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Q&A with Dr. Badia Ahad, Oxford College’s new dean
Dr. Badia Ahad
On Aug. 1, Dr. Badia Ahad began her tenure as dean of Emory University’s Oxford College. - photo by Special Photo

OXFORD, Ga. – On Aug. 1, Dr. Badia Ahad began her tenure as dean of Emory University’s Oxford College. Ahad previously served as vice provost for faculty affairs and professor of English at Loyola University Chicago.

A native of Chicago, Ahad’s roots in education are strong, stemming from a lineage of teachers and administrators in her family. She earned her bachelor’s in English literature from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and both her master’s in English Language and Literature and doctorate in English Literature from the University of Notre Dame.

Ahad has two children – Lauren, a junior at Spelman College and Nathan Jr., a senior in high school. Her husband runs one of the largest youth development organizations on the south side of Chicago.

Ahad sat down with The Covington News to chat about her transition from living in Chicago to living down south, her academic research and her plans as the college’s new dean.

Where are you from? And what was your childhood like growing up?

BA: I am from Chicago, Illinois and I grew up in Hyde Park, which is a small community on the south side of the city. It’s the same area where you have the University of Chicago. My childhood was pretty idyllic. It was a great neighborhood to grow up in. We did a lot of things outside. The university actually played a pretty big role in my childhood as well. We used to play hide and go seek in the Frank Lloyd Wright House, the Robie House. There was a program called academic games at the university on Saturdays, so my friends and I went to that. Professors used to come to our classroom and talk to us about their work. So it was a really great childhood. 

What brought you down to Oxford from the Chicago area?

BA: It was tough and it’s a very different environment. But I think that also says a lot about how wonderful Oxford and Covington are, that you were able to lure me from Chicago to this space. Everyone always talks about how Oxford is such a special place. I heard it a lot during my interview and I heard it a lot after the interview. And I thought, ‘Do they pay people to say that?’ Because everybody says the same thing. Alumni, students, faculty, staff. Now that I’ve been here for about six weeks, here I am. 

Oxford is such a special place. But what really attracted me to Oxford in particular, was just the sense of care and concern and attention to students. It’s a truly student centered environment and that is incredibly important to me. Being in an environment where there is, again, undivided attention to students from faculty, all the staff, all the curricular, co-curricular activities, that was something that was really attractive to me – the sense of kind of educating the whole person. That was, I would say the primary draw, but the people for sure convinced me that this would be a good place to reside. 

What sparked your interest in education – especially administration at the higher level?

BA: When I was a sophomore in college, I went to my professor, because I thought I wanted to be a journalist and there was an internship in New York and I wanted him to write a recommendation for me to do this internship. He said, ‘I’ll do it, but I want to tell you about this other program that I think you would be really good for.’ It was called the Summer Research Opportunities Program. It was a program that was meant to expose underrepresented students to life in academia. It was a six week program where I would do research with him over the summer, so it was a mentored research opportunity. And I said, ‘Okay, well, I was hoping to go to New York and do this journalism thing, but I guess I’ll stay in Champaign, Illinois to do this.’ I mean, I loved his class, which is why I was asking him for the recommendation, but he seemed really interesting and he was interested in working with me and I was very flattered by that. 

I hadn’t really thought about going into higher ed and I loved it. I loved every single minute of it. We worked on a project that focused on Toni Morrison and William Faulkner, another famous Southerner. We did a lot of research in the stacks, which [I’m] aging myself there. But also, I just liked being able to enjoy a career that was wholly focused on my area of interest. Being a faculty member, you get to focus on things that really matter to you and you get to share that enthusiasm and expertise with students and I really could not think of a better career. So, that’s what pulled me in. 

You’re a scholar of African American literature and a researcher of the intersection of cultural studies and positive psychology. What’s your favorite aspect to research about those topics and why?

BA: My research, I would say, was animated by a desire to want to show the fullness of African American life. I think that a lot of times, and I experienced this even when I was teaching, there is a tendency to focus on the traumatic aspects of Black life, which are important to understand and to know. But I think that when you follow that through line, that also paints Black life as very one dimensional. I didn’t see a lot of representations in literature or in visual art or even in film, of representations of Black people that were just happy and pleasurable and enjoying their lives and doing interesting things that weren’t related to racism or overcoming racism. 

Part of my research was really about – what do we know and what can we say about Black life that isn’t mired in kind of, sites of injury, if you will. That’s really what sparked my own interest in positive psychology because it’s actually a field that doesn’t really take race into account. It’s kind of a race neutral area. But it’s all about resilience and well being and flourishing and thriving all of those concepts emerge out of positive psychology. By putting those with African American studies, it was just a great framework for me to kind of talk about those more positive aspects of Black life.

You also wrote several books. Can you list some of them? 

BA: It’s only three. My first book was, “Freud Upside Down: African American Literature and Psychoanalytic Culture.” So again, that was a book about putting two things that don’t go together, together. Basically, psychoanalysis had been really inattentive to matters of race and so I wanted to actually just show that this is something that African American scholars and writers have been talking about for quite some time, about a century at least. And then, I co-edited a monograph called “Difficult subjects: Insights and strategies for teaching about race, sexuality, and gender and that’s really about teaching race, gender, and sexuality in the college classroom.” My latest book, “Afro-Nostalgia Feeling Good in Contemporary Black Culture,” was really about what feeling good or positive psychology kind of looks like across a range of fields. I talk about literature, visual art, performance and even food. 

What are some of your ideas and initiatives you plan to contribute to Oxford?

BA: To get a sense of the vision, the ideas and the aspirations of the people who are here. So for example, I had a really wonderful meeting and tour of the farm last week with Daniel and he’s been here for 10 years. We talked about, ‘Okay, well, that was the first 10 years of the farm, what does the next five years look like for you for the farm. What are your dreams for the space? You’ve grown it from nothing to what it is now. So where can we take it from there?’ Part of it is just collaborating with faculty and staff and their respective spaces to get a sense of what they’d like to see over the next few years. 

But in terms of, I would say opportunities that I see for Oxford, certainly I’m always interested in increasing opportunities for students, financial and otherwise. How can we increase access to Oxford for students, but also how can we enhance, what I like to call, ‘beyond the classroom  experiences?’ How can we get students more engaged with internships and experiential learning, community engaged learning? That’s something that I definitely want to advance during my time here. Also, I want to enhance Oxford’s visibility. This is, I think, one of the best kept secrets in higher education. I want the word to get out that we have amazing staff, amazing faculty, great programs, [and] really innovative pedagogy. I want to make that more visible. 

Outside of work, what do you like to do? What are some of your hobbies?

BA: Golf is my hobby for sure. I love watching tennis – not playing – watching tennis. The U.S. Open is on right now, so it’s very exciting. Honestly, it sounds boring, but spending time with my friends and family. Brunch is my favorite meal, so having brunch with my friends is one of my favorite things to do. And when I get a chance, I love to travel, but, don’t get to do that as much as I would like. It’s something that I really enjoy.