Dr. Ava Thompson Greenwell’s dining room in her Shepard Hall residence is both spacious and cozy. The golden-hour sun illuminates the warm wood of a large rectangular dining table adorned with three small vases of bright yellow and magenta flowers. As a South Area faculty-in-residence, Dr. Greenwell often invites students to eat dinner and chat about their lives at this table. Her motto? “You can be at home in the South Area.”

The Chicago native moved on campus with her husband in 2022 after having lived in Evanston for 27 years. The move offered Dr. Greenwell the opportunity to become more involved in student's college journeys, which she finds fulfilling. The Medill professor has strong ties to NU, having earned her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in journalism and a Ph.D. in African American studies here.

Students told NBN that Dr. Greenwell’s compassion and passion for her work are her “slayest qualities.” Before teaching at NU, she worked as a television news reporter. At NU, her research has led her to producing a documentary on Chicago’s anti-apartheid movement and authoring a book on the leading Black women in television news management. NBN talked to Dr. Greenwell about her life as a FIR and professor.

What are the biggest differences you see in your role as a FIR and as a professor?

The first thing is I'm here 24/7. I'm not on call 24/7, but it does mean the potential to have access to me 24/7. I'm not the dorm mom, so I don't have to deal with any disciplinary issues or anything like that. I get to deal with the fun stuff. The fun stuff is seeing students in the cafeteria or inviting them into my home. It's so much more convenient. They just walked to South campus, and I'm right here.

How do you balance both roles?

There was a time when I was juggling having three children, working full time, being a student, and in some ways, that prepared me for doing this. I think it's also about doing things that you enjoy, so one of the goals for all of us as FIRs is to take our own interests and infuse those into the programming.

I do “Therapeutic Thursdays” because I have seen over time, students have become more anxious. On Thursdays, it's about the students taking a break and relaxing, whether that means individually with yoga, whether that means we're sitting around the table having a conversation, or maybe meeting another professor who comes in for dinner as well, and being able to talk to them just as human beings.

What is a favorite activity you’ve done as a FIR?

One big thing that I started last year in conjunction with the United Christian Ministry is a garden in combination with Evanston Grows in the South Area. We were growing squash, all kinds of greens and tomatoes, and we walked those produce items over to the Purple Pantry. We were able to have something like 400 servings of different kinds of produce over the course of the summer, and the Purple Pantry is mostly for students who are food insecure.

What made you want to become a professor?

I was looking for a position that was going to allow me to use my journalism skills but not be on call all the time. I wanted to be able to have my weekends for my children. This was the perfect fit because, in some ways, being a reporter, you're teaching all the time. I found it to be a very easy transition to move from being on camera as a reporter to being in the classroom as a professor.

I began to do research on Black women who have climbed to the highest-ranking management positions in television news. The research gave me an excuse to actually call them up. That's one of the aspects that I've loved about journalism, but also that I love about research.

What are some of your goals as a professor?

I'm working on another documentary on some pioneering Black women who came to Northwestern to teach. This is back in the ‘70s, where some of them first became tenured.

I'm also looking forward to working with students. With the book and the documentary, I have work-study students who helped with transcriptions. I had a podcast that I had a student work with me to develop some of the themes and do some research around other podcasts. I will do the same thing with this documentary. I think we will probably develop some kind of study or research guide to go along with the documentary so those who are educators will be able to have some resources that they can use in the classroom.

What about as a FIR?

One new thing I started this year is Tuesday Treat birthday bash. We had cake and ice cream for the January/February birthday babies. We had a little portable photo booth where they can take pictures of themselves with a silly birthday hat and bring their friends. The first day we did it was so cold that nobody wanted to come out. Eighteen students signed up but only two showed up. I was disappointed, but I understood. This week we had a larger group, and I'm hoping to grow that.

That sounds really fun!

I'm really happy to engage with students outside of the classroom. Yesterday I ran into a student who I hadn't seen this academic year, and I said, ‘Oh, well, how's it going?’ She kind of hemmed and hawed and said, ‘It's okay.’ Those little moments of asking a student how they're doing and them being honest, especially if it's not going well, means that there's another point of connection that wouldn't have otherwise happened, and I think that that's very valuable.

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