Associate Dean of Students Rick Lewis has spent 23 years at Illinois State University promoting diversity, a dedication and passion that has earned him the 17th Strand Diversity Achievement Award.
President Emeritus David Strand established and endowed the award to recognize individuals who had made a unique contribution to the University. “During my career in higher education, I attempted to foster the hiring, professional development and retention of diverse faculty and staff and to make the recruitment and academic success of underrepresented students a priority,” Strand said. “The Strand Diversity Award recognizes those whose efforts result in heightened sensitivity to diversity on campus, which in turn assists the University in responding to its commitment to diversity.”
Strand said when he established the award in 1994, he was hopeful that it would be a constant reminder of the importance of diversity at the University. He said sensitivity to diversity “ebbs and flows on the national and local scenes, but there are always items relating to diversity to which we can be sensitive and which we should strive to improve.” Lewis’ career at Illinois State reflects Strand’s purpose for the award.
Lewis grew up in North Carolina in a working class family with no thought of attending college. After sleeping through his appointment to enroll in the military, he took a job as an animal caretaker in the Wake Forest University biology lab. “Professor Raymond E. Kuhn asked me about myself in an effort to get to know me, one of the first times a white person in the segregated South actually wanted to get to know me,” Lewis said. “He asked me why I wasn’t in college, and I told him I had no money and didn’t know how to fill out the application. He walked me through the process of enrolling at Winston-Salem State University and allowed me to keep my lab job for the next four years. He was my mentor, and I still communicate with him every other month just to let him know how I’m doing. In fact, he just e-mailed me a congratulations on receiving the Strand Award and sent the e-mail to all the people who I worked with in the lab.”
Not content with Lewis earning a baccalaureate degree, Kuhn advised Lewis to enroll in graduate school. “He was the kind of person you can’t say no to,” Lewis said. “So after going to the public library and researching graduate schools, I literally put slips of paper in a hat with names of universities within a day’s drive of my home, and pulled out Illinois State. I sold everything I owned, boarded a Greyhound bus, and came here to get a master of science degree in art.”
Lewis took an assistantship in University Housing, where he met Floyd Hoelting, Chika Nnamani and Maureen Blair. “Those three served as my mentors and taught me everything I know about professionalism, leadership and diversity programming. Because of them and my desire to work with students, I shifted my career from art to college administration. I knew that if I worked hard opportunities would follow. “
And follow they did, from a graduate assistantship to his current position in the Dean of Student’s Office (DOS). Some of the DOS diversity initiatives that Lewis is part of include the Dean on Duty program where students can meet with administrators to assist with concerns, issues and/or problems.
“Students who come through my door must first visit with me about who they are,” Lewis said. “I want to get to know them before tackling their specific issues. Often it’s a matter of pointing them toward the right campus resources and then engaging their interest in becoming involved at the University. I walk them to the Leadership and Service unit and Diversity Advocacy Office to show them all the different programs available to them. Some students become so involved, they end up working at the University. Others bring their friends. So if I can interest that one student, I can also help their friends.”
Lewis is no stranger to proposing diversity initiatives. He received the Neal R. Gamsky Quality of Student Life Award in 2004, in part for his Minority Academic Scholar Achievement Initiative of pairing first-year students of color with upperclassmen to help with the high school to college transition. He also funded a minority book scholarship program.
Recently, Lewis proposed the Mobile Dean on Duty initiative to take the DOS presence onto the Quad. He sets up a table and purposefully engages students on their way to or from class. “I was having a hard time accessing our most at-risk student group for retention—African American males,” Lewis said. “So I introduce myself and engage them as well as many other students. If they know I’m here for them, in a time of need they will call me.”
Lewis and Todd Lee, a graduate assistant, started the diversity effort, “I Am My Brother’s Keeper,” inviting 70 African American males to dinner to discuss their issues and concerns. Lewis stressed it was not a structured group, such as a registered student organization, but an informal event to help students overcome hurdles to success.
Lewis said when he sees students who he has helped walk in Commencement and meets their families, it is an affirmation of his passion to help students. Conversely, when students are not successful at Illinois State, he terms it the “lowest of lows,” but does not give up. He tells those students to attend a community college, develop habits that will help them succeed, and to contact him when they are ready to return. Lewis will advocate for students’ return, but expects them to check in with him monthly to detail their progress.
Lewis said he tells his students to develop good college habits, such as getting up and going to class, seeking help when necessary, joining study groups and hanging with other students who want academic success. In his desire to remove hurdles that interfere with academic success, Lewis established the Run for Academic Success and Excellence scholarship after hearing from some minority students that the price of books was one of their first hurdles at the University. He gathered pledges and ran the Chicago Marathon in 2004, 2006 and 2008 in order to fund the annual scholarships.
“If I can take away one hurdle, it will provide an opportunity for those students to succeed,” Lewis said. “I want to hear and tell the diversity success stories at Illinois State. When we as an institution tell those stories, others will understand that the whole concept of diversity is woven into the fabric of Illinois State University.”
“I am very proud of Rick Lewis as a Strand Diversity Achievement Award recipient,” Strand said. “He has done many things at the University to assist people and solve problems. Additionally, his warm smile and positive demeanor help people feel comfortable and know they are in the company of an individual who will do everything possible to help them.”