Lelia Crawford: A legacy of helping students feel at home

By Maria M. Lameiras | Emory Report | Aug. 18, 2014

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Lelia Crawford retired Aug. 1 from her position as director of Emory's Office of International Student and Scholar Services. Emory Photo/Video.

The youngest of eight siblings, Lelia Crawford wasn't allowed to leave home right after graduating from high school — she was only 16 — so she spent a year in her home town of Hartwell, Georgia, before her mother let her move to Chicago, but only because an older brother and sister lived there.

Now Crawford is retiring from Emory after 35 years of helping students who have traveled thousands of miles from home to pursue an education.

Director of Emory's Office of International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) since 1988, Crawford was hired in 1979 as the university's first African American female assistant dean for campus life. 

As director of ISSS, Crawford has managed services for international students and scholars including orientation, immigration and other regulatory compliance, communication, advocacy, training and consulting for undergraduate and graduate students. The office also is responsible for the Exchange Visitor Program of the Department of State and all employment-based immigration for the university, including international faculty and visiting professors, and hosts events such as the international student forum with former President Jimmy Carter and the International Coffee Hour.

"The most interesting part has continued to be learning about various cultures and the opportunity to meet and get to know students and scholars from all over the world," Crawford says. "One of the things we do all the time is help students and scholars achieve their goals. That leads to a sense of great satisfaction."

Philip Wainwright, vice provost for international affairs, says Crawford has played a significant role in the Emory community.

"Starting more than 30 years ago Lelia has been centrally involved in some of the most exciting areas of Emory's development. As Emory has become increasingly international, Lelia has worked to make Emory a welcoming place for thousands of international students and scholars," Wainwright says.

"Whether they know it or not, Lelia has touched many peoples lives, and enabled Emory's international students and scholars to pursue their ambitions and their dreams," he adds. "We can all be grateful for Lelia's contribution to making Emory a better place."

Over the past 10 years, the international student population at Emory has more than doubled. In the 2013-2014 academic year, there were 2,469 international students enrolled at Emory, including 1,162 undergraduate students and 1,307 graduate or professional students.

Access to education

Throughout her life and career, Crawford has always done what was needed to accomplish her goals.

At 17, Crawford moved in with her sister in Chicago and worked for two years to earn the money to attend City Colleges of Chicago to get her associate's degree. At 21, she tried to transfer to the University of Illinois in Chicago to earn her bachelor's degree, but they would not accept her transfer credits.

Inspired by several high school students from her church who were interested in the University of Montana, she visited with a college counselor and was accepted with financial aid.

"Before my class arrived, there were only eight African American students at the university," Crawford recalls. "When my class arrived, there were 50. It had a major impact on the university and on the city as well. There were only three African American families in the town who were not affiliated with the university."

Crawford earned her bachelor's degree in physical education at the university, then stayed on to complete a master's degree in counseling. After graduating, Crawford accepted a job with the university as a counselor for the African American studies program.

"The majority of the African American students there were from elsewhere, not only surrounding areas like Washington and Wyoming, but Chicago, Los Angeles, New York. It was a real challenge for some of them to adjust socially, psychologically and academically," Crawford says.

After two years working for the University of Montana, Crawford moved to Spokane, Washington, in 1975 for a job at Whitworth College, where she advised minority students and coordinated the learning resource center. During her last two years, she also advised international students.

"It was interesting learning about and being involved with various cultures and helping them to make adjustments to a new culture and a new educational experience. It was also new for me, learning the do's and don'ts of other cultures, as well as learning about the immigration laws and regulations," she says.

"When I arrived at Whitworth College, there were approximately 15 international students. Over the four years I worked there, that number grew to about 60."

The road to Emory

In 1978, Crawford traveled to Georgia to visit family and to attend a reunion of high school friends. She had been considering moving closer to home to be near her aging mother and her friends encouraged her to look for jobs in Atlanta.

Crawford started at Emory on Aug. 1, 1979, as assistant dean for campus life and director of Minority Student Programs (now the Office of Multicultural Programs and Services–OMPS) primarily serving African American, disabled and international student populations.

 In 1979, Crawford developed the Multicultural Outreach and Resources at Emory (MORE) peer-mentoring program. With roots as a student-run program primarily serving African American undergraduate students, the program has expanded to include all students, primarily students of color, and offers a robust faculty-mentoring component. Currently, the program serves 60 to 75 incoming freshmen, mentored by 30 to 35 upper-level undergraduate students, and 15 to 30 staff and faculty members.

During Crawford's years as assistant dean, African American, international and disabled student populations grew extensively, in part because of the university's focus on minority recruitment. In 1988, she wrote a proposal to create a separate office for all students of color, which led to the establishment of OMPS. In 1994, the university created the Office of Access, Disability Services and Resources (ADSR) to meet the needs of disabled students, faculty and staff.

Taking care of students, scholars

In addition to her official duties, Crawford has served as a mentor to many students. Once a scholar from South America came to ISSS to arrange for his wife to travel to the United States after the wedding in their home country.

"I asked him when he would be traveling home for the wedding and explained that he could take his wife to the U.S. Consulate to obtain her visa. He said he couldn't do it because he wasn't going to go home. He could only afford one plane ticket for his wife, so his brother was going to stand in for him at the wedding," she says.

A key goal for Crawford has been to provide the support that international students may not have in the United States. "When you work with students, one of the things you try to do is respond to whatever they need. With international students and scholars who are far from home, very often with no friends or family nearby and no support system in place except the university, we have to keep that in mind and provide that support," she says.

In 2002, Crawford received Emory University's Award of Distinction in recognition of outstanding service and contributions to the Emory community.  

Meeting students and scholars from many countries has also inspired Crawford to travel, both personally and professionally. In 1991, she received a Fulbright grant for international education administrators and spent six weeks in Japan and Korea learning about their education systems, societies and cultures.

In 2012, she visited China with a group of Emory educators as part of the university's involvement in the Confucius Institute in Atlanta. Personally, she has visited South Africa, Ghana, Senegal, London, Paris and Amsterdam, as well as traveling in North America and the Caribbean.

In retirement, Crawford hopes to continue to travel — she'd like to visit South America, particularly Brazil — and will continue her volunteer work at Hillside Presbyterian Church, where she is an ordained elder.

Crawford's last day at Emory was Aug. 1, 35 years after she began.

"No two days have been alike. I've learned so much in just my everyday activities of working with people," she says. "My experiences at Emory have been very, very positive."