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Staff Spotlight: Assistant Dean of the Undergraduate College Tonja Nixon '15

February 16, 2023
Portrait of Tonja Nixon

Tonja Nixon '15 reflects on her journey going from student to Assistant Dean of the Undergraduate College at Bryn Mawr in the following Q&A. 

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work as Assistant Dean of the Undergraduate College?

I'm an alum from the Class of 2015, and I have not spent more than three months at a time away from Bryn Mawr since the fall semester of my first year. I moved out of Bryn Mawr in August to start grad school, and then I was back in November to work with athletics to coach track. This is now my eighth year in athletics, my seventh year in the Dean's Office, and my third year as an assistant dean.

So, for my work right now, that looks like having a caseload of students for whom I academically advise, and I help them with anything that they're going through throughout their time here. I’m one of the first puzzle pieces of their support network and, hopefully, not the only one by the time they're getting to the end of their careers here.

I do a lot of DEI work in our office, especially around leadership and the ways we can better support our students. I also hold the Honor Board, which has been a lot of fun.

Can you describe your journey of graduating from the College and then coming back to join as a member of staff?

It was definitely unexpected. I had offered to volunteer my time with the track team after graduating, not thinking it would lend itself to literally sticking around, but I fell in love with it. I then ended up hearing about the wellness coordinator role through Coach Hewitt, and I applied for that job which ended up leading to the creation of Thrive. I immediately fell in love with the job, and I held that position for four years.

I think there was something about being a staff member here that was both very different from and easier than being a student at Bryn Mawr. It filled me up with the same amount of joy that I had coming into Bryn Mawr as a student. So that transition, while it was certainly not something that I planned, has been really nice.

When the opportunity came along to apply for the assistant dean position, I saw that as a title that gets to have a voice and make an impact beyond the Thrive program. I've really spent the last three years trying to make sure that folks always feel heard as a result of me getting a seat at this table.

How do you feel like your time as a Bryn Mawr student informs your work as a dean?

I spent a lot of time reflecting on my student experience, as well as what the students are experiencing right now. I bear in mind that there are going to be a lot of similarities that work in my favor, but I also never lose sight of the fact that those experiences are also supposed to be different. If someone is telling me that their experience has been less than great, while my experience was, for the most part was pretty great, then that's where I really want to be paying more attention so I know how I can help. If I can do anything to help your experience match more of my experience, that's when I know I'm doing my job well.

As I get through the second half of my seventh year in the Dean's Office, I'm really reflecting on where we've been as an institution because I now have over a decade to look at, and I’m really excited for some of the changes that I’m seeing. I am particularly excited for the ways in which we are going to end up being a more equitable and inclusive campus. 

What made your Bryn Mawr experience so positive?

I had an awesome first year. I think a lot of it was just the people that I found myself surrounded by on a day-to-day basis. I had a great team I could rely on. I found great friends, three of whom were in my customs group. So, I didn’t have to go very far to find those friendships. I had places like Sisterhood*, Mujeres*, and BACaSO to find more people who were culturally like me, as well as visually like me. I had an entire athletics department that I could just rely on, even outside of the track team, and I was being understood on some levels that I didn't know I needed until I needed them. All of these things I found in my first year, and that's not always the case with first-year students at any institution. I would say I had a near-perfect first year as far as all of that goes.

The first year set the tone for my time at Bryn Mawr; I can be here, this is my place, these are my people, I belong here. So, even though I wasn't planning to come back, coming back felt like a no-brainer. We did this once, and it clearly worked out. Why not?

Are there any resources from the Dean’s Office that you'd like more of the community to know about?

I would love to see more folks interacting with the Honor Board, being curious about it, wanting to get more involved, and getting to know the people who make up the team. There are all these folks helping people see things from different perspectives and making sure that we are always coming at anything that we're asked to be involved in with a restorative justice mindset, with re-entry into the community always part of that goal.

How do you like to spend your free time outside of work?

I really love tending to my plants. When the pandemic started I had a lot of time in my house, as we all did, and I wanted to find a way to bring some of the outside inside. So, my partner and I became plant moms. We brought a couple of succulent kits, and we have some that are almost two years old now.

I also spend a lot of time with my partner and my dog. My dog is a six-and-a-half-year-old golden doodle named Tucker. And I have never seen a tuckered Tucker, so there is never a dull moment in our apartment.

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