Lift as you climb: Kenyon Bonner ’94 has innovative approach to student affairs

Kenyon Bonner ’94 sits in his corner office in the University of Pittsburgh’s William Pitt Union surrounded by books, family photos, and a genuine aura of optimism and positivity. He has an easy-going manner that is both welcoming and discreet; a special ingredient for diffusing conflict, while conveying a sense of comfort.

His remarkable ability to forge connections and think creatively as an open-minded leader in higher education led to Bonner being honored as the recipient of W&J’s Maurice Cleveland Waltersdorf Award in March 2017.

Bonner is Pitt’s vice provost and dean of students. This makes him the go-to person for handling some of the most difficult situations that arise on campus, but his open-door policy and commitment to engaging with students makes him one of the most well-known and well-liked administrators among the student body and his peers.

“I have known Dean Bonner for the better part of 13 years, dating back to my own time as a student,” says Penny Semaia, Pitt’s senior associate athletic director for student life. “He is so deeply rooted in being active and present with our students, whether it’s by attending an early breakfast awards ceremony or serving as a keynote speaker during a late evening event.”

Even when there are no scheduled events, Bonner is often found outside the confines of his office walking about campus and striking up conversations.

“Dean Bonner makes it his priority to be accessible to students, through planned events, and through small, but important, everyday interactions. He builds trust through his actions and character,” says Pam Connelly, vice chancellor of diversity and inclusion. “Pitt is a better place because of Dean Bonner.”

While overseeing a plethora of areas within the University’s Division of Student Affairs, Bonner’s primary responsibilities include managing experiences that can be found outside of the classroom, an interest that dates back to his own time as a student at Washington & Jefferson College.

When Bonner, a Cleveland native, began his academic journey at W&J, he felt a myriad of emotions as a young black male at a predominantly white college. He was just a freshman when he capitalized on those feelings and ran for president of the Black Student Union (BSU) during the organization’s inaugural year.

“Being named the first president of the BSU is an experience I will never forget,” recalls Bonner, who was nominated for president by a classmate. “I remember standing up in front of the group and telling them why I thought I would make a good president. At the time, I wasn’t sure I had the confidence to do the job, but my peers believed in me.”

Shortly after graduating from W&J, Bonner was accepted into Kent State University’s rehabilitation counseling program.

“During my practicum, I remember listening to students’ problems, concerns, frustrations, and challenges,” he says. “It was during that time that I realized I had a real interest in discovering who or what is responsible for the experiences students have on a college campus.”

And so his influential career in student affairs began.

After completing his master’s degree, Bonner held various positions at Kent. In 2004, he joined Pitt as assistant director of residence life and quickly advanced through the ranks of the Division of Student Affairs, becoming director of student life after just a year at the University. In January 2015, Pitt named Bonner interim vice provost and dean of students, a position he permanently assumed in February 2016.

Aside from his official duties and responsibilities, Bonner is widely known for having fun. He emphasizes the importance of engaging on campus, respectfully listening to all points of view, and compromising when forming plans.

Bonner’s time at W&J, as well as his experience leading the BSU, encouraged him to think about how important it is for students to feel a sense of community on campus. He says he uses that knowledge every day to help him do the best job possible.

Bonner with classmates from W&J at the Waltersdorf Award Ceremony in March 2017.

He also gives credit to those classmates who uplifted him for creating an understanding of how equally important it is for peers to support each other. It’s a way of thinking he calls “lift as you climb,” and it’s a lesson he imparts to the almost 18,000 undergraduate and 10,000 graduate students enrolled at Pitt. The theory is based on a belief that as individuals find their footing and attain their own success, it is then their responsibility to help others learn and excel. Those who know Bonner often witness him practicing what he preaches.

Nola Juste graduated from Pitt in 2010 with both undergraduate and graduate degrees and says she was fortunate to have that time to get to know Bonner.

“I had the opportunity to work with Dean Bonner in a variety of capacities. No matter the situation, he always listened to student feedback and implemented changes based on that feedback,” says Juste. “I think that’s what really separates him from the crowd and is also the reason why he is so revered by students.”

While working with a diverse group of people can oftentimes be challenging, that’s part of what attracts Bonner to his position.

“I actually enjoy going to work and not really knowing how my day could begin or end,” he says. “There is no one day that is the same.”

Being a dean of students isn’t easy – and it certainly isn’t for everyone. But it has its rewards. Bonner sees his work as an investment, one that pays off when those he has worked with hit a pivotal moment.

“I love knowing that I have had some role, no matter how small, in helping students have a great college experience,” he says. “When former students come back for a visit, or send me a card or letter telling me about their successes, those are hands down the greatest moments for me. It reminds me how enriching and rewarding this job really is.”

W&J student awardees for the 2017 Maurice Cleveland Waltersdorf Awards for Innovative Leadership are Abbey Brewer ’17 and Alexandria Halula ’17.

The Maurice Cleveland Waltersdorf Awards for Innovative Leadership recognizes outstanding alumni and students of Washington & Jefferson College who attain a high level of achievement and exemplify the spirit and leadership qualities manifested by Dr. Maurice C. Waltersdorf. The awards honor the late Dr. Waltersdorf, who served as a professor and chairman of the Department of Economics at the College for 32 years. He initiated numerous innovative changes that shaped the Department of Economics and its students.