When Nancy Aguillon’s grandmother passed away last semester, Assistant Provost for Diversity and Inclusion Barbee Myers Oakes drove the junior sociology major three hours to be with her family in Hendersonville, N.C.
As head of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Oakes long has been known in the Wake Forest community for selflessly going above and beyond. Now she has received national recognition for her personal interest in and steadfast commitment to initiatives that promote pluralism and foster community.
Diverse Issues in Higher Education has named Oakes one of the “25 Women Making a Difference.” The magazine, which focuses on matters of access and opportunity, featured Oakes in its special Women’s History Month edition.
Oakes said she is honored by the distinction, and explained that a unique historical family relationship with Wake Forest helped strengthen her deep-rooted commitment to social justice and equity issues.
“When my paternal grandfather helped to clear the trees from the land when the university moved to Winston Salem in 1956, schools in the south were still segregated so black students could not attend Wake Forest,” said Oakes. “It is a source of pride in my family that his granddaughter is now in a position to direct initiatives that diversify our university and foster a culture of inclusion.”
Oakes previously served as the director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs for more than a decade prior to her appointment as Assistant Provost in 2009. She has tackled the challenge of graduation rates, developing retention strategies that positioned Wake Forest among the most successful institutions in the nation with respect to graduating college students of color.
“At Wake Forest, our mission to educate the whole person proved to be a critical factor in achieving graduation rates that earned recognition in the external community,” said Oakes. “We are intentional in helping students realize the enormity of their potential and very deliberate in honing their critical-thinking skills. Equally important, we always make sure students know they matter.”
Oakes aims to spread the idea of inclusion and open communication. As the architect of Wake Forest’s first strategic plan for diversity and inclusion, she continues to develop initiatives that create an inclusive and engaging environment for everyone, regardless of individual differences.
“Wake Forest cannot be a truly great institution of higher learning if we are not both diverse and inclusive,” said Mark Welker, Interim Provost and William L. Poteat Professor of Chemistry. “Barbee is both a catalyst and the glue for those efforts on our campus, and it is great that Diverse Issues in Higher Education has recognized her work.”
Because of her own journey in academia, which includes being the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in the American College of Sports Medicine, Oakes can relate to the challenges students of diverse backgrounds face every day.
For Aguillon, Oakes’ unwavering commitment to an inclusive environment has provided a critical support network at her home away from home.
“I really appreciated her dedication to how I was feeling at the moment,” said Aguillon, who was touched by Oakes’ concern. “She cares about me as an individual. I know I can go to her no matter what my needs are.”