Shannon Ross has taken pride in her Lumbee-American Indian culture and self-identity since she was young. Growing up in an American Indian neighborhood, surrounded by people from the same cultural background, made her grateful to be a Native. The tight-knit community and strong family relationship created the foundation of Lumbee morals and values that she still carries with her today.
Still, Shannon faced much adversity as she got older and went beyond her community borders. Just 100 miles north, as she settled into life at UNC-Chapel Hill in pursuit of her undergraduate degree in Psychology, she realized that some people criticized her different set of beliefs and values in life. However, she was determined not to let being a minority in a diverse community prevent her from obtaining success. During her undergraduate years, Shannon worked within Diversity & Multicultural Affairs (DMA, now called the University Office for Diversity & Inclusion), promoting events and opportunities for minorities just like herself. It was a hands-on learning experience that helped shape her career choice.
Currently, she serves as an Assistant Director at UNC’s Office of Scholarships and Student Aid, assisting underrepresented students to receive scholarships and financial aid. ”My identity shapes my approach to diversity work because it allows me to look at situations from multiple lenses. Native folks are almost always the minority of the minority and are forgotten about so I know what it is like to feel invisible and not cared for,” she says. “Because of that – the experiences I had at UNC as a Native undergrad and throughout my career as a higher education professional – I always try my best to advocate from a place of equity, knowing that students of all backgrounds deserve for their voice to be heard.”
Can you describe the environment in which you grew up?
I grew up on my Tribal land in Pembroke, NC. As an Indigenous woman, growing up in an environment where everyone looked like me, talked like me, and had similar backgrounds as I was very special. Because of that, I have a strong sense of my identity in my Lumbee heritage and ties to my ancestors through my homeland, which not many people can say they have.
What impact do you think that made on your self-identity?
Being able to grow up on my Tribal land, surrounded by family, had a huge impact on my self-identity: who I was, am, and continue to become. If it was not for the cultural identity that was instilled in me, I may have lost myself when I left home and had to face a world that did not respect me, my culture, or where I came from. Even though leaving home meant my indigeneity was constantly negated, I have been able to cling to who I am and grow in that.
Who is your biggest role model and why?
I am not sure that I have a “biggest role model,” but I can say that I am constantly inspired by people around me who continuously persevere despite everything that is stacked against them. That is what helps me to keep pushing on [through] the bad days.
How does your identity shape your approach to diversity work?
The fact that Native students are less than 1% of the student population at UNC motivated me to advocate not only for myself but for other Native students and students of color who were often forgotten about. As well, most times Native students are referred to as “other” or “unknown” in demographics which is just disrespectful and really gave me a fire to make a fuss and make sure people know that Native students successfully exist at UNC. Beating the odds and being successful during my time at UNC made me so proud of who I was.
What was your role in DMA/UODI during your undergraduate years… and the typical tasks associated with it?
I served as the American Indian Programs Coordinator (AIPC). Through this role, I worked very closely with high schools that served the 8 Tribes within North Carolina to plan recruitment events at UNC for Native students. My main goal was to expose Native youth to the possibilities that UNC offered them and hopefully encourage them to attend college here. I also worked very closely with the Project Uplift program, along with other professional staff and the Director of DMA. Serving as the AIPC changed my life – it’s what opened the door to higher education for me.
Did you have a mentor throughout your undergraduate program?
Throughout my undergraduate years, I would say I had two mentors: Ada Wilson, who served as the Director of Inclusive Student Excellence at DMA at the time, and Dr. Marcus Collins, [then] the Associate Dean and Director of the Center for Student Success.
Why did you choose to apply to UNC and what was your major?
I chose to apply to UNC because, growing up, my daddy always told me that UNC was the best school and that I was going to be a Tar Heel.
Can you describe your current position as an Assistant Director at UNC’s Office of Scholarships and Student Aid?
My job is twofold: A huge aspect of my position is working directly with students who are part of the UNC Scholars program. Another big part of what I do is working closely with Undergraduate Admissions to review and award scholarships to incoming students.
Do you have a specific memory that sparked your interest in working in this field?
I do not have a specific memory, but it was certainly my work with DMA/UODI that sparked my interest in higher education. It was my time spent with the Carolina College Advising Corps post-graduation at UNC that solidified my interest and passion.
How did your experience in this department prepare you for your current position?
My experience with DMA/UODI opened my eyes and mind to the possibilities of higher education. [It] also taught me how to work collaboratively, plan and execute programs, and advocate for others — all important aspects of being a higher education professional.
What drives you in doing your work each day?
Knowing the impact that this work has on students’ experiences and their life trajectory is what motivates me to try and bring my best self to the table in the work that I do.
Does your cultural affiliation impact your lifestyle? If so, how?
For sure. My Indigenous culture is a huge part of who I am in my everyday life. It influences how I interact with and treat others. It also gives me an opportunity to share my culture with those around me. Whether it is taking someone new to a Powwow or sharing about my specific Lumbee culture, there is never a time when my culture is not present in my day-to-day life.
Current events at UNC and globally have created extra stress and pressure on students. What would be your message to them?
There obviously is no “fix-all solution” to the stress and pressure that students are under. However, my message to students would be to make sure you are taking care of yourselves in the best way you know-how, and if you do not know how, ask someone you trust for help in that process. Now, more than ever, it is important for students to know that school is important, but your mental and emotional wellbeing is more important. Carolina will challenge you in ways you never thought possible. You just have to find your drive to keep going and lean into those who care about you for support along the way.
Written by Joseph Heilmann