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Leaving a Legacy, Carrying On U. of I. Values

by Tom Hanlon / Jun 20, 2022

Eboni Zamani-Gallaher

For the past eight years, Eboni Zamani-Gallaher has been a professor of Education, Policy, Organization & Leadership in the College of Education. For seven of those eight years, she was director of the Office of Community College Research and Leadership. This summer she is leaving the University of Illinois to take on similar roles at the University of Pittsburgh. Here, she reflects on her time at Illinois and on the important people in her life.

Eboni Zamani-Gallaher treasures the mentors in her life. So much so that she has given many of them family nicknames: “2 Daddy.” “Academic Mama.” “Pop.”

Not to mention her own mother, whom she calls her first teacher. Who taught her to be a lifelong learner, to always seek to improve herself and whatever she touches. “I came from a home and a school environment where the expectancy was that you go to college,” she says.

Zamani-Gallaher, a South Side of Chicago native, became a psychology major at Western Illinois University, where, as a freshman, she had a class with Dr. Bem Allen.

“He later became my master’s degree advisor and thesis chair and lifelong extended family,” Zamani-Gallaher says. “I call him ‘2 Daddy’ for second father. Well, at the end of my freshman year, he said we needed to talk. I said, ‘Uh oh. Did I bomb the final?’ He said it was nothing like that. He wanted to talk about my future.”

When they met, Dr. Allen asked her if she had a mentor. “I’d heard the term but wasn’t even sure what it meant,” Zamani-Gallaher says. “I avoided him for a whole year after that before he finally cornered me and said, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I jokingly said, ‘Maybe I’ll be a professor, like you!’ But he didn’t laugh. He just said, ‘Okay, you’re going to need a Ph.D.’ And he proceeded to walk me through the steps.

“I thought, dang, he’s taking me seriously. He sees something in me.”

Wanting to Be the Spark

And so, Zamani-Gallaher began to see something in herself, too. A little later, she interned at the University of Colorado under Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown, who at the time was an associate professor of psychology there.

“It was the first time I saw somebody that looked like me who was a professor,” says Zamani-Gallaher, who is African American. That ignited a fire in her.

“I said I want to be somebody’s possibility model in terms of being able to walk into a classroom and see someone like themselves and connect with the material and have a spark. I wanted to be that spark.

“It was at that point I knew I wanted to go into higher education.”

Finding Her Calling

Zamani-Gallaher earned her Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 2000. After one year at West Virginia University and 13 at Eastern Michigan University, Zamani-Gallaher was hired in 2014 as a professor in the Department of Education, Policy, Organization & Leadership (EPOL) in Illinois’ College of Education. Less than a year after coming to Illinois, Zamani-Gallaher was appointed director of the Office of Community College Research and Leadership (OCCRL), taking over for another of her mentors, Dr. Debra Bragg (“Academic Mama”). It was Dr. Bragg who founded OCCRL.

Zamani-Gallaher took a class with Dr. Bragg (whom she also calls “DB”), who asked her what moved her. “I told her I was passionate about black and brown folks’ progression and opportunities and she said, ‘Well, there’s no shortage of black and brown folks in community colleges, so have at it.’ Once I got into the literature, I was like, put a fork in me, I’m done.”

In community colleges, she saw “an institution that was marginalized and overlooked, but one that does the most for folks in society who have been marginalized, and that’s when I thought, this is it.”

Directing OCCRL

The following year, Dr. Bragg transitioned out of the OCCRL director position, and Zamani-Gallaher was recruited to take her place. “I was humbled and privileged,” she recalls. “The fact that DB would entrust me with OCCRL, the shop that Deb built. But I’ll be doggone if I’m not going to give it a makeover. Just as I expect my successor will do the same, as should be the case.”

OCCRL has operated on "soft money" since its inception 33 years ago. “It can become a bit of a grind,” Zamani-Gallaher admits. “There’s a heaviness and weight when you understand that an entire unit exists and can thrive based on what you bring or don’t bring in in terms of fiscal resources and being able to sustain and scale that. But what doesn’t feel so weighty is when you drum up those resources and you’re able to see folks get to evolve.”

