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Nichols College

Learn. Lead. Succeed

Breaking Down Barriers

Overcoming barriers during her time as a first generation and biracial college student, Alicia McKenzie knows first-hand the change that must be enacted in colleges across the US to ensure an equitable education.

The beginning of McKenzie’s quest for change? Right here at Nichols College as the new Director of the Center for Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion.  

McKenzie brings several years of success in higher education to Nichols, previously guiding student development at institutions including American International College and Endicott College. From experience as a residence hall director to a master’s in student development and higher education, her qualifications speak for themselves.

On top of her impressive background, McKenzie relates to students on a more personal level since she faced the struggles of being a biracial student in a predominantly white institution.

McKenzie, who is half-Black and half-Puerto Rican, comes from Bridgeport, Conn., and went to a high school where attending college was more a dream than a reality for many students.

“Many of the students who attended my school struggled to see themselves even completing their senior year of high school,” she said. “So, if you made it to college – it was a major accomplishment.”

Achieving your dreams

But these barriers didn’t deter McKenzie, in part because her father pushed her to go to college early on. McKenzie enrolled in Eastern Connecticut State University out of high school, becoming the first in her family to reach that milestone.

“I came from a two-parent household and my father instilled in me at a very young age that he would do whatever was necessary to ensure I attended college. So, for me, I knew college was never optional, I had to do it – and I am so grateful that I did.,” she said.

In spite of this passion behind her, McKenzie still faced obstacles upon arriving to her first college campus. Eastern Connecticut University is a predominantly white institution and McKenzie was coming from a high school that was made up mostly of non-white students.

“Coming from a place where I was the majority, and then finding myself in the middle of Williamantic, Conn. at Eastern was definitely a culture shock and something I had to adjust to. I was now the minority, surrounded by individuals with very different backgrounds, very different identities, with very different lived experiences. It was something I had to learn how to navigate.” McKenzie said.

In addition, being a first-generation college student McKenzie didn’t have knowledge passed to her from her family about what college life is like.

“When you’re the first of your family to go to college you’re just happy to get there, but you have to kind of figure it out on your own because you lack the social capital other students have coming from parents who have college degrees,” she said.

Fortunately, McKenzie found a mentor at Eastern Connecticut State who helped her navigate through the college. She also found a community she felt a part of, which was critical to her success there.

“I don’t think I would have been as successful if I didn’t have mentors or made the connections I did within the four years I was there,” she said.

And McKenzie even found love, meeting her husband there her first year.

While at Eastern Connecticut, McKenzie also worked as a Residential Assistant. This led to positions in residence life at other colleges and even her master’s degree.

Eventually, a position opened at her alma mater and she was able to reconnect with her mentor. McKenzie joined them at the college’s Intercultural Center as an intern, where her mentor was the Center’s coordinator.

“That solidified my desire to work with underrepresented students,” she said.

Bringing the passion

Now, McKenzie brings this passion to Nichols, working to help all students. She didn’t expect to be here initially, though.

“I’m from the city,” she joked.

But the welcoming nature of the college, the students and McKenzie’s co-workers made the decision easy.

Something that stood out was how long people have been here. That speaks volumes to Nichols and the community it has built,” she said. “The other part that sold me were the students I met with, how they spoke about the institution. This is exactly where I want to be.”

And McKenzie is dedicated to providing students who feel marginalized or different a welcoming and safe place to learn, lead and succeed.

“I really want to create a space on campus where students who often feel at times invisible, feel validated, seen, and most importantly empowered,” she said. “Although you may be on a campus where not everyone looks like you, I am here to say I’ve been in your shoes before, and I know what that may feel like. I want students to know they can step into my office as they are, and unload the baggage they’ve been carrying.”

McKenzie is also focusing on providing students with resources that will contribute to their success at Nichols, regardless of background.

“My passion is to figure out what those gaps may be and figure what resources we haven’t tapped into or used yet,” she said.

“I really want to connect with students, to empower them, and serve as a person who will have their backs. I want to assist with their success while they are here and, more importantly, be successful when they leave.”