Uplifting communities: Creating connections with LeAnne Wiles

Posted on by Nicole Reeve-Parker. This entry was posted in Spotlight, Staff Stories. Bookmark the permalink.

Service to one’s community—in whatever form people choose to offer it—brings people together, bridging ideological, cultural, values-based, and economic differences for the common good.

For LeAnne Wiles, Student Academic Services Executive Director for First Year Programs & Strategic Initiatives in Undergraduate Academic Affairs, serving her community has, from a young age, been a conscious choice that informs her thinking and practice. And it has brought her together with people she might not have otherwise met—to the great benefit of the undergraduate students she now serves.

Honoring the journey

A descendant, six generations removed, of enslaved plantation laborers Jack and Mariah Summerall, of Baxley, Georgia—and coming from a long faith tradition—LeAnne feels called in the service of eliminating barriers and caring for her community.

LeAnne’s family has always been involved in community service and caring for those in need. Her maternal grandparents set a strong example: her grandfather was a prominent community organizer and Lutheran minister, while her grandmother was the first Black graduate of Oregon Health and Science University’s School of Nursing. Her mother continues to organize in Portland today, focused on providing housing opportunities for low-income families.  

“What are you doing for your community? How are you making an impact?” was a refrain LeAnne often heard from her grandfather.

In her hometown of Portland, LeAnne attended a small high school—there were just 26 students in her graduating class (including her future partner)—where she laid the foundation for a life of service through various community-focused projects, developing deep relationships with fellow students that have endured for decades.

Academically driven and at the top of her class, LeAnne had her pick of colleges. She wanted to attend an East Coast school, but had only the support of a single-parent income. There was financial aid to pay for college, but not to pay for the hidden cost that impacts college students even today; for example, the cost of a flight, hotel and rental car to attend orientation, along with the orientation fee and food during the visit. 

When Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma offered LeAnne a sizable scholarship and a short two-hour commuting distance, she postponed the dream of moving east and headed north instead.  

At PLU, LeAnne received a liberal arts education. She continued her service tradition through several jobs, including working with Washington MESA, which provides pathways for underrepresented youth to higher education in STEM, and transporting foster children as a case aid for Child Protective Services.

Ondangwa Homestay in Namibia, 2000 / courtesy LeAnne Wiles

It was her six-month study abroad experience in Namibia, however, that stands out as the highlight of her college career. 

LeAnne had the opportunity to build connections and relationships with 20 other college students and community members in Windhoek’s capital city. The experience offered LeAnne the opportunity not only to explore the history and culture of another nation but to explore the roots of her own Black identity and the impacts of the apartheid and the legacy of inequality. 

When reflecting on living with her host family in the rural homestead of Ondangwa, LeAnne said, “My host family showed me how to be fully immersed in a rural culture of bartering, laughter, talking story, and listening. Most of the day, the only access to the outside world was a radio and your connection to your neighbor. You needed the community to survive.” 

LeAnne returned to PLU to finish her sociology degree and prepared to apply to graduate school. This time, she didn’t forestall her desire to experience another part of the United States. The summer after graduation, she packed up and headed 3,000 miles east to the University of Delaware to pursue a master’s degree in Public Administration.

Following graduate school, LeAnne implemented student success programming at Grinnell College in Iowa and Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona. She eventually longed to be closer to family and in 2009, moved to Seattle to find a home in Undergraduate Academic Affairs on the UW Seattle campus.  

Understanding sense of belonging 

The knowledge LeAnne gained living in other regions of the country—and the world—informs her approach to creating spaces and places to make meaning.  

LeAnne is particularly interested in supporting students who are the first in their families to attend college and from rural and low-income communities. Incoming first-year students from rural communities report feeling underprepared for their college experience. LeAnne believes in the model of inclusive excellence and intentionally seeks to understand how to break down systemic barriers that impact student transition. 

“My own first-year orientation experience was difficult,” LeAnne said. “It took me a few semesters to find my place. I hope that we can help our incoming students define and take steps to seek out ways they can connect early in their transition. You only need 2-3 solid friends to feel like you belong at the UW.”

