Pareena Lawrence doesn't look old enough to be the newest dean heading up the 28 academic departments at Augustana College in Rock Island.
In fact, despite being both the first woman as well as the first minority hired for the position, Lawrence, 44, said it's her perceived age that has been the biggest barrier during her career.
"I walk into a room and people are surprised that I'm a dean of a college," she said with a laugh.
Lawrence brings a diverse background to the Augustana campus. She grew up in India, has a graduate degree in development economics and spent the past 17 years teaching at a school in a Minnesota town of about 5,000 people.
"I was the only Indian in town," Lawrence said. "Now there are none since I left."
Kent Barnds, vice president of enrollment, communications and planning at Augustana, said he doesn't think anyone realized the historic nature of Lawrence's appointment until after she had been hired.
"She's the best possible candidate and the candidate that was the best fit to advance the college's strategic goals," he said.
One of the goals the college has highlighted is adding diversity to the curriculum, a cause that Lawrence said is very important to her.
"One of my priorities and the college's priorities is to be more inclusive and improve diversity," she said, "making sure that we have not just a diverse student body, but also a diverse faculty and a curriculum that reflects that."
Augustana has kept up relatively well with national trends in the advancement of women as well as increasing its minority representation, said Ann Boaden, an adjunct professor of English and the author of a new book on the history of women at Augustana.
"In terms of hiring women on the faculty and giving them positions of leadership, we're doing well," she said. "The movement of women into higher administrative positions, I think we're trying to play some catch-up there."
Women have been moving slowly into higher-level administrative positions in academia ever since the middle of the past century, but the numbers have taken off in the past couple of decades.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of women in executive, administrative or managerial positions at degree-granting colleges has gone from about 56,000 in 1989 to more than 120,000 in 2009.
Lawrence said she has grown accustomed to breaking barriers after spending her whole life taking nontraditional paths.
"I was the first in my family to go into higher education, the first to travel overseas," she said. "It was very difficult for my very traditional father to take this step to send his daughter off, but he did."
After she arrived at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., Lawrence found she was a minority in graduate-level classes that were mostly male-dominated.
"They would socialize in a way I wouldn't socialize," she said. "There weren't people to hang out with after class, and had there been other female students, perhaps it would have been easier. But I was a very good student, so that part of it made it easier. Had I been struggling perhaps it would have been more intimidating. I knew I'd just cream them on a test or something, so it wasn't too much of an issue. I just found friends in other disciplines."
After graduating with a specialization in development economics, Lawrence said she had a decision to make insofar as where her career would take her. She originally had planned to do field work in West Africa.
"My husband just couldn't see himself in West Africa at that stage in his life, and so we said, ‘OK, let's give academia a try," Lawrence said.
So she joined the faculty at University of Minnesota-Morris in 1994 and began a lengthy career there, first as an assistant professor and eventually becoming a tenured full professor.
Lawrence said moving into administrative work came naturally after she had spent time as a faculty member.
"I felt I could do a lot of good as an administrator, make a significant contribution there and it's exciting work for me," she said. "A lot of people are like ‘What? You find this exciting? You're insane,' but I find administrative work both interesting and fulfilling because you indirectly impact students through policies."
As dean, Lawrence believes she is in a position to encourage other women and people of color to advance their administrative careers in academia.
"I think women have taken a long time to get into higher-level administration, probably in part because of the mentoring of female administrators," she said. "There isn't enough of that, partly because there are relatively fewer female administrators. You start off with many department chairs who are women, but to take that next step I think they need encouragement."