‘Picking Up the Torch:’ The Women Who Govern South

Posted on March 29, 2023
Thomas Becnel

Arlene Mitchell, left, chair pro tempore of the University of South Alabama Board of Trustees; Camille Bonura, center, president of the Student Government Association; and Kim Lawkis, president of the USA National Alumni Association. data-lightbox='featured'
Arlene Mitchell, left, chair pro tempore of the University of South Alabama Board of Trustees; Camille Bonura, center, president of the Student Government Association; and Kim Lawkis, president of the USA National Alumni Association.

When Kim Lawkis looks at Arlene Mitchell and Camille Bonura, she recognizes the long line of women students, professors and administrators who helped build the University of South Alabama.

Mitchell is the first woman to serve as chair pro tempore for the USA Board of Trustees, while Bonura is the fifth female in a row to be elected president of the Student Government Association.

“I see Camille carrying on this legacy of female leaders who have shaped the face of this campus and what the student experience is,” said Lawkis, president of the USA National Alumni Association and, herself, a former SGA president. “And I see Arlene picking up the torch as the first female leader of our Board of Trustees, which plays such a critical role on campus, supporting everything that happens here.”

For the first time, women at South lead the Board of Trustees, National Alumni Association and Student Government Association. In just a few generations, the University has gone from a male-dominated institution to one with women in many prominent positions and leadership roles. 

Dr. Andi Kent serves as executive vice president and provost. Vice presidents include Lynne Chronister, research and economic development; Dr. Joel Billingsley, diversity and community engagement; Margaret Sullivan, development and alumni; and Polly Stokely, finance and administration. Dr. Heather Hall serves as the dean of the College of Nursing and Dr. Susan Gordon-Hickey as dean in the Pat Capps Covey College of Allied Health Professions. Members of the Board of Trustees, in addition to Mitchell, include Alexis Atkins as vice chair, along with Chandra Brown Stewart and Margie Malone Tuckson. Gov. Kay Ivey serves as ex officio president.

When Mitchell became chair of the Board of Trustees last year, she recalled the early days of South, when there were few women on the faculty and even fewer in administration and leadership councils.

“We’ve come a long way,” Mitchell said. “Times have changed. The board has gotten more diverse. I have three daughters, and lots of granddaughters, and I know it means a lot to them. That makes me proud.”

Bonura, who is 21 years old, comes from a different generation of leaders who celebrate Women’s History Month each March.

In her hometown of Enterprise, Alabama, the SGA president grew up competing on dance teams. One of her instructors was Katie Britt, who went on to become a lawyer and politician. Last November, Britt became the first woman from Alabama elected to the U.S. Senate.

Bonura says her career in campus politics was almost an accident. As a sophomore, she was a hospitality management ambassador who was active in the Phi Mu sorority, when there was a vacancy in the Student Government Association. Friends urged her to apply, which she did, and she wound up running for senator and then president.

“Here I am, two-and-a-half years later, and I’m loving it,” she said. “I think I’m a better leader now than I was a year ago. You know, they give you a transition booklet, but there’s nothing like the experience of doing the job. And being SGA president opens so many doors for you. 

“Our whole executive council, for this year, is all women. That’s a first, so it’s like women empowerment, but nobody really says anything about it.”

At South, Bonura has done internships with Jaguar Athletics. She worked in logistics and organization for the football team. With few other women around, it was the opposite of her experience in student government, but it was never an issue.

“Surprisingly, no,” she said. “Honestly, they were really welcoming. A lot of positions in football now are held by women.”

After graduation, Bonura will pursue a master’s degree in communications at South. She’s going to work as a graduate assistant in executive administration, working for Dr. Kent and President Jo Bonner.

Mitchell is one of the members of the Mobile family who have been philanthropic leaders at South for half a century. She was married to the late Mayer “Bubba” Mitchell, who built a Mobile-based real-estate empire with his brother, Abraham “Abe” Mitchell.

The Mitchell Center, the Mitchell College of Business and the Mitchell Cancer Institute have been named in their honor. They’ve watched USA Health and the University of South Alabama grow and prosper.

“It’s mind-boggling to me,” she said. “So much had changed since Mayer was on the board.”

As chair for the Board of Trustees, Mitchell approaches her job with humility.

“I’m learning,” Mitchell said, “Just learning to be with a lot of different people, dealing with different personalities, and being able to handle that and not step on too many toes.”

Lawkis grew up in Scottsboro, Alabama, east of Huntsville. She’s a first-generation college student, like so many at South. When she entered student government, she found women willing to help her learn and follow in their footsteps.

“I came to campus, there was a female SGA president, Jennifer Edwards, and that was a game changer for me,” she said. “Getting to know her completely changed the trajectory of my life.”

Lawkis earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from South before working for food banks and becoming chief operating office of Feeding Alabama. Last year, she became president of the USA National Alumni Association.

She points to Atkins, vice chair of the USA Board of Trustees, as another mentor and role model.

“Alexis is a past alumni board president – she was alumni board president when I was SGA president,” Lawkis said. “That’s how we met. We’ve had a really long friendship. To have her as someone that I’ve learned from and led with has been really remarkable.”

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