Black Excellence: Diondra Bell
Diondra (Marshall) Bell, a UIC alumna, was born and raised in Matteson, Illinois. She graduated early from high school and enrolled at UIC in 1996 at just 16 years old. She obtained her Bachelor of Science in Information Decision Science in 2000 and has worked in information technology for more than 20 years. In her current role, she leads a team of data and software engineers at a health care IT company. She recently used social media to share her personal journey through a health issue with the hope to educate and reduce patient suffering and disparities in health care.
Tariq El-Amin 00:01
Welcome to Black Excellence at UIC Office of Diversity, Equity and Engagement with Dr. Aisha El-Amin
Recording of Dr. Martin Luther King 00:09
[Applause] Believe in yourself and believe that you’re somebody.
Clips from 1995 movie “Panther” 00:17
That we study and master a bunch of different things.
Why are you here?
Study and master a bunch of different things.
I’m proud to introduce our new Minister of Information.
Aisha El-Amin 00:26
I’m Dr. Aisha El-Amin.
Tariq El-Amin 00:29
Welcome to Black Excellence.
Aisha El-Amin 0:33
Welcome, welcome good people to University of Illinois Chicago’s Black Excellence podcast, sponsored by the Office of Diversity, Equity and Engagement in partnership with the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Strategic Marketing and Communications. I am your host, Dr. El-Amin, and I serve as UIC Associate Vice Chancellor for Equity and Belonging. And so many of you might know already, but let me just break it down again. In case you don’t, UIC’s Black Excellence podcast initiated in Black History Month 2022. We start off with “28 days of Black Excellence” and highlighted the history and legacy of exceptional black faculty, students and staff that call UIC home. During this month, we talk to graduates in all walks of life from entrepreneurs to politicians, and they inspire and gave sage advice and connected their paths to our current times. However, UIC’s cup of black excellence runneth over. And so we continue this as a monthly podcast with the understanding that you cannot know where you’re going until you understand, appreciate and connect into where you have come from. And so I am really excited to have a conversation with Diondra Bell. She is a 2000, year 2000 graduate, she has her bachelor’s degree in Information Decision Sciences.
Diondra Bell 1:56
Aisha El-Amin 1:57
And she’s been an IT professional now for 20 years. She comes from the south suburbs of Chicago. And has just been doing some really great things since, has a really strong sense of social justice. And so I’m just going to kind of hand over the mic, microphone to her and just ask her to tell us a little bit about your background, kind of who you are, and what makes you who you are.
Diondra Bell 2:22
All right. Well, thank you so much for having me. First off, I really appreciate the opportunity. As you mentioned, yes, I have had a progressive career in IT for the past 20 years. And most recently, actually was promoted at my current employer. So my current title is staff technical program manager, I work for a company that specializes in health care consultation. So their main goal is to promote patient safety, patient satisfaction, engagement among the workforce, the professionals that are actually treating and taking care of you. So I lead a team of data engineers, and basically what we’re responsible for is supporting the technology tools that the hospitals are using to really look at the data and gather the results of what safety measures they’re taking, or how satisfied their patients are. And my team is also responsible for if there’s new development to those tools, making sure we have a successful deployment. So we don’t take down the whole system. If you just want to roll out one little new feature, or even sometimes it could be a fix something could be broken. So my team is like the liaison between the external and the internal users that are using the system. And we research when people report issues to see if it’s system, or if it’s technology, is it user, you know, like do we need better documentation on how to use it, and things of that nature. So I’m passionate about the healthcare field. So I wanted to think of a way that I could bring my brain and also benefit patient satisfaction and not only in my professional life. I actually started my own mission in my personal life. So last year, I was dealing with my own health issue. And I use social media to use, to bring my followers to the whole process, like how I researched my surgeon. I brought them to the doctor’s visits. I educated people on what type of questions I was asking my physician. And due to the overwhelming response, and people were like, “oh my goodness, I thought I was it was just me,” my physician and I actually committed to monthly we do an Instagram Live where we answer questions from other people going through similar journeys or their own journey, or they may have more questions about my journey. Just as a measure to get more education out there. So people, if they know more about their bodies, they can make sure that they’re advocating for themselves, they know the right questions to ask. And then hopefully, bridge some of those disparities that we know are present in our communities and have better access to the care we need.
