The Welcome Table: Whitney Young
How does alumna Whitney Young (B.A. literary journalism ’07) use her position as the assistant director of undergraduate study in the UCI School of Humanities to help students? In this episode of “The Welcome Table with Sydney and Tatum,” student storytellers Sydney Charles and Tatum Larsen interview Young to see how she uses her experience as a Black woman and first-generation college student to help shape fair practices and mentor students from similar backgrounds as hers.
Sydney Charles (0:10–0:30): Hi guys, so welcome back to the third episode of “The Welcome Table.” Today we are here with Whitney Young, and she is an alumna of UCI. She graduated with a B.A. in the literary journalism department and she is now back at UCI as the assistant director for the UCI Humanities Undergraduate Office of Education. Did I say that right?
Whitney Young (0:30–0:34): Office of Undergraduate Studies. So many words.
Charles (0:35–0:37): So how are you doing today, Whitney?
Young (0:37–0:39): Great. How are you guys doing?
Charles and Tatum Larsen (0:39–0:41): Good!
Charles (0:41–0:42): I was just going to say the heat —
Young (0:43–0:47): Yes, the heat is very oppressive but I’m getting through.
Larsen (0:28–1:20): Yes, it’s keeping us down. So, we’re going to jump into the interview but first we’re going to do a little “show and tell.” We’ll go first! So for today, I brought my little keychain — it’s hot sauce actually. I love my spice. I’m a person who’s very particular about how my food is seasoned and I often find that the way it’s seasoned is oppressive. So I have to put on my special ghost pepper sauce.
Charles (1:20–1:21): Isn’t it cute?
Young (1:21–1:24): That’s amazing. Ghost pepper, wow.
Larsen (1:24–1:29): So worth it.
Charles (1:29–1:32): What did you bring for us to share, Whitney?
Young (1:33–2:14): So, I love to crochet. My mother taught me how to crochet. It’s kind of been a lifelong hobby. I did it in high school; I would make blankets for local hospitals. So during quarantine, I’ve been picking up on a lot of crochet projects that I kind of neglected. One of the things that I made was this top; it’s a sunflower top. I’m really proud of how it came out. I didn’t have a pattern. I just saw an inspiration photo and I decided to work on it. So that’s one of the hobbies that I’ve been doing during quarantine that has really helped me stay, you know, mentally okay, and feel like I’m making progress.
Charles (2:14–2:31): Those little milestones of self-care, I feel like everyone’s getting into new hobbies, like I myself just took up baking randomly. Now, I kind of like to bake. So this quarantine has really given everyone a lot of hobbies.
Larsen (2:32–2:34): Yeah, she made some vegan donuts that were excellent.
Young (2:34–2:47): Oh, wow. Great job! I love to bake too, but now that it’s hot, it’s so hard to feel motivated to do it. Yeah, but it’s almost fall so I’m going to be back making banana bread.
Larsen (2:47–3:04): Thank you so much! We’re so fortunate to be talking to another alumna of the LJ department, so we’d love to hear a little bit about your career trajectory. What brought you back to UCI? A little bit about your educational journey, what was that like?
Young (3:04–8:34): Sure. So, yes, I was a literary journalism major at UCI. I did the minor in women’s studies before it changed to gender studies. I did write a couple of pieces for the New University while I was there. I loved writing in high school and I worked for the high school newspaper. I came into the humanities undeclared because I really wasn’t sure. I knew STEM was not for me. I knew that was not my home. But I knew I loved to write. The literary journalism program actually had just started while I was a student, so I took the first class, LJ 20 — “Intro to Literary Journalism” and I loved it so much. I knew that I wanted to work with people in a way that I was telling their story and that’s what LJ was about. So I had a pretty good experience writing and doing different writing projects during undergrad.
When I graduated, I had no plan. I really didn’t know for sure what I was going to do. I had an internship at URB magazine. It was a music magazine and it was based in Beverly Hills when I worked there. It was a completely different environment from Irvine and from Riverside, which is where I grew up. So it was a little bit of culture shock there. And while I was doing that internship, it wasn’t paid, so I was also working at a high school as a technology coordinator for their College and Career Center, because during my senior year, I also was an outreach counselor for the Early Academic Outreach Program. So I was working with students at that time already, and I really enjoyed that experience as well. So I kind of was now building my experiences writing, while also knowing that I really loved working with students and I really loved advising, too. Throughout the summer I worked on my internship but I kind of felt like it wasn’t really the environment for me. I didn’t really feel like I was making much of a difference. I had assignments here and there and looking at the structure of writing at that time, I knew I was going to have to work for a long time for no pay, pretty much, until I could get somewhere.
