28 Days of Black Excellence: Aginah Muhammad
Aginah M. Muhammad is the executive director of UIC’s Council on Teacher Education. She serves as the liaison between UIC and the Illinois State Board of Education and works collaboratively with the deans of the College of Education, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the College of Nursing, the Jane Addams College of Social Work, and the College of Architecture, Design, and the Arts to ensure Illinois State Board of Education compliance. Prior to her appointment as the executive director, she served as the director for UIC’s Office of First Year Initiatives, taught courses as an adjunct faculty member at several Chicago higher education institutions, and held several senior administrator positions within Chicago Public Schools. Muhammad earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UIC and her doctorate from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.
Tariq El-Amin 00:01
Welcome to Black Excellence at UIC Office of Diversity, Equity and Engagement with Dr. Aisha El-Amin
Recording of Dr. Martin Luther King 00:09
[Applause] Believe in yourself and believe that you’re somebody.
Clips from 1995 movie “Panther” 00:17
That we study and master a bunch of different things.
Why are you here?
Study and master a bunch of different things.
I’m proud to introduce our new Minister of Information.
Aisha El-Amin 00:26
I’m Dr. Aisha El-Amin.
Tariq El-Amin 00:29
Welcome to Black Excellence.
Aisha El-Amin 0:35
Greetings, UIC family and friends and welcome to UIC’s “28 Days of Black Excellence.” I am Dr. Aisha El-Amin, UIC’s associate vice chancellor for equity and belonging. It is my great honor to celebrate the history of Black excellence at UIC with powerful, inspiring and informative conversations with UIC’s alumni, past faculty and staff. And each day we have a new guest and I am really excited to share and welcome in admiration of Dr. Aginah Muhammad, and she’s a double alumni and a current staff member. So she has such great connections with UIC. Graduated in 1997 from LAS, and then 1999 with a master’s degree in education. And so, Dr. Muhammad, please tell us kind of what you’ve been up to, where you’re from, a little bit about you, like, please.
Aginah Muhammad 1:36
Sure. So thank you so much for giving me an opportunity to chat with you and share some of my history with UIC, with a larger audience. I really appreciate it. And I’m so glad that there’s now a platform and a space for us to be able to share our story. So kudos to your office, and for you for taking the lead on this initiative. I think it’s absolutely wonderful. So I am a product of Chicago Public Schools. Born and raised here in Chicago. Grew up in the Englewood community. I like to make sure that I tell folks that because I have what I like to call balance [laughter]. I came to UIC in 1994, actually. And UIC, quite honestly, was not my top choice. But my late father gave me two options. Because I was 16 years old when I graduated from high school, and I had plans to go to Hampton University. And he said, “No, no sis. You will either go to UIC, or you can go to Urbana.” And I graduated from Morgan Park High School. So all of my class, the majority of my classmates, were going to Urbana and I wanted something a little different. And I decided to attend UIC and sort of made a deal with my dad that I would go to UIC provided that I could live on campus. Because I wanted to make sure I had some semblance of a college experience. And I didn’t want to commute.
And so I enrolled in the Upward Bound Programs. I started during the summer after graduating from high school. And thank goodness that I did. Because by the time I ended my fall semester at UIC, I had a 1.9 GPA. Because I failed finite math my freshman year. And I share that story because that could have, you know, been the one stumbling block that just stopped me from pursuing my degree. I was one of probably very few in this class, you know, I didn’t really feel a sense of belonging at all. I didn’t understand the TA. I was too afraid to go talk to the professor and say that I didn’t understand. And by the time I spoke to my advisors in LAS, because I was struggling in this class, that the drop deadline had passed. I think I could not withdraw because then my status was going to change from full time to part time. And I was going to have to pay money back because I had a scholarship. It was just a mess.
Aisha El-Amin 4:35
That’s for real.
