Behind his desk in his corner office, Kenyon Bonner keeps what he calls “paychecks” tucked in a wooden hutch.
Not his literal paychecks, but rather, thank-you notes from students, like one he received from a recent graduate that reads, “I realize that, without the standards you set as a leader, I probably would not be who I am today.”
Though he’s filled that hutch with notes throughout the past year, Bonner is finally settling into his office as the newly appointed vice provost and dean of students.
After serving as Pitt’s interim vice provost and dean of students for just over a year, the 43-year-old beat out three competitors for the permanent position, which he officially assumed March 1, 2016. He’s worked at Pitt for more than 12 years, rising through residence life and student affairs positions — but unlike the other three candidates who interviewed for the position and his last four predecessors, Bonner doesn’t have a doctorate degree.
Getting a doctorate degree has been a lifelong goal, Bonner said, until he got married and secured the dean position, he had another priority.
“I was a single dad for five years,” Bonner said. “That was my primary focus … to take care of my son.”
As he begins working on issues of diversity, mental health and advising at Pitt, it’s finally the right time for the Washington & Jefferson College graduate to pursue his Ph.D.
This summer, Bonner will begin his doctorate in higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, alongside other educational professionals who have similar time constraints.
He said though he’d like to study at Pitt, the Penn program is designed to accommodate the busy schedules of educational professionals in high-up positions that don’t allow for full-time work during the school year.
His focus will remain on his new position, which he said requires “ability, talent, experience and dedication” to provide unconditional support for the students he serves every day.
As vice provost and dean of students, Bonner works with Student Affairs and other student organizations to enhance student experience and Pitt services through assessing and improving co-curricular activities.
Student Government Board President Nasreen Harun said Bonner dispels myths of an administrator acting from an ivory tower too high up to hear students’ concerns and ideas.
“Whenever I see students writing off administration … that’s not the experience I’ve had with them and I think … Have you really tried interacting with these people?” Harun said. “Especially Kenyon — he really does what he can to kind of be in touch with the students.”
After growing up in Cleveland, Bonner attended Washington & Jefferson College, where he got his bachelor’s degree in psychology and, per a professor’s suggestion, philosophy. He later moved to Kent State University, where he got his master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling, then served as a resident director.
As an undergraduate, Bonner ran for president of Washington & Jefferson’s Black Student Union and played basketball competitively. Off the court, he was also an artist.
He wrote poetry — probably horrible poetry, he says now — refining his prose as he started taking philosophy classes and thinking about life more. In graduate school, he adapted his poetry into raps, performing freestyle in small, local venues.
He also wrote short stories, sometimes riffing off of tales his father had told him of playground bullies, striving to make readers “feel the wind and the tension.”
His wife, Sylvana, said she hopes he will one day “find some time to write.”
“[Rapping] sounds just like something fun, but you have to be pretty intelligent to pull that off,” Sylvana said. “He’s a great writer … He’s artistic. He’s very artistic.”
Though she knows Bonner wishes he had more time to hone his artistic skills, Sylvana said Pitt students have been his priority long before they started dating.
When he took a job as the assistant director of residence life at Pitt in 2004, Bonner moved to Pittsburgh from Kent State and, sometime in 2008, reconnected with Sylvana, whom he knew from his hometown.
The pair got to know each other once again as Bonner rose through positions at Pitt, including associate dean of students, director of student life and the director of RISE Mentoring Program, and eventually married in 2012.
Now, four years later, the couple has combined their two families together and cares for their four kids together — Chase, 9, Jasmine, 11, Grant, 14, from Sylvana’s past marriage, and Ijhad, 17, from Bonner’s first marriage.
Though his kids could likely teach him how to use it, Bonner said he still doesn’t understand Twitter — and he doesn’t really care to.
He said he’d rather immerse himself in campus life than try to understand student life via the internet.
To learn more about protecting students, Bonner spent a few evenings doing overnight shifts as a security guard in campus residence halls when he worked in residence life.
Bonner got a uniform from U.S. Security and worked all night long alongside the regular guards — from around 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., he said.
Bonner said the guards in charge didn’t let him work on his own for his one-night sub-in, but he was thankful for the opportunity to chat with the overnight workers about their work and the students’ nighttime habits.
“[I] wanted to understand what the security guards’ experiences were like during the after-hours time period,” Bonner said. “They play a very important role in protecting our students.”
Now, as vice provost of students, Bonner connects with his students perhaps more directly — if they have a question, he’s there to talk.
At one confidential meeting, Bonner discussed debt with a small group of students. The students wanted answers — ones Bonner simply didn’t have. He listened to them, told them which of their requests he could address and assured them he’s there to help.
“The way we change our culture and our environment is to educate each other, enlighten minds, get people to understand,” Bonner said.
Bonner meets with frustrated students not to fix all their problems but to be an ally, he said. Even if he can’t answer any of their questions or promise any solutions, he said, it’s about making sure he’s doing everything he can to help.
“When I went to school, we spoke to people one-on-one … We didn’t have the ability to say things electronically that we didn’t have to be accountable for in person,” Bonner said. “Via electronic text messages and tweets and Yik Yak, you don’t get that.”
In his time as dean of students, Bonner plans to focus on issues of sexual assault, diversity, mental illness and individualizing career and academic advising.
As he plans a “test run” of a diversity forum, for example, he’s also trying to improve student advising, working on mental health awareness and prioritizing students’ individualized educations.
He prioritizes mentorship in education because, he said, the only reason he’s gotten where he is today is because of his own mentors, who urged him to double major in undergraduate school.
“It doesn’t always happen immediately, [but] every now and then someone says, ‘Hey, I consider you a mentor,’ or, ‘You made this different in my life,’” Bonner said. “That’s really the value of what we do.”