Meet our 2022 Distinguished Alumni Award Winner, Sybrina Atwaters!
Sybrina Atwaters was a clear standout for the 2022 HSOC Distinguished Alumni Award.
She boasts an astonishing five degrees in her portfolio — three of which are from Georgia Tech and two from the School of History and Sociology — and that's just the start of her accomplishments.
In the following profile, Atwaters shares her journey to her current position as the director of Georgia Tech's Office of Minority Educational Development (OMED) and the many challenges she faced and lessons she learned along the way.
Name: Sybrina Y. Atwaters, Ph.D.
HSOC Graduation year: M.S. HTS 2009, Ph.D. STS 2014
- Ph.D. in Sociology of Technology and Science, Georgia Institute of Technology, 2014
- M.S. in History, Technology, and Society (HTS), Georgia Institute of Technology, 2009
- Master of Theological Studies, Candler School of Theology, Emory University, 2005
- M.S. in Instructional Technology-College of Education, Georgia State University, 2002
- B.S. in Electrical Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology, 1994
Company and location: Director of the Office of Minority Educational Development (OMED) at Georgia Institute of Technology
1. What do you do?
I currently lead the oldest diversity unit at Georgia Tech as Director of the Office of Minority Educational Development (OMED).
As part of Institute Diversity’s Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion, OMED is charged with retaining and developing traditionally underrepresented students (URM): African-American/Black, Hispanic/Latinx, Native American, and Multiracial. I lead teams of professionals, faculty, students, researchers, and Institute level initiatives to meet this charge.
As Director of OMED, I have oversight of several programs and grant initiatives under OMED’s purview, including, but not limited to:
- The award-winning African American Male Initiative (AAMI)
- Challenge, OMED’s signature five-week summer academic intensive residential program
- Edge, a peer mentoring and student development program
- Focus, an annual institute-wide diversity graduate recruitment program
- And the Women of Color Initiative (WOCI), a city-wide collaborative with Georgia Tech, Spelman, Emory, and STEM Atlanta Women non-profit.
I have been intricate in the launch of three new OMED initiatives in the past two years alone: Career Pathway/Career Alliance (advancing equity in co-op, internship, research, and study abroad experiences), Peer-I-scope (advancing the success of Atlanta Public School and HBCU transfer student success at Georgia Tech), and Diversity Abroad and Global Innovation Program (expanding access to study abroad and global internship opportunities for students of color, as well as expanding Georgia Tech’s global partnerships with universities and companies in South Africa, Brazil, and the Caribbean).
I lead Georgia Tech in serving more than 1,700 students directly impacted through OMED programs and services annually, and over 5,000 URM students enrolled.
Recently, I became an affiliated faculty with the School of History and Sociology (HSOC). I provide DEI consulting and support to HSOC and serve as mentor and committee support for Ivan Allen College graduate students.
2. What’s the coolest part of your job?
The people and the work!!!
In this role, I have the opportunity to work directly with undergraduate and graduate students, staff and faculty across the institute, alumni, corporate reps, funders, administrators, and community leaders. I encounter amazing people all the time who operate with a standard of excellence.
I also get to apply data and research findings directly to creating and cultivating Institute-level initiatives and programs that impact student access, outcomes, equity, performance, and development. So, the people, the work, and being able to see the impact of my efforts are the coolest part of my job.
3. Why are you passionate about this work?
It aligns with my purpose and calling.
Growing up in inner-city East Atlanta during the '80s, I came to know the depth of systemic racism and oppression too well. I have witnessed intelligent, resilient, ambitious, and exceptional people have their opportunities significantly limited and their well-being diminished by the injustices embedded in economic, educational, political, judicial, and social practices across America.
Consequently, the desire to address these institutionalized inequities and expand liberation practices has become a part of who I am. This faith in the power of liberation practices to address many of the ills that haunt and divide humanity has driven many of my career decisions.
4. How did you find your job/what’s the best resource for jobs or networking you’ve found?
I was very familiar with OMED as an undergraduate and graduate student at Georgia Tech. It has been leading diversity and equity work for decades and was major in my own student success journey. However, I found out about the assistant director job, which led to the director job, in conversation with a close friend and fellow Georgia Tech alumna. I wasn’t even considering Georgia Tech as a career option.
