There’s a ditty about ice cream that goes, “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream.” The lyrics describe the excitement people feel about the frozen treat and yet they don’t adequately describe Stephon Harris’ passion. “I’m something of a connoisseur,” said Harris. UW Tacoma’s Associate Director of New Student and Family Programs has a freezer in his garage stocked with pints and quarts of his favorite ice cream flavors.
Harris goes through a couple containers of the dessert every week. His love of ice cream earned him the nickname “scoops” while a basketball player at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. Harris doesn’t wax poetic about his affinity for ice cream; his reason for his passion is pretty straightforward. “It’s delicious,” he said.
There are other things in Harris’ life that elicit a similar response, namely family and work. In his role at the university Harris helps students succeed in higher education. “I’m here to help them understand the ‘why’ of college and to reinforce the belief that they deserve to be here,” he said.
Harris grew up in Sacramento, California. “It was just me and my mom,” he said. Harris’ dad moved to Florida to play minor-league baseball. “I didn’t see him a lot when I was younger,” said Harris. “It wasn’t until later on that we really started to connect.”
Basketball played a big role in Harris’ life. “Basketball was everything,” he said. “I didn’t go to school to be a great student, I went because it meant I could play basketball.” The sport offered Harris a way out of Sacramento. “I felt it was the only avenue,” he said. “I saw it as ‘you either do it and you move forward or you don’t and you end up like the folks who dropped out of high school and who aren’t doing anything positive.”
Harris attended San Joaquin Delta College after high school. He played for the school’s team — the Mustangs. He became a father in 2002. Harris needed to support his young family so he went to work. “I realized I didn’t want to do low-wage work for the rest of my life,” he said. “Sports were always an outlet for me so I decided I’d use that to my advantage.”
Harris received a scholarship to play basketball at Saint Martin’s. “I was ready to do something different,” he said. A first-generation student, Harris says he was fortunate to have advisors and coaches who were committed to helping him both on and off the court. “They were really the ones who pushed me to think more academically and not just athletically,” he said.
If you’ve ever met Harris then you know he’s instantly likeable. He has an easy way about him and is always up for conversation. Perhaps that’s why Harris’ coach approached him in the spring of 2007. Harris was set to graduate with a degree in business management. “My coach asked if I’d ever thought about working in college admissions,” he said. “He’d seen me work at basketball camps and felt I was really good at talking with younger kids.” Harris applied for an admissions advisor position at Saint Martin’s. “I didn’t know what admissions was,” he said. “I planned to return to California and look for work.“
Harris got the job and has never looked back. After Saint Martin’s he worked for the College Success Foundation at Stadium High School. “I was a college prep advisor,” he said. “My role was to work with lower-income students who saw college as an option for themselves but who really didn’t know why it was an option.”
Harris came to UW Tacoma in 2012. He did multi-cultural outreach for the Diversity Resource Center (now the Center for Equity & Inclusion). Harris transitioned into his current position a year later in 2013. Harris’ experience informs how he approaches the work of helping students reach graduation. “There was a lot of fear for me as a first-generation college student,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, I didn’t know how to navigate the system.”
Any student, whether first-generation or not, can benefit from the programs Harris oversees. New student orientation is offered three times a year and is a valuable way to learn about available resources. Jump Start to Success Days help students with placement testing, advising, course registration and identifying strengths. Pack Advisors are students who serve as mentors. “It’s important to make those peer-to-peer connections,” said Harris. “Students want to know if there is anyone like them. They want to know they belong.”
College can be intimidating. The so called “ivory tower” is full of people with degrees — including Stephon Harris. It’s comforting to know one of the first faces people see when they came to campus is that of a person who melts when you mention ice cream, who has a sizeable shoe collection and who can be seen bobbing around campus with a set of headphones over his ears.
Harris humanizes the place.
John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or firstname.lastname@example.org