The journey of a Mills evangelist

Liz Parker ’85 shares an insider’s perspective on the board of trustees and reveals the motives for her faithful engagement as a Mills volunteer (in conversation with Vice President for Advancement Jeff Jackanicz).

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A conversation with Liz Parker

From student body president to Chicago-based admissions representative to College trustee, Liz Parker ’85 has been speaking out for Mills across America for more than three decades. Jeff Jackanicz, who has supervised the College’s fundraising and alumnae relations efforts as vice president for institutional advancement since 2016, caught up with her to learn what inspires her deep commitment to volunteering for Mills. Parker also shared insights into the work of the Board of Trustees, which oversees the College in collaboration with the president and key administrators.

Jackanicz: What led you to come to Mills for college?

Parker: I grew up in Alameda, a town very close to Mills. Like many kids, I always wanted to get away from home for college, but my mother kept putting in a plug for Mills—she had always heard great things about it. So I, of course, resisted it. But as a senior in high school, a friend of mine invited me on an overnight visit to Mills. “If you want to come along, you get out of
school for the day,” she said. Those were the magic words. I stayed in Olney Hall, and I was so impressed by the witty and sophisticated women there.

During my college search, I also considered the University of California at Berkeley. But when I had my interview at Mills, I was basically love bombed by the admission representatives. They made me feel it was important to them that I attend Mills. I also got a really handsome financial aid package, which made all the difference in the world. So that’s how I ended up at Mills.

Are there things you remember particularly vividly about your time at Mills?

Gosh, yeah. I think about dinner in the residence halls, where we ate in small groups and got to know each other. I remember spending many, many hours in the darkroom for a couple of photography classes that stretched me so much I thought I wouldn’t survive, but I did. The biggest thing was being involved in student government through the Associated Students of
Mills College (ASMC) and working with a whole new group of people, including the administration and trustees.

Did you learn lessons, in or out of the classroom, that stayed with you over the years?

The biggest lesson was the importance of taking advantage of opportunities. I had so many opportunities at Mills that I wouldn’t have had at a big school, whether it was joining the swim team or being ASMC president or working with the administration or taking classes outside of my normal subjects, like ballet.

I also learned that there are solutions to most challenges, whether in or outside of the classroom. You just have to work on them actively.

The last thing I recall learning was that unexpressed hopes or expectations are rarely fulfilled. If there’s something you want or some idea or dream you have, and if you don’t ask for it or don’t articulate it, it’s really hard for people to help you. In many situations, I was able to articulate my wishes and hopes, and people did help me. At other times, I didn’t have the confidence to ask for help, so I missed some opportunities.

Where did life take you after Mills?

Immediately after finishing my BA in international relations, I took off for the University of Chicago, where I completed a two-year master’s program in international relations, focusing on Soviet studies—which is now ancient history. I stayed in Chicago ever since. I worked in the corporate world—with IBM and Siemens—for many years, until I decided it was time to
be a parent at home with my kids.

We’ve been fortunate to have you as a trustee of the College since 2012. How did you become a trustee?

You know, it’s funny. Sometimes I wonder if there were just no more volunteer jobs left for me at Mills and they had to find something for me to do! When I first moved to Chicago, I agreed to be an alumna admissions
representative. For about ten years, I would go to college fairs and help recruit students and interview them. I also was active in the Chicago branch of Mills alumnae. We started a great book group that’s still going today. And I was a member of the Board of Governors of the Alumnae Association of Mills College. Because I did a lot of different things with Mills, Linda Cohen Turner ’68, a trustee in Chicago who has since retired from the board, suggested me as a College trustee.

What motivates you to give so much of your time to Mills as a trustee?

Being a trustee—understanding the business of the College and the challenges it faces—is fascinating, and we have some wonderful, brilliant, inspirational trustees. Working with two college presidents has also been fascinating.

