Courage Never Quits with Wanda Costen · ShiftWorkPlace

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E33 Courage Never Quits with Wanda Costen

Bio for Wanda Costen

Dr. Wanda Costen is the Dean and professor at the School of Business at McEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta, who champions inclusive excellence. Leading with integrity, she eliminates barriers to sustainable change by reimaging how to prepare students for the 21st-century life of work and purpose.

Wanda earned a Ph.D. in sociology at Washington State University, an EMBA from Pepperdine University, and a B.S. from the United States Military Academy. Her collaborative approach synthesizes experiences from the military, private industry, and higher education in the United States and Canada.

Episode highlight

Wanda Costen was raised in the military, across different continents, and went through 3 careers before finding her sweet spot. Listen in on how she uses her understanding of culture and academia to make a difference.



  • “Even as little children, we have experiences that, later on in life, we realize, shape who we are.”
  • “Students are going to have multiples careers, not jobs, but very distinct careers in ways in which they engage with the economy.”
  • “When you’re young and you happen to be in a foreign country… anyone who’s like you becomes your friend.”
  • “The military, while certainly it’s a microcosm of society, it’s… such a bureaucracy and not that racism and sexism… homophobia… don’t infiltrate into the systemic part and operations and how it organizes, but really it’s less so, because people don’t have time to be concerned about your colour.”
  • “Racism is taught, it’s a learned behaviour.”
  • “Sometimes, ignorance is a good thing. You should just go do stuff without even realizing you should be worried.”
  • “My race shapes a lot because it shapes my lived experiences and how I’m treated because I moved through the world often without displaying my earned privilege and I’m very blessed to have a lot of earned privilege.”
  • “I recognize that I have the privilege of buying my way out of racism and I often do that.”
  • “If I’m having these experiences with all of my privilege, what is happening to the average black person in the United States? They are dying, literally, for no other reason than the colour of their skin.”
  • “I just believe that at the end of the day, we’re social beings and… [there is] this notion of how important it is for me to connect in real deep meaningful ways to others.”
  • “You’re born into a family, but there’s the family you create, and that family has to be there for everyone because we all have difficult times.”
  • “I believe education is so privileged… It certainly is not the panacea we thought it was and, in many ways, it replicates the social strata, the socioeconomic strata that exist but it is the only opportunity we have… for social mobility.”
  • “Racism doesn’t abide by some imaginary line we drew calling [it] a border.”
  • “I want to be the best me I can be, and I want to contribute in real and meaningful ways towards some endeavour that I believe in.”
  • “This is what mentoring means… To give someone that kind of feedback, to care enough about them, to set them on this path and to show them, have them think of different ways of addressing things and their standard way of being.”
  • “We think our motives are so obvious to people and they’re not and we forget that people bring all their lived experiences and their life experiences with them, and perspectives and world view.”


Childhood incidents:

Wanda’s mother came from a working-class background, having worked in retail her whole life. A pragmatic and grounded woman, she ensured that Wanda and her brothers were prepared for the real world. She taught them the value of working hard and trying to be the best.

Wanda’s father served in the USA military, and the family moved every 3-5 years. This taught her and her brothers how to develop friendships quickly, adapt to one’s environment and view different cultures with openness. Wanda was 11 when she moved to Germany with her family, keen to learn the culture and language, and eat the local cuisine.

Still learning the ropes of living in a foreign country, she was befuddled when a young boy came up to her group of friends saying he would not play with her. Even though he apologized and became a friend later, this was her first experience of being viewed differently because she was African American.

However, she never felt discriminated against and was sad to leave Germany 5 years later. They moved back to Oklahoma, and she says she was unprepared for the experience, because she did not fit in, even in an ethnically and racially diverse area. “The white kids didn’t talk to me because I was black, and the black kids didn’t talk to me because I was ‘acting white’”, she remarks.

Wanda was a part of the 7th batch of women in The United States Military Academy in West Point, New York. As an African American woman in an otherwise white male dominated world, she believes that these experiences helped shape who she is and what she does today.

Groups you were born into and belonged to:

Wanda identifies first as an African American then as a woman. She has navigated barriers of race and gender throughout her life and recognizes that its outcome is a constantly heightened sense of awareness. She was raised Catholic but left the church because of the lack of inclusivity.

She credits living in Germany for her directness, straightforwardness, and fortitude. She also imbibed punctuality, cleanliness, and the value of self-presentation from the Germans.

Temperament and personality influences

Wanda’s elementary teachers had identified early on that she was gregarious, outgoing and an extrovert. The people in her life find her caring and compassionate. She believes she is empathetic, transparent, and accountable.

Wanda struggled with having a “split personality” between her personal and professional life. She has worked hard to present her authentic self at work. She claims that her colleagues and students have now seen her exhibit a range of emotions.

She values the friendships in her life, but found it challenging to recreate a social group when she moved to Edmonton. She now has a group of women she feels very connected to and shares her feelings with.

A time I became aware that my way of doing things was cultural and specific to my cultural experience

Wanda had an “aha moment” as a military cadet. Since her family was in Germany, she went to her friend’s house for thanksgiving. She was taken aback by their grandiose, upper middle-class lifestyle, different from her humble upbringing. She realized that she would also grow up to have a life like this with the opportunities that a college education presented to her.

Wanda worked in 3 careers – sales, operations, and HR – and applied the skills and competencies she learned from each of them in her life. However, she left the corporate world at the prime of her career to heed her calling into teaching. She believes her openness to “explore and evaluate new and different ways” led her to Canada.

Being an American living in Canada, Wanda feels she is treated better as a visible minority here than at home; however, racism still exists in subtle ways. She says that her lived experiences and outcomes are different because of her background, and some Canadians struggle to acknowledge that.

Advice to an employer to work with me

Wanda needs people working with her to follow 4 tenets:

  1. Set the path
  2. Describe the desired outcome
  3. Define the scope of responsibility
  4. Give meaningful and timely feedback

Her colleagues describe her as honest, fair, and transparent, and she values those qualities in others too. “If all my bosses were that way, sign me up!”, she laughs.

More great insights from our guest!

“Courage is one of those values that I hold really dear”, says Wanda. She believes that it takes a lot of courage to be a high-quality, effective leader.


Fluttering Around the Classroom: A educator teaches us how to bring our authentic selves into our daily lives through the awareness of its challenges.


Dr. Wanda Costen is the picture of courage and wisdom. She has transformed challenging life experiences into opportunities for growth by imagining herself in new and different circumstances. Her career trajectory is the result of mental toughness, adaptability, and willingness to collaborate even in challenging social contexts. Her awareness of ways to negotiate race, culture, language, and challenge has evolved and her resilience is buffered with groups of like-minded friends and constant reflection on her experiences. Articulate, social and ambitious, she is an example of how someone who strikes others as an ‘outlier’ can create her own family and community bonds, while forging ahead to new vistas of opportunity.


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