“Initially horrific” was the first thing McCoullum said when I asked about her experience as a low-income, first generation minority at Penn State. Reining from The City of Philadelphia, McCoullum felt “isolated and lost” on a campus composed of hundreds of people of color and thousands of Caucasians.
She was raised by parents who thought “excellence had no gender,” but during her first year at Penn State, she “lost her sense of self.” However, through activism and sisterhood, she found her voice again. McCoullum participated in numerous protests as a student, and in Greek life where she is a sister of Delta Sigma Theta. She is a firm believer in the quote: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Her favorite memory at State is taking a science course about rocks, in which she went to a cavern and saw a rock that was a metaphor for her life. She recalls, “Each strand represented another time the rock formed itself.” The patterns represented the building blocks of her own life.
One of the strands on her metaphoric rock was in Cheyney (the oldest HBCU in the United States) where McCoullum was the first female president of the university. Before I could finish asking my question about her relationship with the students, she jumped in said, “I loved them and the job.” She was offered to be the permanent president, but decided to go back to Philly.
She is currently The Vice Provost for University Life at The University of Pennsylvania. She started in The University as the assistant to the previous vice provost for University Life. When she was younger, she always felt like she was going to end up working at UPenn. McCoullum recalled UPenn feeling unwelcoming, and when she got the position, she felt as if she was finally “behind the wall.” As she stepped foot into the position, she felt “uneasy, but confident,” as she was the youngest of her co-workers and often times the only woman and person of color at her meetings.
She faced many struggles relating to her gender and/or race throughout her lifetime. Her goal has always been to empower and support students like herself (first generation, minority, low-income). She states she has always been pro-people, and that “everyone has the right to voice his or her opinion, a right to strive for power and positions, and a right to access resources.”
“With community comes strength. With multiple voices come songs. With songs the spirit is lifted and right prevail.” -Dr. Valarie Ena Swain-Cade McCoullum