Sharnnia Artis joined George Mason University on Sept. 1 as the new vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion and chief diversity officer. Before coming to Mason, Artis served as assistant dean of access and inclusion in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences and the Samueli School of Engineering at the University of California, Irvine, one of the most diverse engineering programs in the nation. Artis has been creating programs to improve diversity and inclusion in the engineering and computing fields for most of her career.
What attracted you to this position at Mason?
I believe in Mason’s mission—we are an innovative and inclusive academic community committed to creating a more just, free, and prosperous world. I was attracted to Mason because of our university’s core institutional characteristics—innovative, diverse, entrepreneurial, and accessible. These characteristics are also personal guiding principles, which are essential to growing and strengthening a culture of inclusion, integrity, and fairness so that every member of our Mason community has the opportunity to thrive.
How did you get interested in engineering?
Growing up, I loved math and science and was good at both. In high school, I learned about a summer residential program called C-Tech2 at Virginia Tech, which is designed for high school girls who have an interest in computers and technology and want to explore what college is like. During C-Tech2, we took apart a camera and a computer—and had to put it back together. And it worked! I think that's what hooked me. Not just the hands-on component of it, but the instant gratification of being able to solve a problem.
As a Black woman who was also a first-generation college student, having access to the summer program showed me what was possible regardless of my gender, ethnicity, race, or socioeconomic status. It was also my first exposure to the field of engineering and people who looked like me as engineers. C-Tech2 changed my life in so many ways and the lasting impact has served as a motivation for creating inclusive environments where everyone is welcomed and supported to achieve to their fullest potential.
Prior to coming to Mason, my responsibilities as an administrator in computing and engineering, especially with a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, had been about creating pathways for individuals from underrepresented groups. One pathway is giving them access to the university, including the campus, our students, faculty, and staff, technology, and resources. I was able to do that through summer and year-round enrichment programs. I realized how important that summer program was for me. If I had not participated in C-Tech2, I probably would not be an engineer today.
You have bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in industrial and systems engineering, all from Virginia Tech. What made you choose Virginia?
I grew up in Portsmouth and Chesapeake, Virginia. I played basketball, volleyball, and ran track in high school. I was being recruited by colleges for an athletic scholarship, so I had plans to fund my way through college as a student-athlete. However, my plans changed when C-Tech2 exposed me to other scholarships for college. I had no idea that there was this world of academic scholarships. I wanted to focus on being a full-time student, and I received an academic scholarship to do that. While I did not play sports in college, being an athlete will always be part of my foundation. Sports have taught me quite a bit, especially when it comes to being a team player, a leader, my work ethic, and depending on different types of people to achieve goals.
Speaking of Virginia Tech, how does it feel to be returning to Virginia and not to be with your alma mater?
The commonwealth is where I was born and raised. To go away to different institutions, to see how things are done at other places, and to be able to bring those experiences to my home state is exciting. To be able to work here at Mason—the most diverse university in Virginia—and build on the excellent work already being done here in the [diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)] space, while joining forces with students, faculty, and staff who are passionate about DEI is a real privilege. It is an honor to have the opportunity to do this work for the Commonwealth of Virginia.
With respect to not being at my alma mater, there were quite a few Hokies on the West Coast. There were also watch parties for football games on Saturdays at local restaurants, so it was always fun to connect with some Hokies. Since we do not have a football team at Mason, I'm looking forward to doing the same thing here and going to Blacksburg for a football game. I'm also looking forward to Mason basketball games. I have a three-year-old daughter, and she seems to have an interest in basketball. She's never been to a college basketball game because of the pandemic, so I think it would be nice for her first basketball game to be a Mason basketball game. Cheering for our Patriots would be an awesome memory for us.
What most excites you about beginning your new role at Mason?
I am excited about Mason’s vision to become a national exemplar of anti-racism and inclusive excellence in action. Mason has a history of being a leader in inclusivity and access in higher education and is committed to building systems of equity to remove bias from the university’s culture. This vision energizes me and gives me the drive to be a tireless champion working with our students, faculty, staff, alumni, partners, and community. Together, we will thrive and transform lives by leading with inclusive excellence.
What do you do for fun?
I love spending time with my family and friends. While COVID-19 has slowed things down for us a bit, you can typically find me at a sporting event, traveling to some fun destination, and going out to eat on the weekends. My partner, Aric, and I are always adventuring out to try new things that interest our daughter as well. Life is quite an adventure, full of fun and exciting moments!