Spry is thrilled to celebrate the many successful African Americans in the sports industry. We are proud to work with many of these men and women and can’t wait to share their stories and successes with you!
We recently had the opportunity to speak with Sonja Stills. Stills is currently the Commissioner of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC). She assumed this role in January of 2022, becoming the first female commissioner in the 50-year history of the MEAC and the first female commissioner of a DI HBCU Conference. Stills first joined the MEAC in 2002 and served in various capacities prior to assuming her current role as commissioner.
Please give me a brief history of your life/career.
“I was an Army brat so my family traveled around a bit but we eventually settled in Virginia. When it came time for college, my top two choices were Hampton University and Old Dominion. I wound up choosing ODU and had a great experience there. I joined the college gospel choir, became a Sigma Sweetheart, and also pledged Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc to name a few of the many activities I was involved in. I really had a good time. After changing my major a few times, I wound up graduating with a B.S. in Human Services Counseling. But I ended up making my way to Hampton after all when I went there for grad school.”
Stills would earn a Master’s degree in Counseling from Hampton. This would also be the beginning of a long, but successful journey for her in college athletics administration. While working as a graduate student, she was given the opportunity to volunteer with Hampton’s football team by working with a group of student-athletes by providing academic support. After joining the athletics department as the coordinator of academic support, Stills impressed then AD, Dr. Dennis Thomas, with her work ethic and willingness to go above and beyond, taking on tasks that weren’t a part of her job description.
“When Dr. Thomas left Hampton to become the Commissioner of the MEAC, he called me about two months later to say it was time for you to get paid for what your worth, and the rest, as they say, is history.”
While at the MEAC, Stills would serve as Director of Compliance, Executive Assistant to the Commissioner, Assistant Commissioner for Administration and Compliance, Senior Associate Commissioner for Administration and Compliance, Senior Woman Administrator and Chief Operating Officer.
“I’ve honestly never asked for a promotion. Every opportunity I’ve had has found me and I’ve just tried to do the best I could in whatever role I was in. I love a challenge, and each year the job was never the same. There was always a new wrinkle to figure out. That kept it interesting and kept me growing.”
What inspired you to pursue a career in collegiate athletics?
“I never set out to be a conference commissioner or even work in athletics at all. I went to college with the intention of becoming a computer engineer. Athletics was a career I kind of just fell into by following my undergraduate internship supervisor to athletic academic support at Old Dominion because I really wanted to work with her again for my graduate internship. After working as the assistant dean of women for a couple of years, I had the opportunity to interview with Dr. Dennis Thomas, who was the AD at the time. Apparently, word got back to him about the work that I did with the football team, so he was familiar with my name. He hired me and I had the opportunity to start the first athletic academic support program at Hampton. While these programs are commonplace today, they weren’t really a thing back then.”
What’s been your secret to success?
“I’ve tried to treat everyone with respect. Whether you’re an intern or the President of a university, I believe everyone deserves the same amount of respect. I think if you treat people well, good things will find you.”
What advice would you offer to young professionals today?
“Stay grounded and be where your feet are. Resist the urge to look ahead to the next job. If you dedicate yourself to being excellent in the job you’re in, people will notice and opportunities will come.”
“Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. A lot of things I was asked to do made me very uncomfortable, like doing TV interviews for example. But each of those experiences prepared me for the role I’m in today.”
Who have been your role models/mentors professionally? Personally?
“Dr. Dennis Thomas has been an incredible mentor. He gave me my first opportunity in this business. He would literally walk me through the department explaining the whole operation, from marketing principles to ticket operations to how corporate sponsorships worked, etc. Throughout my career, he made a point to put me in positions where I could grow and thrive. He saw things in me that I didn’t even see in myself.”
“Jewel Long, who was my former boss [Dean of Women] at Hampton, was also instrumental in teaching me how to navigate the professional landscape as an African American woman. She showed me the importance of nurturing relationships in this business.”
Finish the sentence, The most rewarding part of my job is:
“When I see members of my staff shine. I want everyone I work with to not just have a seat at the table, but to have a voice. When I see an intern or a younger staff member find success or get poached to take another position it warms my heart. Feeling like I was a part of someone else’s journey is the best feeling in the world.”
What’s next for Sonja Stills?
“I’d love to learn how to DJ. I already have a stage name picked out – DJ SOS.”
What Black History Month Means To Me…
“Black History Month is a celebration of our legacy and culture. I think it’s an opportunity for us to take time to honor those trailblazers who paved the way for people like me.”
Whether starting the first-ever athletic academic support program at Hampton University or becoming the first female commissioner of the MEAC, Sonja Stills has blazed trails of her own. Through her steady leadership, she has managed to bring stability to the MEAC during a period of transition, while empowering and uplifting those around her. For these reasons, Spry is excited to salute her accomplishments as part of our Black History Month celebration!