Sonja Stills is dedicated to giving people the opportunity to tell their stories. It’s helped to inspire Stills, the first female commissioner of a Division I HBCU athletic conference and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC).
“One of the big things as far as my vision is being able to story tell,” Stills says. “And so, with the initiatives with Pride Month, with Title IX, is telling the story of the conference, its students, its administrators, and how we get to where we are. So, that has been a big part of what we’re trying to do as we move forward with going into Hispanic/Latino month and reaching out to the students and telling their story — about being Hispanic or Latino at a historically Black college and university.
“Part of that recognition has to be telling those stories and encouraging the staff to really listen when you’re interacting with students during championships or whatever, and you hear these stories,” she continues. “Let’s tell those stories graphically [and] visually on our social media platforms.”
Stills stepped into her current roles in January 2022, but she is not new to the workings of the MEAC. Over the last 20 years, she’s held several positions within the organization, including chief operating officer, chief of staff, senior woman administrator, and senior associate commissioner for administration and compliance. She served as senior woman administrator at Hampton University from 1999 to 2002, before joining the MEAC.
Being the first female commissioner has been amazing, says Stills, adding that she wanted to pay it forward.
“It’s a humbling experience because […] people say you’re a trailblazer, and I’m like I haven’t even got down the trail yet,” Stills says. “But it’s amazing […] just being here to have this opportunity to help other females get to be where I am. I might be the first, but I’m not the last. And I should not be the last. And so, I want to provide those opportunities for women to be able to sit in my seat or be the first wherever they intend to be in the future.”
Stills says there are increasingly more African American men in leadership, but she is the only African American female commissioner in Division I.
“Even though there have been more women coming into leadership positions in the conference level, you still walk in — or I walk into a room, and I’m still maybe the minority in the room, as an African American female,” says Stills. “I look forward to having more individuals that look like me there. We’ll get there.”
MEAC member institutions include Coppin State University, Delaware State University, Howard University, University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Morgan State University, Norfolk State University, North Carolina Central University, and South Carolina State University.
Stills holds a master’s in counseling from Hampton and a bachelor’s degree in human services counseling from Old Dominion University. She says the counseling background informs her prioritizing student-athlete mental health.
This year, for the first time, MEAC partnered with mental health services during a basketball tournament so that there was somebody available for participants should they need them, according to Stills. “We didn’t want anybody to struggle to have to find somebody when there’s a need,” she adds.
Stills says she hopes to prioritize revenue generation for member institutions – whether it be to improve facilities or purchase broadcasting equipment – for better visibility. For example, the organization wants to improve the visibility of its Olympic sports nationally.
“What I’m looking to do is to find more revenue that’s going to assist with the improvements for our athletic programs,” says Stills. She says helping institutions improve their facilities is part of the vision of being able to “tell our story. You’ve got to be able to see it visually.”