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. Find others you might have missed.
In 2017, when Shayna Hill was nominated to serve as the Employee Forum chair, she sought the blessing of her supervisor at the time, Dr. Lauren Patton at the UNC Adams School of Dentistry.
To Hill’s surprise, Patton wasn’t worried about whether the University’s top staff leadership role would interfere with her work duties. She didn’t ask how many hours per week the volunteer job would require.
“She just looked at me and asked, ‘Well, what would be your platform?’” Hill said.
The question caught Hill off guard. She didn’t have a detailed platform. But she knew one thing. “I told her I would try to always lead with my heart,” she said. “I don’t know how to lead any other way.”
Hill’s empathetic leadership style proved timely. Halfway through her term, as the University was met with one of the greatest challenges in its centuries-long history — the global COVID-19 pandemic — Hill was there to listen to and advocate for University staff.
Employees called at all hours of the day and night and on weekends, and she answered. “It’s been an awful year for a lot of people,” said Hill, now manager for statistics and operations research in the College of Arts & Sciences. “I worry about folks that are carrying a lot of stuff, and they don’t have a release for it.”
Hill, too, has suffered loss this year. She was in a Zoom committee meeting when she learned that her husband’s mother, who had been isolated for months in a locked-down assisted living facility, was on her deathbed.
“They let us in to watch her hyperventilate and be nonresponsive. And then she died the next day. I mean, how do you deal with that?” Hill said. “But so many people have had those stories. This has been that year.”
As Employee Forum chair, Hill did more than listen.
“Shayna led the Forum and, by extension, all staff employees, through the opening and reopening of campus during the ongoing COVID pandemic,” wrote Matt Banks, university program associate with the Employee Forum since 1995, in his Massey Award nomination letter. “In response to campus need, Shayna stepped forward with humility and grace to lead the Campus and Community Advisory Committee and the Staff Advisory Committee to the Chancellor. Shayna has been a guiding light illuminating staff perspectives during the current difficult budget negotiations resulting from the pandemic.”
During her four years as chair, Hill chalked up many successes. She helped plan a 2019 community meeting on state health care concerns that included the state treasurer and UNC Health administrators and that was widely praised in Chapel Hill and Raleigh. She wrote and performed in a highly successful — and creatively lighthearted — get-out-the-vote video in 2020. She took up a resolution made by her predecessor, Charles Streeter, for the creation of the Rebecca Clark Staff Award for Moral Courage and pushed until it became a reality. The award is now conferred at University Day alongside the Edward Kidder Graham Faculty Service Award and Distinguished Alumna and Alumnus Awards.
Hill is quick to share the credit for her successes — with Streeter, who she said continues to be an unwavering ally; with the faculty chairs she has worked with, Leslie Parise, Lloyd Kramer and Mimi Chapman; with Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz and other University leaders.
And her peers reciprocate. “[Hill] has heart, dedication and drive — as well as compassion for her fellow human beings,” wrote Streeter, applications analyst with Student Affairs IT, in a letter seconding Banks’ nomination.
“She prides herself on lifting up those around her,” wrote Employee Forum delegate Jacob Womack, classroom set up coordinator with the UNC School of Government.
An unorthodox life
Hill comes by her beliefs — what she calls a “desire for unity and kindness and inclusiveness” — honestly. She describes an unorthodox life full of joy and heartbreak.
The daughter of a Catholic mother and Jewish father, she was two when her father died by suicide. He and her mother were actors living in Los Angeles at the time. After his death, her mother, who was raised in Durham, brought Shayna and her older brother, Joe, to Chapel Hill, where Hill attended elementary school, middle school and high school.
Hill greatly admired her mother, Virginia Lahiff Hill. “My mother was a raging hippie. I was involved in many of the civil rights marches and women’s rights marches as a child,” she said. Her mother had a street theater called the Everyman Company. She married an African American man, the first Black social worker employed by the Chapel Hill Police Department. That marriage ended and, for the last 27 years of her mother’s life, her partner was a woman. Hill’s mother died in 2011 of cancer.
“She was amazing, truly someone who had no discrimination,” Hill said. “She loved people for the core of who they were. It didn’t matter what religion they were. It didn’t matter what race they were. It didn’t matter what sex they were. I have always been extremely, painfully aware of the person sitting in the room who feels like they are the other. It pulls me to try to help people visualize how that may feel to someone.”
From her mother, Hill also caught the acting bug. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in dramatic art from Carolina, Hill moved to New York City to pursue an acting career. After four years, she moved to Los Angeles, where she joined The Second City, the Chicago-based improvisational comedy company. But, in 1993, her brother died by suicide, leaving her devastated.
Hill returned to New York in 1995 and made one final effort to find work. She landed small roles on soap operas and in films but the wind had been knocked out of her sails. “I always had a steady survival job, because gigs were few and far between,” she said. “There are always TV pilots coming out that you hope and pray that you get so you can quit your survival job.”
But the big break never came, and in the summer of 2002, Hill returned to Chapel Hill and started over. She got a job at the University as a parking control officer, walking the campus handing out tickets. After 11 months, she took a job as materials manager in the UNC Adams School of Dentistry. While there, she enrolled in a master’s degree program at the Gillings School of Global Public Health, inspired by the connection between public health and social justice.
“I had some mental health issues,” she said. “My mother was smart enough to guide me to get help. I’ve never made any secrets about my struggles.” However, in 2007, her mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. “My mother died during the first year of my master’s program. It was heartbreaking.”
In 2016 Hill became an Employee Forum delegate, was elected Forum treasurer and was nominated to become the chair in 2017. In 2019, after serving two yearlong terms as Forum chair, Hill moved into her current position with the College.
‘Love wins. Always.’
For as much of herself as she gives to the Employee Forum, Hill said she has also gained from the experience. “The Forum constantly makes me check my motives. I refer to myself as ‘really rainbow,’ but I’m not so open-minded to some people. This work makes me get out of myself and try to imagine what their challenges are and be more loving and accepting.”
This summer, Hill received the Arnold D. Kaluzny, Ph.D. Distinguished Alumni Award from UNC Gillings for her service as Employee Chair. Kaluzny, himself, called Hill to congratulate her. “He said to me, ‘This award usually goes to a doctor or a Ph.D. I’m so thrilled it’s going to somebody who’s doing boots-on-the-ground work in public health.’”
In July, after four successive terms as Employee Forum chair, Hill handed the baton off to Katie Musgrove, business officer in the UNC School of Law.
In a farewell message to Carolina staff, Hill wrote: “You have enriched and inspired me, and you have pushed me to be a better version of myself. … In closing, my enduring hope is that we will continue to stay involved, treat each other with kindness and support one another. After all, Love Wins. Always.”
Editor’s note: September is National Suicide Prevention Month. If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or call 911 immediately.