I think the best resource for jobs is the people that become a part of your network through the years. If you are intentional about the connections that you are privileged to make as a student or alum of this institution, you will discover that they are a rich resource and network in your future endeavors. Your peers, mentors, staff, professors, advisors, colleagues, supervisors, project teams, etc., can be a part of your network. They become a resource to expand your professional awareness and access.
The second-best resources are the professional guilds, organizations, and cohorts you have been a part of, as well as alumni. I am still in contact with people I met at annual conferences, or who were a part of my FTE/SREB Fellowship cohort, or who I sat on panels with. However, the alumni network is one of my strongest professional networks.
5. What’s the most surprising detour you’ve taken from your career path? What did you learn from it?
Obtaining my master’s in theological studies from Emory was the most surprising detour I have taken from my career path.
I recall standing in the bathroom at Cingular Wireless in tears, contemplating how I was going to resign from my senior RF engineering position at a pivotal point in my engineering achievements and on the brink of a promotion. I didn’t plan to walk away from my engineering salary and start over as a full-time grad student.
Attending seminary was never in my career plans until I was presented with the opportunity and call to apply to the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Yet, it was paramount to my overall development as a teacher and researcher.
The professors at Candler cultivated me as an academic. They created opportunities that allowed me to co-teach courses, lead research projects, co-author academic reports, and contribute to articles as a master's student. It exposed me to the none student side of academia (teaching, research, funding, and administration).
5. What’s the greatest challenge you’ve faced since graduating, and how did you overcome it?
The greatest challenge that I have faced since graduating has been managing through professional and personal demands after suffering great loss.
The death of a loved one has emotional, mental, relational, financial, and material implications. I endured significant loss in my family (often within months of each other) since graduating from Georgia Tech. Yet three of them occurred at times when I was on a particular professional journey, and the impact of their death challenged me to abruptly shift my career trajectory and make difficult and daunting choices.
One was the death of my niece, which shifted my pursuit of a post-doctoral and a tenure track position at well-known research institutions. The second was the death of my father, which occurred while I was on one of the most rewarding assignments in Kenya that I have had the privilege of experiencing. The last was the suicidal death of my former partner as I was pursuing two major opportunities and initiatives at Georgia Tech.
The outcomes of all three were far better than I could imagine. Yet, the challenge at the time was daunting. In some ways almost suffocating. I honestly felt like I could not breathe. I overcame these challenges through faith, family, a strong network (i.e., inner circle), and an unwavering work ethic (sometimes working, writing, and analyzing late at night with tears in my eyes and a great soundtrack in the background).
6. What’s your #1 tip for students and alumni interested in your field?
Make sure you are as skilled in DEI assessment and problem-solving, data analysis, and DEI and higher education scholarship as you are passionate about the work.
I don’t believe anyone would attempt to, or be allowed to, become a professor, dean, or leader in a field that they were merely passionate about without pursuing the training and education necessary to acquire the appropriate level of skill and knowledge to employ that passion.
Studies have shown that this work is most effective when the skilled DEI professional is passionate about the work or shares in the backgrounds and experiences of the populations the work serves. Yet, it is important to note that it is the foundation rooted in DEI skills (knowledgeable about the theories, skills, methods, and tools to effectively assess DEI problems and develop the appropriate solutions) that enables them to inform and execute upon their passion and experiential knowledge in ways that distinguish their work and impact.
The good news is that programs like the history and sociology of technology and science Ph.D. track in HSOC could prepare one well for this kind of interdisciplinary work.
7. Do you recommend any events, conferences, groups, etc., for people interested in your field?
- 4S (The Society for Social Studies of Science)
- The Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR)
- American Educational Research Association
- National Academic Advising Association
- Diverse Issues in Higher Education
- Diversity in Higher Education
- Chronicles of Higher Education
- National Society of Black Engineers
8. Can students and alumni in the School of History and Sociology contact you if they’re interested in following in your footsteps?
Yes, I can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for sharing your experience, Sybrina, and congratulations on the well-deserved recognition!
Atwaters will be honored at the Distinguished Alumni Award ceremony on April 7, 2022. The eighth annual celebration honors exceptional alumni from each of the six academic schools and three Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) units in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts. Selected by the school from which they earned their degree or their respective ROTC unit, alumni are recognized for their significant contributions to the College, Institute, and the public welfare.