As a first-generation undergraduate student himself, Gavonello hopes to mentor students within the Yale School of the Environment as they design and implement policies to advance the school’s diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.
Courtesy of Somer Cook
Robert Gavonello began his tenure as Assistant Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Yale School of the Environment, bringing his experience as a first-generation undergraduate and an academic background in marine biology to the position.
Gavonello was announced as assistant dean in a November 18 press release. He initially became interested in marine biology in elementary school, spending time with his naval officer father collecting creatures and observing wildlife in coastal Virginia. Gavonello’s early passion for outdoor and marine biology led him to earn his master’s and doctoral degrees in the subject from the College of Charleston and George Washington University, respectively.
As Javonillo progressed in his studies, he became aware of two pressing issues: the importance of conservation education in the face of human devastation and the social and economic inequalities that exist in academia.
“If you’re a marine biologist, or you’re taking marine biology classes, you can’t help but notice that over time, the marine environment hasn’t stayed the same,” Gavonello said. “And that’s because of human influences… If you’re familiar with those kinds of environmental insults that humans have caused over decades and centuries, you can’t help but wonder: Gee, can’t we do better?”
Gavonello completed his bachelor’s degree at Boston University and was the first in his family to attend college. According to Javonillo, the college introduced him to people from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, with some students taking financial aid and completing work-study, while others lived in off-campus apartments and owned cars. He began to realize that despite the fact that he and his peers were all at the same school and taught simultaneously, they did not have equal access to resources.
Gavonello explained that his experience as a first-generation college student and his awareness of the inequality between students like himself and some of his classmates “planted the seed” of his growing political awareness. He added that his experience in South Carolina as a master’s student highlighted the lingering divisions that exist in American society.
“When you take these ideas and combine them with ideas about ‘we don’t do well with the environment,’ they converge into this space that I’m entering now, which has to do with diversity and equity with a special reference to the environment,” Gavonello said.
As the Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Gavonello hopes to help other students find a sense of belonging at Yale School of the Environment. He defined affiliation as the antithesis of impostor syndrome, which he asserted that many Yale graduate students may encounter when beginning their studies.
It will also work to implement initiatives that come from formal diversity plans defined by the university or college of the environment.
Gavonello explained that in order to enact policies, school officials like him must have data to explain why these policies are important and how they will contribute to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. Therefore, some of his work will focus on data collection and policy proposals.
Another challenge that Gavonello hopes to tackle in his new role is the stigma surrounding environmental studies or research.
“When you have a new graduate student and that graduate student comes back to their family on … Thanksgiving break, and they say ‘get a degree … in some environmentally related field’, a lot of times they feel pressure from their family or peers. [who are] Essentially asking the question: Why are you doing this? Why not become a doctor, lawyer or engineer? Gavonello said.
According to Gavonello, many people consider climate change to be a remote problem, and thus may distort the work of climate scientists or graduate students pursuing their studies in environmental sciences. However, just like social justice, he said, fighting climate change should be an effort of “all hands on the surface”.
As such, Gavonello also hopes to serve as a mentor for students at the School of Environment. He said he enjoys giving advice and support, but also believes mentoring is a duty that comes with his position.
While he can’t mentor each student individually, Javonillo plans to help students from similar backgrounds transition from undergraduate to graduate studies.
‘Promote our DEI [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion] Efforts and increasing the diversity of our faculty, staff, and students is a priority in our strategic plan, and is very important to me personally,” Ingrid Burke, Dean of Yale School of the Environment, wrote to the news. “We’ve made great progress in our efforts, but we still have work to do. We have to do it.”
Gavonello will work with Dorceta Taylor ENV ’85, GRD ’88 ’91, Senior Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the School of Environment. Taylor emphasized Gavonello’s previous experience and commitment to enhancing DEI spaces in the November 18 announcement.
According to Burke, Taylor recently established the Justice, Equity, Diversity and Sustainability Initiative, or JEDSI Lab and Fellowships for many incoming master’s and doctoral students.
“We were looking for someone who not only had an outstanding professional qualification, but who could bring something unique to the role,” Burke wrote. “Dr. Robert Gavonello has this combination, from his professional experience at the National Institutes of Health, where he helped recruit and retain a more diverse faculty, to his personal experience as a first-generation undergraduate student. I think so with Dr. Taylor and Gavonello leading our DEI efforts, We will be able to progress significantly towards our goals, and hopefully, serve as a role model for others to follow.”
The Yale School of the Environment was founded in 1900.