To Ascend or not to Ascend

January 23, 2023
  • Leadership and Management
  • ascend
  • signature initatives
Red room with round red table surrounded by red office chairs.

By Marisa Darby, Registrar at The University of Dallas and ASCEND Participant.

I cannot count the number of times I have been asked what made me decide to apply for the ASCEND program. Each time I give an answer it evolves a little more, but let me walk you through my actual thoughts and timeline.



It all began with a prayer: “Lord stretch me…”

Before you dismiss this entire article because it sounds like a sermon, I promise it’s not. However, as a person who for the last decade has served at faith-based institutions and as a woman of faith this is just who I am, and unapologetically so.

Let’s continue.


An email blast from AACRAO hit my inbox regarding the ASCEND program. Quite honestly, I probably deleted about 5 of them, read the 6th one, and applied on the 7th. Fate, right?! The application process was somewhat intensive, but not overwhelming. It forced me to reflect on who I am as a practitioner, my lived experiences, and my career aspirations. The vulnerability required to complete that process lit a fire under me and brought me to the realization that there were people who recognize the cultural and gender disparities that plague higher education in executive leadership. 

Application submitted…now we wait.


On October 4th, when I received my acceptance letter (after screaming internally and doing my happy dance) I immediately went into a slight panic mode because now I had to figure out how to pay for this. However, proper placement yields provision. Thankfully, all of my expenses were covered by my leadership. 

Am really going to Canada? Now to find a real coat. Context: I live in Texas where it’s 4 seasons a day or 1 season a year. Nothing in between. 

Did I mention that we had our first assignment within 7 days of being accepted into the program? Yep. Top 5 Clifton Strengths: individualization, developer, relator, connectedness, and strategic. This can’t possibly be me.


Prior to the SEM conference in Toronto, I didn’t know what to expect. I was mostly nervous with feelings of inadequacy. Sure, I aspire to leadership in enrollment management, but I’m a Registrar for goodness sake. Very few people know and/or understand what we really do.  

However, after meeting my cohort, getting my very detailed curriculum, and listening to a phenomenal presentation that helped us fully unpack our Clifton Strengths I started to see the vision and my place in it. Once Melanie Gottlieb, AACRAO’s Executive Director (the first woman to hold that role) said, “Since there were no seats at the table, we created a table” it all became clear. I was exactly where I needed to be. I was amongst like-minded individuals who are collectively trendsetters, visionaries, disruptors, game changers, and glass ceiling breakers. 

I have found my tribe.


As I reflect, I realize, we are 10 leaders with proven track records from diverse backgrounds with some shared experiences. We are not only highly skilled, but also extremely knowledgeable in our respective areas and many of the intersecting offices. However, for a plethora of reasons many of us have been either overlooked, undervalued, or pigeonholed. ASCEND saw in us what others may have missed including ourselves. While I initially applied to help fill my toolbox and advance my career, I’ve learned over these last few months there’s so much more here to be gained. Putting us all in the same room is like achieving Voltron status. 

Additionally, we are being mentored by some of the most influential and respected practitioners in higher education. This provides us with the champions to help us “ascend.” People who can actually vouch for our capabilities and open doors to rooms that we may not have access to. 

This table that AACRAO has created is poised to seat the next generation of leaders that strive to serve others well and look (visually) like the world we actually live in. While it stands to reason that the majority of higher ed leadership has been held by white males; ASCEND strives to evolve that narrative into a version where everyone is invited, welcomed, and comfortably seated.

So, when you ask me why I applied, I’ll say divine intervention. When you ask me, what I am expecting from this program, I expect to be seen, heard, and equipped to evolve with the ever-changing landscape of higher education. When you ask me, about my experience so far, I’ll say that every day I am in this program I grow a little more. 

Ascend means “go up or climb” or “rise through the air.” In the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, it implies motion from a lower place to a higher one.

True to its definition AACRAO’s ASCEND program is designed to elevate, enlighten, and evolve its participants to new levels. It is going to be an interesting year-long journey and quite frankly, I am here for it. 

Stay tuned…


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