• Dr. Heather White

    Dr. Heather White

    Associate Vice President for Student Affairs / Dean of Students, University of Florida

    As dean of students, Heather White loves being there to support those who need care and works to set an example for all those in her office. White defines fierce as hard-working, humble and driven individuals who aren’t afraid to be different and put others before themselves. White owes her strong self-esteem to her mother, who taught her by example that she could do anything.

    “Success is about making an impact (a difference). It’s about serving out your purpose and being a helper. Accomplishment is service and servant leadership. It’s not about title, position or power—it’s about people. Achievement is encouragement. It’s about removing obstacles so that others can be their best selves,” said White.

    What does it mean to be Fierce?

    Fierce means being hardworking, humble and driven. Fierce means not fitting into a box, being different and changing people’s perceptions. Fierce means servant leadership: putting other people before yourself.

    What does success, achievement and accomplishment mean to you?

    Success is about making an impact, a difference. It’s about serving out your purpose and being a helper. Achievement is encouragement. It’s about removing obstacles so that others can be their best selves. Accomplishment is service and servant leadership. It’s not about title, position or power—it’s about people. All of these concepts are found in my favorite quotation: “To the world you may be one person, but to one person, you may be the world.” If I help one person, I have succeeded, achieved and accomplished.

    What motivates you in the morning?

    Every morning, no matter how busy my day is going to be, I get up early to pray. I pray for my family. I pray for the wisdom and courage to do my job well. I pray to be able to help as many people as I can, to be a resource and stay true to who I am. Taking time to ask for guidance, when the day is still dark and quiet, keeps me focused and centered. I’m also motivated by what’s waiting for me at the office: students experiencing breakthroughs and a-ha moments. Students excelling. One person can change your life, alter your course—I’m motivated to be that person, to be someone who helps students succeed. I want to go home at night knowing I made a difference.

    What or who is inspiring you right now? Why?

    The person inspiring me right now is the same person who has always inspired me: my mom. She’s my role model and my hero. She was a single mom, and I’m a first-generation college graduate. She worked hard to provide me more than she had—especially access to education. She eventually went to college herself and obtained her degree the same year I earned my Master’s. Through her example, she inspires me never to stop growing.

    What was the best decision you’ve made? What’s the worst?

    The best decision I’ve made is going away for college. It was hard to leave my small hometown in lower Alabama. I was the first in my family to move away, and I’m still one of the only people from my family who doesn’t live there. But choosing to go to college in another town gave me resilience and independence. It taught me that I’m stronger than I thought I was. The worst decision I’ve made may be choosing to graduate college in 3 years instead of staying a full four year. I missed out on my friends and on having one last year of exploration. If I had it to do again, I’d probably choose to enjoy the process more. I was so focused on my academic goals that I ended up missing memories with people who had helped me through tough times. What I gained by being an overachieving student wasn’t worth what I lost. I wish I would’ve balanced better. It’s possible to succeed at school while enjoying the personal moments that make life beautiful.

    What has been your biggest obstacle and how have you overcome it?

    I don’t know if obstacle is the best word to describe this, but I was raised in a single-parent family. This made me a little different from most of my friends, who more or less, had two-parent households. Being any kind of different is hard for a kid, so it took until I was older and able to let go of what I thought was an “ideal family” to realize just how much I had the entire time. Through that experience, I learned that to thrive in tough situations, I had to be willing to make the best of what I had. And what I had was an incredible mom who blessed me with so much love, guidance and encouragement and taught me countless lessons about resilience that still stays with me today. That lesson came from a personal situation, but it applies equally in professional settings: if I dwell on what’s broken or what seems impossible, then I block myself from seeing what’s working and what I can do.

    How do you address negativity in your life and in business?

