Sharon Tettegah Ph.D. '00, is the Director of UC Santa Barbara’s Center for Black Studies Research, as well as a faculty member in the Department of Black Studies, and the Associate Vice Chancellor of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
Prior to joining UCSB, Sharon was the Associate Dean for Research and Sponsored Programs at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She earned her Ph.D. from the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at UCSB in 2000.
In this Alumni Spotlight Q&A, Assistant Dean of Development, Graduate Division, John Lofthus, MA ’10, sits down with Sharon Tettegah, Ph.D. ’00, to discuss her path to academia and recent homecoming back to UC Santa Barbara.
Assistant Dean of Development, John Lofthus: I have the great fortune to interview Dr. Sharon Tettegah. Sharon, first, congratulations on your recent appointment as Associate Vice Chancellor of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at UC Santa Barbara. You are wearing many hats these days. In addition to being the Associate Vice Chancellor of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, you are Director for the Center of Black Studies Research, Professor of Black Studies; you have an appointment with the computer science department, and then a National Science Foundation Scholars (ICQCM), Quantitative, Computational and Mixed Methodologies Scholar as well. Did I miss anything in that long list?
Dr. Sharon Tettegah: I am also a fellow in the Aspire Leadership Academy, as well as the lead for the IChange Initiative on campus.
John: You are one busy person that is for sure! I understand that you started your undergraduate studies in computer science and finished with a degree in philosophy. How did that happen, and do you see a connection between the two disciplines?
Sharon: I started my academic career at the College of Alameda, a community college in the Bay Area where I had an anthropology professor that sparked my interest in artificial intelligence. I have always been enamored with computer science, as well as other areas of science. When I was a little girl, I actually went to the library at seven years old and checked out a book on the biochemistry of microorganisms. During the 1980’s, computing was just coming into itself in terms of being popular. When I heard that Mills was offering Computer Science as a degree, I transferred to the private university from the College of Alameda.
At Mills, I became a triple major, which included mathematics, computer science and philosophy. The school was a little small for my liking so I ultimately transferred to UC Davis. The only issue was that the UC did not allow me to keep my triple major. I ended up picking Philosophy (with an emphasis on symbolic logic) where I was the only black woman in that department.
John: I understand that after UC Davis, you actually were a schoolteacher before applying to UC Santa Barbara. Can you talk about that experience and how that led to you coming here?
Sharon: When I was at UC Davis, I met Douglas Minnis, one of the associate deans, who asked me if I had ever thought about education. At that point, I was planning to apply for graduate school at Stanford and study AI. I shared that I was not interested in education, specifically K-12. He thought I might like it so he encouraged me to take an introductory education course. I really enjoyed the course, which helped draw me into education. I ended up getting a teaching credential right after I graduated and then started teaching in Davis. I went straight from my credential into a master's program where my work was focused on bilingual education.
After teaching in Davis for a few years, I got married. My husband was at UCLA at the time so I transferred through an intercampus exchange program to UCLA where I finished my master's work. I completed my thesis on Bilingual & Multicultural Education under the advisement of Concepion Valadez. During this time, I was also teaching in Los Angeles. I considered continuing for my PhD but my husband talked me out of it.
When my (now) ex-husband and I decided to go our separate ways, I moved back to the Bay Area where my mother was, and I started teaching for Oakland schools. These teaching positions in Davis, Los Angeles, and later Oakland, were incredibly helpful in allowing me to work with a diverse set of students. When I taught in Davis, a large majority of my students were LDS (members of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) that had parents with graduate degrees. Later, when I taught in LA, I was mostly teaching Spanish-speaking students and then I moved to South Central LA where I had many black students, who were Belizean and the Latinx students were primarily from Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador. These students were mostly from low income families. Finally, when I moved back to the Bay Area, I taught mostly Laotian, Hmong, and African-American kids.
