January 23, 2019
As Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Director, Neli creates, leads and coordinates institutionalized equity, diversity and inclusion programs for all PSD constituents. She builds strategy, provides guidance and develops resources to support diversity and inclusion practices for staff, students, postdocs and faculty. We interviewed her about her past professional experiences and plans for the division.
What drew you to working in the diversity and inclusion (D&I) space?
I started my professional career in international sales and had a lot of interactions with individuals at the executive level. I am a minority on several dimensions (female, Black, from another country, and English is my third language) so I was often interacting with individuals who were more privileged than I was. I would walk into a room of C-level men and would have to work harder than my peers to be afforded the same degree of consideration and respect. I often found myself on the receiving end of micro-aggressions and, at times, received mixed messages or was treated differently. Those experiences made me consider, on an almost visceral level, the need and impact of D&I education and practice. From there I opted to switch careers and started to work in higher education focusing on diversity and inclusion within admissions and student affairs.
That's what drew me to the work, but what keeps me here? My twin boys. I want them to have better experiences than I did. I want them to be in a world where they are treated the same as someone who was born with more inherent privileges. I want them to receive the same benefit of the doubt that their peers receive and the same access to life-altering opportunities. I want them and others like them to confidently view their differences as assets, not deficits. Working in higher education is my way of impacting the sort of change that will lead to a better world for my sons and for the next generation.
Tell us about your previous work. What did you do? What is something you are proud to have accomplished?
Prior to coming to PSD, I worked at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science. There, I helped establish their Office of Diversity and Inclusion. I was focused on D&I programming and also handled international student matters—from helping with visas to creating an inclusive environment for this population. A lot of work involved interfacing with students, faculty and staff to try to enhance diversity and promote inclusion.
It is worth noting that mentoring is impactful across all levels. New students, postdocs, staff and faculty can benefit from mentorship from peers with more experience. One of the programs I created at RFU that I would like to bring here is a peer mentoring program for incoming underrepresented students. We paired incoming URMs with existing students to help them transition to the new environment. The program impacted retention, improved culture, and created a sense of belonging for both our existing and new students.
What is something you'd like to accomplish in your first year as Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Director?
I want to make a splash that will ripple for years to come. I want to get to know the PSD community and vice versa, so I welcome pop-ins if only just to say hello! I want people to know that there is a structure and an Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion that serves PSD and the University as a whole. I want to launch programs that become traditions. I want to facilitate the creation of a mission and vision that is line with the Dean’s aspirations and the larger PSD community’s vision. D&I work can't be done in a vacuum; ultimately, it is everyone’s responsibility because it impacts everyone. This type of work takes time and commitment. If I can help the PSD community—my new community— to take ownership of the work needed to promulgate diversity and inclusion across ranks and groups in the years to come, that will be a win in my book.