Life’s Trials and Tribulations Led Travell Oakes to Empower Marginalized Students To Overcome Systemic Barriers


Hayley Lemery

Oakes and Findley spoke at the spring 2023 Omicron Delta Kappa induction ceremony on March 16, 2023.

Abigail Muth, Staff Writer

Travell “T.O.” Oakes has changed the game for the Multicultural and Leadership Development Center (MLD) by bringing his expertise in curriculum design, evaluation, assessment and inclusive leadership development to FGCU.

After obtaining his bachelor’s degree in economics and management from Albion College in Michigan, Oakes took a gap year followed by working as a cultural admissions counselor at Albion College. He was able to use that time to learn about other cultures and ethnicities while also sharing his own life experiences.

However, Oakes, who now works with MLD at FGCU, saw admissions work as a transactional relationship with students. Once he helped students decide if they wanted to attend the school, he was unable to really connect with them as he wanted. He had to focus on the next group of incoming students.

“I like to see continuous growth. I like to have authentic and genuine relationships so folks can develop those and increase networks. So I knew admissions wasn’t my ideal place where I wanted to be,” Oakes said.

After this discovery, he went to Central Michigan University and stayed there for nearly two years. Oakes worked as a graduate assistant within their leadership institute while receiving his master’s degree in higher education administration.

He made his way to FGCU in July 2019 to be the coordinator of leadership development. That’s when he met Sherrelle Findley, the current assistant dean of students and director of MLD.

“I think he personifies transformational leadership,” Findley said. “I think he’s the exact opposite of transactional leadership which is just a give and take or ‘I’m just here to do what I gotta get done’.”

He worked with Findley to start ‘walk and talks’ where students can meet with an advisor or mentor in the center and talk with them somewhere that makes them feel comfortable, rather than sitting in an office. When they were developing this idea, Oakes asked Findley to be his mentor.

“We spent a lot of time, especially through the pandemic, going on ‘walk and talks’ and it allowed me to get to know him better. And for him to better get to know me. Both being individuals of color was also seen as a way to support each other during that time,” Findley said.

In Oct. 2021, Oakes became the assistant director for the MLD center. Findley is now Oakes’ direct supervisor, which does not allow them the same relationship they had before, but she still sees the hard work he puts into his job every day.

As most individuals go to their supervisor with new ideas and go from there, Oakes makes sure he has thought things out beforehand and has a plan of action. He likes to figure out logistics ahead of time to not waste anyone else’s time.

He worked on the inaugural Tunnel of Awareness and started the Men About Change program for individuals to study and combat toxic masculinity. He has also aided in many MLD programs which create or re-envision from other universities.

“I would say my proudest moment for T.O. would be navigating FGCU in the community during a time where he thought there wasn’t a lot out here for him,” Findley said.

Oakes was born in Muskegon, Michigan, a predominantly black community, and understands the importance of mentoring students through academics. He is a part of multiple initiatives that allows him to foster these relationships.

Oakes is a member of the Xi Omicron Lambda Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, where he serves on the Go-To-High-School, Go-To-College Committee. He’s able to encourage students

from underserved communities to attend college through this program.

He is also the advisor of FGCU’s undergraduate chapter of Upsilon Sigma, where he works with young men to develop leadership skills and conduct community service. He was inducted into the FGCU’s Omicron Delta Kappa circle in the spring of 2020.

He founded and is president of Kickz4Justice, LLC, another outlet for Oakes to inspire people to become the best version of themselves.

Oakes and FGCU graduate Madison Welch met at their first Frosh Mosh event, a multi-day retreat for future student leaders, which is hosted by MLD.

When they first met, Welch says she never would have guessed it was the first time he was meeting everyone in his department because he seemed comfortable and personable. She went on to hold multiple positions in the MLD center.

“We got close, because I happen to be in the center a lot more and connect with a lot more professionals. And he was one of those professionals I got to really connect with,” Welch said.

Welch says that Oakes sees things in students that they may not even see in themselves. He knows how to encourage students to expand their comfort zones and grow to become the best versions of themselves.

“When we first met each other, you couldn’t catch me doing any of the things that I’m doing now. And everything that he told me really motivated me to do what I ended up doing throughout my college career,” Welch said.

Welch and Findley both see Oakes as an asset to the program. He works hard to assure each student in the community feels welcomed and included in their activities.

“He’s the type of person who could walk into a room and talk to anybody,” Welch said. “He can not only just walk in a room and just get people to talk or talk to people, he also brings the energy into the room.”