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The purpose of this collective case study was to understand how five female presidents of small American colleges and universities perceived and described their childhood years and the life experiences that characterized their career paths. Data was collected through a series of semi-structured, open-ended, oral history interviews and the review of personal and professional documents such as vitae, speeches, and publications.
Personal narratives highlight the people, places, and experiences characteristic of each participant’s childhood years. The study presents a chronology of the life course experiences characteristic of each participant’s career path and in-depth analyses of turning point experiences and epiphanies. Themes, patterns, and meanings that emerged from the data are described.
Within-case analyses revealed individual lifespan themes reflective of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. The cross-case analysis revealed that each of the five participants excelled academically; described the characteristics of the era during which she grew up; explained her parents’ expectations for her to attend college; demonstrated and/or acknowledged being confident and ambitious; and received encouragement for administrative positions that eventually led to the presidency. The participants grew up amidst changing notions about women, their roles and responsibilities, their abilities, and their rights. The study revealed how each participant persisted and succeeded in spite of personal and societal challenges.
A conceptual model is presented of the participants’ lives from childhood to the presidency and the continual, interactive process through which their lifespan career development evolved. The model accommodates the individuality of each participant and her experiences within a particular historical context. The model supports the belief that women’s developmental patterns and subsequent career development are unique.
Career development theories relevant to each case are discussed. Implications for career development professionals and researchers; institutions of higher education; and young girls and women aspiring to careers in higher education administration are presented.