As a black woman from West Point, Miss., whose parents received only second- and fifth-grade educations, Loucrecia Collins’ doctoral degree in education means so much.
Left to right: Tamala Maddox, Loucrecia Collins, Juanita Vann and Martin Nalls. Download image.
“Education is still the way for African-Americans to have financial mobility,” said Collins, who grew up during the tail-end of the Civil Rights Movement. “Once you get your education, no one can take it from you.”
Today, she’s an associate professor of educational leadership in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Education and her mission is to inspire — and nudge, if she has to — other African-Americans to pursue their doctoral degrees.
During Saturday’s commencement ceremony, three of her mentees will received their doctorates in education. They, too, are African-Americans who are first-generation college students.
“It’s a full-circle moment,” Collins said as she beamed.
Collins’ mother was a maid who never received a formal education, but knew it would be the key to getting her children out of poverty.
“It was never a matter of whether or not we were going to college,” Collins said. “We had no choice.”
Collins attended Mississippi State University and was mentored by an older white man who called her “Seqweeta.” He chaired her dissertation committee and made sure she stayed on task towards her doctoral degree.
On the day she graduated, carloads of her family arrived.
“When a black person graduates, the whole family graduates, too,” Collins said.
When her name was called to receive her degree, “It was euphoric,” she said. Now, as an educator, she wants others to experience the same euphoria she did. “I have to lift up as I have been lifted,” Collins said.
One of Collins’ mentees who’ll graduate on Saturday is Martin Nalls, a preacher’s kid who grew up in Fayetteville. His mother was a hairstylist and his father a factory worker; neither went to college.
As an only child, Nalls loved school because he was surrounded by playmates. He only missed two days his entire school career and that was because he had chicken pox. In 10th grade, Nalls’ teacher told him that he was smart enough to go to college — something many of the people in his neighborhood didn’t get to do. That motivated him to pursue higher education.
He earned his undergraduate degree, became a school administrator and was encouraged to get a doctoral degree.
“I’ll never forget my first day in Dr. Collins’ class,” he said. “She had everyone shaking. She had that look like, ‘You better not move.’”
But he learned to appreciate that, he said. Collins was the one pushing him along when he thought about giving up. “She reminded me that if I don’t become a doctor, I can’t become a mentor,” Nalls said.
He became the first African-American principal in the history of Hoover’s school system and now is the principal of Homewood Middle School.
Tamala Maddox, another mentee of Collins, said getting her doctoral degree on Saturday will mean a lot. She grew up poor in the housing projects of Columbus, Ga. “It was a challenge,” she said.
Maddox’s mother worked hard so that she and her siblings could go to a better school. In 4th grade, the teacher allowed Maddox to help other students in class and she fell in love with the feeling and has wanted it ever since.
Going off to college, the first in her family, was not in the budget, she said. Her whole family, including her oldest sister, pitched in to make sure Maddox had everything she needed. She could only afford to eat one meal a day in the cafeteria and worked several jobs on and off campus. Her senior year, she joined the military to help pay for college.
Today, Maddox is the 7th grade assistant principal at Bumpus Middle School in Hoover. She met Collins while getting diversity training. She encouraged her to pursue her doctoral degree and she did. Maddox was even honored for having an outstanding dissertation.
It’s almost surreal that the young girl from the housing projects will be Dr. Tamala Maddox, she said.
She thanks Collins for inspiring and encouraging her all the way.
Another mentee of Collins is Juanita Vann.
Growing up in Miami, Fla., she hated school, she said.
“I pretended I was sick all the time,” she said, recalling how she discovered that if you stand next to a light bulb long enough, your mom will think your warm skin means you have a temperature.
“I was bored with school,” Vann said.
One day, the C-student was given an IQ test and earned the highest score in the school. After that, Vann’s teacher then got her mother’s permission to warn the child that, given she was indeed smart, if she got another “C” she would get a spanking. The teacher told Vann “A” stands for “African-American.”
That motivated her to succeed and ever since, she’s wanted to be a teacher. “I wanted to help children find their potential.”
Vann became a teacher and eventually a school administrator. She ended up in Dr. Collins’s class and found her to live up to her reputation: “She was hard-nosed and firm,” Vann said, “She said, ‘Get yours or get out.’”
But Collins was there for Vann, she said, even in the wee hours of the night. She remembers texting Collins a question at 4 a.m., and she texted her right back.
Collins is known as “Dr. Mom” because she lovingly and sternly pushes her students towards the excellence she expects of them.
As a Seventh Day Adventist, Vann, who is an assistant principal at Gardendale High School, won’t be at the Saturday graduation for religious reasons, but this past Thursday Collins hooded her in a private family ceremony.
That’s just how Dr. Mom is, Vann said. “The discipline is a sign of love.”
“I tell them, ‘Others wanted the opportunity you have, and you have come too far to turn back now,’” Collins said. “The infinite possibilities of your life come through education.”