Top: First Year Programs staff and the newest FYP baby. Bottom: 2015 incoming first-year students on Husky field / courtesy LeAnne Wiles

Shaped by her own experience, LeAnne, and the First Year Programs–Student Academic Affairs team approach orientation and first-year programming from a framework of continuity rather than the clear delineation of childhood and adulthood that so many young adults—and sometimes their family members—might believe the first year of college will be.

“We want to honor the journey that students are already on,” she explained. “Starting college is joyful and exciting, of course, but it doesn’t suddenly change who you are, what experiences have shaped you, or the meaningful connections you already have. You can use those connections as a catalyst to continue to shape your unique Husky experience.”

One of the first challenges LeAnne took on in her work was bringing faculty voice into the first-year student experience, providing the opportunity for faculty members to present during advising & orientation and share their hopes, dreams, and expectations for the students who will be learning in their classrooms.  

LeAnne’s commitment to the success of first-year students was a significant factor in earning her the 2014 UW Distinguished Staff Award, the University’s highest honor for staff. In the words of one nominator: “The thing that impresses me about LeAnne… is her commitment to communicating to first-year students that they are here…to take on challenges, overcome obstacles, grow, and make an impact.”

LeAnne has had several leadership opportunities over her nearly fourteen years of service at UW. As the executive director, she leads collaborative campus-wide initiatives to support a successful student experience for the more than 9,200 new undergraduates admitted to UW in 2022.

The First Year Programs–Student Academic Services team has increasingly centered its efforts on implementing strategies that advance social and racial equity: facilitating inclusive language training for peers, revising the hiring process to acknowledge implicit bias, and restructuring employee onboarding to be more equitable—all with an eye to transparency, metrics for accountability, and actionable goals.

“It’s hard to think about shifting the dominant mindset and culture, but this is about taking opportunities to evolve,” LeAnne wrote in UW Magazine. “With authentic engagement that leads to accountability, we can all continue to be part of the solution.”

2011 reunion trip with former colleagues from Northern Arizona University / courtesy LeAnne Wiles

LeAnne grounds her sense of belonging not only with her immediate family (her partner and two children) but her nieces, nephews, sisters, and brothers and her deep and intentional friendships that provide grounding and support.

And true to her focus on service, she is an active 14-year member of Sigma Gamma Rho, a historically Black national collegiate sorority founded in 1922 by educators who believed, as today’s members do, that empowered women leaders can and will uplift communities through positive change.

“This work is not somebody else’s,” LeAnne acknowledged. “It is all of ours.”

Expanding family 

In the Pacific Northwest, there is a need for foster families to provide a safe and caring environment for local children. LeAnne and her partner are former foster parents and decided to expand their family and adopt through the State of Washington.

The choice to foster and then adopt was shaped by her experience with family members who had been adopted and the need to support youth in the community in a localized way. 

As a UW employee, LeAnne has felt supported throughout her time fostering and during the adoption process, noting the many resources the University has for parents and the support she received from colleagues in Undergraduate Academic Affairs. Additionally, UW provides specialized programs for students like the Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity (OMAD) Champions program. The program supports youth and alumni of foster care to ensure that they persist to graduation. 

“One of the reasons I enjoy working at UW is the institutional and interpersonal support I’ve received in my parenting journey,” she explained. “Because of this, I actively choose to stay at UW.”

Later, when her kids are older, LeAnne hopes to become a Court Appointed Special Advocate or CASA. Every child in care needs a CASA to represent their voice during legal proceedings. The community volunteer role is essential in ensuring a child can be supported throughout the time they are in foster care.

Currently, LeAnne is an outdoor enthusiast, going camping several times a year with her family to unplug, hike and appreciate the natural beauty of the Northwest.

Sleeping on the ground outdoors as a person of color can be intimidating, so several years ago, LeAnne instituted an annual camping trip with a group of interested friends and coworkers—many inexperienced at camping—during which they celebrated the joys of nature in an affirming space.  

“We wanted to encourage folks to explore the outdoors and bring folks together from different cultures and perspectives,” she wrote in the REI blog Uncommon Path about the annual excursion—which has since grown to more than 20 people and will celebrate its thirteenth trip this year.