Aginah Muhammad 4:36
And the class was at 8 a.m., so I decided I was going to sleep in. And I didn’t go to class [laughter]. Now I don’t advise anybody to do that. But for this 16 year old that was the option. And I failed the class. But I did not want that to be my story. Because after you receive that letter from LAS saying, “Look, you got to get this GPA on point or you’re out of here.” I don’t want to go back home. So I buckled down. I actually started… I was working with the advisors in AAAN too. So I think that was really a safe haven for me, and probably a lot of students during that time. And I really relied on the advisors a lot, because I had more than one advisor, so to speak. I could go to anybody in AAAN and talk to them. They knew all of the students, and it just felt like home. You know, where you can be honest, open and honest about what you’re experiencing. And so that really helped me a lot as well. And so they said, “Look, you’ve got to take advantage of the resources that are available at UIC.”
And that was my saving grace. I started to take advantage of the resources. I started to make myself known on campus with, you know, the folks that I needed to get to know. And at that time, the vice chancellor of student affairs was Dr. Barbara Henley. And I introduced myself to her. And the next thing I know, she has me sitting on these student committees. And, you know, I just got to meet a lot of different people, even Michael Ginsburg, who’s the vice chancellor for human resources. So some of the people who are here now as my colleagues, I interacted with them as a student. And I think that really helped me begin to feel a sense of belonging at UIC. Because I was no longer… I didn’t feel like just a number. And, unfortunately, that feeling was prevalent amongst a lot of African American students.
I also decided to help relaunch the Black Student Union. So I was the president of the Black Student Union. We also had a Black Women’s Council that I was vice president of. So very heavily involved in student organizations and trying to mobilize students to just be involved. And to really launch a call to action so that our voices could be heard. And I tried to do so in a respectful way. I didn’t necessarily need to be the rabble rouser at UIC. But I like to consider myself as the person to sit at the table. And, you know, be able to engage in conversation. And then still be able, in a respectful manner, say, here’s what we want you to do for us. Here are our demands. So that was my undergraduate experience at UIC. So it was really a shift, you know, just knowing potentially that I was going to get kicked out, totally changed my mind [laughter].
Aisha El-Amin 7:56
That’ll do it. So I’ve heard from quite a few folks that BSU has been, and AAAN have been those spaces. And so thank you for your work and making sure that that continued. Now, when when you look back at your time, both as an undergrad and a graduate student at UIC, what are some of your fondest memories that you have?
Aginah Muhammad 8:20
Well, absolutely. My most fondest memories, of course, is undergrad. Because that’s just, you know, totally different story. You don’t really have a real sense of responsibility, so to speak, because you’re possibly relying on your parents to pay tuition. Oh, you know. I really had, I have to be honest, I had a great time at UIC. I think really because I was a part of the campus community. So I remember Inner Circle, which many folks will tell you to stay away from. I forgot what we what we called it, but there was balance there for me too. I can go into Inner Circle and hang out for a little bit, but I was not going to miss class, you know [laughter]. But sometimes folks who hung out at Inner Circle too long they weren’t at the institution very long. But I think probably the relationships that I built with, and friendships that I established with, in particular, some of my friends who were in the residence halls. So I stayed on the east side of campus. I started out in Courtyard, which is probably I think the oldest.
Aisha El-Amin 9:38
Yeah, I think it might be, yeah.
Aginah Muhammad 9:42
So I stayed in Courtyard. Some interesting times there. And then I moved over to Commons South and I had what was called the penthouse of Commons South because they converted the rooms on the second floor. They were double sized rooms but they converted them to singles. And so even to this day, like when I’m driving down Halsted, I point out to my children, my room. So it’s that corner room if you’re driving down Halsted, before you get to the Student Center East, which was formerly known as, what was it Circle? I forgot. We’ve changed names to so many things. But anyway, it’s the corner room and it has like 10 windows. 2010 Commons South was my room [laughter].
