The Dynamic Duo Departs: A Profile on Dean Kijua and Kristian Contreras

If you haven’t had the opportunity to witness Dean Kijua (Dean K) and Kristian’s (a.k.a. Beyonce) heartwarming friendship, you have not fully experienced student life at Agnes. I’ve definitely admired their relationship during my past three years here, whether it be seeing their in-person shenanigans during campus events or online across every social media platform (literally). And like all good things, their time here at Agnes is coming to an end. They are both embarking on new journeys next school year. Dean K will be taking on a position at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts as the first Inaugural Vice President for Equity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer. Kristian was accepted into four doctoral programs and recently named the Annual Coeptis - Emerging Professional with the American College Personnel Association.

“Do you need selfies with us before we start?” Dean K playfully joked before we started the interview.

Dean Kijua and Kristian currently work in the Gay Johnson McDougal Center for Global Diversity and Inclusion as Associate Vice President and Dean for Community Diversity, and Director of Institutional Diversity and Inclusive Education, respectfully.

There is definitely a different person described in their stories pre-Agnes. They had both gone through some trials of self-discovery before finding their home here. Prior to being at Agnes Scott, Kristian worked in the Intercultural and Diversity Center during her graduate study. “I was really indignant that I had been placed in the diversity center” because, she assumed, "They’re just putting me here because I’m a person of color. But, in that job, we were given a list of student organizations and the American Association of University Women were on that list. But I was, in that time, so adamant about not being seen as a person of color. I just circled AAUW because I thought that would get me out of advising any of the other cultural groups.”

DK: You didn’t say this in your job interview.

KC: I did not.

DK: She told me about AAUW, but she never said this part of the story! This is gold!

When Kristian started attending AAUW meetings, she realized that she “was actually not a full feminist,” and after a semester of working with students, she came to realize the very complex nature of existing as a woman in leadership, what it was to be the only woman of color in their fields, or being the first women of color to do anything in the field they were in. In her job search, she wanted to be in diversity because she felt like “[She] was radicalized by [her] professors” and because of the many interlaying issues of gender that she learned as the advisor for AAUW. She definitely knew she wanted to work for a women’s college and keep ties with the organization. Thus began her journey to finding Agnes Scott.

Dean Kijua was initially interested in a position at another women's college in Atlanta, Spelman College.

DK: So I only knew about Spelman College. Also, I was a feminist, I just didn’t know I was a feminist. However, I never thought of the concept of there being a place where I, as both being black and being a woman, could be affirmed.

She worked in public health for about 14 years at Georgia State University, and while trying to find a job in higher education again, she found a position at Spelman as a graduate school program coordinator. At the same time she applied for the job at Spelman, she had a friend who was a dean at Agnes who told her about an open position called Director of Multicultural Affairs. “It was a part-time job and their had been three people in the position for the last three years.” She wasn’t the first choice, but she ended up getting the job at Agnes. She planned on working here for a year and then leaving to finish her PhD and become a professor so that she could help students get into graduate school, which was a dream of hers. Everyone advised her not to apply for the job. “But when I got here it was just amazing. So women’s colleges now are the only place I want to work.” It was the journey, or “seed” as she eloquently puts it, of hearing about Agnes from another women’s college that brought her here.

Years later, the college needed to hire someone to serve as the Assistant Director of Intercultural Programs, as the Center for Student Engagement was expanding at the same time as the launch of Summit. This led to Dean K and Kristian’s first encounter.

Dean K and another colleague were at The Placement Exchange in Baltimore, MD.  Kristian described the space as a bit larger than our quad on campus with rows and rows of long tables with every college looking for a position at each table. From there, you go from table to table looking for a job.

She says that she would never interview someone in this way again. “I had so much empathy for people who had to search for a job like this!”

“It was really hard to find people who could survive and thrive in this space,” said Dean K, “And we had already interviewed so many people. But she comes to the table and she is wild, but she is brilliant.” Dean K admitted that she was over the whole interview process up until that point. After their fifteen-minute interview with Kristian, she says, “She did this really weird thing where she grabbed my hand and said, ‘I want to hold your hand, don’t ever let me go,’ and I was like, “Ummm..’”

KC: That was before I learned about boundaries.