As Zamani-Gallaher leaves OCCRL and the university, she is pleased that she met her goals to build on the foundation that Dr. Bragg created. “I wanted to amplify the brand, to broaden our reach, to bolster our apprenticeship model for our doctoral candidates and sharpen their tools and leave them with sharper skillsets upon exiting OCCRL,” she says. “I’m very proud of those who have trained with us and who are helping to advance community college research, practice, and leadership, and who are training that next guard of folks to do this kind of work.”

Another goal she met was establishing OCCRL as a research hub that would “unapologetically advance equity and do work that’s not color evasive and that is about advancing racial equity. That has set us apart in the last few years because as some of the field has caught up to a focus on this, they realize we have work and expertise here. I’m saying, ‘I’m not new to this, I’m true to this,’ and that’s OCCRL. We’re not new to this.”

In her seven years as OCCRL director, Zamani-Gallaher has brought in over $9M in grants and contracts, supporting about 30 graduate (primarily doctoral) students. “To be able to provide funded opportunities for thirty or so students over these last seven years has been very rewarding,” she says.

Mentors in the College

Two other professors served as mentors to Zamani-Gallaher during her time at Illinois: Dean James Anderson (“Doc”) and Dr. William Trent (“Pop”).

“My larger experience beyond OCCRL is definitely tied to those two men,” she says. “I call Trent ‘Pop’ because his academic ‘son,’ if you will, was my mentor at Western. When William Smith introduced us, it was like, here’s your granddaughter.”

Though Zamani-Gallaher was not in their department at the time, Trent and Jim Anderson insisted that she go to the annual conference for the American Educational Research Association.

“Trent came up to me and said it’s very important to us that you are socialized properly and that you have opportunities to network, so this year we’ll cover your costs between Jim and me, but you have to absorb it, take it in, and I want you to take a stab at getting on the AERA program next year. Can you do that for me? I said yeah! So, they footed the bill for me.”

On to Pittsburgh, But Leaving a Piece of Her Heart Here

At the University of Pittsburgh, Zamani-Gallaher will be on faculty in the Department of Educational Foundations, Organizations, and Policy. “I’ll also be serving as associate dean for Equity, Justice, and Strategic Partnerships in the School of Education,” she says. “Part of my portfolio will be building out community college pathways, looking at both the undergrad level and the pipeline programs into preservice teaching, and looking at our graduate and professional programs in terms of community college leaders—the changing of the guard and fostering opportunities for community college educators professional development and advancement.”

But even in Pittsburgh, a piece of her heart will be in Urbana-Champaign. “I was trained here, I grew up here in these academic streets, and I am going proudly forth, still representing Illinois, forever Illini, contributing to Pittsburgh’s School of Education in a way that will make my alma mater proud.”

She will leave more than her heart here. She is putting her money where her heart is, as she and her husband, James Gallaher, are continuing to fund a scholarship designed to help community college students make a successful transfer to the University of Illinois. (James Gallaher is former executive director of strategic initiatives for Illinois Human Resources and a clinical assistant professor in the College of Education; he is now vice chancellor of human resources for the University of Pittsburgh.)

“I’m super proud of the Gallaher Transfer Gateways Endowed Scholarship,” Zamani-Gallaher says. “Even when I’m not here, I want to help community college transfer students succeed at the University of Illinois.”

Mentoring Others, Carrying On U. of I. Values

What she will miss most, she says, is the relationships forged here. “It’s like extended family; it’s very familial. I’ll miss that. But I’m going out and I’m going to pay it forward. I’ve been quite fortunate to have had many people insert themselves in my life and leave a very positive imprint, and I want to be the same kind of blessing to other people.

Zamani-Gallaher leaves Illinois with the university’s vision and values deeply ingrained in her. “Particularly from the College of Education, in terms of there being such a commitment to wanting to advance inclusive excellence, diversity, equity, to broaden participation,” she says. “I leave with all of the research acumen, the disposition, and the trappings to be able to contribute to what has been that legacy and that imprint out of the College that comes from the legend, the man, Jim Anderson.

“Mentors have played such a huge role in my life. And it brings me a lot of joy to mentor others. A lot of students who have come through OCCRL, I see something in them just like Dr. Allen saw something in me as a freshman. I see that diamond in the rough, and I get to be Thelma to their Louise. I’m riding on that journey with them so they can self-actualize. We’re all in the process of becoming. For me, it’s about how can I help you with all that you say that you want to become?”