Administration Spotlight: Dr. Alison Richardson

“Life is gonna life,” shared Dr. Alison Richardson, Dean of Students in the Counseling Program at the Wright Institute. “It's important to allow yourself to be vulnerable and to say, ‘I need some support right now. I need a cheerleader in my corner. I need somebody to talk to,’ because it’s just a patch, it’s not forever.” With sage advice like this, it’s no surprise that her path has led her to her current position, guiding students through their higher education experiences.

Alison grew up in North Berkeley with her parents and two older siblings and described herself as “definitely the baby of the family.” In the 1950s, her parents bought the house where Alison was raised and were “one of the first Black families on the block to own a home.” Due to redlining that was in place until 1968, Alison's parents had limited choices on where they could purchase a home. However, the neighborhood Alison grew up in provided an experience that was quite different from the students she went to school with. “I grew up in a very ethnically diverse neighborhood and so that always felt very normal to me,” she reflected.

Alison went to a public school in Berkeley for kindergarten, then attended private Catholic schools from first to twelfth grade. From first to eighth grade, she attended a very small school where there were about thirty students in her grade. “Most of the students I started with in first grade, I graduated with in eighth grade,” she recalled. Then, from ninth to twelfth grade, she attended an all-girls high school with a graduating class of 69 students. She found these small, close-knit communities to be “grounding in lots of different ways” and shared that she still has close relationships with some of her elementary school peers today.

After graduating from high school, Alison enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley for her undergraduate studies. She shared that the decision was “mostly because my father gave me little to no choice about where I was going to go to school.” He offered her a few options and she chose Berkeley because of its location. Almost immediately, it became apparent to Alison that she had made the wrong decision. “To go from a class of sixty-nine women in high school to sitting in a classroom where there were 500 to 1,000 students at any given time wasn't a good fit to say the least,” Alison reflected, “I was overwhelmed and felt very much like I did not belong there.”

Realizing that Berkeley wasn’t the school for her, Alison left and began working full time at the Gap. In her position there, she gained recognition for her skills in creating displays and was asked to start training other employees. This led Alison to the realization that she would like to work in corporate retail and training. As she contemplated a return to school, she did some research and discovered that the University of San Francisco had a program in Industrial and Organizational Psychology, which sounded like a perfect fit for her. “I was a first generation college student,” she shared, “My siblings didn't go to college, so I didn't really have anybody to talk to about what that experience was like or what a major is and how to connect my interests with a major,” so it took her experience working at the Gap to help her figure out her own path.

After visiting the USF campus, Alison realized it would be a much better fit for her. “When I look at my pattern, I do my best in a smaller environment, where people know me or I know them,” she reflected. At USF, Alison thrived and became very involved in student life and very dedicated academically. As she neared graduation, she was approached by the Director of Multicultural and International Student Services and the Vice President of Student Affairs to find out what her plans were after graduation. Alison knew she wanted to go to graduate school, but hadn’t made any firm plans. They invited her to apply for a graduate assistantship where she would work twenty hours a week for the university and they would pay for her master’s degree in Higher Education Administration. Even though her path was no longer leading her back to retail, “it was still focused on training and supporting people to help them grow.”

Once she earned her master’s degree, Alison wanted to stay and work at USF, but the director who had led her to the assistantship position pushed her to spread her wings, telling her, “I know this place is special to you, but go and learn something else somewhere else.” Alison recalls feeling a little hurt, but is so glad she followed that advice. “All those jobs in between did really prepare me to return to USF,” she shared. In 1999, Alison returned to USF, which she described as being “back at home,” as the Director of Student Activities and University Life. The position was a little out of her comfort zone, but she knew she had an excellent support system there to help her grow. Alison explained that when she was a student at USF, “I felt like I belonged. I felt like I was able to grow and experience things.” Upon returning to work at USF, her primary goal was to “make sure students have that same experience.”

Seven years later, Alison left USF feeling like a career in higher education may not be the right path for her. She spent a couple years working in the non-profit sector as the Program Development Director in the Office of Program Innovation at the YMCA of East Bay. “I was able to really see what I hadn't seen before in terms of partnership,” she reflected. “There’s a whole community out there that you can partner with and really make a bigger impact.” Alison enjoyed her time at the YMCA, but eventually found her way back to a position in higher education at Cal State, East Bay. She is very thankful that she took this break from the world of education. “I liked being able to do some soul searching around allowing other people to influence my decisions” and figure out what “my real role is, and my purpose in life,” she shared.

