Dean Decisions: Samantha Hazell-O’Brien selected as Dean of Student Life, Equity, Inclusion 2021-2022

Samantha+Hazell-OBrien%2C+who+was+recently+appointed+as+Dean+of+Student+Life%2C+Equity+and+Inclusion+for+the+2021-2022+school+year%2C+teaches+an+English+class+at+Marymount+High+School.+Hazell-OBrien+is+excited+for+her+new+administrative+role+at+Archer%2C+but+acknowledges+that+it+will+be+different+than+working+with+students+in+the+classroom.+

Photo credit: Stephanie David

Samantha Hazell-O’Brien, who was recently appointed as Dean of Student Life, Equity and Inclusion for the 2021-2022 school year, teaches an English class at Marymount High School. Hazell-O’Brien is “excited” for her new administrative role at Archer, but acknowledges that it will be different than working with students in the classroom.

Although students come and go, the positions on Archer’s senior administration have remained generally the same. But in a world deeply impacted by physical disconnect, race-based violence and a sense of social withdrawal, a new position was created to address varying areas and topics that will likely be more important than ever: Student Life, Equity and Inclusion.

The Dean of Student Life, Equity and Inclusion will receive a seat at the senior admin table, along with positions like Head of School and Director of Operations, for the first time in the 2021-2022 school year. According to an email from Head of School Elizabeth English, “In addition to overseeing existing programs, the Dean of Student Life, Equity, and Inclusion helps develop student leadership, acts as a resource for the grade-level Deans, Mentorship, and DEI leadership teams, and collaboratively problem-solves as issues arise. The DSLEI educates the community on how to build on Archer’s commitment to providing an equitable, inclusive, and healthy student culture and models at all times Archer’s core values of empathy, integrity, and responsibility.”

On April 12, Samantha Hazell-O’Brien, currently an English teacher and leader of diversity initiatives at Marymount High School, was announced as the DSLEI for next year. She believes that connection and friendship are essential to her role, and wants to promote a sense of “sisterhood” on campus.

“I’m [currently working] in the classroom and also doing equity work, and I treat the classroom like a family. Where can I leverage student’s strengths and where can I allow them to shine for other students who may not know this about them?” Hazell-O’Brien said. “When you think about an all-girls school, it’s so incredibly important for us to have a network; to have sisters, to have friends that we know support us, but also that can help us grow.”

Hazell-O’Brien is the oldest of three sisters and was raised in Virginia. Her parents “treated each [sister] differently,” highlighting their individual strengths and encouraging them to help each other.

“When I think about diversity, [having differences] is the lowest level of achievement. It’s like, ‘Okay I can find that in my family, not a big whoop,'” Hazell-O’Brien said. “But what I really want to do is make sure that those differences shine. I think a lot back to how my parents treated me and my siblings very much as individuals, but they would amplify what we did best. So all three of us felt like we were our best selves as individuals but also contributing to the family. And that’s how I look at education.”

The whole school was offered the opportunity to participate in the search for Archer’s first DSLEI. Student focus groups, group interviews with teachers and a search committee with representatives of different grade levels and departments were all involved in the search. English calls this “grassroots approach” more effective because there is a sense of “shared accountability.”

“The learning needs to happen as a community; when you’re teaching one another, it’s always more effective than when you bring in some someone from the outside. So I would say that the work we’ve done to this point has been really important,” English said.  “But I think that when we talk about student life, you can’t talk about student life at this school without also talking about inclusivity because it’s in our mission. And I just think making that an explicit dimension of that leadership role was important at this moment, and I think the time calls for it.”

In a January 22 meeting, students were invited to share what they were looking for in the DSLEI.

For a role explicitly focused on equity, many students expressed a desire to have a person of color in the role and for them to have a seat at the decision-making table.

I understand the nuances and what those shared experiences for people of color may be. That’s where I can find a bond with any person of color; at some point, you or your family has the unfortunate experience of marginalization, and I want to make sure at Archer, we don’t look at those differences as detriments, but we bring those in to uplift and to amplify.”

— Samantha Hazell-O'Brien, DSLEI

“They are doing the other job of helping all students, but they’re also the dean of diversity and inclusion,” sophomore Marin Terry said. “It would really help Black, Indigenous [and] people of color to have somebody that looks like us.”

This desire was shared amongst all other students in the meeting, and Hazell-O’Brien, a Black woman, said it was “great that Archer’s student body recognizes that as a need.” She recognizes that some of her experiences will be shared and others will be unique.

“I think every lived experience of every person of color is going to be different. I identify as a Black woman, but my experience as a Black woman is different than my sister’s experience. In thinking about just shades of our skin, my middle sister is much darker than I am. And even though we’re sisters and look alike I know she’s navigating the world differently than I am,” Hazell-O’Brien said. “But again, with representation, if you can’t see it, how can you believe that you can then become it? So for your student body to say, ‘There’s a hole here and we invite that in,’ it really warms my heart that it’s not to tokenize or a novelty, but has some thought behind it.”

Associate Head of School Karen Pavliscak said that hiring a person of color in the role was “consciously explored,” but Hazell-O’Brien stood out among a wealth of diverse candidates the school interviewed.

“We’ve been through training on hiring practices, implicit bias and racial bias training, so by the time you see a finalist, we’ve reviewed candidates through the lens of consciously exploring how we bring in a diversity of perspectives,” Pavliscak said. “We had a diverse selection, I would say, of finalists, and Ms. Hazell-O’Brien was the top candidate who matched our culture, who really got us and who we saw as being a perfect fit.”

According to English, Hazell-O’Brien is “the beautiful combination of ambitious and joyful.”

“I think she’s highly intellectual, but she’s also a joyful and optimistic person. I think that’s really, really important. But beyond that, she’s a consummate professional too,” English said. “I think when you’re dealing with student life, it’s an area where the messiness of adolescence manifests, and you have to be really empathetic. You have to really like kids and teenagers, and you have to also be super professional and thoughtful and collaborative.”

English also expressed that Hazell-O’Brien’s experience working at an all-girls high school in Los Angeles made her a contender for the position. However, Hazell-O’Brien herself also sees differences from her current role at Marymount and is “curious” to meet the new challenges that come along with being DSLEI at Archer.

“I’ve really had to come to terms with leaving the classroom. [As an administrator,] building that rapport and getting to know students in such an intimate way … won’t come naturally since I’m not in the classroom,” Hazell-O’Brien said. “I know I’m going to challenge myself to show up to the club meetings, show up to the extracurriculars and make myself a presence so I can build relationships.”

Hazell-O’Brien is also excited to get to know middle schoolers (her current school is only ninth-12th grades) and see the magnitude of Archer’s dance program. However, the excitement appears to be mutual. According to English, the final vote to instate Hazell-O’Brien as DSLEI was “unanimous.”

“She just loves teaching, she loves being in school and she loves the hard work of equity-focused, intentional DEI practices,” Pavliscak said. “We felt that we wanted to come alongside her and I think that’s part of the work; you trust the person [you’re] working with].”