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How my role as a sponsor opened doors to opportunity

27 Aug 2019 | Gwen Van der Velden From the University of Warwick, Gwen Van der Velden – Deputy Pro-Vice Chancellor (Student Learning Experience) and Academic Director – describes her role as a sponsor on the Diversifying Leadership programme for Dr Meleisa Ono-George, Director of Student Experience and Associate Professor (Caribbean History).

When I was asked to sponsor Dr Meleisa Ono-George I was clear that I wanted Meleisa to succeed, but I wasn’t equally clear on what sponsoring entailed. Advance HE provided a helpful webinar, which sorted that out quickly, so I was well prepared for a first meeting with Meleisa. 

The first sponsoring meeting Meleisa had already achieved much in terms of educational and curriculum enhancement with her academic department. I’d worked with her in a networking sense, but had not been able to engage much further. Our first sponsoring meeting was therefore about establishing a clear idea of what she wanted to achieve from the Diversifying Leadership programme, and for me to set out what parameters I would be working to. In my leadership role, I am often asked for suggestions of colleagues who could help on a project, a committee or a working group. When I know someone has expertise and they are likely to deliver to a high standard, I’ll suggest they are considered if they fit the criteria. Sometimes I’m also aware of colleagues who are outstanding but not very visible and I’ll look out for opportunities to put them forward as an additional member of a group, so they become visible and we benefit from their expertise. 

After giving me a clear understanding and narrative of what her strengths were, Meleisa joined my mental file of people that might make a difference. I could not guarantee opportunities would arise, but they did, and Meleisa has been excellent in deciding what she could take on, and delivered every time. As it happens, Meleisa has both the expertise and political skills to influence policy, so I sought opportunities in my own networks to help make her visible nationally and by now, Meleisa really is progressing independently. Within the timescale of about a year, sponsoring has made a real difference, with benefits for Meleisa, the institution, our students and soon, policy. 

We had a number of meetings over coffee, and as part of this we spoke about the obstacles Meleisa and other colleagues of colour encountered. For me this meant I gained a deeper understanding of structural, social and unconscious racism. However, as much as I had engaged on inclusion in a number of ways, I have been raised, socialised and educated in a predominantly white environment, with consequent values and assumptions. Whilst that also meant I was aware of white privilege, I sensed there was an ‘unknownunknown’ and this is what Meleisa educated me on. Generous in answering my questions and eager to explore challenges together, Meleisa has taken me through a process of understanding which has been transformational. An unexpected gain of the sponsoring process is that I am now confident to address issues within my university that are race-related, and am able to bring senior colleagues along. Meleisa has also introduced me to a range of staff and students who understand what change is needed and my position allows us to work together on bringing change about. 

In summary, it is fair to say we both benefitted considerably from the sponsoring opportunity, and I would warmly recommend the Diversifying Leadership programme to both candidates for the programme and their prospective sponsors. 

A key priority for Advance HE is to take a series of actions working with the sector to tackle the well documented under representation of BAME leaders in UK higher education institutions; The Diversifying Leadership Programme is an important element of that work and Diversifying Leadership 10 will run in January 2020. 

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