Black students sat on one side of the room, white students on the other. Kim McAloney remembers her first day of fifth grade at Fort Stewart, a military base in Georgia. She wore her best, second-hand dress; and as she entered the room, she looked left and right before choosing a seat in the middle.
It sometimes felt that way for McAloney. Half black, half white but never whole. The daughter of a black father, whom she never met, and a white mother, McAloney’s journey to self-identity has been confounding and, at times, dispiriting.
The master’s degree she received in college student services administration this spring, her diploma reflects perseverance, achievement and self-discovery, the ideals of any university.
McAloney, 29, served as coordinator of the NASPA Undergraduate Fellows Program (NUFP), a national, goal-oriented mentorship program guiding historically disenfranchised/underrepresented students into higher education and student affairs.
NUFP is a means of helping students navigate through environments of unfamiliar faces, expectations, and academic dogma, a language of acronyms. For universities, it’s a circular process of filling the pond so it might become rain, a source of nourishment.
“No matter what I do, I want to be a change-maker,” McAloney says. “I want to help students believe in themselves. Many people have poured into me in terms of mentorship. What greater thing can I do than to give back, pay it forward.”
The distinction between being unique and being different is neither subtle nor opaque. One lends itself to richness and expansion, the other to isolation and self-containment. Through NUFP, OSU Student Affairs is able to address students’ specific needs.
For many students, change begins with ripples and grows to forceful waves. For McAloney, one class--Black Identity Development, taught by Larry Roper, PhD. and vice provost of Student Affairs--set the tide in motion.
It involved a simple question asked over a cup of coffee near the end of the term.
“What do you want to do?” Roper asked.
“Make a difference,” she replied.
Roper told her about NUFP and asked to become her mentor as she entered graduate school.
“Kim has uncommon intellect and a gift of connecting her knowledge to her spirit and humanity,” Roper says. “It was very clear to me that Kim is conscientious and compassionate. She is remarkable in her ability to be reflective and wrestle with hard questions regarding who she is and who she desires to be.”
Another ripple was cast when McAloney entered the university’s Educational Opportunities Program, where she met Janet Nishihara, now its director.
“The first thing I noticed about her was her gentle spirit,” Nishihara says, “but inside her was a core of steel. She’s not the type of person who goes with the wind; and she has not developed her strengths as mere personal growth for herself, but as a means for helping others.”
Others saw in her what she didn’t even know existed, and it was through such support that McAloney developed and solidified her own vision about the role of student affairs at OSU.
“We are a predominantly white institution,” she says. “It can be difficult for students of color. I think it’s difficult to retain students of color and to retain faculty. There has to be a reason for that. I think systemic, institutionalized racism plays a big part.”
Her husband, Adam McAloney recalls a day not long ago when the term, “colored people,” was spoken in one of her classes. “She was deeply offended. I was taught to never judge people, but other people have sometimes judged her in terms of race.”
Judgment is two-sided, and McAloney has learned not to judge herself as she did as a child, searching in the mirror rather than in her heart and mind. Her dreams never included higher education. A first-generation college student, she took pride in becoming assistant manager at a Subway restaurant in Kelso, Washington making $12 an hour, more than she ever envisioned.
Her childhood instilled in her two conflicting characteristics: her mother gave her strength and certainty; while her interpretation of self-identity caused confusion and, at times, fallibility.
Her aunt told her a story about McAloney’s grandfather on her mother’s side. His words still sting: “No black baby is ever going to call me Grandpa.”
Later in life, she wrote him a letter in an attempt to quell their estrangement. He didn’t respond and died before she could gain his acceptance, his permission to call him “Grandpa.”
She has identified herself in different ways at different stages in her life. The more she learns about herself, the closer she reaches an understanding of herself.
“When I was really young, I identified as being mulato. Then it was black, then in the last three or four years, I came into an identity of multi-racial,” she says.
Such growth is the foundation of education. At OSU, McAloney says, she has been given the gift of surprising herself, surpassing expectations, and that is what she hopes to instill in others.
“I think students of color who are well connected have a better chance of staying in school. It’s the students who don’t connect, who don’t know how to reach out or might not know where to go who are vulnerable.”
In time, McAloney says, she hopes to earn her doctorate; but, for now, she seeks a role that will allow her to throw pebbles of her own and prompt ripples in the lives of other students while widening the path that has led to her graduation.
From that day in fifth grade, she has discovered herself in terms of ideology and sensitivity, two halves in the world of student affairs that make a whole.
Story by Duane Noriyuki
Photo by Vinay Bikkina