Aisha El-Amin 10:39
Still claiming it. That’s fine. [Laughter]
Aginah Muhammad 10:40
Still claiming it. And everybody, people were trying to fight me to get that room. But we just had a great time. There were like 14 girls on the floor because it was single sex floors. We put on fashion shows. There was a Miss Nubian Pageant. So I participated in the first Miss Nubian Pageant. And so it was just an opportunity for us to get it together and highlight, showcase our talents. And so, you know, you had to raise funds, but you also had to talk about your community involvement. And I did a lot of tutoring of the students in the local schools within the UIC community. But also my talent was the fact that I sew. So I put on a whole fashion show where my friends modeled my clothes.
Aisha El-Amin 11:31
Oh, wow. I heard about this fashion show from someone else I interviewed [laughter].
Aginah Muhammad 11:39
And I came out, so at the finale of the designs, I came out to “She’s a Bad Mama Jama.” [Laughter]
Aisha El-Amin 11:48
I’m gonna need you to hook us up with some of that, you know, some of those skills, you know?
Aginah Muhammad 11:54
So yeah. So it was just good times. I mean, we just, we had our moments where we were activists. You had your activists on campus. But then you had folks who really got together who had to have a good time. In a safe way, safe space. And, you know, I’m just really grateful for the friendships that I’ve developed. These are people, they may be in different cities or what have you, but we still talk. If I’m traveling, you know, we still visit. So I think the lifelong bond and relationships that I established at UIC have been really the highlight of my experience. Because I think all of us, kind of, we were able to relate. So many of us chose UIC primarily because either we needed to stay in the city due to, you know, family reasons or what have you. And so being on campus that just became our home and our, you know, family away from our, you know, real family so to speak.
Aisha El-Amin 12:53
I love it. I love it. So tell us what you’ve been up to since you graduated with your master’s degree in ’99.
Aginah Muhammad 13:01
So when I, during the time that I was working on my master’s in education, I was working for the Cook County Sheriff’s Department in the youth services division. And I was responsible for facilitating conflict resolution, peer mediation programs, and drug and alcohol awareness. And really just trying to make sure that our youth do not end up in the criminal justice system. And that really kind of made me feel like I could do something more. And I decided that I wanted to work for Chicago Public Schools. I thought I could change the world. And I said, I’m getting this master’s in leadership and administration. I’m going to go into administration. I wasn’t necessarily interested in trying to pursue a licensure to teach, but I wanted to wear that administrative hat to see if I could make change.
And after I completed my master’s, I began working for Chicago Public Schools. I think I started there in April 2000. And I worked under the former CEO Paul Vallas. I worked in the CEO’s office. I think I may have been 21 or 22. So I was the youngest person on his staff. At that time, Arne Duncan was the deputy chief of staff and I worked directly for the former chief of staff. So Arne Duncan’s office was right next to mine, and I had to grow up quickly. I learned a lot about just how Chicago politics work. And I will tell people all the time, if you can survive at Chicago Public Schools you can survive anywhere. Because that is a totally different beast. But I learned a lot and at such a young age. So sometimes, you know, we can take things for granted. For instance, I remember my boss telling me she was stickler. I didn’t like her at the time. But I appreciate her now because she did teach me a lot of lessons. But I remember her saying to me, one day I came to work it was in summertime, and I didn’t have on any hosiery. I just had on like a blazer, a dress, and, you know, open toed shoes. And she said, “No, we don’t do that. You never know when Mayor Daley is gonna call you down to City Hall and you need to be dressed appropriately.” It’s like, okay. And sure enough, she was right. Because there, you know, everything was unexpected. Just the way that particular system, that entity work. But I was able to see a lot behind the scenes, of course.
