Dr. Stephanie Evans, an associate professor of African-American and women’s studies at the University of Florida, does not believe in scholarship for scholarship’s sake. For her, it’s scholarship for every one’s sake.
“Community service is at the crux of what I do,” says Evans. “I’ve been teaching a class called Mentoring At-Risk Youth and working with youth-education programs for nine years. I’m working on a college prep program for high school students called the Nia (Purpose) Project. I want to offer resources that help students get more information about college majors and tie them to an inspirational historical figure.”
Author of the book Black Women in the Ivory Tower, Evans found the inspiration to pursue higher education as a career in scholars like Mary McLeod Bethune, Septima Clark and Anna Julia Cooper, all of whom were engaged in linking the university with the community. Their resilience to succeed against all odds and to help others is motivating, Evans says.
At the focal point of her research endeavors is linking history, cultural identity and community to the university paradigm. “When you put cultural identity at the center of educational analysis, you understand the politics of social, cultural and community relationships,” says Evans. “Because Black women, as a result of their race and gender, have experienced life in different ways, they have something insightful to say about some of the re-occurring problems in the African-American community whether that be health or violence. Because of the history of race and gender in this country, Black women’s experiences bring additional insight into the creation of these social issues and the solutions.”
Evans, who holds a dual appointment in the University of Florida’s Center for Women’s Studies and Gender Research and the
African-American studies program, knows firsthand how higher education can elude minority youth in communities where a town gown connection does not exist. For a long time, the Ivory Tower evaded her.
As an adolescent, Evans didn’t see herself in college. Not even a hefty scholarship from the University of Arizona after high school could convince her otherwise. “I’d never been to a college classroom. I didn’t know any college students,” she says. “I had a scholarship but I didn’t know what to do with it. Trying to fill out the FAFSA [federal financial aid application] was my breaking point.”
A friend allowed Evans, who had been working as a hotel auditor, to share some of her poetry with her high school English class. Evans, so inspired by the ideas and dialogue generated by the students, developed a passion for teaching that couldn’t be quelled.
Evans began her undergraduate education at age 25. She earned her master’s and Ph.D. in African-American studies from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “Black studies changed everything about my understanding of who I am, what life is and what I could be,” Evans says. “Women’s studies did the same thing.” Writing Black Women in the Ivory Tower and co-editing African Americans and Community Engagement in Higher Education helped Evans, undergraduate coordinator for the African-American studies program and program chair for the 2009 meeting of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, understand where she as a Black woman academic fits into the higher education equation. “Black women’s ideas help solve global problems, at least they solved mine,” Evans says.
Evans insists her research on Black women provides a model of community university relationships. “Service learning, experiential education and community-based research are all movements of the ’60s and ‘70s when people were questioning the goals of higher education,” says Evans. “My work demonstrates that early on there was no separation between community and university. Black women had no question that the purpose of their education was to create more connection with the community.”
As a teacher and adviser, Evans is popular and respected, particularly among first-generation college students, says Dr. Faye Harrison, director of the university’s African-American studies program. “She represents what they can aspire to become; a disciplined professional who is painstaking in whatever she does.”