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Davis, California

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

New dean of the College of Letters and Sciences tells the importance of access, diversity, a liberal arts education

Dr. Estella Atekwana shares how her education experience informs her leadership today

As many students have just arrived on campus for the first time, so has Dr. Estella Atekwana, the newly named dean of the College of Letters and Sciences. Though she never expected herself to work in the field of university administration — or live in California — Dr. Atekwana was drawn to UC Davis because of the way that the values of the university aligned with her own values and her student experience. 

Atekwana was born in Cameroon in West Central Africa, where she lived until she was 19. After graduating from high school, she wanted to enroll in university, but said that there was only one university in Cameroon at the time, and courses there were taught entirely in French. 

Atekwana grew up in the English speaking region of Cameroon, and even though that region accounts for 25% of the country’s population, the university taught no courses in English. Ultimately, Atekwana decided to search for higher education elsewhere and ended up attending Howard University in Washington, D.C. for both her undergraduate and masters programs.

Atekwana says that the reason she moved to the U.S. for school was because she had to follow the access — to courses taught in her language and scholarships that she needed to continue school — that were presented to her.

“This is what a lot of students face today,” Atekwana said. “How do you pay for school? I was a foreign student, and how do you pay for school as a foreign student when it will be more expensive? If your parents can’t afford it, then you’ve got to figure out ways of paying for it.”

After completing both her bachelors and masters degrees at Howard, studying geology, Atekwana made another international move. She attended Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, where she got her Ph.D. in geophysics. After her time at Howard, Atekwana wanted to advance her education further, but she struggled to find universities in the U.S. that would give her scholarships as an international Ph.D. student. During her time in the masters program at Howard, one of her advisors suggested that she apply to schools in Canada, which ultimately led to her moving to Dalhouse. 

“That is why I think that faculty members have such a big role to play in influencing students and their career pathways, as well as opening up opportunities for them,” Atekwana said. “That’s what happened in this case. He told me, ‘You should apply to schools in Canada,’ and I did apply to schools in Canada, and I got in and they gave me a scholarship.”

Atekwana said that she never expected to work in university administration when she was in school; her goal was to get her doctorate degree and teach geology at a university. After graduating from Dalhousie, she returned to the states, and began to fulfill that dream, teaching at Western Michigan University (WMU). While she was in her first year working at WMU, her department chair at the time, Dr. Thomas Strew, noticed her leadership skills and suggested that she would serve well in an administrative role. 

“The department chair who hired me recognized some leadership qualities in me and started saying, ‘You would make a good department chair,’” Atekwana said. “It didn’t register to me, because I never really saw administration have a career path for me, but as I continued in my career, teaching students, mentoring students, I started appreciating the challenges that students were going through and also opportunities of how we could really enhance the success of our students. I also saw potential in the departments that I was working in, […] and I was also really interested in department governance.” 

Atekwana said that for many years, she didn’t consider taking on an administrative role; however, over a decade later, while she was teaching at Oklahoma State University, she was given the opportunity to become a department chair and she took it. 

“I could have a lot more influence if I became a department chair, to help shape the direction of the department, and also to help shape the lives of the students,” Atekwana said. “I decided that even though I was heavily, heavily ingrained in my research, that if I wanted to have more influence and truly impact most students I could do that in a service position as a department chair.”

Since then, Atekwana has served in many administrative roles. Most recently, Atekwana worked at the University of Delaware as the dean of the College of Earth, Ocean and Environment. She said that she often wishes Strew could see where she is now, so many years after he first mentioned her knack for leadership.

“I always wanted to serve, and I’ve always been somebody who’s very interested in making other people’s lives better, making things work for people,” Atekwana said. “He just recognized that in me, and he mentioned it to me. I was thinking about him the other day and wondering where he is to see where I am today. I’m sure he would be very pleased.”

When she got the opportunity to come to UC Davis, Atekwana said that she went through the process she always does when career opportunities arise. She asks herself, “What is the direction of this institution? Does it align with my own priorities?” Atekwana said that she found that UC Davis was a perfect match. Not only did she see her philosophy reflected in the values of the university, but also her own experience.

“I’ve really been interested in the social mobility of students, because I saw myself coming from Africa,” Atekwana said. “UC Davis is in the top ranked in social mobility. I also like the fact that it’s a number one destination for international students; I was an international student myself at one point in time. Forty percent of students at UC Davis are first gen students; I was a first generation student. [Davis has] a high percentage of underrepresented minorities, […] and I’m a minority myself.” 

Atekwana also said that she was drawn to UC Davis because of its faculty.

“Even though it’s a number one institution with faculty that are award winning faculty, […] [they’re] still passionate about teaching students,” Atekwana said. “That’s what I’ve always wanted. The best researchers should also make the best teachers. They should bring their research, the excitement of that research, to the classroom to inspire students.”

Since she arrived on campus on Aug. 1, Atekwana has been busy acquainting herself with the departments in the College of Letters and Sciences, as well as preparing for students to return to campus after 18 months online. She said that one of her biggest projects for the fall and potentially winter is her “listening tours,” which have already begun, and have allowed her to hear directly from faculty in Letters and Sciences departments. 

Atekwana said that at this moment, handling the return to campus amidst the COVID-19 pandemic is her top concern. She is prioritizing making sure campus is not only a safe environment for students and staff, but also that it is the best learning environment during this time. She said that increased awareness of mental health and student success are crucial at this time. Atekwana is especially interested in making sure that the school addresses students affected by the pandemic in an equitable manner.

“The pandemic was really challenging on all of us, but disproportionately affected more women and underrepresented minorities than other populations,” Atekwana said. “So the question that I’m asking myself right now […] is how do we send our students and our faculty and our staff up for success?”

Atekwana’s first plan to address these student needs is ensuring that the college has enough counselors and advisors to guide students through academic and mental health challenges. She is also working with student affairs to connect students with resources that UC Davis has available for their specific situations.

Aside from the pandemic, Atekwana has lofty goals for her first year on campus. She said that her three goals for the year are getting to know the college as a whole, highlighting the importance of a liberal arts education and creating a new strategic plan for the new direction of the college.

She also wants to prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion in all of her decision making.

“I’ve also been a big champion of diversity, equity and inclusion,” Atekwana said. “That’s going to be fundamental in everything that I do, to integrate more equity and inclusion. We already have the diversity in terms of students, but unfortunately, our faculty demographics do not match our student demographics. That is something that we need to work on. There’s an opportunity for growth in that particular area.”

Ultimately, Atekwana hopes to raise the status of the College of Letters and Sciences. As the largest college on UC Davis’s campus, Atekwana believes it is important to remind the community of the importance of the college and of a liberal arts education. 

“I think the skills that we provide our students — critical thinking, writing skills, communication skills, problem solving skills — are skills that employers want and they need,” Atekwana said. “Our students probably would better weather the flex of the changing job landscape because they have the skills that will allow them to be very flexible.”

Written by: Katie DeBenedetti— features@theaggie.org

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