So I worked for CPS for almost 10 years. I left CPS in 2010. And I worked, like I said, in the CEO’s office under Paul Vallas. I worked in what was once the office of specialized services, but I believe they’ve changed the name now since that time. I worked as a budget analyst and was responsible for a pretty hefty budget for that department. Because that department oversees the special ed program for the district. And then I worked in human resources, which is now the talent office. And I was responsible for recruiting special ed teachers and clinical staff for the district because there was a shortage. And we were under a consent decree for Corey H, etcetera, where we had to fill all of these vacancies. So I was responsible for recruiting recent graduates or, you know, folks from across the country to come to Chicago Public Schools and work. And that is where I ended my career with CPS. Because also, included in that, I was also responsible for, unfortunately, each year going out to the schools to inform either teachers or principals that their schools were closing or, you know. CPS went through this phase of closing schools during that time. And this was during the Renaissance 2010, where there was this push for expanding charter schools.
And I have to be honest with you, that was the hardest job that I had. Because you go into a school in January or March and you say, “Hey, I’m so sorry. Your school is either going to be a turnaround school, or you’re going to close, we’re going to consolidate. But we still need you to come to work every day until June, and put on a smile and teach these students.” Where is the compassion, you know? And I just couldn’t take it. It was too much for me. I also had to lay off a colleague who was a friend. And he, and it was, I’ll never forget. It was the weekend or Father’s Day. And he had just become, he was preparing to celebrate his first Father’s Day. And I had to tell him, you no longer have a job.
Aisha El-Amin 18:09
Aginah Muhammad 18:10
And when that happened, I was like, I can’t do this anymore. So I was trying to figure out a way that I can transition and get out. But I also didn’t want to quit. Because CPS pays you well [laughter]. Let me just say. And you don’t need a Ph.D. to make some of the salaries that the administrators are making at CPS. And so my department was in the process of, they needed to lay off two people. They need to give up two positions. And I went to my director, and I said, you know, I just said I just had Khalis, my youngest, and so the traveling was a bit much as well. And so I said to her, I said, you know, I think I really want to do something different. And I said, so I know that you need to give up two positions. If you want to put my name on the list, I won’t be upset.
Aisha El-Amin 19:07
Aginah Muhammad 19:07
And so I was laid off. Now I don’t know if I should be sharing this. It’s 2022 [laughter]. I was laid off in June of 2010. Two days before Kamaal and Aaliyah’s fifth birthday. And at that time, the decision had always been, you know, when the twins started kindergarten, my plan was to return to law school. Because I didn’t share this. I did attend John Marshall Law School for one year after I completed my graduate degree at UIC. So my plan was to return to law school. But at that time, I just, I wanted to go in a different direction. Family was very important to me and I couldn’t see myself putting in long hours at a law firm. So I just decided I was going to work on my Ph.D. in organizational leadership. And that made sense to me with having the administrative background. With having a master’s in leadership and administration. So it just really made sense to go in that direction. And I completed my Ph.D. in 2012. And I guess we should tell the folks that you were on my dissertation committee, Dr. El-Amin.
Aisha El-Amin 20:28
My pleasure. You made it so easy.
Aginah Muhammad 20:32
And even with that, it was important to me to have a connection to UIC. Even then. And I expressed that to, you know, the institution. That I really want an outside person from UIC. Because I felt like UIC helped to shape and develop me, you know, into the person that I am today. So, with that, after I completed my Ph.D., then now I’m looking for a job. Right? So I taught at South Suburban College. I taught at Governors State. And then I was looking, looking, looking. And there was this position that was advertised in December of 2012 in the office of undergraduate affairs for the student success initiative. So the former vice provost had secured, like, millions of dollars in grant funding to focus on the student success initiative. And when I read the description, I’m like, “That’s me. That’s my job.” And I applied for the job. The process was long. And I don’t think I got an interview until March of 2013. And I started at UIC in undergraduate affairs in May of 2012, as well.
