Commitment to inclusion: key to improve student life
by Annalise Baker-Whitcomb
Less than a year after Willette Burnham, Ph.D., started at MUSC in 2006, her husband and mother died within nine days of each other. Burnham, who is the executive director of student programs, was amazed and encouraged by the out pouring of support from people within the MUSC community, many of whom she didn't even know.
Dr. Willette Burnham
"I thought long and hard afterward about just retiring, and I would have done that if I had not seen this community respond to me and my family in that way," said Burnham. Those tragic events and MUSC's reaction to them solidified her decision to remain a part of the MUSC staff.
Since then, Burnham has made great strides in her work in student affairs and student diversity. Burnham stresses making MUSC a place where any person, regardless of their background, will feel welcome and part of the community.
One of Burnham's most memorable achievements at MUSC was implementing a program for each first-year student, across all programs, to have a minimum of three hours of diversity training. She did this with the creation of the Office of Training and Intercultural Education and the help and commitment of all the colleges and deans, to stress the importance of diversity in a health care setting.
Burnham supervises all recognized-student organizations including the Student Government Association, which during her tenure has successfully initiated a smoke- and tobacco-free campus, and the inclusion of sexual orientation in MUSC's admissions non-discrimination statement.
Since being a resident assistant in her own college dorm, Burnham has been heavily involved in student life, totaling more than three decades of service. A South Carolina native, Burnham started out working at Williamsburg Technical College and then moved on to The Citadel, the College of Charleston and eventually MUSC, always working in student affairs.
Burnham faced some challenges as a black woman in education during her tenure across several state institutions. She was often the only black woman and administrator in her area. Burnham said she fought hard to be thought of as more than "the black woman in higher education." She maneuvered through many of her barriers through strong networks, perseverance and commitment to her beliefs.
"Always make sure you treat people, regardless of their gender, their ethnicity, their upbringing, their experience in life, as you want to be treated. I think that if you approach your work and your life in that way then that doesn't leave any room for making people feel alienated and isolated, or alone." Burnham said. "I want to be in places where people generally want everyone in the community to be welcomed, and they make an extra effort to make sure that happens."
When Burnham became the executive director of student programs at MUSC in 2006, she sought to create a more team-oriented work environment, instead of student affairs operating as separate entities. Burnham, who has been working with the same core group of people, said teamwork and all-around dedication are what allows the group to function so efficiently and to grow every year.
"I just think I work with the best people in the world. We're like family," she said.
Burnham loves to cook, especially comfort food and big family dinners. She has three adult children and three granddaughters who are 5 years old and under, all living in the Charleston area.
Burnham also loves to travel, hoping to see all she can in the United States. She hopes to take her grandchildren to all the places she wishes she could have gone at their age and works to leave them a proud legacy.
Editor's note: In honor of National Women's History Month, The Catalyst will feature women who are making a difference at MUSC.