Beyond the bow-tie

State’s new Vice President for Student Affairs Willie Banks Jr. says he is inspired by students who persevere and succeed, despite the odds.

Big, boisterous and generally bow-tied, Willie Banks Jr. strikes an imposing presence. But don’t jump to conclusions about Indiana State University’s new vice president for student affairs.

“People, when they see me, because I’m a big guy at 6-5, they make a lot of assumptions that I played football, but I never did,” Banks said. “I think people are really surprised to learn that I haven’t.”

Adding to the surprise is that Banks hails from Georgia, recently ranked by the sports blog College Spun as the No. 12 state in the country for college football.

Willie Banks Jr.

Willie Banks Jr.

Banks’ passions include television and pop culture. The 44-year-old grew up in a small, south Georgia town where his parents settled after his dad retired from the Air Force. It was a town where most homes could pick up only five or six TV channels, and there was little else in the way of entertainment.

Fast forward to 2016, and Banks’ No. 1 passion is his job.

His career has included 18 years in various student affairs positions at the University of Georgia, followed by three and a half years at Cleveland State, where he served as associate dean of students for student life, interim assistant vice president for student affairs, interim vice president for student affairs and dean of students.

Banks’ choice of neckwear began during his time at the University of Georgia, where many of his colleagues wore bow ties.

“I really enjoy wearing bow ties and I have way too many to count, but they make for an interesting conversation piece and people really remember me after meeting me,” he said. “There are some folks that like them and others who do not prefer bow ties at all. I have a number of dear friends who would be quite happy for me to retire the bow ties, but I continue to wear them. I think it can be an unexpected and fun choice in neckwear. I’ve started wearing blue bow ties on Tuesdays in honor of ISU, and I hope the trend will catch on in Sycamore land.”

Banks is inspired by students who persevere and succeed, especially those who overcome obstacles along the way. He heard the stories of many such students at Indiana State during the process of selecting the student speaker for fall commencement, an honor that went to Martha Reed, as 55-year-old university staff member who worked off and on for nearly two decades to complete a bachelor’s degree.

“We had six great students tell their stories, and a couple of times I had tears in my eyes. It was so moving to hear stories of students coming from a different country, nontraditional students who took 20 years to finish their degree, even some traditional students who faced some really tough circumstances to finish their degree. I had goosebumps,” he said. “This is why I went into student affairs. This is why I’m in higher education. It’s the transformative piece of people having these wonderful experiences on a college campus and learning more about themselves, becoming better citizens and giving back.”

Banks is especially passionate about a liberal arts education.

“I have a liberal arts degree, so I really am a big fan and proponent of the education of the whole student and that’s really the tenet of student affairs,” he said. “When I talk about educating the whole student it really is that they can be critical thinkers but also understand their place in the world, understand art and music, can also do science and math and are a well-rounded person. That’s what drives me, and that’s my ideal for higher education — that it is inspiring and that is changing people’s lives.”

He holds a Bachelor of Arts in public relations, with a minor in business, from Mercer University. He also earned two degrees from the University of Georgia: a master’s in student personnel and a Ph.D. in student affairs administration.

Banks said he likes the configuration of the division of student affairs at State that includes counseling, student conduct, fraternity and sorority life and the Student Recreation Center. His visit to campus for interviews last March made it clear that this was the place for him.

“I think there was still snow on the ground, but even through the snow and ice, I realized this is a really pretty campus,” he said. “I love college campuses that are defined, that have trees and an entrance. You can tell that there’s a quad. You can see historic buildings, and I could get a sense of that even in March. Beyond that, the people were really nice and seemed open and welcoming and really wanted to see some change.”

Banks said he hopes he brings energy and a different perspective to the university.

“I think my experience is pretty unique as far as being at a state institution, coming from a flagship research I institution and then going to Cleveland State, which is really a young institution, 50 years old, with 18,000 students but only 800 live on campus,” he said. “Coming to Indiana State, I think that I’ve discovered a gem that really provides students the opportunity to transform their lives and have access to education.”

While faculty, staff and students work hard at Indiana State, Banks said it is important to take time to enjoy life along the way.

“If you take yourself too seriously it doesn’t become fun. You have to laugh,” he said.

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