An Educator at Heart

Once a first-generation college student, new Chancellor Antonio D. Tillis feels right at home at Rutgers–Camden

By Sam Starnes

When Antonio D. Tillis earned his Ph.D., an esteemed faculty member at the commencement reception asked his Aunt Shirley, “Are you shocked that Antonio will now be a college professor?”

“No,” she said.

“No?” said the professor, who had been Tillis’s adviser. “What do you mean?”

“When he was a little boy,” she said, “we used to call him the Little Professor because he would come home and teach his little cousins everything he had learned in school.”

The first in his large, but close-knit family in Memphis, Tennessee, to go to college, it wasn’t until late in Tillis’s twenties that the lightbulb went off for him that education should be his career. When his plans to go to law school after finishing his undergraduate degree at Vanderbilt University didn’t work out—he had been inspired to become an attorney by the TV courtroom drama Perry Mason he watched regularly while growing up—he worked several business jobs, including a sales position for Merck. After five years on that path, he changed course and moved to the Dominican Republic to teach Spanish and mathematics in a Christian orphanage known as Cry of the Caribbean.

There he met an 11-year-old boy named Justin, who had never been to school. Justin looked as if he could be a member of Tillis’s family back in Memphis. Tillis created a curriculum he called “Teaching Justin How to Read,” and worked with him sounding out words phonetically. “I’ll never forget the smile on his face when he sounded out the word habichuela, which means bean. I can still see him sounding it out.

“That’s the moment,” Tillis said. “That’s when I was bitten. And that’s when I knew teaching was going to be my life’s calling.”

After returning to the states, Tillis earned a master’s in Spanish literature at Howard University and taught high school for a year before earning a Ph.D. in Latin American literature with an Afro-Hispanic emphasis from the University of Missouri at Columbia. His college teaching and administrative career includes stints at Purdue University, Dartmouth University, the College of Charleston in South Carolina, the University of Houston, and most recently, the University of Houston–Downtown, where he served as interim president until he took the helm at Rutgers University–Camden in July.

Through more than two decades of faculty and administrative roles, educating students remains his deepest love. “I’m a teacher by nature, a teacher by heart. My heart is in teaching and the acquisition of knowledge.”

Memphis Roots

Born in 1965, Tillis’s first name was inspired by a Mexican family. His parents’ friend Pedro had a younger brother, Antonio, who died young, so they named their child after him. “My mom loved the name, and so that’s how I became Antonio.”

Tillis’s parents, who had separated, moved away to Detroit when he was very young, but he stayed in Tennessee and was raised by his maternal grandparents in South Memphis, an inner-city neighborhood near the Arkansas and Mississippi borders that is populated by the working poor. His grandparents, who had educations that went only through the sixth and ninth grades, had 12 children. He was their first grandchild, and they doted on him. “I was not allowed to work, and Lord knows we could have used the income,” Tillis said. “My grandfather always used to say, ‘Your job is to study.’”

When his Aunt Shelia was in high school and he was a little boy, she taught him how to count to ten in Spanish. “And I never forgot it,” he said. He went on to study Spanish at Memphis Central High School, and had a proclivity for the language in which he became fluent. “I’ve always been interested in Spanish culture, from literature to music to Latin American art,” he said. “It has become part of who I am.”

Tillis, who later in life became fluent in Portuguese, said he looks forward to speaking Spanish with native Spanish-speaking students, their families, and others in Camden, a city where Spanish is the primary language of about 40 percent of residents. “Being able to talk to students’ uncles, their aunts, their parents, and their grandparents in Spanish builds a level of trust and knowledge,” he said. “They see me as an example of what their child can be. I think that’s very important.”

A First-Generation Student

In his first year at Vanderbilt, an elite institution founded by the tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, Tillis was one of fewer than 40 Black students in the incoming first-year class. He strived to fit in without the benefit of knowledge about the ways of college. “I did not know you could drop a class,” he said. “I had no knowledge of it.”

An English minor, Tillis also enrolled in classes in African American literature at Fisk University, which partnered with Vanderbilt, and he made friends at Tennessee State University—both historically Black universities in Nashville. “I had the best of both worlds,” he said.

He said his undergraduate experience among many wealthy students informs his role today as chancellor at a university where almost 55 percent of students are the first in their families to go college. “It gives me a level of understanding relative to the needs of students,” he said.

He said issues of financial aid, registration, Learning Abroad programs, and even the fundamental question of why one should earn a college degree can be confusing for first-generation students. “All of these types of questions most students deal with, but first-generation students deal with these differently,” he said, adding that they don’t have family members to consult about college decisions.