Aisha El-Amin 2:22
Wow. It really, so I really look at you as a, I mean, just a trailblazer, right? So when you went into the profession, 20 years ago, it looks different than it does now. And you’ve been able to progress in that. And now even Instagram, you ever taken that and made it a platform to continue to do the things that you’re passionate about and to help others and doing that? So I mean, can we just go back to what it looks, looked like, when you were at UIC and how you selected your degree. As we have students that are like, “I don’t know what I want to do. I’m still undecided.” Like, how did you get to the point that you did to make that decision?
Diondra Bell 5:16
Oh, yeah, absolutely. So I actually personally graduated high school at 16 years old. I was an honors student, and I had high honors, I had more credits than I needed. So I graduated early. So yes, there’s no way sometimes at that age, you have any idea of what you want to do. I was going to graduate college, like Y2K-ish. So it was a hot field. But I still didn’t know if that’s what I wanted to commit to. So I would definitely tell a student that you’re…the academic advisors that I had, or the counselors that are there, were very instrumental in helping me select what I wanted to do. I originally entered UIC, as a mathematical engineering student. And only because I love math, and I heard engineers make good money. So I had no idea I really had no idea how I would use that degree, what I would be doing with it, any of that. But working with my counselors, they were like, “Well, we can maybe you’re not ready to declare a major, but what are your interests? And then that way, we could pick certain coursework that will help you but not hurt you, if that’s not what you want to do.” And that’s how I actually got introduced to the College of Business Administration for information decision science, working with my counselor. So my brother, also graduated from UIC, and he has the same degree, but I didn’t want to do what he did. He’s an application developer. So when I was telling my counselor like, “Oh, I’m familiar with that degree, I don’t want to do what my brother does.” She was like, “No, there’s other things you can do with it. Like, what are you interested in?” And so I really like investigations. I like analysis. So she was explaining to me like, “Yeah, analysts are going to be in big demand, or, you know, let’s take these courses and see how you like them. But they still won’t hurt you, if that’s not what you want to commit to.” So I have to give hats off to the staff. They were very instrumental and helping me pick the right degree. And I do love what I do.
Aisha El-Amin 6:03
I love that. I love that. Because, you know, like, in 16. First of all, like hats off to 16. That’s huge for you to be a college student. And so I’m glad you had some direction. And I understand not wanting to do what your brother did. I know you have a niece that’s also a UIC alum right?
Diondra Bell 8:31
Yea, so my niece also graduated from UIC. So it’s kind of like a family alma mater for us like.
Aisha El-Amin 8:37
I love it.
Diondra Bell 8:37
And she got way more money offered to her to go to University of Illinois, Urbana, but because my brother and I went to UIC, she was like, “UIC is the place you guys have nothing but good things to say about it. I’m going to UIC too, and she’s an educator, she’s an English teacher at the high school level. Yeah.
Aisha El-Amin 8:38
So she, she’s one of my people. I’m in education as well. I love it. And I graduated from UIC in education too. So my daughter now goes there. So when you say it’s a family affair.
Diondra Bell 9:11
It really is.
Aisha El-Amin 9:14
So when you look back at that time. What are some of your fondest memories that you have? I know, you talked about, you know, the advisors being really helpful in the college of business folks really helping you out. But what are some of the other memories that you have?
