Dr. Mary Howard-Hamilton began her academic career as a freshman at the University of Iowa. She majored in, and later received her bachelor’s degree in, broadcasting and film.
She was active in student governance and organizations, such as her sorority, which she led as president.
“There was a mentor who said to me, ‘Hey Mary, you know you could actually work in higher education for the rest of your life in this wonderful profession called student affairs and you seem to be really quite active and you should try.’”
Howard-Hamilton took the advice, earned her master’s degree in student affairs, and later, her doctorate. “Since I was 18 years old, I’ve always been on a college campus and I’ve loved every minute of it,” she said.
Howard-Hamilton has more than 30 years experience in higher education and has been at Indiana State for 15 of those years. Here, she is the department chair of educational leadership and a Coffman Distinguished Research Professor.
She came to ISU at the urging of professor Kandace Hinton, a colleague and friend, who told her that the university was recreating its higher ed program to make it social-justice oriented. “That was the hook that got me. ... That’s also part of my life’s journey and my life’s story.”
Howard-Hamilton said ISU’s program is “a good five to seven years ahead of most programs who are now just thinking about putting diversity and social justice first.”
As a researcher, Howard-Hamilton’s focus is largely on African American women in higher education.
“Most people choose a type of research because they have experienced something that has been impactful in terms of their either personal or professional lives and so, being a Black woman leader throughout my entire career, I have developed a series of themes and have talked to a series of colleagues who have experienced the same things I have as a black woman leading at a predominantly white institution so that’s why that’s my area of research.”
Howard-Hamilton also writes about any marginalized or minoritized group in higher education.
“Most recently, I started a research strand on students who attend historically Black colleges who are not Black, so in other words, the white students and the Latinx students who choose to attend schools like Howard (University),” she said.
Howard-Hamilton’s profession and interests have taken her across the globe. Her favorite destination is South Africa which she has visited about eight times.
South Africa just started desegregating their schools and institutions of higher education in the mid to late 1990s. “It’s mind-boggling to watch,” she said.
She compared it be being placed in a time capsule and traveling back in time to the ’50s and ’60s of what higher education and what the civil rights strife was like in the United States.
“It’s also interesting watching how they have begun to look at the process as a healing process,” she said.
While the U.S. used policy — Brown vs. Board of Education — to desegregate schools quickly, Howard-Hamilton said, “In South Africa they started with the healing of white and Black people. They started with the souls of people because they sense that if you integrate the schools how are you going to be able to integrate the hearts and integrate the minds and have people sit next to someone that you’ve been taught to hate and then love them. You can’t turn that on and off like a faucet.
“So that’s why I love going to South Africa because the healing process was beyond policy, it was impacting people.”
Howard-Hamilton has received many awards for her work at ISU, and she said she is “humbled” by the honors. “I do all of this because of I love what I do. If it’s transformational for me, I could only imagine what it’s like for a student who’s sitting in the classroom with me or for students I take to South Africa.”
She takes to heart the quote, “Reading will make you smart, but writing will make you eminent.”
“I want my work to be eminent. I want it to go beyond my lifetime on this earth,” she said.
Howard-Hamilton said during her tenure at ISU, she has watched the campus transform into one of the most beautiful campuses in the Midwest.
Here, she said, she feels like she really has a purpose. “I love my students. I love what I teach. I love knowing that I’m going to be putting them into a profession that I love, and I know that wherever they go a piece of me will go with them,” she said.
“I really love the fact that my colleagues listen to me. I feel listened to and valued here which is so very important.”