Sonya Gunnings-Moton has been a Spartan since 1968, when her family moved to Michigan because her father, Thomas Gunnings, would become the first Black faculty member in the College of Human Medicine.
In 2020, after earning two MSU degrees and long-serving as an associate professor and associate dean of student support and engagement in the College of Education, she is transitioning into retirement.
“I eat, drink and sleep green and white,” said Gunnings-Moton, who is remaining on the faculty on a part-time basis to provide advising and coordination expertise.
And yet, it was an experience as an undergraduate at Northwestern University that helped shape her life. A program requirement had her spend a semester studying the impact of policies on marginalized populations in Cabrini-Green Homes, a Chicago housing project. It changed everything, solidifying the notion that she wanted to work with urban populations and urban contexts.
[T]his College of Education owes its urban agenda to Sonya Gunnings-Moton … She has been the core and fiber of our progress in addressing urban education and social justice.Former College of Education Dean Carole Ames
Gunnings-Moton joined the MSU College of Education in 1992 and the Urban Immersion Fellowship—a seven-week program for future teachers to support the literacy development of children in Detroit—was later created to replicate the experiences she had while at Northwestern. Additional programs and initiatives, established and led by Gunnings-Moton, followed in what became known as the urban education pipeline, supporting students throughout much of their academic journey. The programs include:
- Teacher Education Academy (for high school students),
- Early Success Scholars (for students entering MSU),
- Urban Educators Cohort Program (for teacher candidates),
- Opportunities to complete the Teacher Preparation Program internship in Chicago and Detroit, and
- Urban Education Graduate Certificate
The pipeline included connections—built by Gunnings-Moton—with schools, districts and communities across Michigan and beyond. The programs develop educators who are not only willing to work and lead in urban areas, but also sustain a commitment to high quality education for all students.
“These programs underscore that the intent and commitment in the College of Education to effectively prepare urban teachers was not something on the periphery of the college agenda. It was integral,” she said.
Another program—the MSU-Wipro STEM Leadership & Teaching Fellowship (2015-18)—expanded on that commitment and MSU’s land-grant mission. The fellowship, in partnership with global technology company Wipro Ltd., supported 125 Chicago K-12 teachers to create engaging and multimodal experiences for students. Gunnings-Moton served as one of the co-project directors. According to Punya Mishra, another co-project director, the fellowship succeeded largely because of the tenacity of Gunnings-Moton.
“She has an amazing clarity of values and perspective,” said Mishra, now a professor and associate dean of scholarship and innovation at Arizona State University. “Combined with her irreverent and funny take on life … that is a potent combination.”
When meeting with the CEOs of Wipro for the first time to finalize details of the fellowship, it was Gunnings-Moton who “sold them on the project,” Mishra said, because of the deep care she had for others. That was nothing new for Mishra, who knew Gunnings-Moton had a particular strength for energizing others, and reminding them of their purpose.
“She always spoke about the importance of what [teachers] were doing, about their critical role in supporting learners who might otherwise fall through the cracks, unless we step up.”
“JOB WELL DONE”
Through the guidance of her late father, Gunnings-Moton always knew her life and career was going to be about improving the quality of life for others.
In her many roles—professor, associate dean, author, mother and now grandmother—Gunnings-Moton has done just that: shepherding the way to success for future Spartan educators and advocating for equity and inclusion on behalf of faculty and students across the college and throughout the university. As she transitions into retirement, her work is being continued in various ways by Terry Flennaugh, director of urban education initiatives; Alyssa Stepter, urban recruitment, outreach and programming specialist; Terah Venzant Chambers, associate dean for equity and inclusion, and others across the college.
“My career has been about a belief in the possibility and promise of young people in urban school settings,” she said. “Their brilliance was inspiring. Their sense of hope gave me drive. My dad helped me understand my goals would only really be achieved if they continue past me, and that’s happening. That’s good. As my dad would say: ‘That’s a job well done.’”
MSU CAREER HIGHLIGHTS
- Individual recognition in the 2007 Excellence in Diversity (EIDA) Awards for Sustained Effort Toward Excellence in Diversity
- College of Education Distinguished Alumni Award (2011)
- Urban Immersion Fellowship Program receives 2016 EIDA honor for Excellent Progress Toward Diversity
Gunnings-Moton was a guest on Mishra’s podcast, Value Laden. The podcast interviews educational leaders on their value systems, and how they bring that into their work. Listen to the episode (Spotify / Apple Podcasts / Simplecast).
Entrepreneur, philanthropist and MSU alumnus Eli Broad passed away in April 2021. Among his many gifts to Michigan State University, he supported the MSU College of Education with a $6 million pledge in 2003 to help improve urban education, particularly for students in Detroit schools.
“The support Eli Broad provided to our College of Education transformed the urban education agenda for our college, and more importantly, the lives and trajectory of Detroit and MSU students that continues today,” Gunnings-Moton said.
Read more about Broad’s legacy: go.msu.edu/xbp