November 17, 2021
PSD’s November spotlight is Aleksandra “Aleks” Ninova-Parris, Director of Diversity and Inclusion for the Physical Sciences Division since November 2021. We interviewed her about her interests and experiences below.
Where are you from?
I am originally from Bulgaria—a small country in Eastern Europe. I came to the U.S. (specifically to Georgia) on a Rotary scholarship, in 2007, after graduating high school. I am coming to Chicago and the Physcial Sciences Division after having spent 14 years in Metro Atlanta.
What do you enjoy about being a part of the PSD community?
So far, the people! Everyone is incredibly kind, welcoming, and intelligent!
Tell us a bit about you.
I am an only child, born in Ruse, Bulgaria, and raised mainly by my maternal grandparents. My mom is a lawyer and my dad is a retired Air Force major. Ever since I was a young child, my mom worked very hard to diversify my perspectives and exposure to difference, since my home country is fairly homogenous racially but has some ethnic and religious diversity. She started teaching me English at the age of two and ensured that I studied the language at all educational levels, from pre-k through high school. I also learned Russian, German, and French. My parents got cable TV in Bulgaria very soon after it became available. Thanks to cable TV, I became exposed to Cartoon Network, MTV, Animal Planet, National Geographic, and more channels, all in English, which broadened my worldview and actually helped my adaptation to the U.S. immensely.
My mom was a lawyer to many people of Bulgarian nationality and Jewish heritage who left Bulgaria during WWII. She was assisting them in managing and/or selling their families’ properties in our hometown. Many of these people had become U.S. citizens, and when they visited, I met with them, and they told my mom and me about the quality of American higher education. Thus, I knew from around the age of six that I would come to the U.S. for college. I was very fortunate to obtain a Rotary scholarship to attend college for one year for free in Georgia, and so I came to the U.S. in 2007 at the age of 18. My prior exposure to American popular culture through entertainment media and music greatly assisted my adaptation. It developed my socio-linguistic awareness and marked the beginning of my intercultural competence development. Georgia is a very diverse state, and exposure to people of all different aspects of culture greatly assisted, too.
When I transferred to what became my twice alma mater, Kennesaw State University (KSU) in Kennesaw, Georgia, I attended the International Student Orientation there. I became aware of Student Affairs as a branch of Higher Education. I felt that that was my thing. I was astounded that it could be someone’s job… nay, career, to serve as a support and a resource to students and all that comes with that: planning developmental and fun programs and events for them, helping them feel welcomed and connected to the institution, and helping them navigate the American collegiate system and succeed. I fell in love with this idea, and I told the person leading the orientation that I wanted her job. She looked at me inquisitively, then she smiled and said to me that if I stuck around, she’d teach me everything I need to know to have a job like hers.
And so I stuck around. I obtained several student leadership positions. I became involved with numerous RSOs and did tons of volunteer/service work. I soaked up everything. I worked closely with that person’s department, and as a graduate student, I served as a graduate research assistant there as well. I did as much as I could to tailor my experience toward Higher Education and also diversify it for the value of different perspectives.
In 2016, I obtained a professional position in the same department that initially inspired my love for Higher Education. Due to a sudden departmental transition, I ended up holding every position within that department, culminating in the same position I had told my first mentor that I wanted on my International Student Orientation day back in 2008. It was a dream come true to have obtained my dream job! Along the journey, and thanks to the structure of that department, I had the opportunity to work with a number of underrepresented student populations, including international students, domestic underrepresented minorities, LGBTQ+ students, and women, including undergraduate and graduate students. I am excited to have had the opportunity to learn about and from diverse students, all with unique needs, but unified in the need for a sense of belonging at a predominately white institution (PWI).
The more I learned about different underrepresented populations, the more I developed a passion for serving a broad spectrum of identities and learning about them. In 2019, I assisted my former department in reorganizing and refocusing our efforts toward promoting intercultural competence on campus with a student focus. I spearheaded our outreach initiatives and overarching intercultural competence efforts.
I am currently pursuing a Doctor of Education (EDD) in Leadership with a focus on Higher Education Leadership online at Valdosta State University in Georgia. The program, which is designed for working professionals in the field of Education, is exciting and greatly enriches my work. For my dissertation, I am interested in exploring how dominant culture students make meaning of allyship toward underrepresented minority peers.