But besides my personal fascination, I think it’s important for me to help provide continuity as the College grows and develops, so that we continue to make good decisions and be analytical as we move forward. I’m at a point in my life where I have time to volunteer, and I have the resources to travel back and forth.

You’re an active volunteer with other organizations besides Mills, such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.Why is volunteering such a priority for you?

It started when I was 12 or 13 years old. I was a member of a Masonic youth organization, and the whole premise of the organization was the word “service”: to your community, your family, your school, and your country. I did projects like stuffing envelopes at the Lung Association, planting small trees on the shoreline, and volunteering in an emergency room. I’ve worked at a Democratic National Convention, at the Iowa Caucus, at the zoo. If you have a good life, it’s important that you contribute something back to the community you live in, whether it’s a small community or the greater community.

But volunteering is also a wonderful way to meet new people, to grow, to look at work from a different perspective. It’s both personally and spiritually enriching, both fun and intellectually challenging.

Parker with fellow trustees Lyn Flanigan ’65 and Katie Sanborn ’83, chair of the Mills College Board of Trustees.

Is there anything you’d want alumnae to know about the Mills College Board of Trustees that they might not already know?

When I was a student, I thought the trustees were a grouchy group of people that made business decisions and didn’t really care about us. But early on in my experience as a trustee, as I sat through board meetings, it became clear to me that trustees care very deeply about students and faculty. Another thing that people might not know is that our trustees are a diverse, eclectic bunch, coming from all walks of life. There is no single, standard personality that takes on this volunteer work.

When we go to trustee meetings, College staff have done so much preparation to help us make decisions that it’s clear these staff think of Mills as something more than just another job. As a result, trustees are able to stay on top of what’s going on in the College. They are very cognizant that Mills is a much different place than it was thirty years ago, and yet they realize it’s important to honor the things that remain truly special
about the College.

Our student body is much more diverse today in terms of race/ethnicity, social and economic background, gender identity and expression, and the increasing presence of first-generation college students and non-traditional-aged students. The trustees know that different students require different living and dining options as well as a wider range of class times, meeting days, and content delivery mechanisms.

What are the special things about Mills that continue?

There continues to be a sense of empowerment, supported by a community of women working together to pursue meaningful academic experiences, life-long camaraderie, intellectual enrichment, and practical life skills. The campus is still one of the most beautiful places in the Bay Area and an oasis for study, living, research, and community development. Our classes remain small and continue to offer students the opportunity to participate actively and build relationships with the faculty.

The six years that you’ve served as a trustee have been eventful. You and the board have instituted a number of significant changes at the College. Of which you are most proud?

One of them is the renovation of Lisser Hall. It was a bold undertaking at a time when there were, and continue to be, some demanding financial challenges. But it’s important for the College to keep developing programs and facilities that directly contribute to the quality of student life.

While I was never a student of the performing arts—outside of the one ballet class I took—the opportunity to create, perform, and view work is an important part of the liberal arts experience and a significant opportunity for personal growth. We need spaces on campus where students and faculty can explore their creativity and where the Mills community, and potentially the surrounding neighborhood, can come together. I’m excited that we now have a multi-functional facility that will attract all sorts of groups to campus.

I’m also very proud of President Beth Hillman. She’s extremely creative and fearless. She’s got a high level of energy, and she’s working really hard to find solutions to all of the challenges facing Mills. As our college population changes, so must our way of delivering solutions. President Hillman and her team have worked closely with the trustees to explore a variety of partnership opportunities with other institutions. Last fall, for instance, President Hillman and UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ signed an agreement that means Mills students can now join Berkeley’s study abroad and global internship programs. Meanwhile, Berkeley undergraduate women can enroll in our biology courses, which offer better opportunities for interaction with faculty, and Berkeley graduate students may qualify for our fast-track MBA and master of management programs. The effects of some of the changes we’ve instituted are still taking shape. But I’m happy that the board has had the courage to make decisions and take action. ◆