The Journey to Equity in Higher Education

How Dana Lawless-Andric became a champion for educational access and opportunity

written by Zinga Hart, photography by Ilenia Pezzaniti

To bring in the summer, Dr. Dana Lawless-Andric wears her sunniest shirt. Her office windows at Kent State University’s main campus open to the afternoon sun. It’s cold outside, which comes across even in an interview on Zoom, but a recent and much-needed staycation leaves her cheerful.

Dana has worked at Kent State for over 15 years, currently serving as the associate vice president for Outreach and Engagement. Her career focus has been diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Although her position is in Kent, her roots run deep in Akron. 

“I was born and raised in this area my entire life,” she says. “I grew up right off South Main Street.”

Early in her career, Dana focused on college access and policy work for the state, region and nation, but as she pursued her Ph.D, she realized how much she could still contribute in her own backyard. So she applied her interest in DEI issues as a member of Class 35 for Leadership Akron’s 10-month Signature Program. 

Her path in Akron started earlier, at Buchtel High School, where she fell in love with creating pipelines for educational access as she connected with Akron Public Schools (APS) through the Upward Bound program.

“[It] sung to my soul in a way nothing else has ever done to this day,” Dana says. “I walked beside families seeking to better themselves through education. For some students, I am still a part of their stories even into their 30s.”

Read more:

As a federally-funded program developed out of the Civil Rights era, Upward Bound cultivates opportunities for low-income students. Dana got her start there as a graduate assistant after completing an internship during her master’s program for the Summit Education Initiative, where she was inspired by Barbara A. Greene.

This experience opened Dana’s eyes to the many, different adversities that students faced on their way to attaining higher education. All along the way, she encountered Akronites doing whatever it takes to engage within their educational journeys. 

She folded these observations into her doctoral study, where she focused on what affects a student’s persistence to degree attainment. In short, societal, systemic and economic barriers lead to disparate educational outcomes. To improve outcomes, the structure must change. 

Since then, facilitating structural change has been the core of Dana’s efforts in Akron, working with the East Akron Neighborhood Development Corporation (EANDC) to make housing affordable and foster pride in homeownership.

She also serves on the economic inclusion committee alongside Robert DeJournett, the Greater Akron Chamber’s Vice President for Opportunity and Inclusion. They work to provide “robust resources” to minority-owned small businesses in Akron so entrepreneurs who are Black, female or live with a disability can get access to the same opportunities historically afforded to White and male business owners who don’t have a disability. 

Recently, the committee gathered diversity professionals to discuss the GAC-led Elevate Akron initiative, which urges decision makers to dismantle the barriers that limit participation in — and leadership of — local economic policies by Black and Brown people so Akron can embrace the abundance of talent in areas that are often overlooked.

That reflects Dana’s shift in perspective from a focus on needs-based services to asset-based development. 

Through her work at EANDC, she adopted an equity-driven approach that means working alongside residents toward achieving their own goals instead of potentially forcing an organization’s well-intentioned objectives on them.

“We look at the work we do from a place of value. We’re not coming in and saving the day,” she says, emphasizing the primary difference with the needs-based method, which can breed skepticism among the very people nonprofits want to serve. That’s because the traditional approach doesn’t usually consider what they actually want or empower them to achieve it. 

Dana thinks education is the heart of actually addressing the linkage between income, access and opportunity for people in historically marginalized groups. That requires engaging and improving the pipeline from K-12 to higher education.

Partnerships with the LeBron James Family Foundation (LBJFF) and APS Career & College Academies have accelerated student progress. For example, Kent State recently welcomed 193 eligible juniors from LBJFF’s iPromise program as freshmen who received free tuition and one year of free room and board.

Her vision is for “every one of our students to have a choice and be prepared for college whether they want to or not. Every point of data shows that educational attainment feeds into health care, voting participation, etc.”

The challenge is still tremendous, but Dana’s personal experience fuels her. In her dissertation, she describes the differences in the paths taken by students who had the opportunity to attain higher education and those who didn’t. One is close to home.

“I write about my brilliant cousin. He is a mechanical genius who could engineer an entire car and put it back together,” she says. “He had a life path that went into drugs and criminality.”

She reflected a lot on how her life turned out so differently from the cousin she adored.

“I am the first person in my family to go to college and it helped me understand that you are one degree away from a different life, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have value,” she says. “I lost my cousin from Kenmore to the heroin epidemic, and I think the work is looking at how we come to the table and uplift and invest in all people and in all of our communities.”

Dana’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion hasn’t protected her from challenges, but by applying that lens to herself, not just her work, she’s grown as a person.

“Most of my career, I worked with mostly Black and Latinx families, and some years later, the students would remember their first impression was, ‘Who is this white girl?’,” she says. “There is something important about understanding your role as a White person being an ally [and advocate] in communities of color.” 

The long-term journey and deep personal investment DEI-related work requires may not be easy, but it is a path she thinks local leaders must want to take. 

“While my work is not about me, it is core to me,” she says. “It is a commitment to allies to change. It is political, but it doesn’t have to be partisan. Why wouldn’t we all want safety and education and healthcare for our communities? The thread that helps us have a desire for public good doesn’t have to be for some but not for others.” 

Inclusion for all is an Akron worth envisioning.

// Originally from Brooklyn, NY, Zinga Hart fell in love with the artist spirit that vibrates in Akron. She is called to writing about economic development at a personal and community level. 

You just read this article for free. The good news is that we’re committed to never putting our content behind a paywall. We want our readers to be able to continue reading for free because we believe everyone should have access to quality journalism. 

But here’s the catch: Our work is not free to produce. If you can afford to contribute by joining our co-op and becoming a member, we need your support for the news we offer to remain free and equitable. Plus, we think you’ll love being able to say, “I’m part-owner of a magazine.”

We want all Akronites, our neighboring suburbanites, and our beloved expats to have the opportunity to learn what’s happening here, and to read articles written by contributors whose love for Akron shines through their work. So here’s what we’re asking: Please join us for as little as $1/month in becoming a member. When you click the red button below, you help keep our content free for thousands of readers who might not otherwise be able to access our stories.