This story is part of The Well’s coverage of the C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Awards, which recognize “unusual, meritorious or superior contributions” by University employees. Look for new recipient profiles in the coming weeks or read others you might have missed.
It’s the best way to describe Vanessa Mitchell’s natural approach to improving herself by learning, helping others and building relationships with the staff, faculty and students at the UNC School of Social Work.
Those tendencies have blossomed in a 37-year career that spans the tenures of five deans. Mitchell, a computer support analyst, has become an important part of an information technology team available 24/7 to assist students, faculty and staff.
Since first working at the school’s National Child Worker Leadership Center, Mitchell has moved to positions of increasingly higher responsibility. While her work can be described as installing and servicing hardware and software, the inspired part of her job comes from how she treats people.
A family affair
“The School of Social Work is my second, third, fourth family,” Mitchell said. “My husband used to say, ‘Yes, they truly are your family because you can go to work all week and never take lunch because somebody there will feed you.”
A family affair is what her Massey Award nomination was, with Dean Gary Bowen submitting a narrative of faculty, staff and students extolling Mitchell’s worthiness for the award.
“Vanessa has consistently been the ‘quiet force behind the scenes,’” the nomination reads. “No matter her role, she has approached every position with one ideal in mind: To ensure that Carolina and its people are set up to make a lasting impact.”
Mitchell keeps the Tate-Turner-Kuralt Building’s technology running smoothly by proactively addressing problems and requests. “Every day, Vanessa moves throughout the building, checking in with administrators, faculty and staff, in search of potential complications to solve,” the nomination reads. She usually arrives extra early for events to ensure that microphones, PowerPoint presentations and video cameras are ready.
“She … makes sure that people have what they need, often before they have to ask for it,” said Phil Kaufman, Mitchell’s supervisor and director of the school’s computing and information technology unit.
Her work also includes ordering, installing and servicing hardware such as computers, cameras, headsets and keyboards and software for database systems and statistical programs.
But getting to know the people she serves is most important to Mitchell. That interest comes easily and helps her understand what motivates people so that she can serve them better. She has often prevented colleagues from hurriedly making a decision that would have caused problems. “The lesson: If Vanessa speaks, listen,” the nomination notes.
Mitchell encourages everyone to attend each other’s presentations and often attends herself. “I’ll listen and maybe take something I learned back to my church or to other people,” she said.
Advocacy and empathy
Known as an advocate for students and staff, Mitchell is willing to speak up for and support anyone in need, especially when she believes someone has been treated unfairly. “Her quiet advocacy has earned her the respect of colleagues and the admiration of students, particularly students of color. Every year, many learn quickly that Vanessa’s office is a safe place,” her colleagues said. Students feel safe confiding in “Miss Vanessa” about their frustrations and concerns.
That advocacy and her empathy come from Mitchell’s experiences chipping away at norms in a mostly male, mostly white industry. She’s often been the only Black person and woman at training sessions, but recently she sees more representation of women and minorities. “It’s changing,” she said.
Perhaps, then, it’s serendipity that she works in a school where students train to be a voice for marginalized populations and to create change so that everyone has a fair chance to succeed. In fact, Mitchell’s colleagues and the students call her “a nurturer of success, someone who exceeds expectations every day because she relishes in the success of others.”
Helping others succeed started Mitchell’s IT career. At the school’s former location on Franklin Street, a small computer lab had no IT staff to support it. Though she was a secretary for an assistant dean, Mitchell started helping students who were having technology problems.
When the school moved to the Tate-Turner-Kuralt Building, Mitchell worked on two different floors as an assistant in the doctoral program and for the master’s program. Laura Zimmerman, who ran the school’s computer lab, encouraged Mitchell to apply to be her assistant. “I was like, ‘I’ll think about it,’” Mitchell said. “She asked me three more times before saying, ‘This is the last time I’ll ask.’”
She applied, interviewed and was hired. “I started learning more about computers,” Mitchell said. “Laura sent me for training certifications. I don’t have a degree in computer science, so it was hands-on learning instead.” Mitchell said that frequent changes in technology require her to constantly learn new things, which has kept the job interesting.
From farm to Carolina
Mitchell has worked at Carolina since shortly after leaving her grandparents’ farm in the northern Orange County community of Cedar Grove. She graduated from Orange High School in 1979 and starting work at the University in 1982. She married in 2000 and with husband Keith had a daughter, 37, and two sons, 35 and 18. Keith died in 2018 in a truck accident. Mitchell continues to live in a rural community, Pleasant Grove in Alamance County.
Until retirement comes, Mitchell will work in her usual high-caliber way that originates, she said, from her desire to help people.
“It’s the helping aspect of the job. Someone stated that it didn’t matter to me whether you’re faculty, staff or a student. If you ask for help, I’m going to do all I can to help you.”