The daughter of UF pioneers shares life lessons learned from her trailblazing parents – and what everyone can do to champion equality
Q&A with Stephanie Mickle (JD ’04), a political consultant in Washington, D.C., former general counsel to Sen. Bill Nelson (1962) and author of “Follow the Leader,” which advocates for more women to get involved in public service.
Mickle’s father, retired federal judge Stephan Mickle (BA ’65, MEd ’66, JD ’70), died on Jan. 26, 2021. He was UF’s first Black undergraduate and second Black law school graduate. Among his other successes: he was the first Black judge in Alachua County, first Black federal judge and federal chief judge in Florida’s northern district and UF’s first Black Distinguished Alumnus Award recipient. He also helped launch the trial advocacy program at the Levin College of Law and volunteered many years with the college’s Moot Court competitions, as well as a host of advisory boards. As a young attorney, Stephan Mickle and some of his legal colleagues started Three Rivers Legal Services, which has grown to help low-income people in need of legal representation across 17 Florida counties.
Her mother, Evelyn Mickle (BSN ’67), is UF’s first Black nursing graduate. She spent the majority of her career as a school nurse, although she also served stints in psychiatry, pediatrics, internal medicine and health education while raising their three children and supporting her husband’s civic work. All of their children, incidentally, went on to earn advanced degrees.
My parents did not accept excuses from us. We were taught to treat all people with respect. They pushed us to try and figure things out for ourselves, such as how to maintain our GPAs and how to resolve conflicts. Their UF journeys weren’t something they talked about every day, but when they were asked about it, they were open about their experiences and the perspectives they had. For instance, in college, Dad mainly talked with the janitor because there were no other Black students on campus. In law school, most of his friends were Jewish because many of them were discriminated against, too.
Dad and Mom were both achievers. She was really the wind beneath his wings – for all of their 54 years together. They looked out for one another. She was an RN when he was in law school. They lived in married student housing while my dad was in law school, living on her nursing salary. And then when we kids came along, we lived on his salary. Having those kinds of examples of true partnership in life are super important to us. Whatever the challenge was, there was a family belief that “together you can figure it out.”
I love D.C. despite what we have seen lately. It keeps you on your toes. Most of the people who work in government, especially on Capitol Hill, are type-A personalities, and very committed to the work that they do. But, I understand why most of America thinks that D.C. is detached from the realities of Main Street because it can be its own bubble of creativity and policy solutions.
When I worked for Sen. Nelson on the Hill, there was not that sense of gridlock that exists today. There was a commitment to bipartisanship, at least with many leaders. That approach has deteriorated considerably since then. Like my mom, I take the long view and believe things will swing back the other way, eventually. But it’s disheartening for graduates fresh out of college who come to D.C. wanting to make a difference. One of the biggest casualties of gridlock and division are those talented people who become disillusioned.
As I wrote in my book, anytime you try to advance legislation, there will always be someone on the other side who thinks your idea is terrible. You have to have determination … in order to get anything done in life. And, there is a code of conduct – rules of engagement – for how to push through legislation. I think citizens have a desire to go back to the days of civil debate and bipartisanship but do not know how to get there.
Be very intentional about treating all people with dignity. For example, my father was pro-women’s rights. Many people don’t know that he joined the Florida Women Lawyer’s Association in Alachua County. I was very young at the time and remember asking him, “You’re not a woman, why did you join?” He simply said, “It was the right thing to do.” There were a lot of things he did without fanfare, just because he thought they were right.
Also, there can be very intentional prioritization of programs that celebrate multiculturalism, diversity and inclusion. Not just studies, but programs that bring in people whose backgrounds and experiences contribute different viewpoints and understandings. That is valuable in itself; it’s not a niche. It elevates the dignity with which you are treating your students, staff, faculty and alumni.
UF and the Gator Nation can celebrate the stories of more alumni like my dad or those who look like my dad, with paintings, pictures or statues and renaming buildings around campus. To have students see representation of people who look like them and have achieved so much in their careers and have given so much back to their university is hugely important. It gives them something to aspire to.
It’s not one she said but, rather, lived. She always looks forward, not back.
Mom graduated from the nursing school under harsh circumstances, with a couple of instructors who did their best to discourage her. UF had recruited her from the community college in Ocala because it wanted to integrate. After she accepted their offer over historically Black colleges and universities, some of the faculty tried to get her to quit.
For example, one time Mom fainted in one of her classes, and they put her on psychotropic medications because they said she was mentally ill. She wasn’t mentally ill, she was exhausted because they gave her the worst patients and the worst schedules. They even cancelled commencement the year she graduated so they wouldn’t have to give her the [official nurse’s] pin. Yet, to my mom’s credit, she doesn’t harbor hostility about any of that.
When the nursing school decided to make amends, Mom became more active as an alumna, serving on boards, panels and helping the college. Dean Anna McDaniel deserves a lot of credit for making that happen because she reached out. Mom could have ignored or refused her invitations. But together, they’ve shown a lot of people how to make things better. I am appreciative of that because Mom and women like her deserve to be held up as examples.