This was back in 2007 when the economy had just collapsed. I was living with my best friend at the time, doing that “post-college struggle.” I mean, it was a character-building time, but I knew that I wanted some kind of stability for my future. I knew that I had a lot of transferable skills that I had gotten through my experiences at UCI and through my work experience, so I didn’t have to be a struggling writer forever. That didn’t have to be my only career path because I had so many other skills that were just as valuable too.
So after that summer, I was able to start in an administrative assistant position for Pharmaceutical Sciences at UCI. I did that position for about a year. And then I saw that the office literally across from our office, the Cal Teach Science and Math Program, had a student advisor position open. So I applied for that. I was able to interview and I got that position. Some of that was based on the work that I had done as an administrative assistant for Pharm Sci. I know a lot of times you take a job and you think, “Okay, this is all I’m going to be limited to. I’m just going to be working with faculty and answering emails — basic things.” But I took the opportunity while I was there to say, “Is there a student event I can help out with? Is there a forum that I can help you put together?” All of those little opportunities that I saw to work with students I took, while I was there, because I knew even though I’m an administrative assistant, I might not want to stay in administration forever. I might want to get back to working with students, or I might want to branch out into even bigger projects. So that helped a lot.
Once I was in Cal Teach, I was advising pretty much full-time. I ended up working with the School of Education as a counselor. Then, at a certain point, I decided if you’re going to be in advising, you need to decide if you want to get an advanced degree and if you really want to take this as far as you can and make it your career, because a lot of the structure with advising is either you have a lot of experience as a student affairs officer at a certain level, and then eventually after like 15 years, you can be an assistant director or you can get that advanced degree and move things along a little bit quicker. So I did decide to get my master’s in student development and higher ed at Cal State, Long Beach. That was an amazing three years of growth. After that, I applied, I think a couple months, about six months after I graduated, I applied to the Humanities for their assistant director position, so the timing worked out. My experiences worked out. I know a lot of people don’t have that experience and advising — there’s no one path to it. It’s really like, at what point did you catch the “advising bug”? That usually is what comes up for folks. Then, at what point did you decide to kind of be more intentional about your work experiences? Not just rely on, “Well this is my job duty so this is what I’m going to do” and kind of operate more in survival mode versus actually saying, “Okay, this is the stuff that I want to take next. These are the experiences that I want,” and then I’m working towards it that way.
Charles (8:34–8:48): Wow. Wonderful. Wonderful. Flash forward you have this amazing career. We wanted to ask you, what puts a smile on your face in a typical workday? What are some of the parts of your job currently that are most gratifying for you?
Young (8:49–9:53): I think I have been able to stay in advising so long because I see how grateful the students are and how much of an impact it has on their lives. Obviously, when you’re working with people, there is going to be bad interactions too. There’s going to be good ones, but the good ones far outweigh the bad ones. This generation is so inspiring to me. The students that I work with, they are so smart, and capable and determined. I just love that I’m a part of their journey. I understand college and academia isn’t for everybody. But if I can help you in your educational development, whatever path that might be, that’s very gratifying for me. Even the students who say “thank you” definitely make my day. But even for the ones that don’t, I know that I have provided a service to them. Whether it is getting them closer to their bachelor’s degree or just getting them closer to figuring out how they can best be themselves.
Larsen (9:54–10:09): As a Black woman and first-generation college student yourself, do you find that you gravitate towards students of a similar background as yours and that you guys can relate to each other on a certain level?
Young (10:09–11:40): For sure, I think when I’m thinking about how we engage students or the policies that we’ve come up with in our office or any procedure that we’re doing, I’m kind of always keeping in mind, based on my experience when I was a student and based on what I’m seeing from other students: What about this isn’t fair? What about this is maybe leaving out people who don’t have the resources to get this done? How can we make it easier for students?
So I think sometimes as administrators, we get questioned as far as like, are we mentoring students, are we engaging them? Are we having those one on one relationships? Whereas I more or less see it as, how are we getting out of these students’ way? Because they know what they want, they know what they’re capable of. I don’t want to feel like, as an academic advising office, that we are doing things that are not helpful, that we are doing things that are counterproductive or that are extra, or that we’re putting things in stuff that aren’t necessarily fair to our whole student body, or that we have counselors who aren’t aware of the resources. So staying informed, making sure that we’re all doing our best practices. That’s how I kind of see myself as an advocate for students. So it doesn’t have to be big moves. It doesn’t have to be mentoring relationships. It really is just like, what are you doing as an administrator that is making sure that everybody’s accountable to the students that we have to serve? And making sure that we’re not doing things that are really, like I said, getting in their way.
