Making the Most of Opportunities
As part of a series for Black History Month, we’ll be highlighting the stories of several past OregonTF standouts. To kick things off, we sat down with UO Associate Vice President, Chief Civil Rights Officer and Title IX Coordinator Nicole Commissiong who spoke about her journey from Canada to Eugene.
Born in Southampton, England, and raised in Montreal, Quebec, Nicole Commissiong grew wings in Eugene, Ore., even if she initially needed a little help locating her soon-to-be “second home.”
“I have to admit when Mark (Stream) first called me, I remember talking to him and being super excited,” Commissiong recalls. “Then I went upstairs to my bedroom and I pulled out my National Geographic atlas and located the state of Oregon on the map.
“I thought ‘that’s really far from Montreal’ but I got on a plane anyway.”
That was 1993.
In the time since, Commissiong graduated from the University of Oregon as a history and journalism double major in 1997, earned a Juris Doctor degree from the law school in 2001, returned to campus as the Assistant Dean for Student Affairs at the UO School of Law and in her newest role as a Duck, began serving as the university’s Associate Vice President, Chief Civil Rights Officer and Title IX Coordinator in 2020.
Oh yeah, and she was a member of the Oregon Track and Field Team (1994-96,’98) in a career that included All-America honors and a Pac-10 title.
“I like having a wide array of things to do and work on, and the opportunity to meet a lot of different people,” Commissiong said.
With a different school system in Quebec that included attending CEGEP—a French acronym meaning Collège d’enseignement general et professionnel—after high school but before attending university. The change in time dedicated to academics afforded Commissiong the opportunity to seek new way to fill her schedule.
“In high school, I had a lot of class time—a LOT of class time,” she says. “In my last year of high school, I had somewhere between 34-36 hours of class time per week and I played (the flute). That didn’t leave a lot of room for a sport so when I finished high school and went to CEGEP where I had 14 hours of class per week, somebody now had a lot of time on her hands so I joined a track club.”
It was Commissiong’s first venture into organized sports which opened doors within her first two years on the track. Already a provincial champion at 200 and 400 meters, Commissiong went on to a pair of runner-up finishes in both events at the 1993 Canada Games with standout times of 24.09 and 54.65, respectively.
By that time, Oregon had already begun recruiting her but the improved times didn’t hurt. It was at an earlier meet that she met a coach from Vancouver who happened to know Mark Stream, the UO sprints coach at the time. The rest, as they say, is history.
But if Commissiong needed an extra push, it came by way of her younger sister.
“She is the talkative one in the family who can get on the phone with a stranger and extract all matters of information,” Commissiong said. “So she talked to Mark a lot and she really liked him, too, so that was a good sign.”
It was a good sign for the Ducks, too. Commissiong became an All-American in 1995 as a member of the 4×400-meter relay that finished fifth at the NCAA Championships held in Eugene at History Hayward Field. In the semifinal round, she teamed with Jamila Godfrey, Camara Jones and LaReina Woods to clock a time of 3:33.11, a new UO school record.
Commissiong added a 1996 Pac-10 title to her list of accomplishments, anchoring the Ducks to victory in the 4×400-meter relay. Individually, she finished third in the 400 meters at that year’s conference meet in 52.65, a new career-best performance. At the time of her graduation, Commissiong ranked second in program history in the 400 meters. She also left as the No. 5 performer (23.89) in the 200.
Later that summer she added another career highlight with a third-place finish in the 400 meters at the Canadian Championships which doubled as the Olympic Trials. Having gotten used to competing in front of the Hayward faithful, she did notice a difference.
“I was running the 400 and coming down the home stretch, I could hear my sister in the stands clear as day and that’s the Olympic Trials,” Commissiong says. “Compared to running a dual meet in Eugene where there are 6,000 people in the stands and you can’t distinctly hear any one person’s voice.”
With all the accolades on the track, Commissiong was just as successful in the classroom where, as a history and journalism double major, she graduated cum laude. She was also a three-time selection to the Pac-10 All-Academic First Team.
Remember the line about liking to have an array of things to do? She wasn’t kidding.
Along with being a team captain one year, Commissiong served on the UO student-athlete leadership council—now known as the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), and later as a student in the law school, worked for the Faculty Athletic Representative.
When Commissiong saw the job description for the assistant dean position, she was drawn in by the opportunity to work with students and offer support in new ways. It was a time of great growth for Commissiong who felt like part of a team that was having an impact and making meaningful contributions to the lives of the students they taught.
That growth was setting Commissiong up for a new step in her career.
A new opportunity came into view, and after 11 years with the UO School of Law, Commissiong stepped into the role of Associate Vice President, Chief Civil Rights Officer and Title IX Coordinator for the University of Oregon in October 2020.
“You can stay somewhere forever but the best thing we can do for ourselves sometimes is to push ourselves to grow,” Commissiong said of the change. “I also had to take the advice I often gave students: go out there and try something to challenge yourself. If it turn out not to be the thing, it’s ok because you can go do something else.”
In the current role, Commissiong says the focus is on how to best address the concerns that come through the Office of Investigations and Civil Rights Compliance. Even in the cases that don’t require a full investigation, Commissiong says finding ways to support all students remain at the forefront.
“I was fortunate to always have great teachers when I was growing up and good relationships with my professors when I was in college,” Commissiong said. “I always felt listened to and I think it’s really important for universities to listen to and support their students. Students come here and we want them to graduate, have a good experience and be successful. It’s really meaningful to be a part of that.”