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Vanessa Mitchell earns prestigious Massey Award for outstanding service

Vanessa Mitchell, a computer support analyst with UNC’s School of Social Work, is among eight University employees selected to receive the 2021 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award, one of the most prestigious distinctions earned by faculty and staff.

The award is named after and was established by C. Knox Massey ’59 of Durham in 1980 and recognizes “unusual, meritorious or superior contributions” by University employees. The winners, selected through a campus-wide nomination process, each receive a $10,000 stipend and an award citation.

The University usually bestows six awards, but given the exceptional year spent dealing with the global COVID-19 pandemic, the decision was made to recognize eight employees this year, said Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz.

“I am incredibly grateful to Carolina’s employees for their hard work, dedication and commitment to our mission of teaching, research and public service, especially during the past year with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Guskiewicz said. “This year’s eight Massey Award recipients exemplify the outstanding contributions made by our colleagues during these extraordinary times. This honor is well-deserved, and it is our privilege to recognize and thank these amazing employees.”

In addition to Mitchell, this year’s winners are: Sibby Anderson-Thompkins, special adviser to the provost and chancellor for equity and inclusion, interim chief diversity officer; Dr. Mario Ciocca, director of sports medicine, Campus Health; Sandra Foxx, housekeeper, Facilities Services/Housekeeping, Kenan-Flagler Business School; Teresa Golson, housekeeper, Facilities Services/Housekeeping, North Carolina Botanical Garden; Shayna Hill, manager, Statistics and Operations Research, College of Arts & Sciences, and chair of the Employee Forum; James Holman, crew leader, Facilities Services/Housekeeping; and Kathy James, administrative assistant supervisor, UNC School of Medicine. (To read more about the other winners, visit UNC’s The Well newsletter.”

Mitchell’s career at UNC has covered nearly four decades, including 34 years with the School of Social Work. During her tenure, Mitchell has consistently served as an integral component to the successful functioning of the University and to the School, praised Dean Gary L. Bowen.

Moreover, she embodies Carolina’s commitment to public service, he said. No matter her role, Mitchell has approached every position with one ideal in mind: To ensure that the University and the people within in it have the greatest opportunity to make a lasting impact, he added.

“I cannot think of a more deserving employee for this award,” Bowen said. “In her position as a technology support analyst, Vanessa is highly responsive in her support to faculty, staff, and students. She is extremely proficient in her job and meets any task or request with a ‘can do’ attitude and a smile. She is a team player in every respect, and she contributes greatly to the sense of community in our School of Social Work. I have the utmost respect and appreciation for Vanessa, and I am thrilled that she is one of the recipients of this distinguished service award.”

For Mitchell, the recognition is humbling. “Words can’t explain just how appreciative and grateful I am,” she said. “I give all praises to God. Having God in my life, has gotten me through some of the worst times, and I am thankful for His favor for all the rewards, both great and small.”

Mitchell launched her career with UNC in the early 1980s, first as a support staff member with UNC Ophthalmology and then the Department of Anesthesiology. A few years later, she was hired as a support staff member with the School of Social Work’s National Child Welfare Leadership Center. Established by a $1 million grant from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, the former center provided training to improve child welfare programs across the country and to strengthen services for children and families.

Over the next few years, Mitchell served in various other roles within the School, including as an assistant for the dean’s administrative team and to faculty members, including former associate professor Audreye Johnson. Mitchell spent countless hours every year helping Johnson prepare for the annual conference hosted at the School, called “Black Experience Workshops.” These workshops attracted hundreds of academic, state and national leaders who participated in critical conversations about racism in America, addressing various topics, including health, economic, and social welfare issues.

By 1993, Mitchell was juggling multiple responsibilities, serving as an assistant in student services as well as the administrative assistant for the School’s newly created doctoral program. That she eventually landed with the School’s information technology team may have been fate. After all, Mitchell loved tinkering with old computers on the fritz, getting the machines humming again for students and staff.

Driven by a passion for self-learning, Mitchell quickly became the troubleshooting point-person, ready to assist with any technology issue to keep the School’s Tate-Turner-Kuralt Building operating smoothly. To this day, she is still often the first on the scene for student-led and other School-sponsored events, ensuring microphones are working, PowerPoint presentations have been cued up, and video cameras are rolling. Over the last year, as the School shifted to remote learning and working during the pandemic, Mitchell continued to help students, faculty and staff sort through networking and computer glitches.

More often, she anticipates needs before receiving a request for assistance, said Phil Kaufman, Mitchell’s supervisor and director of the School’s Computing and Information Technology Unit.

“That’s because she works hard to develop relationships with people,” he said. ”She is really hands on and will walk you through an issue and show you how to do something and make sure everything is working right. You don’t get that level of attention everywhere, and it’s something that I highly value. I also completely depend on her because she knows all the history of this building and the people in it. That knowledge is indispensable.”

For students, Mitchell is “Miss Vanessa,” and one of their biggest supporters. Over the years, they have found her to be a confident, someone they can voice their frustrations to, especially when they encounter micro aggressions and just need a quiet place to process. 

In return, these students often learn of the systemic challenges Mitchell has faced over the course of her own career. As a Black woman, she entered and continues to belong to a profession that has long been dominated by White men. Although progress has been made within the University environment, nationwide, the percentage of Black women in tech has been steadily declining over the last few years, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Students view Mitchell as a role model and as a nurturer of success. She exceeds expectations every day because she relishes in the success of others, praised Ph.D. student Annie Francis.

“Miss Vanessa is a gemstone,” Francis said. “She goes above and beyond her job responsibilities to provide support and encouragement to whomever is in need. She doesn’t discriminate with whom she serves – it doesn’t matter what your status is, or how long you’ve been a part of the UNC family. It doesn’t matter if you’re a first-year student or you’ve been here 11 years. You’re going to get Miss Vanessa’s best every day because that’s just who Miss Vanessa is.”

Photo by Jon Gardiner