Marion Sanford

Marion Sanford, director of UMW’s James Farmer Multicultural Center and Multicultural Student Affairs, on Campus Walk by the statue of James Farmer. Photo by Norm Shafer

Marion Sanford didn’t think of herself as different until she started grad school at Iowa State University.

“I found myself for the first time in 22 years being the only African-American student in class,” said Sanford, who grew up in Greenville, Miss. “I always knew I was African-American. I never felt like a minority.”

Since then, she’s been committed to bringing diversity to colleges, one campus at a time. As director of UMW’s James Farmer Multicultural Center and Multicultural Student Affairs, Sanford juggles a parade of responsibilities. Whether she and her staff are planning for the thousands of guests who come to the Multicultural Fair each spring or putting together a peer-mentoring program, one name is never far from her mind.

“We’re here to further the work of Dr. Farmer as it relates to equality,” Sanford said of the late civil rights leader and beloved Mary Washington professor of history and American studies.

After earning a doctorate from Iowa State, Sanford served as assistant dean of students and director of a multicultural center at Marquette University and as dean of student affairs at Morris College. She came to UMW in 2011 and took nearly 5,000 Mary Washington students under her wing.

“They look to me for advice and guidance,” said Sanford, who considers herself an adviser, a coach, and a sort of parent figure. “I try to be that person for them.”

Sanford serves on multiple UMW committees and implements initiatives to celebrate cultural, religious, and sexual differences among students. She works with the UMW Multicultural Leadership Council to bring student leaders from ethnic and minority groups together with faculty and administrators.

Sanford and her team plan the back-to-back Cultural Awareness Series events that run September through April. The year culminates with the popular Multicultural Fair, one of the University’s largest events.

When UMW kicked off another celebration, its semester-long commemoration of Farmer and the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Freedom Rides, Sanford was proud – and surprised. She learned, when she met Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, one of the four original Riders the festivities brought to campus, that the two are sorority sisters.

“We just hugged,” Sanford said. A treasured photo of the moment is on display in her Lee Hall office, with “Go Deltas” written across it in Mulholland’s hand. “It was like we suddenly became old friends.”

Mulholland’s stories − and those of other Freedom Riders

− resonate with Sanford, who recalled how she felt on that first day of grad school. She hopes that at UMW, she can make sure no one is truly alone.

“When I look at the students here, I think, ‘I have walked in your shoes,’ ” she said. “I think that helps me connect with them and want them to succeed.”

What do you love most about UMW? Working with the students, helping them celebrate who they are, and sharing that sense of pride in their faces when they succeed. The spirit of collaboration and support across departments – Dining Services, University Relations, Facilities, Student Affairs – has been a pleasant surprise. There has not been a time when I’ve reached out to a department or office for assistance and not received it.

What would you change about UMW? One thing I appreciate about working here is the genuine commitment of administrators to bringing diversity and inclusion to all areas, especially in how it relates to our student body. I’d like to see those numbers increase. It’s important for students of color – students of all demographics – to see people like themselves in different positions. It shows them they can do it, too.

How would you describe yourself? Sincere, easy-going, genuine, compassionate. I love what I do. I try to be an easy, comfortable person to interact with.

What motivates you? Probably the biggest thing is student service. Anyone in higher education is here for the students; their success is our success. There’s nothing more rewarding for me than to see a student over the course of their time here grow and mature and excel.

What matters most to you? That people are treated fairly and respectfully. I look at the things taking place in the world today. There’s so much injustice and unfair treatment. I’m trying to be an agent for positive social change and inspire others to do the same.

What are you afraid of? I worry about not getting through to a student or making a difference. And frogs!

What keeps you awake at night? Nervous energy about a major upcoming program. Making sure I’ve dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s.