Tanya Whitlow.

In Memoriam: Tanya Whitlow

On May 9, 2021, our dear colleague, mentor and friend Tanya Whitlow passed away. A champion of student success at UC Davis for more than 25 years, Tanya designed, developed and directed the College of Engineering’s Leadership in Engineering Advancement, Diversity and Retention (LEADR) program. This innovative program aims to recruit, retain and graduate, diverse student populations from the College of Engineering.

Tanya initially started LEADR in 2012 to provide a support group for first-generation students grounded in an advising foundation. Along with her colleagues, Kim Reinking, now retired, Alin Wakefield, the college’s research and graduate studies development coordinator, and Nancy Davis, current assistant director for advising, LEADR used a team approach to advise the first 2012 cohort of 35 students to now serving more than 300 students each year. LEADR also added a summer bridge program in 2016 and a living-learning community housed in the Tercero Housing Complex in 2017.

The LEADR Student Center, sponsored by Chevron and funding from AT&T, the Mike and Jody Coffey Foundation and other donors, was recently renovated in 2018 to accommodate staff offices for first- and second-year advisors, including the newest staff member, Ashley Pelham, who works with third-year students, and the growing number of students who use the space to study, reconnect with classmates and friends, and to hold social and community-building activities.

“As a first generation college student, I resonated with the mission of LEADR, what it stands for, how it welcomes and engages students, the sense of community it offers and the tools it provides to students to overcome obstacles and achieve life goals,” said Mike Coffey, retired senior vice president, global delivery and assurance, AT&T Services, Inc. and UC Davis College of Engineering alumnus (B.S. ’84, electrical engineering). “While the benefits of the program were clear, it was Tanya that really brought LEADR to life.  She was kind, generous, caring and nurturing to the LEADR students. While I was a fan of Tanya’s from the beginning, my appreciation for her as a leader and a friend continued to grow over the years.  She had such a positive impact on so many people; her presence, her leadership, her kindness and caring, and her friendship will be missed by many.”

Tanya was selected to direct this program based on her previous experience working with similar programs, including Upward Bound at UC Berkeley, Success through Collaboration, Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement’s (MESA) American Indian Program, and MESA’s Minority Engineering Program (MEP) at UC Davis, where she served as interim director before transitioning to the College of Engineering.

“The plan was for students to be advised quarterly, in contrast to the once-per-year mandatory advising hold in the college. This would allow us to build rapport with students and have more touch points for checking in on how students were doing both academically and personally. In addition to advising students, weekly meetings were held with students to form a sense of community between students and staff,” she said in a 2020 interview.

To join LEADR, students must be the first in their families to attend college or be a part of the Educational Opportunity Program, have participated in a MESA engineering pre-college program such as Upward Bound, or a similar enrichment program, or be a student who has potential for leadership in increasing the participation of students in engineering from historically underrepresented groups.

A tireless advocate for students, Tanya, in partnership with the college’s associate dean for undergraduate studies and mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Ralph Aldredge, secured scholarship funding in fall 2020 from the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME), with matching funds provided by the college and the UC Davis Offices of the Chancellor and Provost. Beginning in the 2020-2021 academic year, 24 LEADR students will receive a $2,500 NACME scholarship each year.

“Tanya’s focus on high-touch, personalized advising and community building has led to dramatic improvements in first- and second-year retention rates for LEADR participants, many of whom are our Educational Opportunity Program, first-generation and underrepresented minority engineering students,” said Aldredge. “Tanya has inspired so many students to not only aspire for personal success, but to also reach a hand back to help others succeed by serving as upper-division peer mentors.”

Tanya was a UC Davis alumna (B.S., ’87, psychology) and received her master’s degree in higher education at CSU Sacramento. Her dedication and commitment was well-recognized with awards such as the Martin Luther King Social Justice Award, African American Faculty and Staff Association (2013); Chancellor’s Achievement Award for Diversity and Community (2014); and the Michele Dyke Humanitarian Award, UC Davis African Continuum (2019).

“Tanya was deeply committed to helping students from historically underserved populations, including first-generation students, achieve and thrive through their pursuit of an engineering education,” said Interim Dean Jeffery G. Gibeling. “During her more than 25 years of supporting student success at UC Davis, Tanya was a warm and caring colleague and mentor, and her contributions will have a lasting impact on the many lives she touched. She will be greatly missed.”

Tanya’s family encourages contributions to the United Negro College Fund in lieu of flowers: https://uncf.org

  • 5-26-21: The College of Engineering held a virtual celebration of life for Tanya on May 25, 2021.
  • 10-11-21: Chevron, one of the program’s sponsors and supporters, recently allocated $50,000 to seed an endowment in Tanya's honor. Anyone who knew and admired Tanya, or believes in the LEADR program, is invited to invest in this scholarship. If you would like to contribute to the Tanya Whitlow Scholarship with support from Chevron and Friends, please visit: give.ucdavis.edu/2400/94521.

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