An Authentic Motivation

An Authentic Motivation

I  am thrilled about the next steps of my professional career. The short version is, I am a professor and researcher. I study the health consequences of institutionalized racism and race-related stress. My research targets institutions broadly, promoting accountability for creating systemic change, an approach that moves away from the continual pathologizing of minoritized peoples’ experiences. Methodologically, I look at web-based platforms to innovatively connect communities and build solidarity. My scholarship translates into my pedagogical approach, incorporating critical discourse into online and residential classrooms for next-generation mental health and social justice professionals. I live my passion and purpose, and that is incredibly rewarding. I’d also be inauthentic if I didn’t shed light to the many not-so-great moments along the journey; the darkness, the doubt and the challenges and barriers along the way.

It took a while to share my story about my journey to graduate school because it was both empowering and embarrassing. Everyone was so proud, as was I, of this first-generation college student who was living her dream of pursuing an ivy league graduate degree. I remember asking my undergraduate honors society advisor about graduate school, and she encouraged me to apply to Columbia University. Honored and humbled, I wondered if she genuinely thought I’d stand a chance in the applicant pool. She responded “Sure! You’re Black and female, and it’s a shame you’re not really poor.” My work ethic and scholarly accolades weren’t in question, I never doubted whether I could, but her words resonated with me because it gave me insight into the worth that some folks ascribed to me in the spaces I occupied in academe.

This article would be a second dissertation if I attempted to dissect all of the racist and sexist comments, actions, and policies I’ve faced in my academic and professional career. After graduating from Columbia, I went on to complete my Ph.D. at the Ohio State University. At one point I had reached a limit in the amount of discrimination I could take in a single academic year. I confided in an administrator that I was at a breaking point and my retention was on the line. Her response was “you can’t leave this program. You’re Black.” Regardless of her intent, her words paralleled my college advisors and the all many folks in-between who minimized my scholarship, community service, and professional contributions to tokenize me. I was, in fact, the only Black candidate, and my degrees meant more to me than many of my colleagues would ever understand.

Those experiences I described are real, valid, and I’ll be honest with folks who might not be able to relate, traumatically stressful. The outcome, however, is so much more powerful. It is through those experiences that I can validate other people who are pursuing their passion and face the insecurities and doubts of those around them. I can empathize, deeply, with minoritized folk who struggle to been seen and heard in spaces where they contribute so significantly. I can teach my students a new lens of critical consciousness that challenges the norms that are created within our social systems to deconstruct harmful patterns of or thought, action, and policy.

I tell my students to understand their “why.” With every goal we have there is a deep-seated motivation that is unshakable in the face of deterrence, that will get us up when we are down. That motivation may change, and sometimes you have to dig deeper to find it. My motivation was extrinsic for a while, but eventually, it simply wasn’t enough. I had to take the time to know myself and to be bold and authentic enough to self-care the way I needed to.


Self-care for me was learning to address discrimination and adversity head on to reduce unhealthy rumination.


Of course, I wish oppression did not exist, but since it’s ubiquitous, I might as well become darn good at understanding it and being well while doing so.

Ashley E. Stewart, MSSW, Ph.D.

Connect with Ashley!

LinkedIn: Ashley E. Stewart, PhD

Instagram: @epitofme

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