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New VPSA Kenyon Bonner embraces leadership, student-centric values

Bonner speaks on two decades of student engagement and his passion for leading others

<p>Bonner views the adjustment to a new community as an exciting challenge that he is well-prepared to tackle, through his three-step philosophy of listening, learning, and engaging. &nbsp;</p>

Bonner views the adjustment to a new community as an exciting challenge that he is well-prepared to tackle, through his three-step philosophy of listening, learning, and engaging.  

Kenyon Bonner, the newly appointed University vice president and chief student affairs officer, spoke with The Cavalier Daily about his leadership values, plans and inspirations. With a passion for engaging with students and fostering dialogue, Bonner’s experience and background revolve around a dedication to student success. 

Commenting on the uniqueness of the University compared to previous schools he studied and worked at, Bonner said he hopes to engage with students involved in self-government organizations to further shape the University community. His path in student affairs, which most recently included an over 20-year career at the University of Pittsburgh, is characterized by inclusive leadership, fostering collaborative environments through diverse perspectives from students, faculty and staff.

A first-generation college student, Bonner said that he recognizes the importance of accessibility resources and a balanced learning environment. During his time as an undergraduate student at Washington and Jefferson College, Bonner served as the president of his Black Student Union and played for his university’s basketball team. He said that his background in both learning from and guiding others has set his priorities as a leader. 

“I'm a first-generation college student and that motivated me to stay in this field and work in higher education… Being the first to go [to college] in my family, understanding what it feels like to not have resources or people you can talk to … is part of my history. I also was a student athlete in college,” Bonner said. “That perspective of balancing both the in classroom and outside the classroom in collegiate athletics is something that I bring with me.”

Bonner received his Master’s of Education in rehabilitation counseling from Kent State University, where he learned to listen to student perspectives as part of his practicum — it was then that he learned about bettering a student’s environment to help them succeed and where he discovered that student affairs is an outlet to guide students. 

As the previous vice provost for student affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, Bonner focused on student-centered, servant leadership — a leadership style focused on empowerment and growth of others. Bonner demonstrated this commitment through an initiative to engage with off-campus students in isolation by hosting neighborhood walks and handing out free COVID-19 supplies in Oct. 2020. Bonner said he plans to continue practicing servant leadership at the University. 

As he begins his time at the University, Bonner views adjusting to the new community as an exciting challenge that he is well-prepared to tackle, through his three-step philosophy of listening, learning and understanding. He said that his first task is meeting new people and understanding the University culture — a challenge he eagerly anticipates. 

“​​I think it's important and responsible for me [to experience] as much as possible, to begin to form my own understanding from the people who are already here … [They] can impart their wisdom to me,” Bonner said. “Anytime you move into a new environment, a lot of what you do is listening, learning and understanding … the history, the culture and what people’s aspirations are, and then figure out how you can help participate in that.” 

Bonner said that there is strength in uplifting a variety of perspectives — at the University, he sees the manifestation of inclusive leadership in the tradition of student self-governance. 

“I am excited about the student self-governance like the Honor Committee and the [University] Judiciary Committee. I think those are really unique and special parts of U.Va. that I don’t have experience with, but they intrigue and inspire me,” Bonner said. “The fact that students have taken on that responsibility and really shaped the student experience at U.Va. over decades is really exciting and something that I am looking forward to learning more about.” 

Bonner said he also values fostering dialogues that bring forth contrasting viewpoints, a practice he would like to continue at the University. He said that he thinks the University already has a strong culture around discourse and disagreement, which he sees as important in higher education.

“[Disagreeing is] not an easy thing to do, to engage in dialogue and discourse and perspectives that you disagree with, or sometimes vehemently disagree with,” Bonner said. “I think that’s a healthy philosophy of higher education, and I think one of the cornerstones of what it means to attend a university.” 

Closing the interview, Bonner spoke on major inspirations that have influenced his student affairs journey thus far. He said that students themselves are his greatest inspiration, adding that seeing students grow from his mentorship is the largest reward.

“My driving motivation is helping people achieve their goals… however they define it,” Bonner said. “Those are my paychecks.” 


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