Diondra Bell 9:28
So my first job in life or you know, other than working for like your parents as a kid was at the Medical bookstore at UIC. So I lived on campus freshman year, and I actually worked on campus and it was like my first job because like I said, I’m 16 and I actually was 16 for quite a while because I got a late birthday. So school had started and I was still 16 and didn’t turn 17 till later. So working at the Medical bookstore I just really was wowed by, number one: the aspiring medical students. Not necessarily just doctors, but like the nurses, people who are going into pharmacy, people who are going into dentists, you know, like, medicine was just like, wow, like the books that I used to read like in between customers coming in, or just, you know, the notes. I used to just be like in amazement of health care. So never did I know that I was going to lead my path into health care. But I think that impression that I got always made me curious about the medical field in general. So that was definitely one of my fondest memories. As far as people go. Like I said, I lived on campus freshman year. So my RA was definitely instrumental in introducing us to the college life. I literally remember, I don’t even know if she closed her door when she went to bed at night. But she literally left her door open all the time for questions, concerns, what do you need help with, and she was like, really instrumental in planning, like social things for us during the, you know, our downtime. So I lived in a coed dorm, so we had guys and girls. She would plan game nights for us, she would play in like a talent show night for us. She would plan study groups for us. So I got to talk to people that weren’t in my major, because again, I was undecided. So I got to hear other people what they were passionate about how they were going to use it. And it really made me see like, UIC has a lot to offer. Like I didn’t even know some of those majors were, you know, curriculums at the school. So she was really instrumental and just exposing us to everything. And so I really appreciated her. Especially like I said, I was young. So coming in, it was like having an auntie on site to help, you know, navigate this new world. I mean, um, me and my brother are first-generation college students, our parents didn’t go to college. And it was important because they wanted to, but they came from families where it wasn’t necessarily affordable and things like that. So not that they couldn’t have helped us. But it was it was us figuring it out, because they didn’t have that knowledge of, you know, what do you do when you go, you know, stuff like that.
Aisha El-Amin 12:12
Well, your life mirrors the life of many of our students as first-generation students, as well. So that certainly resonates with me. And shout out to all the RA’s and the housing out there that you know, I mean, I think oftentimes, we forget about all of the people kind of along the path that makes sure that to clear out the cleared away a bit for us. Right, exactly. And I know as a 16-year-old, but also, you know, just as a student, you had to have some challenges along the way, right? Yes, it’s part of the game. So talk to us about what those were and what you did to overcome those.
Diondra Bell 12:51
Yeah. So come in, like I said, I graduated early, I had high honors, I was very used to either if I didn’t have a top grade in the class—because I was competitive—I was in the top five grades, not necessarily in the whole class, like the whole senior class or anything. But I was used to getting top, top grades like super smart, always wanted to be a high achiever. I just was competitive like that on schoolwork. Call me nerd, but that was me. But College was the first time I actually got my first low grade. And I mean, I was hurt. I mean, I can recall calling my parents like, I didn’t want to do this anyway, y’all making me do this because y’all didn’t live y’all dream. You know, I was just so hurt. But one thing I will say is that most of my professors, while I was attending UIC, had office hours. So if they didn’t conduct them themselves, they had a qualified student aid that will be there for you. So office hours was very instrumental for me and learning how to be a better note taker, organize things a lot better, because it was a lot different than high school level. And even going to a good high school, college was different. And also, I had to learn how to be a better test taker, because I could be doing really, really well the whole course. And you get to that final, and it changed the whole grade. And I wasn’t used to that. And I got to teach college later in life as a professor at the city colleges, and I saw how we had to do them grading scales. And I’m like “This is what was happening to me?” So yeah, it could change your whole grade. So I had to learn how to take tests better. But like I said, the organization and taking the notes, and they, the office hours were so helpful. So don’t be afraid to go to the office hours. Don’t be afraid to you know, ask those questions that you think are silly. You’ll be surprised how many other people had that same question. And in the office hours, they never made me feel bad for what I wanted to know. I never tried to say you know, I’m young or anything like that. I didn’t really want to talk about my age. It was kinda like shy that I was, you know, young being there. But the teachers were very helpful. So, you just got to speak up and use it, you know. They’re not going to come to you, you got to let them know what you need. And they and they were always rising to the occasion.
Aisha El-Amin 15:14
Yes, that’s a phenomenal journey. And I’m excited that you’re here to share with us. And as we kind of wrap up, and you have students that will be listening to this, what I tell them, “Hey, if you need a booster shot to get some good advice from folks that are doing their thing, then listen to a podcast.” So what is that advice that you would give current students who may be first generation may, you know, may have have been at the very top of their, their class? And then they are like, wait a minute, I don’t know what I’m doing. Right? We all fall into that space. What advice can you offer them?
