During her first week on campus as Wayne State University’s associate provost for inclusive workforce development and director of STEM learning innovation, Tonya Matthews was struck by how many new doors were being opened for her — quite literally. What’s more, most of these doors were being opened by Wayne State students.
“I was immediately impressed by the simple act of kindness and welcome demonstrated by students who were holding open doors for me,” Matthews said. “To me, it was a sign that I am entering into a very welcoming environment.”
Even before she started in her new role at Wayne State, Matthews was already acquainted with the university from her time as the inaugural president and CEO of the Michigan Science Center, transforming the former Detroit Science Center into the region’s hands-on STEM learning destination. It was there that she founded The STEMinista Project, an initiative designed to inspire and support middle school girls in STEM learning and careers.
“My experience at the Michigan Science Center was a fantastic introduction to Detroit and STEM,” she said. “It was also how I met Wayne State, which has always been a strong community partner of the Science Center.”
Having grown up in Washington, D.C., Matthews is the oldest of four children. Her mother was a high school English teacher who later went into higher education, and her father was a police officer with a particular fondness for math. It seemed inevitable that she would pursue lifelong learning.
“My parents were bound and determined that their kids would go to good schools,” Matthews said. “They established a family tradition of making it through school. Although I was the first one in my family to get a Ph.D., one of my sisters also has hers, and my youngest sister is working on her Ph.D.” Her only brother is an attorney.
Matthews earned a doctorate in biomedical engineering from Johns Hopkins University, and a bachelor of science in electrical and biomedical engineering from Duke University.
Matthews arrived in Detroit in October of 2013 and has lived downtown ever since. She likes to say she’s “Detroit on purpose.”
“It’s important for me to be in the city and at a university that has a clear vision of education for our community,” she said. “Our work is instrumental in molding the minds of young people and creating leaders of the future. It’s not about what they come here with; it’s about what they leave with. That’s a tremendous responsibility.”
In her role as associate provost of inclusive workforce development, Matthews considers it imperative to be in an environment like Detroit. “This is an area that really is conducive to these efforts,” she said. “We build stuff. We do things from the ground to the sky. That, and the chance to take advantage of such a rich pipeline of talent, attracted me to Wayne State.
“Also, we work with folks who like to use their hands and folks who like to use their brains. This is the perfect location for that.”
Matthews is eager to lead the university’s STEM learning innovation initiatives for many of the same reasons. “We have an advantage going in,” she said. “This community already knows that STEM is important. They just want to know how to get it all done.”
Given that Matthews has more than a few ideas about getting things done, it’s likely only a matter of time before Wayne State’s newest provost is opening the doors for others.