Tillis, who describes himself as a “proud product of the Memphis public school system,” said his choices of leadership positions have been motivated by the desire to support students in public institutions who do not come from privilege. He left Dartmouth, a private and prestigious Ivy League university, for the College of Charleston in South Carolina, which is an urban public school, and later moved to the University of Houston, and subsequently the University of Houston–Downtown, which share many similarities to Rutgers–Camden. “I wanted to be at an institution that served, for the most part, Pell Grant-eligible students who were first generation,” he said. “I purposefully went to the College of Charleston and the University of Houston, and now here because of those similarities.”

He said helping underprivileged students to find their way to college and earn degrees is vastly rewarding. “It makes the job not feel like a job,” he said. “It makes it feel as you are operative in purpose. That’s what gets us through in difficult and challenging moments. On the other end of the challenge is a transformative opportunity.”

Lessons Learned

Tillis said the compound difficulties of 2020—both the COVID-19 pandemic and the reckoning following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the police—have resulted in lessons that will benefit the university and society at large going forward. “We gained an understanding that our students have so many hidden needs that the pandemic revealed,” he said, noting that mental health issues were at the top of that list. “When we talk about this notion of wanting to educate the entire student, mental health has to be a part of that conversation to make sure we are attending to the needs of our students.”

He said universities with a high population of first-generation students also need to be cognizant of other concerns, such as students who are parents, caregivers to older family members, and breadwinners in households. “We have to rethink the notion of who or what constitutes a student,” he said.

Regarding the heightened awareness of systemic racism in the aftermath of outrage over George Floyd’s death, Tillis, who edited The Trayvon Martin in ‘US’: An American Tragedy, a book published in 2015, said it is important to educate students on the historic systems on which racism is built and understand why racism is a learned behavior. “This is what scares me about the notion of not being able to talk about systemic racism and causes—historical causes of why we are still grappling with some of the things we grappled with in the 18th century.”

On campus, Tillis said the university is fully committed to supporting all students and continuing to champion equality. “We have a nice smorgasbord of cultural representation, and also representation of people whose backgrounds are roots and routes outside of the United States,” Tillis said. “This whole notion of reckoning, and this notion of the beloved community, which is a community that will embrace and love and celebrate difference, will make certain there is equal access, and there is equal opportunity. Students will know that the expectation of being a member of such a community is that you thrive irrespective of social economics, irrespective of race, and irrespective of orientation.”

Significant Scholarship

In addition to his leadership roles, Tillis has produced an impressive portfolio of scholarship, authoring, editing, or translating seven books, including The Afro-Hispanic Reader and Anthology, published in 2018, and a translation of Caribbean-African upon Awakening, poetry by Blas Jiménez, published in 2010. The book of poetry by Jiménez resonated deeply with him. “Blas was taking on the poetic voice of the ancestral history of people of African ancestry, not just in the Dominican Republic, but talking about roots and routes of migration of people, of bodies, throughout the region,” Tillis said.

Tillis and a Brazilian scholar recently finished a translation of a volume of poetry by Conceição Evaristo, a Brazilian poet, which he hopes will be published soon. “She is probably the Rita Dove of Brazil right now,” he said, comparing Evaristo to the highly regarded poet who is a former United States poet laureate.

A Love for Art and Music

Tillis’s love for Spanish and Latin American culture is exhibited in his personal collection of art, which includes paintings by Cuban artist Reynier Llanes and Menelaw Sete, a Brazilian painter often compared to Picasso. One of the favorite pieces in his collection is The Messenger by Llanes, a large painting which brings to life Cuban folklore. “Many of those stories are not written, but he uses the canvas to tell them.”

Being a native of Memphis, famous for blues music and its iconic Beale Street, he grew up playing the alto saxophone, played in jazz bands, and still has a saxophone today. He also sang in church choirs as a child and at Vanderbilt. In his twenties, while living in Washington, he further developed his singing in the choir at Metropolitan Baptist Church and has become an accomplished lyric baritone. He started as a tenor, but “found my love in the land of the baritones.”

Priorities at Rutgers–Camden

As for plans for Rutgers–Camden, Tillis said he is in an introductory listening period, but that there are several areas on which he wants to focus: creating more internships for students; building pipelines for students to move on to graduate and professional educations; and ensuring that research faculty have the resources they need to advance research agendas. He also wants to “make certain that this campus remains one where students have access and opportunity.”

He said he is deeply impressed with the campus commitment to community engagement, and wants to further that cause. “To hear the passion with which colleagues speak about this type of work is definitely great, because I am one who shares that passion. It’s going to be a wonderful collegial partnership to really push for the next level of engagement out of colleagues who are engaged in the work.”

Posted in: 2021 Fall, Uncategorized

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