WhyIChoseEducation: ‘Education is an Avenue to Social and Economic Mobility,’ Says Elizabeth City State University Chancellor Karrie Dixon ’97, ’03EDD
Karrie Dixon ’97, ’03EDD was working as vice president for academic and student affairs in the UNC System Office when she was asked to join a task force to develop a plan for Elizabeth City State University.
At the time, the university was facing a number of challenges, including a flagging enrollment of just 1,100 students. When the chancellor at the time announced his retirement, Dixon served as interim chancellor before being appointed to the role full time in 2018. Her mission was to turn the university around.
“There’s no book to tell you how to do it,” Dixon said. “What I had to do is reflect back to what I learned and what I was taught at the College of Education at NC State — what I learned from my professors, what I’ve learned from the professionals that I’ve met along the way working at NC State and working at the UNC System office — and I used all of those tools that I had in my toolbox.”
Now, five years into her tenure as chancellor, Dixon describes the university as thriving.
“There’s a lot of great momentum and energy going forward here at Elizabeth City State University,” Dixon said. “We’re making national rankings. We are at over 2,100 students now. We’ve grown by almost 1,000 students in four years, which is unheard of, and we have the financial footing and stability that we need to have.”
The financial stability came, in part, from an increased investment from the state of North Carolina, as well as a $15 million investment from philanthropist Mackenzie Scott.
“She chose us as one of three campuses in North Carolina because she said that she did her research, and she was impressed by the leadership and impressed by the transformation,” Dixon said. “She wanted to invest and wanted to give us that boost to keep us going, and it was a game changer for us.”
Among the reasons Dixon cites for the boost in the university’s profile is its aviation science program. The only four-year program of its kind in North Carolina, it produces graduates who go on to be pilots, air traffic controllers and avionics managers.
“It feels great to walk through the airport at RDU and see our alums and, as I’m walking through, they’ll call, “Hey, chancellor!” Dixon said. “I’ll look and wave, and it’s just a proud moment.”
In 2019, Elizabeth City State also started a four-year degree program in unmanned aircraft systems, and the university recently built a $1.5 million, FAA-approved pavilion where students can complete their training in drone usage.
“It’s really exciting to see the things that we’re doing in that space, knowing that we are a small institution in rural North Carolina, but we’re producing some great opportunities,” Dixon said. “We’re seeing our alumni go out and make a great impact in their fields and get good jobs.”
The historically Black institution was founded as a teacher’s college, and Dixon said it also still plays an important role in producing teachers for the northeastern North Carolina region.
“I consider that our premiere program is our education program, and our signature program is our aviation degree,” Dixon said. “We still want to keep the foundation of why we were started. The importance of producing teachers for this region is still top priority.”
Dixon knows the importance an education program can have — she credits the doctoral degree she earned through the NC State College of Education’s higher education concentration with preparing her for her current role.
“It was an experience that has really, as I reflect back, shaped me into the leader I am today,” Dixon said.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why I Chose Education:
During my last year in my master’s program, I was able to teach as a graduate assistant for a new program that was focused on retention, what we refer to these days as focusing on student success. It was a pilot program. I was responsible for 25 students, and these were students who had a GPA of 2.0 or lower, and these students were on academic probation and about to be suspended from the university if they did not pull up their GPA in the spring semester.
My goal was to try to provide information and resources to help them bring up their GPA. At the end of that experience, out of the 25 students, 23 of them pulled up their GPA and were able to stay in school. And of the two that did not, one decided to go to the military and the other decided college wasn’t for her.
What that taught me is that in higher education, we make such a big impact on the success of our students.That one semester I spent with those students, understanding what their challenges were, understanding the barriers that they saw in their transition from high school to college, understanding some of the challenges that they face — both on the academic side but also on the personal and social side — helping them to understand the resources that institutions have for them for them to use and helping them to understand how to approach that, how to be a strong advocate for themselves to make sure they’re getting what they need — that really taught me a lot about the influence policy has on student success and the influence leadership has on student success.
At that point, the light bulb just went off to say, “This is your passion. This is what you’re supposed to be doing.” I decided at that point that I wanted to do more in higher education. I wanted to make a positive difference in the lives of students. I wanted students to be successful and understand how to navigate the journey of higher education and earn their degree.
