Alum Spotlight: Dr. Sonja M. Brown reflects on the impact of her Fresno State mentors

Sonja M. Brown

Fresno State College of Art and Humanities alum Dr. Sonja M. Brown continues her success in academia as the new Vice President for Academic Affairs at Great Basin College in Nevada. Although the transition to administration is one that Brown stated she could not have anticipated, she remembers how instrumental her Fresno State professors were in helping her navigate her dynamic growth and culminating success in the field of communication.

Through compiling research for faculty projects to completing a masters thesis on rap music, Brown cultivated a connection to her mentors and the foundational values that she has exercised in working with students throughout her career.

While earning both her undergraduate degree and masters in communication at Fresno State, Brown also earned a reputation as an inquisitive student who excelled under the guidance of many professors during her time here.

Although Brown was initially interested in a career in journalism, she became inspired to choose speech communication as her major after taking classes with Professor Richard Ullmann.

Professor Richard Ullman

“He was actually my first professor in the field and my first professor in the department,” said Brown. “He thought that I was really good at public speaking. That was the first time I’d ever heard that and he thought that I’d be a good student and somebody he wanted to have as a student in the major.”

Brown stated that she found the community inside the classroom to be very welcoming which appealed to her when deciding on communications as a major.

“It was an environment that encouraged exploration, innovation, and creativity but also one where you didn’t have to feel shame for not knowing things. It was really an open environment and the faculty, I thought, were very enthusiastic and cared a great deal about student learning. That was the primary focus, and for me, that seemed to resonate in everything that they did,” said Brown.

Because of her interest in developing personal relationships with faculty, she frequently came to mind for many extra-curricular projects that came about, including the collaboration on an annotated bibliography with professors from varied disciplines, and summer student teaching opportunities.

“Those opportunities came my way from the faculty, and so I enjoyed that as well. They thought of me when someone asked, so that was really cool,” said Brown. “I feel really fortunate, definitely.”

When deciding what career path she would take, Brown was again inspired by Fresno State faculty.

“I was really interested in sort of the practical dynamics of life as a professor, and they shared, and they really were interested in being open and honest with me as much as they could about both the opportunities and challenges. So that for me was huge – just absolutely huge in helping me understand what I wanted to do.”

Professor Robert “Bob” Powell

During her undergrad classes with Professor Robert “Bob” Powell, Brown began considering becoming a professor of communications herself.

Brown stated, “I always went to him for advice about various things because he always seemed to be very open. I think it was one of Bob’s courses where I just sat back one day and thought I’d kind of like to be on Bob’s side of the desk and see what that might be like. So I started asking him questions about his experience and what he enjoyed about being a professor.”

Brown continued her education at Fresno State and entered into a graduate program where she earned her masters in speech communication. She decided to write her thesis on a technical analysis of rap music and asked Professor Douglas “Doug” Fraleigh to serve as the chair.

Dr. Douglas Fraleigh
Professor Douglas “Doug” Fraleigh

“It was an interesting foray for Doug and I … it was definitely a fun project,” said Brown. “I was a huge rap fan at the time, and so I thought well why not bring this together in some way and Doug really helped me make it happen.”

In her pursuit of a career as a professor, Brown considered her options for completing a doctoral program at multiple universities. Once more, she turned to Professor Powell for his advice on which school would best serve her in earning her Ph.D. in communications.

“I wanted to go to one that’s really hard … one that was really gonna help me sort of spread my wings, especially in the area of research,” said Brown.

Professor Powell directed her to schools in the Southeast. Brown eventually decided on the University of Georgia where she completed her Ph. D. in interpersonal communication and media studies.

After graduating from Georgia, Brown obtained a position as Assistant Professor of Communications at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and throughout the next ten years, was tenured and promoted to Associate Professor of Communication and Department Chair for both Communication Arts, and Foreign Languages and Literatures. During her time as chair of both departments, Brown’s interest in administration grew, and she found herself continuing to pursue administrative positions.

Regarding the transition towards administration, Brown acknowledged, “it’s definitely been an interesting journey, one that I could never have calculated during my undergrad days at Fresno State that’s for sure.”

Her pursuit eventually led her to administration in community colleges and Brown entered her current position at Great Basin College. Although she no longer works directly with students, Brown’s dedication to their success is ever-present, and she maintains the values that Fresno State professors instilled in her. She aims to continue to integrate those values into her work as Vice President for Academic Affairs.

“It’s important, especially in this time, to remember that our obligation is first and foremost to students … I don’t engage with students very much anymore, but I try to always remember what I’m doing directly impacts students,” said Brown. “Everything we do is about student success, and everything we do is about supporting our students to the finish line even though our circumstances warrant that we often have to focus our attention in other areas, but we still have to remember that.”

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