Sanders to receive Robinson Equal Opportunity Award

April 22, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Crystal R. Sanders, associate professor of history in the College of the Liberal Arts, has been selected to receive Penn State's 2021 Dr. James Robinson Equal Opportunity Award.

Crystal Sanders

Crystal Sanders

IMAGE: Penn State

The award, sponsored by the Penn State Alumni Association, was established in 1988 and renamed in 1998 to honor the late James Robinson, a distinguished alumnus and former member of the Alumni Council. It recognizes a full-time faculty or staff member with at least two years of active service who has promoted equal opportunity through affirmative action and/or contributes to enhancing the educational environment of the University through improving cross-cultural understanding.

Nominators called Sanders a fierce proponent of the history of black education and also an advocate for expanding opportunities for minorities in the field. She oversaw several efforts at Penn State that opened doors for students and educators.

From 2018 to 2020, Sanders served as director of the Africana Research Center (ARC), where she oversaw a highly successful postdoctoral program that improved the recruitment of diverse faculty members. Nominators said the program recruited postdoctoral scholars from a highly competitive pool across the country and invited those scholars to attend a year at Penn State under faculty mentorship. She also brought to campus leading scholars from around the world to give lectures and professional development seminars on a variety of topics including photographic resistance in Zimbabwe and student activism during the civil rights era.  Under her leadership, the ARC co-sponsored a symposium to celebrate the 16th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education that allowed members of the Penn State community to hear from New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah Jones and other thought leaders.

Before becoming ARC director, Sanders coordinated the University’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. She hosted the Reverend James Lawson, a leading tactician of nonviolence.

At the Richards Civil War Era Center, Sanders spearheaded a summer program that invited 10 undergraduate students from underrepresented groups to spend a week at University Park to help them envision a career path in higher education. Nominators said Sanders worked tirelessly to recruit students for the program, titled Emerging Scholars Summer Mentoring Program, from historically black colleges and universities.

Through the program, students learned writing tips, how to prepare applications, how to apply for graduate schools. Participants also attended a seminar showcasing Penn State faculty members. Several alumni from the mentoring program are now graduate students here at Penn State.

To help current underrepresented tenured faculty members advance at Penn State, Sanders created the Midcareer Faculty Advancement Program in 2018. The program serves as a resource for associate professors who identify as African American, Latinx, American Indian, Hawaiian or Pacific Islander and who have a demonstrated commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education and at Penn State.

“What I find most remarkable about Dr. Sanders’ initiative in developing the program is that she concerned herself with the promotion and advancement of her peers,” a nominator said. “While not a full professor herself, she took the time to lay the groundwork for a program that appreciates the challenges of building diversity, acknowledges the complexities of navigating career advancement as faculty members of color and expands faculty development resources at Penn State.”

Nominators also said Sanders advances diversity and inclusion through her teaching. She’s credited with being a social, cultural and political historian who has written on the black freedom struggle in books such as the award-winning 2016 book A Chance for Change: Head Start and Mississippi’s Black Freedom Struggle, which profiles Black women’s involvement in the education program Head Start and segregationists’ challenges to the program. Her forthcoming book, “America’s Forgotten Migration: Black Southerners’ Efforts to Secure Graduate Education in the Age of Jim Crow,” looks at how southern states compelled Black southerners to go North for graduate and professional school study as a way to preserve segregation.

“While Dr. Sanders has made a mark on the profession through her teaching, scholarship, and service, she is quick to tell others that what matters most to her are the opportunities she builds for those who may follow in her footsteps,” a nominator said. “Penn State is a more welcoming and healthier learning and workplace because of colleagues like her.”

Last Updated April 22, 2021