How Education Has Shaped Me:
I am a first-generation college student. I always tease my parents and ask, “Do I still have that title?” because my dad actually just earned his bachelor’s degree. So I always tease him like, “Am I still first generation?” But, I started out as a first-generation college student. My parents, they were not able to financially attend college; however, they always instilled in my sister and me the importance of education and how they wanted our lives to be different. They wanted our lives to really focus on education and made sure that we were successful in doing so. My sister, she’s also an NC State graduate. She graduated from the [College of Agriculture and Life Sciences], and she is a biochemist now. Both of us are NC State alums, and my husband is an NC State alum. We continue to bleed Wolfpack red.
As I look at the work that I do at Elizabeth City State, I now realize why my parents saw education in the way that they did. At Elizabeth City State, we were ranked the [No. 1 Historically Black College and University for Economic Returns]. So when you think about how education transforms lives, education is transforming the lives of our students, and we’re being recognized for that here in northeastern North Carolina.
My parents pushed education so much, and now I know why they pushed it so much. They knew education is an avenue to social and economic mobility. It transforms lives. It transforms families. It transforms the economic status of a family.
Now, I look at my alumni who come back and talk to me about their careers and how that has really impacted their families. Where we are in northeastern North Carolina, we’re surrounded by 21 counties that are Tier 1 and Tier 2 counties, some of the most economically distressed counties in North Carolina. So, social mobility and economic mobility are critical, and education is the key to making sure that these families are being mobilized. Understanding the importance and the responsibility that we have in that space is very critical to the work that we do and to the importance of education.
What I Enjoyed Most About the College of Education:
I enjoyed the size of the cohort of students that were accepted the year I was. I enjoyed the fact that we were like a family. I made some really great friendships that I have to this day. The professors, I’m still in contact with them and when I see them, they’re very proud. I received letters and emails from them when I became chancellor at Elizabeth City State University, so the support is still there. Those people really have poured into me. The College of Education has been very gracious and invited me back to present a few times to classes, which I really enjoy. I’ve also been back to receive awards from the College of Education for leadership. Those types of things are very important because it shows that the NC State College of Education cares about their alumni, cares about their success, and wants us to come back, give back and prepare that next generation of leaders.
I think that’s critical to the success of the programs within the College of Education, and I think that’s critical to the success of education in general, for our state and our world. When we think about that level of preparation, that level of support and that level of opportunity for exposure, all of those coupled together really helped make the experience and prepare us to go out and do great things.
I know there are a few other people within my cohort that I graduated with that are leading colleges. We were trained to do that, and we were trained to be a part of that pipeline. So, I really do believe that the College of Education has played a huge positive impact on my life and my career.
What Others Should Know About the College of Education:
I am a recruiter for the College of Education — all the time. That’s good because you want your alumni to feel proud and value the experience and the degree that was earned. I tell people all the time: My experience in the College of Education at NC State prepared me for where I am today, and I know they can get the same experience.
I believe in the quality of the academic degree. I believe in the staff and the faculty who really pour into the students to make them feel valued in the process. They took the time to make sure that we’re exposed to different opportunities and different ways of seeing higher education, whether that’s bringing in speakers, whether that’s taking students to national conferences, whether that’s giving them an opportunity to explore the world, as I was able to do by traveling to South Africa. [Going overseas is something] I had never done before. For me, that was something that was really beneficial. If it wasn’t for the College of Education, I may not have ever had the opportunity to do that.
I’m very grateful for the professors, the staff, the deans and the faculty who really make it a priority to prepare students for their careers and advancement within their careers, as well. It’s something that is very beneficial and something that I love to tell people about.
The Last Thing I Experienced That Inspired Me:
The last thing that inspired me was to have one of my alums come back to visit me and to say, “Thank you for believing in me” and to describe what he’s doing now. It’s just so impressive. He was one of our student body presidents when I started. To see how far he’s come, to see how he’s excited about the career he has now in banking, to see how he talked about the impact of his success on his family, on his mom, on all those who have supported him. Now, he is able to support them and give back to them and that’s part of that social-economic mobility that I refer to. That’s what happens when we are serving and providing quality education and opportunities to the students in these Tier 1 and Tier 2 counties that surround us here in northeastern North Carolina.
That makes me feel good. That makes me feel that the work that I do each day is important. We have a responsibility to do what’s right and to give people an opportunity to be successful. Sometimes, that takes some encouraging and takes some advocacy. But, at the end of the day, you see the results.
Having my alumni come by and talk about those things, I see the smiles on their faces and understand how important the work that they’re doing is — how it is impacting not just them but their entire family. It’s just really inspiring to me. At the end of the day, when I think about what I’m doing and how much of an impact it is making, it comes full circle. That’s what I wanted when I had that lightbulb experience and wanted to make an impact. I was trying to figure out how I could do that the best way that I can, and I now see all of that come into fruition.