The Olivia Pope of Higher Education: Navigating a Career in Student Affairs

As we embark on a new, provocative season of ABC’s most notorious prime time dramas written by the illustrious Shonda Rhimes, I can’t help but think about how much Olivia Pope is more than just a fictional character I see every Thursday night. For those who haven’t succumbed to the #TGIT , Olivia Pope is a savior sent to save and restore hope to people and their misfortunes, a woman who is a boss of her own empire, and someone who most simply gets the job done, always. Olivia Pope is Scandal’s main protagonist and plays the role of a crisis manager who spends her life fixing other people’s problems, protecting and guarding public images and reputations, while at the same time wallowing in some controversial love affairs. So often we find ourselves playing the role of Olivia Pope in our work lives, personal and professional relationships, in schools, and in our churches; fixing other people’s problems, making other people look good while simultaneously trying to live our own lives.

As I reflect on my own career in student affairs, I realize that Olivia Pope is symbolic for every black woman in the workplace fighting for other people, healing bleeding wounds, getting the job done, upholding the company’s reputation for excellence, and responding to and resolving other people’s problems. All the time. Oh, you need a flyer made for an event? A student in crisis?  A disruptive student? A student’s financial award isn’t disbursing? There’s a paper jam in the printer? In the words of Olivia Pope…….it’s handled!


As a mid-level administrator, my days are never typical, every event is an anomaly, and no day is like the day before. Before I get to work, I usually have devoted an hour sipping coffee and responding to emails and developing a to-do list for the day. Usually, as soon as I get to work, I am met with students outside of my office who want to vent, cry, scream, yell, and frankly just need a safe space to deal with the rigors and challenges of being a college student. As a woman of color, and a young professional, many students find me to be compassionate, and transparent, as they share aspects of themselves and their challenges. I help validate their feelings by also sharing pieces of myself. While battling student interruptions to my work, I also negotiate my time around countless meetings, phone conferences, advising two student organizations, leading major campus initiatives, serving on numerous committees and then, of course, finding time to eat lunch and socialize with co-workers. By the end of day, I jet to the parking lot rather inconspicuously, only to do this all over again the next day, with greater intensity and unexpectedness.

While so much of Olivia Pope is admired and idolized, Olivia Pope also sheds light on the complexity of black womanhood. She gives so much of herself to the cause and benefit of others, while often ignoring pieces of herself due to feeling entirely absorbed and entrenched in other people’s problems. This has always been an obstacle for many black women—but I find it to especially pervasive in the world of higher education where so much of the profession is “feminized.” The field demands you give your all every day, to mentor students and provide sound advice when you can’t even make it out the house without spilling coffee on yourself every morning. We also see this same dance with Olivia Pope, while she is always expected to be victorious for others, we constantly see her vulnerabilities and mishaps (albeit to a different degree) as she deals with romantic relationships, and navigates the tumultuous relationship with her father. While so many student affair professionals are perceived as “super-heroes” and champions for access and opportunity, we don’t always feel as if we can be a champion for ourselves, our needs, our aspirations, our advancement, and most importantly, our time. As I continue to embrace the superhero Olivia Pope in me, I also wanted to share two important lessons that have helped me in not being too overly consumed by my work and thus losing aspects of myself in this profession.

1) Don’t be afraid to shut your door—literally and figuratively

When I first started this profession, perfectionism got the best of me. I wanted to do everything seamlessly without fault or mistake and I wanted to be involved in everything. Everything. I learned that it wasn’t about being involved in everything, but instead learning how to do the few things I was involved in, very well. I live by the golden rule that “if it doesn’t benefit me or students, I don’t want to be involved it.” This means I can’t serve on your building art committee as its importance to my most important role is futile. Learn to advocate for yourself so you can shut doors, unapologetically.

Also, don’t be afraid to shut your office door. There are too many people in higher education that think that an open door policy all the time is conducive to being student centered. However, I slowly realized that having my door open all the time gave students and staff the impression I was accessible all the time. So I had to ask myself if I am accessible all the time, when can I actually get work done? And, most importantly, total accessibility in a highly visible role in student affairs is a recipe for burnout. Be strategic, create drop-in hours and communicate those to student and staff

2) Have a lot of hobbies outside of work

In my opinion, the best professionals in higher education have always been those that have been well-rounded, and not entirely entrenched in work. Students find these type of professionals to be relatable, personable, and overall the quality of the relationship improves. Also, let’s acknowledge that burnout is real, and work in student affairs has always carried a delicate personal and professional work-life balance. We as professionals are used to working non-traditional hours, but don’t let this lead you to believe that other people’s emergencies becomes yours at any waking moment. Make a list of things/hobbies/activities you enjoy and do those every week. Have an accountability partner in the profession who holds you responsible for rewarding yourself. I promise you, an ineffective student affairs professional, is a burnt-out one. Invest in yourself so you can go the extra mile for your students.

So continue to embrace your Olivia Pope, the institution would collapse if it wasn’t for us coming to save the world, every day.

Photo Credit: ABC Network


Posted in Career Advice, Leadership, Professional Development and tagged , .

Ciera Graham

Ciera Graham is the Associate Director of Student Affairs at Washington State University-Everett. She is a Seattle, Washington native. Ciera Graham has a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and a Master’s degree in Counseling from Washington State University. She just recently obtained her PhD in Sociology at the University of Cincinnati in August 2015. Her research focused on race, class, and educational inequality. Ciera is passionate about higher education, creating student engagement opportunities for historically disadvantaged populations, and civic engagement.


  1. This is a beautiful piece, Ciera. I love the connection to Olivia Pope. I love the way you were able to explain the depth and realness of her and here work and make an elegant connection to black women in student affairs. Thank you so much. James

  2. Your article hit home for me and at the right time. Every word was a description of my day. Coffee in one hand, copy machine in the other, and 3 students and an employee standing at my door all seeking assistance. And Yes, I am here to save the day! As an Executive Director of an small Vocational College, my desire is make myself available so that every student can achieve. However, that becomes extremely draining. Thank you for reminding me that I can and need to shut the door sometimes and that does not make me a non-approachable administrator. Thank you for reminding me that I am a woman who has outside interests other than work. As I progress in my Ph. D. studies, I will keep this article pinned in my office and at home reminding of my inner Olivia Pope as well my Being Mary Jane fun (the clean fun:)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *