Hometown: Moultrie, Georgia
Degree earned at Valdosta State: Bachelor of Science in Secondary Education with a concentration in History, 2007
Master of Arts in History, 2011
Doctor of Education in Curriculum and Instruction, 2018
Can you tell me a little about your background and some of the obstacles you overcame to get where you are today?
When I enrolled at VSU in 2005, I was in the midst of navigating several challenging obstacles in my life. Unlike most of my peers at VSU, I had not completed high school, having dropped out after a series of crisis pregnancies that began when I was only 14 years old and in my first semester of ninth grade. I became a mother for the first time just six weeks after I turned 15 years old, interrupting what should have been my first year of 10th grade. When I got pregnant again at 16 years old, I dropped out of high school and enrolled in an adult education program where I earned a GED just a few days before I had my second child at 17 years old. After attending a local technical college, I was able to secure a full-time customer service job that, with the help of a substantial amount of government support, allowed me to support myself and my children and escape an abusive relationship.
Although I was working full time, I was still living in poverty. I dreamed of a career in education where I could earn a family-sustaining wage and make my children and myself proud. Living in a rural part of South Georgia prior to widespread distance learning meant a university education was difficult to access, especially while working and parenting full time. Thankfully, Valdosta State was accessible, and I was able to arrange my work schedule so that I could attend college. I commuted from Moultrie to Valdosta every day, attending classes full time in the morning and working full time in the evenings. It was a struggle, but I did it. I graduated with my BSEd when I was 23 years old.
What did you pursue after your graduation from VSU?
Immediately after graduating from VSU in 2007, I taught high school social studies while attending graduate school at VSU. Upon finishing my master’s degree, I started working in higher education, where I taught survey-level history courses part time at various colleges, including VSU. Eventually, I got my foot in the door with a full time, entry-level staff position while also pursuing an EdD at VSU. On the day I defended my dissertation, I was offered a position as dean for adult education at Georgia Piedmont Technical College in metro Atlanta. Last year, I was promoted to vice president for adult education, which is the position I currently hold. I am now pursuing a PhD in learning, leadership, and organization development at the University of Georgia with the hope of one day becoming a community college president.
Recently you were given the opportunity to speak in front of the 117th Congress regarding adult education. What was that experience like?
It went great! The briefing was hosted and sponsored by Senators Todd Young (R-Indiana) and Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island) and Representatives John Yarmuth (D-Kentucky) and Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona). Senator Young and Representative Yarmuth joined us live and shared remarks, and Senator Reed and Representative Grijalva sent videos in support of our advocacy for dedicated adult education funding. I shared my personal story of overcoming odds as a high school dropout and teenage mother who, after earning my GED, went to college and dramatically altered my life trajectory. Now, I’ve got my hand out hoping for $1B in dedicated adult education funding.
How do you think your VSU experience contributed to your professional success?
Having spent nearly a decade of my life as a student at VSU over the course of three degree programs, it has undeniably had a major influence on my life and my career. Each degree prepared me well for working in the various positions I have held in the education field. Studying history at VSU gave me the ability to speak intelligently, authoritatively, and meaningfully about the past, which prepared me for teaching social studies. In all of my degree programs, I learned valuable writing, research, and critical thinking skills. Together, all of this knowledge contributes to my ability to assess challenges and propose solutions, which makes me a more effective leader.
Were there any faculty or staff on campus that were especially motivating or helpful to you?
There were three professors throughout my tenure at Valdosta State who shaped me into a social justice-oriented scholar and professional. They always held me to the highest standards of academic integrity and challenged me to think critically about the past, present, and future.
- Dr. Chris Meyers, Department of History. In all my years in college, I never took more classes with any one professor than Dr. Meyers. I believe I took at least eight different classes with him during my undergraduate and master’s programs, and he also directed my thesis. I met Dr. Meyers in my first semester as a student at VSU, when I lacked any confidence in my ability to succeed at a university. He held me to an incredibly high standard, and I met it. Success in his class begot success in other classes and increased my confidence as a student dramatically.
- Dr. Mary Block, Department of History. Dr. Block lived up to the reputation that preceded her as a notoriously challenging professor. She brought out the absolute best in me as a budding scholar because she never let me get away with anything less than my best effort. Like Dr. Meyers, success in Dr. Block’s class gave me much needed confidence as a nontraditional student at the university level.
- Dr. Richard Schmertzing, Department of Leadership, Technology, and Workforce Development. I knew from the day I met Dr. Schmertzing that I wanted him to chair my dissertation. He taught me to look more critically at equity and access in education, strive to be an antiracist educator, and be a culturally responsive leader.
Working in Adult Education have you been able to witness any stories of students that really resonated with you?
In my position as vice president for adult education at Georgia Piedmont Technical College, I oversee a large program that serves thousands of adult learners each year in corrections, English as a second language, and adult basic education programs. As a former adult learner, I have a unique understanding of the various barriers and challenges that these students face. Although the students I serve represent a diversity of backgrounds, cultures, and experiences, the common thread among them all is overcoming obstacles. I have met many other teen mothers who have earned their GED and gone off to college to pursue their career goals just like I did. I’ve also met refugees who came to America in search of a better life who have learned English, earned a high school equivalency, achieved citizenship, attended college, and started careers. Again, regardless of our individual journeys, we are united by our resilience in overcoming obstacles, and that is what makes this work deeply personal to me.
What is something you have taken away from all of your career experiences up to this point?
Although I have worked in the same career field for the last 14 years, the positions I’ve held have varied. The consistent theme that emerges from all of my career experiences is risk taking. The biggest payoffs for me professionally have come from taking on challenges and opportunities that intimidated me because I felt like I didn’t have the necessary experience, expertise, or confidence to be successful. Over time, when approached with new challenges, I have learned to say yes up front and resolve to figure out how to do them later. Consequently, my career ended up taking a different path than I originally planned, as I have taken job opportunities that were not part of my planned trajectory. When I was in undergrad, I saw myself as a teacher and maybe eventually a curriculum director, but I never imagined I would be a college vice president. I extended myself and took on opportunities that stretched my skills and experience, and things turned out better as a result.
What advice do you have for current students?
Be present and participate. Enthusiastically accept every learning opportunity presented to you. Nothing bad ever came from me completing assigned readings, starting assignments early, following instructions, participating in class discussions, and developing a rapport with my professors. The plans I had for my career when I was a student at VSU changed. I had specific plans with each degree I pursued at VSU, but my career trajectory took me down a different, unexpected, yet much more exciting path. Thankfully, VSU prepared me for that alternate path. Understand and accept that sometimes plans change, but you can be prepared for new opportunities by becoming well-read and well-rounded while studying at VSU.
Resiliency is required. I speak from experience. I endured many academic and personal challenges in college, including failing algebra several times in my freshman and sophomore years, which probably happened because I missed a lot of foundational information from dropping out of high school. School was especially challenging for me because I was parenting two young children on my own while working and attending college full time. It was hard, but I persevered. Stay the course when the going gets tough. Don’t give up at the first sign of hard times.
What advice would you give to young women specifically who wish to pursue a high-level position such as a vice president, president, CEO, etc.?
Be indispensable. A professor at VSU once gave me career advice that has guided me throughout my career: Be indispensable. In the various positions I have held over the years, I have looked for where I could meet a need or fill a gap, even if I had to identify and problematize the gap myself, so that I could be indispensable. Over time, this has turned into a collection of high impact work I have done, most often in the service of others, that has translated well as I seek to advance along my career trajectory.
Authenticity matters. I have learned that authenticity matters in leadership. I want to be someone others want to work with, so I always operate with kindness and integrity. You could be perfectly qualified for a position, but if people don’t like or trust you, moving up the ladder could be difficult.
Build your brand. Develop a strong personal brand, and be persistent about presenting it. Be visible, and work for recognition in your field. Tell your story in a unique and interesting way. Opportunities will abound if you can set yourself apart. Personally, this has skyrocketed my career. I am very transparent about sharing my personal story of transformation, as well as the story of transforming my program in the midst of the existential crisis we are all currently experiencing. Consequently, I have had opportunities to deliver keynote remarks at dozens of events across the state and nation. Most recently, I was invited to share my personal and professional experiences in adult education to the Biden Administration and 117th Congress in hopes that they will provide $1 billion in funding to the field in the next CARES Act.
Have an executive presence. Women, myself included, often suffer from imposter syndrome, believing they are not prepared or deserving of leadership positions. Project confidence and competence, even if you don’t feel that way on the inside. I won’t allow a lack of confidence to prevent myself from taking professional risks or taking a seat at the table. When in the presence of others, I try to speak slowly and authoritatively and exude an executive presence. Moreover, I do not allow myself to get caught in the trap of comparison. I likely won’t be the first, last, or best at what I do, but I know that I am on my own personal journey to leave my own legacy, and that is what matters.
Finally, and most importantly, always remember — Girls can.