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nadia lewis

Connected to Culture – Nadia Lewis’s Dragon Story

In Celebration of TU’s Female Leaders

By Matthew Early

As the Vice President for Human Resources and the Center for InterculTUral Excellence, Tiffin University’s Nadia Lewis is a frequently seen and familiar face to many on campus. Known especially for her unwavering dedication to helping make TU a healthy and equitable place for its many diverse groups, Nadia does so with unmatched enthusiasm and zest. This passion and professionalism is equaled only by a unique brand of kindness, empathy and humor, which explains in part why she has become a cherished part of the Dragon Family. For these and many other reasons, hers makes for the perfect story to conclude this series of blog posts celebrating TU’s many and impressive female leaders.

According to Nadia, she had the privilege of being raised around a large group of positive female role models, which proved formative as she developed her personality and sense of confidence.

“I am from the island of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, which is in the West Indies,” she explained. “For those of Caribbean descent, the patriarchy is nonexistent,” she said with a laugh. “Women of this heritage have always had a voice, and believe me when I say they exercise their right to use it! Growing up, I remember my female family members being so outgoing, always speaking up on behalf of their convictions, even if they did it alone. They were doers, too – my mom especially.”

Nadia went on to explain that she immigrated to the United States at the age of six after her mother found her own footing in the country as a new resident. While her mom searched for opportunities and the proper place to raise her child, she stayed with her aunt in Saint Vincent, who cared for her during the separation.

“She decided to stay with a cousin based in Cincinnati while she got her own affairs in order,” said Nadia. “Looking back, I remember how hard this was on the both of us. I couldn’t imagine – being the momma bear I am today – having no control over what happened to my children, being so far away for such an extended period. That took tenacity and a strong will to do what many wouldn’t have predicted for a single mom and daughter – starting anew in a different land.”

While staying with family in Cincinnati, Nadia quickly developed what would become a lifelong love and appreciation for artistic expression in varying forms and soon realized these mediums were frequently used to share and honor one’s cultural heritage. Fascinated by this relationship between art and the self, she dove deeper into learning about her own ethnic background and even explored those of other places.

“I attended the Cincinnati Bilingual Academy while in primary school,” she recalled. “It was the second time in my life that I was exposed to a true ethnic melting pot, my beautiful island being the first. I attended school with people of all backgrounds and beliefs and was able to learn more about them as they did with me. I studied French while I was enrolled and through it all, I never lost touch with my connection to art as an expression of my identity.”

Ultimately, Nadia auditioned for and was admitted into the School for Creative and Performing Arts in Cincinnati to nurture her love for multi-form art and practiced instrumental and vocal music stylings, musical theater and drama, creative writing and other subjects with another diverse group of peers.

“Whether it was through belting music notes or interpretive dance, it was incredible to be ‘seen’ those four years,” she reminisced. “I was enrolled alongside people of all races, backgrounds, religions, sexual orientations and gender identities, and they all encouraged me to be my most authentic self. Never before had I felt so connected to my Caribbean heritage despite being that far from home. Through my poetry and short stories, I used my pen to be the vehicle through which I celebrated my unique culture.”

After graduation, Nadia went on to become a first-generation college student, attending the University of Cincinnati. Though she originally enrolled to study pre-med, she soon realized this was not her true calling and switched majors to international business and dietetics.

“I think I originally wanted to go into medicine because that’s what most of the women in my family did and continue to do,” she said. “I was always so impressed by the kindness and strength it takes to do the work of healing others, but later realized there are other ways to help and heal people. At the time, I didn’t know exactly how this would manifest in my future career, but I did know that I wanted to engage in meaningful work, selfless work.”

Nadia ultimately graduated with a degree in international business and dietetics with a minor in French, having worked two jobs the entire time to help offset the cost of her impending student loans.

“At some point in my college journey, it all just hit me,” she explained. “I wanted to help other professionals – minority professionals find the same voice of confidence and advocacy that was instilled in me at an early age by the women in my family. I was fortunate enough to grow up in spaces where inclusivity and equity was practiced, but I knew this wasn’t the case everywhere.”

Nadia completed her undergraduate work and spent a brief period employed with Fifth Third Bank, before pursuing a vacancy with a national construction company.

“This experience only further solidified my belief that minorities in the workplace needed and still need help,” she offered. “I remember interviewing several times and at first, it was all pretty standard practice. Finally, the hiring manager called and said that they were seriously considering bringing me onboard, but that the owner of the company wanted to have a chat with me first.”

As it turns out, the company owner wanted to make sure Nadia was up to the task of managing his construction employees, given her identity as both a woman and a woman of color.

“He expressed that some of them might not take me seriously because they didn’t have any other black women on staff at the company,” she said. “In short, he wasn’t sure how they would react to me as an authority figure, and that given my ‘sweet personality,’ he was concerned they would walk all over me. I remember being dumbfounded by it all – how did my race or gender make me any less qualified to be in a position of leadership? Not only that, but why would they not take me as seriously because of it? I told him in no uncertain terms that not only did I come from a long line of fiery, outspoken Caribbean women, but that I was more than capable of demanding the respect I deserved as a supervisor.”

The company ended up offering Nadia the position and she stayed there for a number of years, only leaving because her husband received an outstanding job opportunity in another city that required her family to relocate. Nadia went on to obtain a Master of Organizational Leadership Degree with a concentration in human resources management through Colorado State University. “I’ve been so blessed to have had the ability to work in so many different industries, from manufacturing, to aerospace, robotics, healthcare, behavioral health, etc…” After a position with TU became available, and Nadia jumped at the chance to continue speaking up for others who have experienced workplace inequality, ultimately becoming an instrumental force behind the Celebrating CulTUral Uniqueness at TU movement and even moving on to become the Vice President for the Center for InterculTUral Excellence. To her, this line of work is deeply impactful, and she is honored to, as she puts it, “dismantle the framework that prevents minority groups from thriving in the workplace.”

“Many people of color and other minority communities don’t see it this way, and that is fine,” she said. “It can be exhausting and even dehumanizing having to put your own needs aside to change minds and widen perspectives and this is an understandable and justified outlook. However, somebody has to do it or nothing will ever change. I choose to see these chances as gifts, because I know that with each person I help, our world is just a little better off. This is how I now feel most connected to my heritage – being able to cultivate a space where I not only feel I can be celebrated for my own nuanced experiences but where other people can be appreciated and valued for theirs. As we unpack the many ways we can nurture a culture of allyship in this work and help organizations understand the value of inclusive practices, I like to use the quote, ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,’ by James Baldwin. This resonates with me, as Caribbean women love facing challenges.”