Charles (11:41–11:52): It seems like you have a really strong vision for how you represent those students. With your presence, we also wanted to ask, have you seen any noteworthy changes at UCI?
Young (11:53–13:55): Oh, for sure. Especially from the time that I was a student. I think part of that is that the student population has changed so much since I was a student. And there is a criticism about higher ed, that we are kind of reactionary and we are slow to make changes. But in the time that I’ve been at UCI, especially with the introduction of the SOAR Center and the FRESH Basic Needs Hub, I think there’s a real recognition that we have to support our students as best as we can so that it doesn’t come down to just having students at our university and kind of turning them into middle-class citizens.
It’s about supporting them along this journey, whatever academic steps that they want to take. It’s hard to do that if we ignore what’s going on outside of the classroom and ignore what’s going on on campus. I’ve seen a greater shift to counseling the whole student and not just fixing individual issues as they come up. I’ve seen conversations about what we can do to be more proactive about certain issues. Where can we create spaces for students to discuss their issues in a way that’s more healthy and productive? And it doesn’t get to the point where there needs to be a protest, where we have a bunch of students who just leave, because that’s the reality. What I’ve seen is students are more likely to just discontinue their journey or decide that college is not for them, whereas I think education is for everybody and it should be for everybody and we should be creating an environment where it is for everybody.
So while, of course, there’s always more that we can do, I think a lot of the steps that UCI has taken, especially for a large public university that has so many layers to it, they’ve happened pretty quickly. I think they really have met the needs of our students.
Larsen (13:56–14:19): Speaking of considering the student as a whole, including their environment, with obviously the prevalence of COVID and all the concerns regarding that, how have you had to pivot professionally and personally to support your students in your role as an administrator? Also yourself, how do you self-preserve?
Young (14:20–18:20): For sure. Well, when we got the mandate to work remotely and that things would be shut down, at first, I was like, “Okay, what immediate needs do we need to take care of? How are we going to communicate with students? What do we need to be the most clear about?” And I was definitely operating in just like survival mode day-to-day. Then at a certain point, we did start advising again in more real-time chat services. And that was nice because I got to connect with some students and kind of find out what was going on with them and answer their questions. But I immediately missed the in-person interaction and feeling like I was helping a person and not just answering emails.
So how I manage that is doing more check-ins than actually I would have done before and really focusing on the population of students that I do have to work with since after spring we moved into summer orientation. So that’s a really exciting time to meet with a whole batch of new students and kind of set that first impression of their interaction with UCI. So that’s been really great. In my personal life, I’m very fortunate that I have a stable living situation. I don’t have children. God bless anybody who is homeschooling right now or having to deal with that. My family, they don’t live with me. They live out of state. So that’s a little bit scary because California kind of set certain standards as far as public health versus other places that might be a little bit looser or open about it or maybe they weren’t taking it as seriously over the past couple of months. And they’re in a totally different political environment from me.
So that’s a bit challenging to think about, too. One of the lessons that I learned in grad school was that you don’t really have to think about your life in large chunks of time. If you need to think about your life in terms of, what do I need to get through this week? That’s perfectly fine. It’s obviously not a sustainable way to live, but you can get through it if you don’t really have to think too much about what are the next couple months going to look like, what are the next couple of years going to look like, because a lot of that is out of our control.
So I always think I don’t have control over everything. I don’t have control over when this situation is going to end. But there are things that I can do in my control. I can think of ways to keep engaging students to making sure that we have a high-quality advising and that we’re accessible. That they’re getting what they need without overtaxing or overburdening ourselves and making sure that our staff is able to perform at their best as well. That’s another area where I’m really fortunate. I love my co-workers. We have a really diverse group of advisors. We have a really supportive office structure so that if people need to take time they can. We don’t work in an E.R., we don’t have constant emergencies coming up. But there’s still a lot of stress involved with advising students and there’s a lot of pressure on us to make sure that they get the right information in a timely manner. What helps with that stress is having good relationships with each other and knowing that I can rely on other people from my team. I have a really supportive supervisor who is very aware of what’s going on in the outside world and doesn’t take it for granted that I’m just going to be able to show up every day and understands the significance of what we’re going through in the world right now and how important it is to not ignore that.
