There’s a wisecrack that circulates on many college campuses that goes something like this: The junior faculty are allowed to touch the robe of God. The senior faculty get to talk to God. The dean sits at the right hand of God. And the secretary is God.
“Sounds good to me,” Afi Roberson (G’95) said of the joke.
In fact, Roberson demurs at being called God—or a secretary, for that matter, for her role at the African-American Resource Center (AARC) involves much more than the clerical work associated with the term. But the people who work with her at the AARC and the faculty and staff who have participated in the activities she has organized would probably consider themselves blessed to have her around.
One reason why is because she is not content just to perform the tasks listed in the official job description. In her work as in her life, she has taken the initiative to push for more—more responsibility, more education, more service.
And in the course of our interview, she made it clear that she’s still looking for more.
Q. Had you been looking for this sort of work when you took the AARC position?
A. Yes. I was working at Antioch University, and I graduated from there in ’89 [when the school had a campus in Philadelphia]. I was looking for [work at] a higher institution, so I came to Penn.
Q. Is this job a continuation of what you were doing there?
A. No, it’s different because I don’t have the student interaction as much. [Here,] I’m working mainly with staff, budgets—a lot of program planning, research, and I do training.
…This job is totally different from my last job because I never had the opportunity to do any training, or really do some research, things that are of interest to me.
Q. What kind of training do you do?
A. I’ve developed in the past several workshops. The one I’m most proud of is a seven-part working parent series that started out as one program, but as I started doing the research on the [subject], it developed into seven programs, so I did it as a series.
This year I’m working on designing and facilitating a time management workshop and a workshop on procrastination for the staff. I’m going to finish it up this summer and probably present it sometime in the fall.
Q. These seem like programs that anyone on campus could benefit from, regardless of their race or ethnicity.
A. Exactly. We don’t just turn away individuals because they are [not] African-American. Of course, we are here to enhance the African-American community, but our programs are open to the community at large, so anyone’s really free to come and sit in.
Q. How did you get to do this sort of thing?
A. This is something I proposed on my evaluation time, which is when I think people need to really start thinking about themselves and something they want to do in the office and how they can go about growing in that office. No one in the office came and said, Okay, this is part of your job description, you can do this. These are things that I proposed for my own growth and development here.
…I came up with a doable program that my director [Jeanne Arnold] was pleased with, and thank God for her that she actually let me expand my horizons. That was not really part of my job starting out. She saw the potential and I expressed an interest, so she said, “Okay, go for it.” And I did. And I researched it and conducted a workshop. It was really good. That is what I love. That is what I want my next job to be—some type of training, development, special events. I really love to coordinate those. I would love to do that at Penn. And why someone hasn’t just snatched me up and said, Come work for me, I have no idea. I think I have a lot to offer the community and I love Penn.
Q. Speaking of working parents, do you have kids of your own?
A. I have two children of my own. I have a daughter, Fatimah Rasul, that’s 31, and I have a son that’s 24, Qawiy Rasul.
I’m 45. I was a teen mother who really was able to survive. …It was a struggle, but what I found was that if you have faith in Allah, then you can accomplish anything. And I had a great family support system behind me.
[I wanted] my children to have more than “My mom was a teenage…” on that little status line. But also to say, Well, my mother did that, but she also got her higher degree. She went on to college, got her M.S. from an Ivy League university, so at times they don’t even talk about the teenage pregnancy. What motivated me was my children, because I know you have to lead by example.
My daughter graduated with her bachelor’s from Temple University in 1995. I graduated from Penn with my master’s [in organizational dynamics] in ’95. And I doubled up classes for two years just so we could graduate together. It was just fabulous that we were actually able to do that. Because we were—tight. My daughter and I are best friends, really.
For information about the AARC and its programs, visit www.upenn.edu/aarc or call 215-898-0104.
Originally published on June 20, 2002