During my tenure as a teacher in Oakland, I became involved with the Bay Area Writing Project, where I met Sheridan Blau. Sheridan encouraged me to come to UC Santa Barbara to pursue a Ph.D. I had never considered UCSB but he said that he would make sure that the school would provide resources for me if I wanted to come to Santa Barbara. So I applied for the PhD program in educational psychology, which I was later admitted to.
John: You came to UCSB as a result of a faculty member encouraging you to apply. Are there other faculty members that stand out from your time at UCSB and can you walk us through what your research was?
Sharon: I ended up with John Cotton on my committee. He was amazing. I would say John Cotton probably had the most effect on me. I used multivariate analysis of variants to investigate for white racial consciousness, and perceptions of students from diverse backgrounds for my dissertation. I also conducted semi-structured interviews but did not use them for my dissertation.
John: After your degree from UCSB, did you go directly to the University of Illinois?
Sharon: I left Santa Barbara in 1998 but strategically did not file my dissertation until March 2000. During that time, I took an assistant professor position at Cal State Hayward. I had spoken to a lot of people in academia, and they said that if I had a chance to go home then I should. Being from Oakland, I took the position at Cal State Hayward and moved back to the Bay Area. While at CSU, I taught courses in Educational Psychology Foundation, multicultural education, and science education. I also started working with Oakland schools, and began to supervise teachers because the position was in the school of Education.
I sat down one day, and realized that I was not able to engage in the research that I wanted at Cal State Hayward, because of the workload and the fact that I was a single parent. My passion has always been research so I looked at a map one day and said to myself, “Sharon, where can you live?” Literally. When I looked at open positions that fit my skill set, I narrowed it down to four universities: University of North Carolina, University of Arkansas, University of South Alabama, and the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. I applied for all four jobs and received job offers from them all. Now I had a challenging decision on where I wanted to live.
The positions were all very different. One was in STEM education, one was in educational psychology, and two were in instructional design. I ultimately accepted the job in Champaign-Urbana, which was focused on STEM education. I had spoken with a former professor at UCSB, Richard Duran, and he shared that University of Illinois would be a good place to be from if ever I wanted to leave.
I loved my job at the University of Illinois. I had opportunities to work with faculty from across the campus. I worked with faculty in engineering, computer science, business, urban planning, psychology, the library, and information science. It was the University of Illinois where I was twice named a fellow at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. I was also an affiliate and eventually a faculty member at The Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology in the areas of cognitive neuroscience, human perception, and performance. This was a great fit because when I see things, I see the connection across areas. Some of my friends call me a conceptual architect.
While at Beckman, I started to conduct research using motion capture equipment as well as in empathy and empathic dispositions. A colleague and I developed a software application called CLOVER, which focused on a bit of programming while also investigating empathy.
John: Could you talk a little bit more about your experience at the University of Illinois and doing something that was truly interdisciplinary? It's something that we talk about a lot at universities, but we are challenged by actually doing it: STEM and non-STEM working together. You were able to do that quite successfully at the University of Illinois. Can you tell us how you did that and if you have brought your experience back to UC Santa Barbara?
Sharon: Oh, absolutely! I was fortunate to meet Hank Kaczmarski. He was the director over the CAVE, automatic virtual environment. Hank was very instrumental in every aspect of my work at Beckman. I knew I wanted to do more work around the creation of avatars and development of the software. I shared that I was interested in using the motion capture equipment and that I had this concept about how this might work.
Hank managed the Cave and the Cube at the Beckman Institute. He encouraged me to come over and that’s how I learned more about motion capture. As I became more involved with the space, I was invited to become first an affiliate, then a faculty member at Beckman. Here I was involved with both the Human Perceptions and Performance Group as well as the Cognitive Neuroscience Group.
I have always had an interdisciplinary mind, and I think by studying things from different perspectives, that actually helped me to have ideas that are divergent and convergent. Starting out in computer science, mathematics and humanities, as well as social sciences helped me to start thinking about things in a way that are completely interdisciplinary. I taught courses in multicultural education and social justice. I also taught web-based and other technology curriculum, and then STEM education, and of course in psychology and cognition, cognitive science and teaching and learning, I think in ways that are interdisciplinary; I wouldn't know how to think in a silo. I am not capable. Someone called me a conceptual architect. So that's how I see things.