Once Kristian left, Dean K says she “knew she loved her instantly.” She said that you could feel an energy from her where you knew she was going to learn about the students and learn about herself. “I can flashback to that moment like a Grey's Anatomy episode because I just knew ‘She’s it.’” 

Even Kristian knew she wanted to be here. “Before they (Agnes Scott) even hired me for the job, I had already told everyone that I was moving to Atlanta, and I really did lie to these other colleges when I told them, ‘Oh, I accepted a position at Agnes Scott College.’ And luckily I was wild enough to where it worked out.”

HC: How do you guys plan on keeping in touch with each other as you embark on your new journeys?

KC: (Jokingly) What if I don’t want to?

DK: I literally said this this morning! I knew Kristian was gonna drop me like a hot potato!

KC: I think there is no plan because I don’t have to plan to keep Kijua in my life. I think it’s something intuitive. She’s part of my family. Oh wow, I’m about to cry.

DK: Do not! Do not cry!

Their relationship is very unique and they know it. “I send her pictures of myself without a single eyebrow on,” Kristian admits.

DK: She does, I have the screenshots that could end your life.

KC: Do I trust her after saying that? Probably not. But I don’t say that to be funny. I just think there really isn’t a plan. I think we’ll just always be in touch.

DK: Well she knows I’m going to get her to come to Mount Holyoke to do projects. But I hope that our friendship will still be life-affirming, which it is in many, many, ways. We know each others’ deepest darkest secrets for the most part. But also, I think we’ll still work together collaboratively around justice and inclusion.

HC: How do you think Agnes Scott is different or maybe even the same as other women's colleges?

KC: I think Agnes is just as wild as any other college. I can call up my friends at other universities and institutes and tell them, “The students are wildin’, the staff are wildin’, the faculty are wildin’, the Board of Trustees are wildin’ -- but what I think what I like about Agnes is Scott is the closeness and tight-knit community, which I think is true for any small college. I think it’s incredible that the President of our college can walk through the quad and say, “Hello,” [and call you by name]. I think people receive an outpour of support not just from leadership accomplishments, but from other milestones. If you’ve heard someone has recently lost a loved one, [people say]  “Are you well? How can I help? My thoughts are with you,” or “I hear you’re choosing between these Master’s programs.” “I’m so proud of you!” It’s an incredible community of scholarship, as in thoughtful individuals. And I think students forget just how talented they are to be here.

DK: I think Agnes Scott was the first place where I could show up wholly as myself.

Before Agnes, Dean K expressed that she felt like she could never fully be herself. She grew up wearing braids all the time, but when it came down to her later years she would have it relaxed or straightened. But when she came to Agnes, she decided to wear her braids and “go for it.” “If I get it, I get it,” she said, in reference to her job interview with Agnes. It was around the year 2006, as she said, and she was only one of two black women in the president’s cabinet. “What I love about the students and faculty here is that we all really want each other to win. And I think that we’ve really created a space here where, they said once, ‘this is a living laboratory for justice and inclusion and diversity,’ and I think that we really are. I think we have a space here where we can all show up as ourselves. We can show up as our completely messy selves and we kind of challenge each other to be better. And that makes me really proud. I’ll never regret having this space because I grew here, I learned here, and I hope I contributed something here, but I know I gained so much beyond just the relationships I have with people. And that doesn’t mean that I haven’t experienced some trauma and real hurt from being a diversity trainer here, and I really do feel strongly that it hasn’t been easy. But it’s always been that the students made it easier.”

HC: What’s one of your favorite memories together?

The answer: Meeting Kerry Washington.

This is how it went. Dean K invited Kerry Washington to be the [possible] commencement speaker last year while she was filming a movie on campus and after giving her a gift, Dean K introduces herself to her with her hand out to shake, “Hi, I’m Kijua.” Kerry Washington responds and introduces herself as well. When it came to Kristian introducing herself, she stuck her hand out without saying anything. It probably prompted Kerry to do this, as she introduced herself to Kristian, “Hi, I’m Kerry,” in which Kristian responds, “I know,” with her hand still awkwardly out. Dean K then proceeds to introduced Kristian to Kerry.

DK: They told us at the very last minute that we would be able to meet with her and I brought her this book called We Will Shoot Back. And she was into the book! But I was just so shocked that Kristian actually froze, like, is this really Kristian? But we laughed it off awkwardly.