Diondra Bell 15:51
Well, I give two pieces of advice actually. First one I would say is, definitely don’t be afraid to say, I don’t know what I want to do. Like the worst thing you could do is jump head forward into something you think you want to do, go fast forward, spend all this money, take two years’ worth of classes, and then you know, you really didn’t go anywhere with that direction. So if you’re not sure, tell your counselor you’re not sure. They really, like I said, they sat with me and said, “Okay, what things are you interested in, and let’s go through our course catalog to see what you probably should take.” You know what I mean? And like I said, since I didn’t commit to anything right away, I didn’t even lose the first year, I think maybe one class but out of how many you take, that’s that’s not a big sacrifice. And my counselor taught me how to go to summer school, and make that up so I will still be able to graduate on time, you know, with my scheduled class. So definitely don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know,” and go to that counselor and say, “Hey, can I get some direction? Can I get some advice?” Talk to there’s going to be especially in lectures Hall, there’s going to be students in those classes that are older than you different age groups, don’t be afraid to pull one to the side and say, “Hey, what are you going to be doing with this? Or what did you decide? Or how did you pick?” And then that kind of helps you better, just make the decision along the way. I didn’t declare my major till second year. And you know, I stuck with it after that. But the first year was definitely a lot of education, a lot of getting to know where I should go. The second piece of advice would definitely be more focused to our community, is: don’t be afraid of not seeing somebody that looks like you in the profession that you want to do. A lot of times, being a woman, number one, and a black woman in IT, I was very lonely. I was by myself all the time. And you’re gonna feel that way. But just keep going. Because what you could do, is you could be that representation for the next person, because hopefully people will keep going and this you know, will keep passing forward. So you have to be able to pass the torch. So when it gets lonely, keep going and be that representation that you wanted to see.
Aisha El-Amin 18:14
That’s beautiful words. Thanks for breaking those ceilings, right? I mean, the more of us that go into fields that there’s not a lot of, you’re creating a pathway for the next one is just like you said, Tell us where we can find you on Instagram to hear you and the doc telling us about how we navigate kind of these health situations that we find ourselves in?
Diondra Bell 18:39
Oh, absolutely. So on all social media platforms, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, I am colaredbell, so cola like pop, c-o-l-a, red, like the color: r-e-d, bell, b-e-l-l. I do the Instagram Live once a month. We save it. My doctor’s name is doctorp23 on Instagram. He saves it to his page. But I also uploaded to my YouTube channel because some people don’t have social media. And some people want to share it with a grandmother, a mother or you know some of the generation that’s not into the social media. So on YouTube, my channel is themissd79. But you could also search for: “visit doc p with me.” And we keep those up there every month because when I was searching for my surgeon or searching my issue with fibroids, when I was looking for information or people to discuss what they had been through, it was really hard for me to find people talking about their, what they went through. People were talking about fibroids, but they were more talking amongst themselves. It wasn’t on social media. So that’s why I wanted to change that. And I put it on YouTube as well. So if you don’t have social media, anybody can still play a YouTube video.
Aisha El-Amin 20:00
Well keep breaking ceilings, keep using your voice to help others and representing UIC and all the best that we have to offer.
Diondra Bell 20:11
Oh, thank you so much, Doctor, I really appreciate this opportunity. And I’m glad to pay it forward because that’s what it’s all about.
Aisha El-Amin 20:20
Yes. And we so appreciate your time today on UIC is Black Excellence podcast. Good people, let’s continue to do the good work for the path that folks like Diondra Bell has already paved for us. Thank you again for your time and your wisdom and all that you give to the world.
Diondra Bell 20:41
Tariq El-Amin 20:42
Thanks for joining us find more inspiring and informative conversations with UIC alum, faculty and staff and blackresources.uic.edu. That’s blackresources.uic.edu