A calling to serve
When Dr. Melinda Messineo arrived at Ball State in the fall of 1999, she had just finished up her Sociology Ph.D. earlier that year. She was excited to build her career in Muncie, famously known as “Middletown” among sociologists. She loved Ball State for a number of reasons, foremost because she would get to research and teach, an uncommon opportunity for those in academia. Now, after spending over 22 years working with Ball State students and the Muncie community to persistently pursue inclusive excellence, President Mearns recently named her the 2020-2021 Outstanding Diversity Advocate.
For several years, Dr. Messineo has been deeply involved in the Muncie community and on the Ball State campus, leading her students in service projects that aim to reduce inequality in many forms. She helps them look at society through a critical lens, examining issues like equity, inclusion, racism, sexism, ableism, and beyond. Through partnerships with immersive learning and community engagement partners, she has been able to help students take abstract sociological ideas and put them into practice.
“Sociology as a discipline is really good at good community-engaged work, and Ball State and the community partnerships make it possible. This ends up being great for students because they get real-world experience that change their lives and the lives of others.” – Dr. Melinda Messineo
During her time at the University, she has led students in community projects with local organizations, including United Way of Muncie and Delaware County, Second Harvest Food Bank, the Muncie Redevelopment Commission, Edible Muncie, and more.
Dr. Messineo finds immersive learning and community engagement to perfectly meld her own passions and Ball State’s values. “I’ve been so lucky,” said Dr. Messineo, “Whenever I’ve had a class idea or a project idea or wanted to work with a community partner, I’ve been able to do it. My department has been super supportive and the campus has provided resources.”
Shifting the narrative
Born and raised in California, Dr. Messineo remembers noticing a lack of diversity when she first came to Indiana. “I felt like it wasn’t a very diverse place. Over time, I began to realize that I wasn’t appreciating what diversity looked like here, because I had one idea of what diversity looked like. Having come from a place that I perceived to be diverse, and then coming to a place that I didn’t see as diverse, it helped me hone in my skills about recognizing diversity among individuals who may phenotypically look very similar,” she said.
Both in and out of the classroom, she works to bring her students to the same realization, helping them think about the variety of factors that can make individuals diverse. In pursuance of inclusive excellence, one of her main goals in the classroom and greater community is to remove structural, intrapersonal, interpersonal barriers. She also teaches students to “own the idea” that they have the power to influence the barriers in their own communities, and to carry that into whichever career fields they enter.
Numerous testimonials make one thing clear: she has made an impact of great magnitude on the lives of many students. Graduate student Gavin Mauk started working with Dr. Messineo in the Fall of 2017. Mauk then served as an intern in the Forward STEPS program, a community outreach project focused on providing resources to combat poverty, and later worked closely with her as a research and graduate assistant. He is one of several students who say Dr. Messineo played a key role in shaping the person he is today.
“Dr. Messineo is one of the most inclusive and diversity-minded people I know. She truly values the opinions and experiences of all people, no matter their identities. I think something she is especially gifted at is educating those who may need that extra ‘push’ towards diversity, equity, and inclusion,” said Mauk.
Praising her “incredible selflessness,” he is impressed by her ability to take on numerous projects while maintaining her position as a full-time, tenured faculty member. “She is always willing to do more for underrepresented people.”
Dr. John Anderson, a former student and now colleague of Dr. Messineo, says she went above and beyond to help him feel a sense of belonging as a Black male, non-traditional student, and now as a faculty member in the Sociology department.
“She always genuinely inquired about my physical and mental health because she was aware that I was a non-traditional graduate student, husband, and dad,” said Anderson. “Dr. M modeled for me what teaching in higher education should look like. She understands the value of using several different approaches to help ensure student learning.
“She has an outstanding skill and gifting to recognize talent, skills, and gifts in students, faculty, and staff. I learned from a master educator how to maximize the potential for student success as a result of my time with her.” – Dr. John Anderson
C.S. Hendershot, Assistant Director of Donor Relations at Heart of Indiana United Way and Dr. Messineo’s former student, says they would not be where they are today without her mentorship. Through working with Messineo in the Second Harvest Food Bank’s Forward STEPS program, Hendershot was also able to explore their interest in the nonprofit sector, which launched their career in nonprofit fundraising after graduating with their master’s degree.
Dr. Messineo is the epitome of Beneficence. [She] goes beyond seeing the intrinsic worth of every member of the community. She actively shows that she values each person by listening and learning from others’ opinions and ideas. – C.S. Hendershot
“[She] was able to pinpoint my strengths and helped me discover my interests and pursue my passions. Dr. Messineo was and still is this person for so many students at Ball State. She simply believed in me,” added Hendershot.
Fighting the good fight
When Dr. Messineo learned that she was named the 2020-2021 Outstanding Diversity Advocate, she felt incredibly humbled. “A lot of people who I have seen get this award I consider mentors to me. It was an honor in so many ways to be in that caliber,” she said. “To be held in tangential regard to Dr. Ruby Cain (previous winner) and others who are amazing advocates, whose entire lives have been around this advocacy, was so humbling.”
“[Diversity advocacy] is super hard work, but it’s a calling and I have to engage in it. To receive this award was a recognition of how hard this work is. This is a marathon, not a sprint.” – Dr. Melinda Messineo
She describes diversity work as wanting to do good work and keep the hope, despite the opposition from those who feel threatened by it or do not recognize its importance. She and her colleagues continue to push forward and draw strength from this analogy often expressed by Charles Payne, previous assistant provost for diversity at Ball State:
“When you’re driving down the road and you’re trying to get someplace, and you know roughly where you’re trying to get to, but it’s foggy and you feel like you might’ve made the wrong turn, but you keep going because you believe the destination is there and you’re going to get there eventually. And every so often, the fog will clear and you’ll see a sign that tells you you’re on the right path. That’s diversity work,” Messineo recounted.
For Dr. Messineo, the award was a reminder that she is not alone on this road, and that it feels good to be among the people who are on this journey together.
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