Featured / Local / MEAC / Sports / Virginia

Sonja Stills, trailblazer in the making

NORFOLK, VA — Sonja Stills made history as the first female commissioner of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Division I.

Before working for the conference, Stills received her bachelor’s degree in human services counseling from Old Dominion University and her master’s degree in counseling from Hampton University.

She became Hampton University’s Coordinator of Athletic Academic Support. Stills created the university’s first athletic academic support program and implemented the CHAMPS/Life Skills program. She provided academic advising and counseling to student-athletes until her transition to the MEAC, serving as Director of Compliance in 2002. She also served as the chief of staff/chief operating officer in January 2021.

“I never asked for a raise or promotion; they just came. I focused on doing the work,” Stills said.

File Photo

Stills described her challenge in Esports, where she served as the director. Esports is a billion-dollar industry, and became a conference initiative so the MEAC could become an HBCU esports conference. The MEAC has a community board with individuals from each school represented in the conference. While serving as board members, student representatives is tasked with helping them advertise on social media.

“We got into conference play for the first time in the fall, and we’re in the middle of getting ready to play this spring … our hope is that as institutions continue to grow, they will start academic programs in Esports. The MEAC wants to be that pipeline of minorities into the gaming industry,” Stills said.

Stills said she’ll never forget the morning of her interview with all eight presidents. It felt surreal until it was time for her to get ready.

“I’m in the mirror; I have my music going, I have my Lizzo playing … because she’s my spirit animal. I have Mary J Blige, Jill Scott, Kelly Clarkson, empowerment music.”

She went into her interview optimistic and confident. Her duties as commissioner began on January 1, 2022. She worked in athletics for 24 years and the MEAC for 20 years. Though she is now a commissioner, becoming one was not her original plan.

MEAC Commissioner and Mayor of Norfolk
MEAC Commissioner Sonja Stills, right, stands beside the Mayor of Norfolk Kenneth Cooper Alexander, Ph.D., left, at the MEAC Championship. Photo by Dominique Garcia

“I never set out to be a commissioner; it was not where I intended to be, but I feel like God has set me on my path, so I let go and let God,” Stills said.

Keeping her faith top of mind, Stills shared what she enjoyed most about her job.

“My favorite part of my job is looking at my leadership staff as they grow, as I push them forward, like a proud mom, as they are presenting and doing other things. Ensuring my staff is succeeding and growing is very important to me.”

She also spoke about people labeling her a trailblazer, “I feel like I haven’t done the work yet, I haven’t put in my time … but I’m starting to see the opportunities that I can give other women by being in my position. I might be the first female commissioner, but I shouldn’t be the last.”

While maintaining her busy schedule, Stills is sure to incorporate self-care rituals, including watching TV comedies on streaming services, hanging out with friends, and attending day parties.

To anyone breaking barriers or doing something for the first time, Stills offers the following advice: 

  • Do the work: “Get your foot in the door; most of my opportunities and experiences were things I volunteered for.” 
  • Building relationships is essential: “You never know who you might meet that can help you get to where you want to go.”  
  • Have a good work ethic: “People are always watching. Do you show up on time? Do you have a good relationship with the other employees? Are you a team player? They will be the ones who talk about you when you’re not in the room, so your name will pop up when opportunities arise. 
  • Learn the culture: “Learn the culture of where you are. Learn that what works at one place may not work at another, so be adaptable and go and make a change.” 
File Photo

MEAC History:

Established in 1970, the conference experienced its first competitive football season in 1971.

The MEAC’s most recent initiatives are membership expansion, revenue generation and corporate partnerships. In June 1980, the MEAC was deemed a Division I conference by the NCAA; soon after, the conference received automatic qualification to the NCAA Division One Men’s Basketball Championship.

With its headquarters located in Norfolk, Virginia, the MEAC comprises eight HBCUs: Coppin State University, Delaware State University, Howard University, University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Morgan State University, Norfolk State University, North Carolina Central University and South Carolina State University.

According to its website, the MEAC declares champions in eight men’s sports – baseball, basketball, cross country, football, golf, indoor track and field, outdoor track and field, and tennis – and eight women’s sports – basketball, bowling, cross country, indoor track and field, outdoor track and field, softball, tennis and volleyball.

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