuing a career. While not explicitly stated, the underlying question was always whether or not women should really pursue careers that required many hours away from home. Just as there are highly capable female CEOs who are the primary financial contributors in their families, there are also men more than capable of providing the needed care for their children to be well-adjusted and highly intellectual human beings. And let us not forget about those women who can successfully manage both a multimillion-dollar company and a household.

What advice would you give to a young female professional?
The inspiration for my advice comes from part of a quote by Marianne Williamson who said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do.” 

Your dreams should be big enough to scare you, but don’t be paralyzed by fear. You are meant to be excellent and extraordinary so be positive, be confident and no matter the setback, don’t let anyone stop your forward progress or dim your light. iBi

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