A talk with U of M Assistant Equity and Diversity Vice President

Dr. Shakeer Abdullah
Dr. Shakeer Abdullah

Not unlike most mothers of her generation, Dr. Shakeer Abdullah’s mother pushed him early in life to put him on the career path that over two years ago, brought him to the University of Minnesota. The school’s assistant vice president for Equity and Diversity since December 2013 easily and proudly call his mother “the most influential” in his life.

Abdullah’s mother put him in “a high ability program” as a fourth grader in Canton, Ohio, recalls Abdullah in a MSR interview on campus.  “She encouraged me to do it for one year — I was adamant and did not want to do it” because he would be away from his siblings and away from his neighborhood, he explained.  “Ultimately I went and got adjusted, and I was the only Black student out of 15 or so to graduate from high school and finish the program.”

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His mother’s constant encouragement “to stay engaged” throughout his growing up are lessons he carries with him in his present job at Minnesota, said Abdullah, the fourth oldest of 20 children. “I’m an introvert by nature so reading always was a good friend of mine. She encouraged that and bought us books and encyclopedias. Sometimes when I was bored, I would look through them. Education was always part of my life and my experiences.

“My parents always celebrated academic success. It was never an undue academic burden.  My father was a firefighter and my stepfather was an entrepreneur. We learned hard work…I worked since I was 14,” noted Abdullah. His brother is two years older and taught him life lessons as well. “He was a fan of the school of hard knocks.  I learned what not to do from him.”

But a summertime trip to Tuskegee University before his senior year in high school ultimately proved pivotal, he said. “I got an invitation to come to Tuskegee for a pre-engineering program,” remembered Abdullah. “I knew then that I didn’t want to be an engineer but my mother said I am going to have an experience at a historically Black college. My mother put me on a Greyhound bus.

“It was life changing. For the time in my life, a kid from Canton, Ohio was in an all-Black county, an all-Black city,” recalled Abdullah of traveling south to the historic campus. “To be exposed to Black kids from around the country who were smarter than me, smart like me, engaged like me…it’s cool to be smart and down to earth, and it was really good for me.” He also met someone there who would later be his wife. She grew up a couple of hours away from Tuskegee as well.

With his “academic chops…and an athletic swagger” — as he also played football — “all those things helped me know that I was on the right track.  College certainly was the thing for me,” said Abdullah.

He had hoped to attend Morehouse College, which accepted him. The school accepted him, but didn’t get any financial aid to afford the tuition, said Abdullah. “So it ended up coming down to either Ohio State University, where I had a full academic scholarship or Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, where I had a half-academic scholarship.”

He opted for Wittenberg where he could play football. Also, his mom advised him that going to a large school as opposed to a smaller one would be disadvantageous. “I eventually made it to Ohio State as a graduate student.  But [Wittenberg] was the right choice for me as an undergrad,” Abdullah pointed out. “Wittenberg was the ideal ground for me because it was smaller and I got to do everything. My work-study job was working in the admissions office for four years, and it exposed me to the profession of higher education. It was something that I didn’t consider as a job — I came in as a business management major” and worked at a bank during the summer while in college doing various jobs because of a scholarship.

“But…learning the nature of higher education at that small scale, helped prepared me for the larger scale that would come,” continued the Wittenberg grad, who then after graduation took a  multicultural program coordinator position at Ohio State, then student affairs and multicultural affairs director at Capitol (Ohio) University Law School, then pursued his advanced degrees at Auburn University, where he was the school’s multicultural center director and earned his Ph.D. in higher education administration.

While at Auburn, he was a presenter at a race and ethnicity conference at New Orleans in 2013.  “I paid my own way to the conference, and while I was there, I met Dr. [Katrice] Albert, who also happen to be an Auburn graduate and got her Ph.D. there as well,” he recalled of Albert, the University of Minnesota vice president for Equity and Diversity.  “About four months later, she reached out to me about this job opportunity at the University of Minnesota…  I [had] never been to Minnesota prior to my job interview.”

Finally, since coming to Minnesota over two years ago, Abdullah said he fully believes that connecting with the off-campus Black community is very important.

“Part of my work and my job is to be engaged in the community,” said Abdullah. Adding that Minnesota “is becoming a state of people of color. This is a state university and it means we need everyone here.”

 

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.

 

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