Georgia College Front Page

Diversity: Chavonda Mills stays to make an impact

 


Sophomore chemistry major Rachael Cundey with Dr. Chavonda Mills in the biochemistry research lab at Herty Hall.

 

This is part of an on-going series on diversity.

It’s a challenge to recruit outstanding faculty. Doubly so, when trying to attract a more-diverse teaching population.

When it comes to keeping underrepresented faculty, it gets even harder.

Asked why she stayed at Georgia College 12 years—Dr. Chavonda Mills, interim associate dean of Arts and Sciences (A&S), said it’s the impact she can make here. She gets other offers. But Mills knows she can make a difference here.

“To be that change agent at Georgia College is what keeps me here,” Mills said. “I feel a sense of purpose. Georgia College is definitely a great institution to be at during this period in higher education.”

On a campus that’s working to hire more underrepresented faculty—Mills said she can be a role model and mentor for minority students. She identifies and recruits students early on, asking if they’d like to join her biochemistry research group. It’s satisfying work, seeing students advance and achieve their goals.

Underrepresented students approach Mills too. They want her to know they’ve noticed an African-American woman scientist in the dean’s office, and they appreciate her work.

With Mills at the helm as chair of its Diversity Leadership Team, A&S is “making a difference,” said Chief Diversity Officer Dr. Veronica Womack.

“Chavonda’s been very good at not only fostering diversity within her college but also by creating an environment where inclusion is important,” she said.

As chief diversity officer in the Office of Inclusive Excellence, Womack is constantly thinking about campus climate and making Georgia College a welcoming place for faculty, staff and students from underrepresented groups.

To become more multi-inclusive, Womack said, Georgia College needs to examine factors that make people want to move and work in a particular area. Faculty look for amenities like employment placement for spouses and partners. They’re also selective about their children’s education. So, she said the university must continue to support the surrounding K-12 education system.

“There’s such a small pool of underrepresented people for hire,” Womack said, “It becomes very difficult to be attractive to prospective employees. Considering that, in many ways, we’ve done extremely well.”

This year, retention is high on the A&S’s priorities for diversity. This shift-in-focus is something Womack hopes to make campuswide. One of the biggest challenges when hiring diverse faculty is whether they’ll remain—especially with so many employment options nationwide.

Some faculty come to Georgia College, like Mills, recognizing the difference they can make here. Womack, too, saw an opportunity in the Middle Georgia area to continue her research on the Black Belt region.

What kept her here, however, was the support Womack found in what was then a department “of mostly middle class white men.” They created an environment where she could be successful, giving Womack extra summer classes and earning potential. They funded her research and sent her to conferences for professional development.

“If you have a department that’s collegial and fully sets the tone of collaboration,” Womack said, “then you can retain underrepresented people. It’s all in departmental culture. When we create a great working climate, even if people aren’t making the salary they would in other places, they’re willing to stay.”

 


Dr. Mills with former student and alumna Macy Polk.

 

Underrepresented faculty can be tempted to leave for jobs at larger universities with less workload and higher salaries in areas that are more attractive, like urban settings. Given these challenges, retention can be difficult.

Mills used Dr. Laura Whitlock, lecturer in physics, as an example.

“Hiring a female astrophysicist from a very small applicant pool is a great achievement,” Mills said. “Now the question becomes: Can we keep that person here, when several institutions across the nation would love to have a female astrophysicist on their faculty?”

Statistically, according to a 2014-2015 report by the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of women getting Ph.Ds. in STEM fields (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) is low. About 27 percent of women get Ph.Ds. in mathematics; 34 percent in physical sciences and technology; and 23 percent in engineering.

The numbers go even lower for women of color: About 2.9 percent of African-American, 3.5 percent of Latinas and 4.8 percent of Asian women get Ph.Ds. in STEM fields.

“Nationally, for the sciences, there hasn’t been enough progress made to increase diversity of underrepresented students with advanced degrees in STEM. The numbers are dismal,” Mills said.

“But when you compare the diversity of Georgia College faculty to other institutions,” she said, “we have a lot to be proud of. There’s work to be done. But, compared to the market and the number of women and people of color who are available to fill those positions—we’re doing a great job.”

Growing up in Decatur, the majority of Mills’ teachers and role models were African-American. She didn’t realize a discrepancy until her later years in college. Finding herself a rarity in the field of science, Mills was determined to affect change.

“Young girls being told it’s ok to perform poorly in math or science is not acceptable. Despite decades of work to change that narrative, we still hear this today,” Mills said.

“It becomes a matter of changing mindsets,” she said. “Know that women and people of color do belong in math and science. They are capable. They are competent. They are intelligent. And they have proven themselves to be successful.”

Mills brings this buoyant optimism into the classroom and to every student she mentors. 


Dr. Mills enjoys mentoring.

 

She has seen how mentorship changes student lives. Now, the College of A&S has developed a mentor program for new faculty as well. People feel less isolated, when they have a supporting guide. Mills recalled her first mentor in the chemistry department 12 years ago—Dr. Rosalie Richards—who helped her adjust and feel welcomed.

It’s a privilege to be a mentor for others now. It’s one of the best parts of Mills’ job.

“I enjoy being around students,” she said. “I love helping students. I love giving students guidance and seeing the light bulb go off. I also love the independence of my lab, working on projects I’m passionate about.”

When speaking with prospective faculty, Mills stresses these benefits.

As a liberal arts institution, Georgia College professors have more flexibility to be creative and innovative. They can chart their own trajectory—often forging a path for other minorities and becoming mentors to underrepresented students on campus. Faculty are fully-engaged with students. Plus, they have the opportunity to do research with undergraduates.

“Georgia College is an easy sell,” Mills said. “We just want to make sure we retain all our outstanding faculty as we value their presence and contributions to the campus community.”

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