When all roads lead to student affairs

May 9, 2018

How master’s student Sarah Toutant came to embrace the path she was already on

By Matthew C. Stevens

Sarah Toutant | Photo credit: Brian Mori

As her senior year was winding down at the University of San Francisco, Sarah Toutant worried she hadn’t established a solid career goal. What was she going to do after graduation?

A straightforward question from her mentor brought a career path into sharp relief: “So you’ve interned for the Intercultural Center, worked at the office of admission and you were the president of the Black Student Union, right? Have you thought about a career in student affairs?”

That’s when she got it. “I now tell other students not to think in terms of what they want to do in the future, but to look at what they are already doing,” Toutant says. “That’s how to find your passion.”

Toutant entered the master’s program in Postsecondary Administration and Student Affairs (PASA) at USC Rossier two years ago and picked up where she had left off in college, taking on leadership roles in several student organizations, including Graduate Student Government and the Black Graduate Student Network.

Her dedication did not go unnoticed. She was named “Outstanding First-Year Student” by USC’s PASA Network and will be delivering the student address at Friday’s commencement ceremony for master’s students.

Seeking justice

If Toutant had been unsure about her career goal, it wasn’t for a lack of purpose. Her birthmother battled addictions and gave her up for adoption to the Toutants, as she trusted they would take good care of her. As a Black and Native American transracial adoptee in a White family who grew up in a predominantly Hispanic/Latinx community, her experiences with race have significantly impacted her journey as a Black woman and scholar.

When she started college, she devoted most of her time to sports as a member of the women’s soccer team. But everything changed when she found out someone had scrawled a racist slur on a student’s dormitory room door.

“I couldn’t understand why administrators weren’t talking about it,” she recalls. “That was the defining moment for me.”

She organized a forum and led discussions that exposed a flaw in the university’s claim that it was among the most diverse campuses in the nation. Sure, it had a large number of students of color, the protestors said, but the majority were international students; Black students were oftentimes the only person of color in their classes.

Toutant’s leadership had given Black students a forum to express their frustrations, which later led to her being selected as USF’s Black Student Union president. She also helped author and edit a set of demands for the university administration, including a call for the establishment of a Black living-learning community on campus. For her senior thesis, she wrote a paper titled “My Skin Color Is Only Attractive on a Brochure: African-American Experiences at the University of San Francisco.”

A confident vulnerability

“What I like about Sarah is that she is confident, but she also makes herself vulnerable, and that’s a rare combination to find in people, let alone young students,” says Shafiqa Ahmadi, co-director of the USC Rossier Center for Education, Identity and Social Justice, who was impressed by Sarah’s take-charge approach to managing the center’s new Spoken Justice series, which is all about creating a space for others to share deeply personal reflections with conviction.

Toutant has spoken openly at those events about her adoption, the courage of her birthmother, her struggle with anxiety and the impact of our current political climate on students of color.

As she moves forward, she hasn’t forgotten where she comes from. Last month she attended USF’s Admitted Students Day, where she spoke to the finalists applying for USF’s new Black Scholars Program. The university had delivered on her demands and is opening a living-learning community for Black students this upcoming fall.

These experiences and her identities have influenced her eagerness to research the experiences of Black students while affirming her commitment to racial justice. This fall, Toutant will begin the USC Rossier PhD program in Urban Education Policy and become a research associate in the USC Race and Equity Center under the guidance of her advisor, center executive director Shaun Harper.

“Sarah’s determined—she will accomplish everything she sets her mind to,” Ahmadi says. “I cannot wait to see what she does next.”