I have always been a big fan of cities and city life, having grown up in one, and I am very excited for the opportunity to live in Chicago and join the UChicago PSD family! I look forward to getting to know the Division, the current D&I work and efforts, and supporting and enhancing those in the years to come! Fun fact: I was first exposed to Chicago around the age of six through a cartoon called Biker Mice from Mars – it was my favorite! Who would have known that one day I would end up in the city those mice were bravely trying to save?!
Another fun fact: I met my spouse during my very first semester at KSU, in 2008, in an American Government class. We have been together ever since: 13 years this year, married for 7 years now. And we have two dogs together: a teacup Yorkie named Julez, age 12, and a Rat Terrier named Bruno, age 8.
Who inspires you?
I view inspiration not only in things I want to emulate but also in things I want not to. I believe that in different seasons of our lives, we are inspired by different people whose characteristics, qualities, personalities, or struggles/experiences we can relate to. There are many outstanding individuals in history whose names I could quote for an honest but somewhat cliché answer. I am also consistently inspired in different ways by many people around me, including family members, friends, and professional colleagues.
Currently, I would say I am inspired by a former supervisor turned mentor, Brandon Jackson, with whom I have worked for about five years. Brandon has a profound professional and personal impact on my life and career. He has taught me so much, including strategic development, understanding senior leadership, and honing my innovation. He has allowed me to teach him, too, about the importance of relationship-building and providing meaningful feedback. I consider him to be the epitome of a consummate professional in the field of Higher Education. I appreciate all of the qualities and flaws I find in him, and I admire his ability to navigate and utilize those in his work and career. If I weren’t okay with being me, I would want to be like him when I “grow up.”
What is the most interesting thing that you are working on right now?
The most interesting thing is learning about UChicago and getting to know everybody in PSD who does diversity and inclusion (D&I) work!
Nobody was born knowing all there is to know about different cultures, identities, or aspects of diversity. It is our responsibility to educate ourselves on these matters because, in my experience and view, D&I penetrates every aspect of existence—from the smallest thing, such as a greeting, to the understanding of complex topics, contexts, and situations that affect the way the world works.
Reflecting on my own background and identities, I come from a very privileged environment in many ways. There are many identities I do not hold and many I never could. I continuously work on educating myself, learning and unlearning, and developing my intercultural competence. I have and likely will continue to make mistakes along the way. Learning, however, will continue to happen, too, and lead to better outcomes, improved interactions, and an inclusive environment. I am excited to continue learning and helping students do the same!
What does diversity and inclusion mean to you?
To me, “diversity” is the presence of difference—we need to ensure diversity is present before we can move toward inclusion. “Intercultural competence” is the “how”; one of several methods, it is the attitudes, knowledge and skills, and behaviors one gains and implements in order to achieve desired communication and other outcomes. “Inclusion” then can be viewed as the result (or outcome) of implementing intercultural competence and other methods. Or, it can also be regarded as a verb in a way, as constant and continuous actions that ensure people feel connected, valued, and an essential part of the conversation and institution.
On a personal note, D&I is about life-long learning and enrichment. It is humbling, yet empowering; uncomfortable, yet magical; difficult, yet natural; a process and an instant; theory and practice; trial, error, more trial, more error, success; a whirlwind of history and emotions; and its own universe of discovery. It can be everything or nothing (to some) and a total “maybe” to many. It is about people and their stories, experiences, cultures, backgrounds, identities, and how they intersect with one another and with society. To me, it is not just what I do; it is part of who I am.
Who had the most influence on you growing up?
It isn’t easy to pick just one person (see note about who inspires me), but I would say the person with the most influence on my growing up would be my high school Bulgarian Literature teacher, Tatiana Zhivkova. She is the person I credit with breaking us (the students) out of the older norms of Bulgarian education based on memorization and repetition. She taught and allowed us to think critically, creatively, and freely. This is important because critical thought and individual work have been essential throughout my collegiate experience in the U.S. and have immensely helped my personal and professional growth in many ways.
What three words best describe you?
Passionate, analytical, creative.
If they made a movie about your life, what genre would it be and who would play you?
Aidy Bryant would voice me, and it would be an animated tragicomedy, BoJack Horseman-style.