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Chatham Class of 1991 Alumna Robin Means Colman
 

The GLASS CEILING SMASHERS

Forever Learning

Robin R. Means Coleman, ’91, discovered her passion for making people’s lives better—and the confidence to actually do so—as a Chatham student.

 
 

 

As a Pittsburgh native, Robin Means Coleman grew up with Chatham in her backyard. She felt it must be the most beautiful campus in the world. But no one in her family had attended college. “Is that a place I can aspire to? Is it a place where I can be successful?” she asked herself. Thanks to the help of some wonderful Chatham mentors, it was indeed.

Today Dr. Coleman is a professor, a writer, a filmmaker, a vice president at one of the largest universities in the U.S., and a leader in the field of diversity.

She says Chatham paved the way for her success: “As a first-generation college student, I gained so much from the experience of a women’s college. Chatham trains students to be critical thinkers, to solve world problems. My consciousness grew there, I started to question the social world around me, and I learned that I wanted everyone to have an opportunity to thrive.”

She became a Communications major with an interest in race and gender in media. One of the most influential aspects of her undergrad experience was the senior tutorial project. “Everyone completed a tutorial, which is just amazing. It meant that you graduated with incredible skills as a researcher and writer,” she remembers. “I’ve taught at a lot of institutions, and there is still something unmatched about the tutorial experience.”

The mentors she found at Chatham helped shape her ideas. Dr. Karen Dajani, her advisor, was able to give her the time and attention she needed to produce good research, and to guide her progress “in such a thorough, intimate way.”

The thesis Dr. Coleman wrote about disgraced journalist Janet Cooke of the Washington Post later became her writing sample when she was applying for a master’s degree. “They took one look and said, ‘Well, you’ve already done it [ie. written a master’s level thesis]!’” She would go on to earn a PhD, to become an award-winning teacher and scholar in Communications and Africana studies, and to work at New York University, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Michigan.

Today, Dr. Coleman is Vice President and Associate Provost for Diversity at Texas A&M University. She leads the university’s efforts in accountability, improved campus climate, and equity while helping to foster inclusion and belonging. She is responsible for approximately 77,000 students, faculty, and staff.

When asked what gave her the confidence to take on such a prominent role, Dr. Coleman is clear: “It all points back to Chatham. It was such an empowering environment. Your voice and ideas really mattered. Chatham truly was a democratic space. You can’t be educated in that atmosphere and then lose it once you get out into the world. A Chatham education stays with you.”

Asked whether she identifies with the term “glass ceiling smasher,” Dr. Coleman agrees that the label is accurate. She is one of just a small handful of full professors at her current institution who are African American or Black. “Unfortunately, the glass is getting thicker, and the ceiling is getting lower. It’s getting harder and harder to find people who look like me at this level of the professoriate,” she says.

Which is why it is so important that women of color graduating from Chatham take the time to find their focus: “These women leave Chatham with a vast array of talents. They are good at so many things—and that’s the tricky part. It is tough to identify your purpose or calling when you can do so many things so well. My advice is to take things slow, engage in some deep self-examination, and ask yourself, ‘Is this what I am meant to do? Am I being fed?’”

In her own life, she has found the process of “becoming” to be constant. “Chatham instills such wonder, such unbound curiosity, such a willingness to try new things. There really is no end to exploring, collecting experiences over a lifetime, and growing. I am forever learning. I am never finished. With this perspective, you get to do and be a lot of things—it’s never boring!”

Dr. Coleman continues to give back and support other Chatham women. She is sponsoring an underrepresented, Pell grant-eligible student who will matriculate this fall.

Asked what inspires her commitment to the next generation of Chatham graduates, she says, “Today there is a narrative of anti-intellectualism and a focus on return on investment as it pertains to higher education. These things get in the way of thinking deeply about your role in society and leading with clear moral purpose. This all ties back to my own studies at Chatham and how I learned to be attentive to what is going on in our society. It led to my interest in asking, ‘How can we make people’s lives better?’ For me, it is absolutely all about working to make people’s lives better.”