When I was at Champaign-Urbana, I started doing a lot of work in games and virtual environments. I became involved with SecondLife (SL), a simulated world, and I started teaching my classes in SecondLife and looking at the affordances within the space. I was invited to the White House along with about 28 other faculty from different universities with two of us from UIUC. We discussed affordances and transfer of knowledge involving serious games . A few years later, I joined the National Science Foundation as a rotator. During my rotation at NSF I was invited to participate in a federal government group that focused on serious games for learning.
John: After a stint at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, your life has come full circle. You are back in the UC system, back at UC Santa Barbara. What are you doing at UC Santa Barbara that you are really passionate about?
Sharon: This job at UCSB came up from one of my former students at UIUC, Safiya Noble, who is now a faculty member at UCLA. I was on her dissertation committee. By the way, she just became a MacArthur Fellow (genius award). She called me one day and said, “there is this job at UC Santa Barbara you need to apply for!” I told her that I wasn’t interested. I was happy where I was and was not looking to move. Safiya continued to push me until I finally applied, literally at the last minute. When I had my interview for the Director of the Center (for Black Studies Research), (Vice Chancellor for Research) Joe Incandela came to my talk. He liked what I was doing and ultimately they hired me. I love being at the CBSR because it allows me to really think about which direction I want to go in. How can we build out this Center in a way that is really helping the black community as well as other communities of color in coming into STEM? I have been working to have STEM be a core part of the mission at the Center for Black Studies. I want to introduce the students to the various aspects of STEM and get them involved with research projects.
I have been able to create a number of partnerships at the Center with faculty across campus. This includes Tim Sherwood (Computer Science), Ken Kosik (Neuroscience), Kim Yasuda (Art), and William Wang (Artificial Intelligence). I have always believed in interdisciplinary work and my role with the Center has allowed me to take on a number of new collaborative initiatives that I am very excited about.
I am excited to incorporate the work I have been doing at the center into our campus’ diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. I have just started my position in the DEI, with a focus on STEM, but one of the first projects that I am looking to do is to aggregate all of the funded projects and programs on campus that focus on diversity in STEM. That will help us create a roadmap for where we want to go.
John: One of the new innovative programs that you are working on is the Student Engagement and Enrichment in Data Sciences (SEEDS) program. Can you tell us more about this program? It sounds like a wonderful new activity that brings multiple areas of the campus together.
Sharon: The SEEDS program was conceptualized before I arrived on campus. I actually wrote a proposal to VC Incandela and Dean Hale (Dean of the Division of Social Sciences at UCSB) about it before arriving. The vision has continued to grow through numerous conversations with colleagues across campus about introducing a more diverse community of students to data science. This program, which features a living as well as learning component, enables a new pipeline of diverse students to consider data science across all disciplines. It has proven to be popular with more than 240 applications for the first cohort. I continue to hear from faculty across campus that want to collaborate on this program. The program will give the undergraduates knowledge and skills that they can use in graduate school or in the workforce.
John: You have mentioned graduate students and your enjoyment working with them. Can you talk about the importance of fellowships for graduate students?
Sharon: Fellowships are critical, especially for students of color, who tend to complete their degrees with higher levels of debt. In my case, I have a lot of student loan debt because I was a single parent when I went back to school. I needed to have enough money to live and provide food and shelter for my children. We need to do a better job of supporting graduate students that do not have the resources. For that matter, I think there should be more resources for single parents.
John: Well, I think you are doing an incredible job of planting “seeds.” I am excited to see what the next ten, fifteen years looks like with you at UC Santa Barbara. Thank you so much, Sharon, for your time.
Sharon: Oh, you are very welcome. It was a pleasure speaking with you.