So I feel very supported in that respect as well. So, you know, for folks that aren’t in as good of a situation, I would just take note of the things that you have control over and take care of yourself. And it’s perfectly okay to live day-to-day. You don’t have to think about the next couple of months and what they’re going to bring. You just have to focus on what you can do right now.
Charles (18:20–18:50): That is really great advice. I heard you mention the certain political climate in the outside world right now. With Black Lives Matter kind of at the forefront of this discussion, notably at the university level, has your department made any considerable pivots?
Young (18:51–20:29): I mean, I think those conversations happen at the broader leadership level. In our office, my supervisor has been very supportive, he has checked in with me, has offered to give me time off or whatever space that I need. We have a very supportive dialogue that we have in our office as well. So we’re all on the same page about everything. So that’s been really great.
As far as larger initiatives the school has taken, the AfAm department has always been really open with setting up forums and setting up dialogues and making sure that these issues are not swept under the rug. University statements tend to be sort of predictable, formulaic at times. Like you kind of know what’s going to come out after these events happen, what kind of statement you’re going to get. I think the difference is at UCI, there is a backing to it like me, there is an accountability to it. I think a lot of racism comes off in our work environment as microaggression and all of those things add up. The difference is I think we’re in an environment where there is more accountability for it. It’s not just something that, you know, if you don’t want to advocate for yourself, it’s just going to get swept under the rug. I think that we really do take a proactive stance on that. I think that our school leadership cares. So I don’t feel like things have been neglected, and like I said, again, we can always do more. I think more things are going to come out of this, more positive changes are going to come out of this. But that’s because we kind of had a good foundation to begin with.
Larsen (20:30–20:42): With all of your accomplishments and with the current moment considered, do you have any future plans for your personal and professional life that you would like to share?
Young (20:42–23:43): Yes, it would be lovely to leave my house at some point. I think in my future, I definitely see continuing to work with students in an advising capacity. But I also really want to get back to student research. While I was completing my master’s degree, I did my thesis on the impacts of participating in undergraduate research for first-generation, low-income and other marginalized populations. What I found was that even the simple act of a student doing a research project brings out so many skills and experiences that they brought with them. All that cultural capital that students bring with them to campus, the research experience brings that out. I had an inkling of that when I was an LJ student because the process of doing research, interviewing and putting your story together, I mean, that’s all a research project. Everything I did in all my classes was a research project. I noticed how that really connected for me with my identity and being able to bring that through in the work that I produced. It was a really valuable and meaningful experience.
So I would really love to be able to do more student research related topics like that, like what are students bringing with them that really helps them to be successful and how can you be supporting that and looking for that while they’re at UCI? I would also really like, of course, one day to move up leadership wise, maybe get into a director level position, because I do feel like you can make more impactful changes. But the further you move up, the further you get away from students. So it’s a little bit of a struggle. So I think incorporating research would really help me out with that.
I would love to teach yoga. I’m actually really passionate about yoga, it’s something that I’ve been doing for the past two or three years. The more you do it, the more you want to share it with others. It sounds kind of cultish, but it is true. I’m not an athlete whatsoever. I did band when I was in high school. I have no physical capabilities, but there’s something about yoga. It’s very individualistic and it’s very empowering on its own. There’s no yoga competition. You’re not going to win a trophy for it. But it’s about taking time to really appreciate your body and understand what it is capable of. It’s not about doing fancy tricks. It’s just taking that time to really reflect and to build an appreciation for your body. And I think that’s something that we definitely need in the Black community, especially for women. So I think I would love to work on my yoga practice more and eventually become a teacher. But as far as career-wise goes, I definitely want to get student research more involved in the student affairs field for sure.
Charles (23:43-24:06): Speaking to yoga, I do feel like it does give you a sense of sort of inner peace along with that practice of self-care that is really needed, as you mentioned, in the Black community. Thank you for that nice little detail at the end. Overall, we’re just so, so grateful to be able to speak with you. This interview was amazing. Thank you so much.
Young (24:06–24:22): Thank you all. I’m so inspired by you. And I hope you have a very fruitful career in journalism, and that you keep going and having these amazing experiences because we need it right now for sure.
Charles (24:22–24:24): Thank you, we appreciate it so, so much.
Larsen (24:24–24:38): So thank you guys so much for watching episode three and thank you to Whitney again. That was such a great conversation and we look forward to taking her yoga class. Tune in for the next episode. This has been Tatum.
Charles (24:38–24:40): And Sydney.
Larsen (24:40–24:44): Thank you guys so much for watching “The Welcome Table.” Bye!
Watch all episodes of “The Welcome Table with Sydney and Tatum” here.