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Why We Need More Joy in Higher Education

College of Education banners on a fall afternoon. Photo by Becky Kirkland.

For Joy Gaston Gayles, a potential key to creative solutions to complex problems facing higher education today involves cultivating joy.

Gaston Gayles, Alumni Association Distinguished Graduate Professor of Education at NC State and senior advisor for advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the College of Education, is this year’s president of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE), a scholarly organization with more than 2,200 members nationwide. In that role, she is co-organizing an upcoming symposium jointly with the American College Personnel Association, a student affairs association.

The 2022 ACPA-ASHE Presidential Symposium will take place on Friday, Sept. 30, in hybrid format at NC State’s Friday Institute for Educational Innovation. The Abstract sat down with Gaston Gayles to talk about this year’s theme: “Finding Our Way: Centering Joy, Care, and Community.”

The Abstract: To start, what is something that people at NC State might not know about you?

Joy Gaston Gayles: I was a fast-pitch softball player (pitcher) in high school and college, but everybody knows that. People may not know that I’ve run two half marathons, and I have aspirations to run a full. In my mind, I have put the two half marathons together and have already run a full marathon, but I know it doesn’t work that way. So my goal of running a full remains.

TA: Who is this symposium for?

Gaston Gayles: This is an annual symposium that brings people together for conversation and community around higher education issues. University faculty, students and staff are all welcomed to attend. Given the national scope of both organizations, we also hope people from neighboring colleges and universities will join either in person or virtually.

TA: You chose the topic of “joy” as the theme. Why?

Gaston Gayles: The pandemic did so much damage and caused so much trauma; I don’t think we understand it in its totality. It will continue to reveal itself over the next decade, probably even longer. So part of the theme is us thinking about: How can we heal? I see cultivating joy as a healing practice. It’s going to be hard to “find our way” as we continue to navigate and make meaning of the pandemic and ongoing social problems from a wounded space.

One of our speakers will be Wilson Okello, assistant professor at Penn State. He writes about love, healing and joy, which to me are spaces where we can move away from the dehumanizing norms, values and practices that undergird our society. Joan Collier will also join us. She is assistant vice president for equity and inclusion at Rutgers University. In her roles, she’s enacting what it can mean to do humanizing work in higher education from a place of joy.

So we’ll have dialogues with experts, and we’ll also have a workspace where people who come will be able to engage in critical reflection and walk away with a plan for cultivating joy in their lives as a way to sustain them in doing the important work that they do. That’s another thing, doing the work to raise people’s critical consciousness and fighting for justice – that’s hard work. It’s emotional work, and if you don’t cultivate joy, you can easily get burned out. It can weigh on you.

TA: ASHE’s new presidential podcast series starts with a game called “this or that.” So in that vein: Hunt, Hill or METRC – which one is your favorite NC State library?

Gaston Gayles: They all have very special meaning and value, but if I had to choose one, I would choose Hunt. They just have some cool spaces that I think are kind of high-tech. I go the faculty lounge sometimes, and then the bookBot is pretty cool. METRC is a cool space too – my kids have spent time in the Makerspace. I did some crafty kind of things for classes there, too.

This post was originally published in NC State News.