Because Kerry was dressed in character, they could tell she was very uncomfortable with the idea of taking a picture. (Dean K mentioned that Kristian’s fiance claimed that because they didn’t get a picture, it didn't really happen. So if you’re like Kristian's fiance, here is another memory that they jointly like.)

KC: Our car ride chronicles are my favorite.

DK: Yes, those need to be recorded!

KC: Dean Kijua and I are both very extroverted. And I think there is a component of doing this work, especially at a small college where we are very visible, [where] there are the levels of loneliness. I think the best moments we have together are the moments where we’re not working. It’s the car ride chronicles because that’s where we just get to be. Our friendship just blossomed because I didn’t have to pretend like it didn’t bother me. I could be vulnerable. I could be messy. I could cry and also laugh. In our car rides, we don’t have to be on like we always are.

Even with the things that have happened over the last four years, like the death of Sandra Bland, and just other high-pressure work, they had to figure out ways to take care of themselves while still recognizing that they were needed by other people. “The day after the election we both foolishly decided to take off,” said Dean K. “But we had heard students on campus were demoralized.” So they came to campus even though they were hurting too.

(I didn’t get the chance to ask them this, but they both happened to answer it. I planned on asking what they thought was the most important thing they learned from each other.)

KC: I learned through Kijua’s mentorship to not pretend like I can do everything and to not pretend like I don’t need help. I’ve learned to uncomfortably tell Kijua, “This is where I need help. This is where I feel like you need to improve.” I learned to say, “I’m sorry” in the moments where I really need to say it--”

DK: Do you really say you’re sorry?

KC: I said I was sorry on Monday!

And Dean K jokingly admits that she did. Kristian continues.

KC: My partner, who’s a white cisgender heterosexual man, who I love to death, doesn’t understand my relationship with Kijua. I don’t think anybody really does. Early in my career as a young woman of color in this profession, I made a conscious decision to accept that I would never meet someone who would fully understand all of me.

Kristian chokes up just a little and says, “Then I came to Agnes Scott and Kijua was that for me.”

“There has never been a time where I have struggled with something here and she hasn’t been there for me,” says a choked up Dean K.

They make sure to always call each other first for everything, good and bad. And the openness of their relationship is apparent. “I don’t have to explain anything,” says Kristian. “I don’t have to justify anything.”

HC: Do you guys still buy each other gifts after you’ve been in a disagreement?

(I soon learned that it was a long-standing joke that they buy each other gifts instead of apologizing. I digress.)

KC: I feel like Dean K is slept on by everyone except for me. My love language is through acts of service. So even during hard times, I would make something for Kijua that had something from one of her favorite books that she likes, or quotes from her favorite song. But I think the gifts piece is me always trying to remind her that everybody sleeps on her! We all take her for granted, including myself sometimes.

Kristian jokingly adds, “And Kijua finances my Sephora addictions because she knows that money is like water in my hands.”

DK: Well Kristian is actually one of the best gift givers ever. One of my favorite gifts I’ve ever gotten is this book by Alice Walker called Temple of My Familiar, which I have like five copies of. But she gave me one that was signed by Alice Walker, and then she gave me one with my father’s picture in it, who died in 1988, and who I consider a really important person in my life. She also had a picture of Tupac in there. And I was just like, “She knows me. She really knows me.” And it’s very rare that you have someone who really does see you. So if I had to summarize our friendship, it’s that we see each other. We really see each other.

There was another great point that Dean K made before they both had to leave for their next appointment. In summary, she said it was important to find someone that brings out the best and worst of us. “We can all find someone who will let us be the best of ourselves. But when we’re the worst of who we are, who stays with us? Who will call us out? And that is really important to me.”

They both agreed that it’s difficult to develop such deep and close relationships with other people, as Kristian pointed out, “The nature of diversity work is that you have to live and breathe it, and we, ourselves, are never beyond reproach. And we’re lucky to be able to do it together.”

In one interview, I was able to capture all the emotions of their friendship from bursting out laughing, to nearly shedding a few tears. It is very rare, as they pointed out, to find a friendship so open, so genuine, and so powerful as theirs. I think their relationship is truly something beautiful, with no needed further explanation. It’s hard for me to imagine Agnes without both of their shining lights. However, I wish the best to both of them, and I hope their lights continue to shine in their new areas of life.