Avent Harris named to new role of assistant dean of diversity, equity and inclusion

Avent Harris seeks to be a changemaker in her new role as assistant dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the ECU College of Education.

“At first, I wasn’t sure I was going to apply,” she said. “But the more I reflected on it and thought about the work I had done, it seemed to be a natural next step as far as the work in diversity, equity and inclusion. I looked at it as an opportunity to say, ‘How can I impact change?’”

Prior to taking this role, Avent Harris was an associate professor and program coordinator of the Counselor Education program in the COE’s Department of Interdisciplinary Professions. Her background in counselor education will come in handy in the new leadership position advocating for the benefit of all students, faculty and staff in the College of Education.

“Being a counselor forces you to be comfortable with conflict, and I am not naïve to think with this position will not come with challenges and conflict, whether it’s disagreeing on things as colleagues or peers,” she said. “If you’ve ever done couples counseling or family counseling, you get very acquainted with making space for people’s feelings, making space for conflict resolution.”

With this position being newly created, Avent Harris has the opportunity to truly shape the role and forge her own path. Although she is still getting acclimated, she is beginning to think of future plans and aspirations for the college.

“One of the things I want to focus on is creating a shared language around diversity, equity, and inclusion, and that also means expanding that to think about belonging and justice,” she said. “It really is an advocacy piece of how do we not only make them feel they’re welcome here, but that they get what they need, and they don’t have to acquiesce to a certain expectation necessarily, but that we make this a place where people truly, truly feel that they belong.”

Avent Harris is also looking into recruitment and retention of faculty, staff, and students, especially those from historically marginalized populations.

“I’ve been reading this book that says ‘who leaves and who stays’ are the questions you have to ask yourself when you first go into a position like this and so I’m sitting with those questions,” she said.

She’s planning a two-fold approach to her role: analyzing data and relationship-building. One of the first things she’s doing is meeting with all of the department and offices in the College of Education and cultivating an open door policy for people to feel free to bring ideas and questions. Another initiative she’s working on is strengthening existing partnerships and forging new ones across campus.

Avent Harris’ background also includes a knowledge of eastern North Carolina due to her roots as a Rocky Mount native. She completed her K-12 education in Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools before getting her undergraduate degree at UNC-Chapel Hill and graduate degrees at UNC-Greensboro.

“I love eastern North Carolina,” she said. “My husband and I talk about it all the time that we made a decision to live and raise our children in eastern North Carolina. It matters to us, and so I feel fortunate to be able to do this work in a place that I feel like contributed so much to my own development. It was the teachers and the people in the community, which is why when I got this job, I felt like it was such a shared celebration because I know I didn’t get here by myself. I know that there are people who really sacrificed, who invested in me so I can have these opportunities.”

Avent Harris will continue to teach courses in the counselor education program, including her spirituality course.

“That is what reminds me of why I do what I do,” she said. “And I always want to have a connection to the students because part of my role will be how do we make this place more equitable, more justice-oriented, have more belonging for students, faculty and staff.”

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