In April 2018, Dr. Greg Sawyer, a seasoned higher education professional whose work has impacted the lives of thousands of students, was appointed Vice President of Student Affairs at Sonoma State. Before joining Noma Nation, Sawyer served as VP for Student Affairs at CSU Channel Islands where he established a nationally recognized division. Leading with a student-centric philosophy, Dr. Sawyer is focused on enhancing the student affairs division at SSU.
We sat down with Dr. Sawyer to learn more about what inspired him to work in student affairs and what motivates him.
What do you love about Sonoma State compared to other places you have worked?
One of the things that I really appreciate, besides the actual beauty of the campus, is the good feeling that you get from faculty, staff and students. There’s really a sense of family, that everybody wants every person to be successful and feel at home.
What was it that first inspired you to want to work in higher education and directly with students?
I come from a family of interrupters. Both my mom and my dad got a college education in a time that you would not have thought that most people would. Both have an undergraduate degree and my dad had three years of graduate school. He went to Morehouse for undergrad, which is where Dr. Martin Luther King went, and he was working on his M.D. degree at Howard University when the Army pulled him out to be a medic because [the army] was not integrated, and they needed black medics. So that’s what he did.
There's another piece that I found out later that made me know that I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing. And that was my great, great grandfather — his name was George Dickinson — was an enslaved person. His father was the plantation owner. George was a kind of “mocha latte” looking kid, and I think his father’s wife became quite suspicious that he was the only enslaved kid looking like a latte with cream. And I believe, from what we’ve read in the papers, is that he was afraid that she was going to call and basically have George taken away. So I think his dad then took [George] through the Underground Railroad where he stayed with a Mennonite family.
George later went to Oberlin University, which was the first school to allow women and blacks, in 1869. When he was done with higher education, he became a Buffalo Soldier, which was an all-black troop. He trained and educated individuals because most of them were enslaved people. He also demanded that he deserved the same pension as any other soldier. People didn’t do that back then, but he did.
So it fills my heart knowing that I come from a family of interrupters. I come from a family of individuals who said, “We’re going to use our education… (and) share that privilege with others.” So that's the reason why I knew I had to be an educator.
Looking back, what would you tell 18-year-old Greg as he was entering college?
Stay focused and be true to yourself. Be honest with others. And while you're in that short journey, try to make a difference.
Do you have a favorite spot on campus to go to when you need to get out of your office?
One of our former colleagues Janet Henker, used to spend time out at the Butterfly Garden. I was going to take Janet to lunch for one of her last days on campus and she said, “Hey doc, instead of us going to lunch, I'm going to take you for a walk to the butterfly garden.” She wanted to take me there because that is where she found her peace. And last May, when we lost our colleague Hollie Pruden in a tragic car accident, we held her memorial presentation in the Butterfly Garden. So when I think of peace and tranquility and the goodness of people, my mind goes to the Butterfly Garden.
What are you most proud of in your long-standing career?
I’ve always tried to be the best person I can be. I know I’ve failed at things in a lot of ways, but I've always tried to be a good person. And if God gave me something, I simply wanted to give it back to somebody else because I believe I need to pass it on. And that's what I hope I have done in my career. Hopefully that will be my greatest accomplishment. That on my headstone, or ashes, or whatever my family decides, they will simply say he tried to help somebody while he was here. He tried to make a difference.
-Katie Beermann '15