What’s On My Mind: The dedication of Vanderbilt’s staff

"What's On My Mind" illustration of Chancellor Nicholas S. ZepposEvery year I look forward to our annual Service Award Ceremony, an event that marks and celebrates a resonant truth on our campus: the vital importance of our staff. Vanderbilt would not be the great university that we are without them.

This year’s Service Award Ceremony was a glamorous, red-carpet affair befitting Vanderbilt staff celebrating service milestones. In particular, over 850 staff members from 212 departments achieved milestones of five years or more, and the event specifically recognized those who hit the remarkable milestone of 20 or more years of service. As with previous years, I found myself in awe of the level of dedication that so many people have brought to our campus for years on end.

With the world moving seemingly faster every day, it speaks volumes about our community that we have so many people who have devoted themselves to Vanderbilt for decades. It is through their professionalism, expertise, institutional knowledge and unwavering commitment that we are able to make positive changes and fulfill our ambitious mission on a daily basis.

A clear highlight of the occasion is always the presentation of the Commodore Award, the university’s highest staff honor. I had the honor of presenting this year’s awards to Antoinette Hicks, a manager in Campus Dining who is known across campus for her warmth and personable conversations, and Dennis Spann, the facilities officer at the School of Nursing who has been a key force behind the school’s groundbreaking building expansion.

We also celebrated the honorees for the second-annual Diversity Leadership Awards: Michelle Halman, recruiting and training manager for Campus Dining, and the Human Resources Diversity and Inclusion Committee. Collectively, these recipients have improved upon Vanderbilt’s inner workings, propelled our university’s goals and boosted our morale, transforming what could easily be just work into a desire to be kinder, push harder and make a difference.

This event only begins to hint at the scope, the commitment and the impact of Vanderbilt’s staff. While there could never be enough accolades to recognize the full scope of their contributions, our “Heart and Soul” staff awards add a layer to acknowledging both the accomplishments of our staff and the joy that they bring to so many people at Vanderbilt day in and day out. It is one of the great privileges of my role to give these awards, and I relish in the surprise factor of the presentation as well as the opportunity to see great employees in their elements—in the offices where they cultivate a close-knit community. Written by the people and departments who know the nominees best, the submissions for the Heart and Soul awardees often read like job recommendations for someone you would rush to hire immediately, overflowing with descriptions that we all can aspire to: “kind,” “resourceful,” “expert,” “team player,” “selfless” and “grace under pressure” among them.

As we recognize our staff members, we must acknowledge that they not only excel at their jobs but that their work grants them unique insights from which we can all learn. Antoinette Hicks, for one, is not only a friendly face in the dining hall, she is an informed observer of student dynamics, having watched the cycles of students interacting, eating and socializing for years on end that informs Campus Dining’s overall operation. Special event coordinator Scott Glasgow—one of the staff members featured in the excellent “I Am Vanderbilt” video series—is not just the planner behind the Turkey Toss and Vandy Chills, but a person who understands the importance of balance between hard work, camaraderie and fun, and builds events that support and enhance those values.

I encourage you all to watch the “I Am Vanderbilt” series, to think curiously about the people who plan the logistics surrounding top-tier lectures, design the event posters around campus, collaborate with architects on building updates, clean the classrooms, craft fundraising and development plans, brew the coffee, balance the books. Vanderbilt staff are a legion of skilled professionals operating in every corner of our campus. Accolades and spotlights are important, but there are countless and less formal opportunities for us to appreciate and learn from our staff.

Last month, I spoke with Vanderbilt’s University Staff Advisory Council, a committee comprised of employee liaisons from many corners of our campus who have volunteered to take on this additional service role in addition to their daily responsibilities. As we talked through topics spanning leadership opportunities for women, diversity, environmental sustainability and transportation, it was clear that USAC is yet another reflection of the breadth of employees on our campus, the depth of ideas they bring to the table and the effort they put into making Vanderbilt great.

It is a cliché at this point, but it couldn’t be more true: Vanderbilt is greater than the sum of its parts. And our “parts” are connected, strengthened and amplified by our staff. As co-inhabitants of a diverse community, an ambitious mission and a united front, we must look to them, and to everyone around us, for new perspectives, experiences and strengths. And rest assured—there are plenty within close reach.