And from there, so I’ve been with the institution, it’ll be nine years in May. And it was sort of like a whirlwind when I first came back to campus. Because I was working on this initiative, and then I was able to kind of showcase and highlight my talents that I had. So then I was given more responsibilities. I ran the Chancellor’s Undergraduate Research Award Program, which was designed for undergraduate students to connect to faculty, to conduct research and get paid while doing so. And then there were several transitions that were underway, like between 2013 and 2014, as far as institution is concerned. And the undergraduate success center was undergoing a transition, because there was a new vice provost for undergraduate affairs. And because of my background, and organizational leadership, my HR background, I was asked to come in and kind of turn things around and launch the office of first year initiatives, which I did.
And then during that same time, while I’m trying to hire, bring in new staff, there’s this other opportunity that became available, where as it would allow me to go back to my roots of K through 12 education. And I applied for the position of director for the council on teacher education. And I think now I’ve lost count. But I will tell you that this is the longest, I think, time that I’ve been in one position at UIC. So I started out moving around very, you know, quickly. But I have been the executive director for the council on teacher education, I believe, since December 2016, I believe. Or maybe 2015? I don’t know. But it’s been a long time. And I went in and I do what I do best, which is some organizational change. And help to reshape the image of the department. And now our focus really is on trying to increase the number of underrepresented students who are entering into the teaching profession. So we’re responsible for overseeing licensure programs at the university. But we are really trying to focus on increasing the number of Black and Brown students who choose to go into education and become licensed teachers because we have a shortage. And we all know that when you look at the percentages, the students who are in the classroom, the majority in public education are Black and Brown, but they don’t have teachers who look like them. So that’s near and dear to me. And that’s what I’ve been doing professionally.
Aisha El-Amin 24:50
And that’s a whole lot. I love it. You’ve been busy. You are, I mean, and anyone who knows you loves you because you are, you’re involved in so many things. And we could we could probably talk for hours because the community service that you do, the podcast that you do, like all of those things. And we’re gonna link people to some of your things so that they can stay connected with you, and they can hear your podcasts that you’re doing. So as we close out, could you offer some advice? You’ve been through so many great things, professionally, and education wise. What advice could you offer folks that are currently going in that journey?
Aginah Muhammad 25:31
Yeah, so I would say for our students, both undergrad and graduate students, I think it is so critically important for you to take advantage of the resources that are available at the institution. Make yourself seen. Make yourself known. You are paying dollars to, you know, as a student we work for you. And so make sure you put us to work. And you connect, network and develop relationships. Because, of course, it’s great to have that degree. But you also need to make sure that you cultivate relationships and network as well, because that’s going to take you a lot further, as well.
For my colleagues, I would say it’s also important to find, I’m going to say find your tribe. You know, I have some amazing colleagues and peers that we can talk to outside of work, you know. Oftentimes we think that we’re going through something that, you know, we’re the only ones that’s experiencing something. But I think if you’re open to communicating, and maybe, you know, asking someone that you trust, you know, “What do you think about this? Or have you had this experience?” It’ll help you look at things a little bit differently. As far as trying to remain encouraged, because sometimes it can be very discouraging when you’re in a space where you’re the only one. And I think for us, oftentimes, that is the case. Where a lot of times we’re at the table, we’re in these rooms, but it can be a little lonely, you know. So I think developing a more meaningful relationship that can be, you know, still professional, but, you know, sometimes we need that balance. And so you’ve got to find a way to bring that balance into the workplace as far as developing and cultivating relationships with your colleagues.
Aisha El-Amin 27:28
You know, I can do nothing but offer my high accolades and my gratitude. Thank you for who you are and how you show up in the world. Thank you for the legacy of excellence that you have brought to UIC and continue to bring. And thank you for being part of our series this month.
Aginah Muhammad 27:45
Thank you. I really appreciate it. Thank you so much.
Tariq El-Amin 27:47
[Music] Thanks for joining us find more inspiring and informative conversations with UIC alumni, faculty and staff at blackresources.uic.edu. That’s blackresources.uic.edu.