Alison worked for several years at Cal State, East Bay as the Director of Student Academic Services before she decided to pursue her doctoral degree there. When her friends first encouraged her to enroll in the doctoral program, she told them “I don’t really need a doctorate. I think I’m good.” At that time, she was working with first generation college students, low income students, and students of color, trying to increase retention and graduation rates. She was trying new programs and services, but not seeing the results she wanted. Simultaneously, she was reading Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes, which encourages readers to say yes to the things that scare them. So Alison decided, “I’m just going to apply. I want to figure out how to solve this problem and help these students.” Twenty-five years after earning her masters degree, she began the doctoral program which she described as “personally transformational.”

Richardson DoctorateDuring her doctoral studies, Alison’s dissertation was titled “Illuminating Student Voices: The Role of Faculty and Staff in Retention and Graduation.” Thinking back on her research, Alison shared, “I realized how much I was doing this for myself as a first generation, low-income student.” What she found in her research of students who did persist and graduate was the importance of someone seeing them, connecting to them, and fostering a sense of belonging. Again, she was able to connect this back to her own experience as a student at USF, reflecting on how her career trajectory would have been different if someone hadn’t stopped her to tell her about the assistantship position and the opportunity to pursue her master’s degree. “It really is the power of people, focusing and trying to reach out and creating safe spaces for folks to just be their authentic selves,” she reflected, “and helping students learn the importance of social capital and giving them the tools that they need to navigate higher education.” Alison graduated with her Ed. D. in Educational Leadership for Social Justice in 2019, and moved into the position of Director of Equity Initiatives at Cal State, East Bay, putting this knowledge into practice.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic provided Alison with a moment to pause and consider her path. She realized that, despite the fact that she was happy working with the student population at Cal State, East Bay, she was growing tired of being part of a large school system where she had to work around established policies and procedures. She stepped back to consider what brought her joy. “Relationships are really important to me,” she shared, “and connecting with students and helping them find their purpose.” So she started her job search, being “a little particular” about the positions she applied to. When she read the job description for the Wright Institute Counseling Program’s Dean of Students, the idea of returning to a small, close-knit community really appealed to her. Once she started at the Wright Institute, she thought, “This could be another space that I call home.” Alison realized that belonging and community were “just as important to me as they were when I was in grade school or high school or college, that feeling like this is a good spot for you to call home.”

After five months in her position as the Counseling Program’s Dean of Students, Alison’s favorite part of the job is “getting to know the students and learning folks’ stories” so they aren’t one-dimensional. “I love hearing students outside of my office,” Alison shared, “I love that they can pop in, or I can go out in the hallway and check in with them.” Thus far, she has been very involved in streamlining the student advising system and building more community in the daytime and weekend cohorts. Alison also wants to ensure that students are aware that faculty and staff are available to support them and make sure they are successful in the program. “I think it's important for everybody to find a place they belong,” she reflected. “My job is to figure out how we best do that!”

Alison describes her leadership style as “very much student centered.” She feels that it’s important to “have an open door and spend time with students” and focuses on “modeling how to be vulnerable, have some fun, and meet and with people.” When planning programs or events, there are two big questions that Alison always asks herself: “How does this support students and how are we making sure that we're protecting students or empowering students?” Alison shared that many of her former supervisors are now her mentors and she developed her own leadership style by following their amazing example.

In her free time, Alison has a variety of hobbies. She enjoys watching Hallmark movies, especially during the holiday season. “At work, I always have to be flexible and adjust,” she reflected, “I never know what's coming next and I don't have control of things, so I love watching a movie where I know that everything's going to turn out fine 10 min before the movie ends.” In 2018, Alison got a Peloton bike, which she uses frequently. “I’m ridiculous,” she laughed, “but I absolutely love it!” She also enjoys growing flowers, meditation, yoga, and baking. Above all, Alison enjoys spending time with her family and friends. “My sister and her kids all live within a mile and a half of me,” she shared, “so I love that they're all close!”

When asked what advice she would share with prospective Counseling Program students, Alison said she would remind them to “take some time to figure out your purpose and think about in what environment you work best.” As she learned in her own educational experiences, you have to find programs that fit with the way you learn. “Not everybody likes to be in a cohort, and so it would be difficult to be in an intensive program in a cohort if that's not how you like to work.” To current students, she would encourage them to be vulnerable and ask for help when they need it. “There are always going to be challenges,” she emphasized. “Life is going to happen right. Life never goes away.”

Click here to learn more about the Wright Institute's Master of Counseling Psychology program.
Click here to learn more about the Wright Institute's Doctor of Clinical Psychology (PsyD) program.