    I strongly believe that you’re in charge of your own attitude. When my daughters are struggling with a negative outlook, I tell them: you get to choose how you see your situation—and right now you’re not making good choices. To me, there’s always something to be learned. And there’s almost always some positive aspect in the negative. You just have to look for it. Because I have a positive outlook in general, when I encounter negativity—at home or at work—I address it directly. I try to deal with it and move on from it, and I encourage those around me to do the same. If it’s possible to improve, change or influence the negative situation, I try to do that. If it’s not possible to make it better, I try to make the best of it. My goal is to figure out a way to work within it that will allow me to stay patient and positive.

    Is there a particular instance or occurrence that you credit for building your confidence and self-esteem?

    There isn’t one instance or occurrence that built my confidence and self-esteem, but there is one person who did: my mom. She taught me by example that there’s nothing I can’t do. I watched her struggle through raising a child on her own, but she never let anything seem impossible. She used every difficult situation as a teaching moment. She believed in me so much that it made me believe in myself. She still does, so I still do. In times of doubt, I rely on the self-assurance she gave me. It’s one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received.

    How do you empower other women?

    It’s important to me that I serve as a mentor to other women, both when I’m asked to do so and when I notice someone’s potential on my own. I try to show my struggles and be authentic when talking to other women. I share stories so that they can understand my realness—and the realness of people in general. Sometimes it’s empowering just to know that someone else has gone through what you have, even if the way that person handled things isn’t directly helpful to solving your dilemma. I stay open and vulnerable when I relate to other women. I’m inspired by vulnerability because, as women, we’re not always taught to express this side of ourselves. Although vulnerability can be seen as a sign of weakness, I personally think it’s a sign of strength, and I want to empower other women to embrace vulnerability. It builds trust and connects people. On a hard day, those connections can carry you.

    What change do you want to see in your industry?

    I’d like to see more of a focus on balance, or work-life integration, in my industry as well as generally in the world of work. In order to promote healthy lifestyles and be able to enjoy the important moments in life, I believe it’s important to be able to carve out the appropriate amount of time for each area of our lives. As Dean of Students, I actually love being there to support people who need care, no matter when they need it. But while I want to be that constant supportive presence, I know that it’s my responsibility to think carefully about the example I set for my office and all of the young professionals in it. I never want anyone—particularly someone at the start of their career—to think that they can’t be a Dean of Students one day if they prioritize health, family and friends. I want to be the kind of dean who demonstrates that you can do your job well without sacrificing the relationships you built while aspiring to the job. I hope that other professionals set that kind of example and encourage their colleagues to have fulfilling personal lives. While I’m new in this role and haven’t mastered work-life integration yet, it’s certainly my goal and something that I’m aspiring to do.

    Do you have any advice for young women as they try to achieve their goals?

    Find a mentor. Surround yourself with a group that lifts you up and celebrates you. Look for people who speak into you and encourage you, people who help you see what’s really there—the greatness and good inside you. But don’t settle for flattery; search for people who love you enough to tell you the truth, even when it’s hard to hear. My mentors have made such a strong impact in my life, both professionally and personally, and I am grateful for the guidance and support that they continue to provide.

    What do you want to be remembered for?

    I want people to remember me for being kind, having integrity and being positive. In any given day, it’s not difficult to find a great amount of negativity surrounding us. I want to help encourage people and lift them up so that they see the good in themselves (their potential and worth). I want people to remember me for living as an example of the world I want.

    How do you defy the current stereotypes, stigmas and double standards that women have today?

    When I became Director of the UF Career Center, the field of career services was heavily comprised of men serving in this role. Career Services is an interesting mixture of higher education and industry, and most of the professionals working in the area at that time were male. In fact, the two people who had held the job before I did were both men, so in the nearly 60-year history of the Center, there had never been a female director until I assumed this role. I was so fortunate to have the guidance and support of my predecessors. They were generous with their time, and I learned so much from their examples. I still had a challenge, however, to navigate initially because the wider community of Career Services Directors was filled with more men who had served long tenures in their roles. To get through those early months, I fell back on what my mom taught me long before: don’t ever believe you can’t do something. Just get it done. And with the help, love and support of my family, friends, mentors and colleagues in the field and partners on campus, I served in this role for more than 6 years.