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#WhyIChoseEducation: ‘Education Really is an Opportunity For Me to Practice My Values Around Fostering Equitable Environments’ says Jemilia Davis ’19PHD

Photo of Jemilia Davis with quote: Education Really is an Opportunity For Me to Practice My Values Around Fostering Equitable Environments

When Jemilia Davis ’19PHD delivered the charge to the graduate students during the NC State College of Education’s Spring 2019 graduation ceremony, she spoke on looking to the past in order to build a successful future.

“Our past fuels us to action so that generations to come will say, we are because they were,” Davis said. “What stands between us and an equitable future is the educator we decide to be.”

In 2021, Davis chose to draw on her past experiences as a graduate of the college’s Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development: Higher Education concentration, as well as her time as director of strategic initiatives and external relations at NC State College of Education’s Belk Center for Community College Education and Research, to become the inaugural director of the UNC School of Education’s Human and Organizational Leadership Development (HOLD) program.

HOLD is designed to prepare undergraduate students who put learning about leadership and organizational change into practice. In May, Davis was proud to see the program graduate its first class.

“What I like about our program is we really do train students on organizational culture and how to really promote development, especially leadership development, with the people who work at organizations,” Davis said.

As program director, Davis teaches courses, including the capstone, in which students put organizational leadership into practice. For example, one student, Joe Benson, completed his capstone project by supporting the Josh Neuman Foundation, an non-profit organization created in honor of his friend who passed away. The organization focuses on providing clean water, food and shelter to underserved communities. 

“That presentation stands out to me just because there was a personal connection to the organization,” Davis said. “[Benson] utilized all this knowledge he gained in the whole program to say, ‘All right, you want this organization to really create change in our world, and I have some ideas about how to structure the organization in order to ensure that that happens.'”

Other students completed their capstones through projects such as revitalizing the Richard A. Baddour Carolina Leadership Academy or working with a local business to develop outreach programs, including a basketball camp for underserved students in the community

“The students we attract to the program are folks who are interested in promoting change,” Davis said. 

Davis credits her time in the College of Education, especially her work with W. Dallas Herring Professor and Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research Executive Director Audrey J. Jaeger, with preparing her to serve in her current position.

“I’ve always just been drawn back to being in the classroom,” Davis said. “When I was working for [Jaeger], I got a chance to do a lot of the leadership development and just the strategic thinking around supporting senior level leaders. And that was very intriguing to me. This role just gave me a piece of both. I’m still able to develop curricula around leadership, but I’m also able to be in the classroom.”

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Why I Chose Education:

I’m just so drawn to the fact that education really is an opportunity for me to practice my values around fostering equitable environments. What I especially love about being in the classroom is that the environment I facilitate is really an opportunity where we are all constructing knowledge together. There is such power in setting aside time to be in an environment where we are all putting in, and we’re all coming out with something different. It informs us to be better versions of ourselves. I don’t care what topic it is. Just the ability to construct knowledge with — especially for me in this situation — fresh minds who are really about to flip some tables, if they haven’t already, is just so enriching and powerful to me.

How I approach teaching and being in the classroom really tries to break down all of those power dynamics, recognizing that I’m here to provide structure. I may have read a little bit more, but we are bringing in all of our experiences and all of our perspectives. We leave, I think, having an opportunity to be a better version of ourselves. And I think that’s what education continues to do. I see glimmers of hope that the students in the program are going to be able to create environments like that in any organization that they work in — just being able to go in and construct knowledge with other people and to have better outcomes than they intended on doing on their own. 

How Education Has Shaped Me:

My dad was an educator, and he ran a college opportunity program at a local college in my hometown. I got to see my dad’s passion just live out through that and the lives that he was able to change when he was in that role. It feels like I’m carrying on that legacy.

My parents migrated to the United States before they had me and part of their reason was because they wanted us to be able to have more opportunities here, recognizing that we’re not only signing up for the opportunities that the United States has to has to offer, but we’re also inadvertently putting you in a situation where there is racism that you’re going to face. I lived in a household that was very forward about that, and my dad was very intent on making sure that he was very culturally aware of the new environment that he was in and the students that he was working with. I saw the power in how taking a culturally forward approach to working with students really did make such an impact on the students’ lives that he engaged with and that went for folks who were in pre-college programs and the college programs. 

I remember being in the back of a college math class as a 10-year-old. On days that my son has a teacher workday, and he’s had to come to class with me, I just reflect: “Wow, this has really always been my life.” And now it’s my son’s life too. Education has really shaped how I approach a lot of things. I just have a lot of pride for being in an educator family.

What I Enjoyed Most About the College of Education:

I look back on what I learned at the College of Education, and it’s hard to not think about the aspect of Think and Do. That was the prime language that we used for everything. It really provided a great balance, especially coming from a practitioner side.

I think of my organizational theory class taught by [Jaeger]. You could easily spend a lot of time in your head thinking about these theoretical frameworks. But one of our main projects was that we needed to connect with an office on campus and be able to analyze what this theory actually looked like in practice. That was really, really key to my learning.

I also learned how to take what can be really dense material, especially in a world where work around leadership is very white male centered, and to kind of find my own voice to interpret what I was seeing — recognizing the gaps in that theory and what they didn’t capture and being able to find my own my voice in that way. All of my classes really did a great job of that. 

There was structure, too. I think of [Alumni Association Distinguished Graduate Professor and incoming Department of Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development Head] Joy Gaston Gayles teaching our first class. There’s a structure to thinking of a topic you want to study, and the fact that I could look back on that paper from that class and see where my dissertation came from — it was just very intentional. I really appreciated how there was time to think, but also you’re not just going to just sit here and think — you need to actually do something with that. That is what I really admire and appreciate about that program, and I would hope that the program that I run here is a reflection of that value. 

What Others Should Know About the College of Education: 

The faculty are very invested in the learning for their students. Being on the faculty side now, I know that there’s a lot else that they’re thinking about, but I really do think that they’re invested in the people who are going through the programs.

I still feel like I could call on any of the faculty who were in the program when I was there. I had some sort of connection with each one of them. I think the faculty look at it like: “Oh, new outlooks. What can we do together?” 

The Last Thing That Inspired Me:

The fun part about teaching is that you get to find new things to read, and I love to read. So I found this book — it was for the capstone — and it was called The Prepared Leader. One of the things that I try my best to do in all my classes is to make sure that we have a diverse set of authors and voices. It’s pretty hard to Black women who are talking about leadership without the lens of diversity, equity and inclusion because I think sometimes we get pigeonholed to only be talking about that. But Erika James and Lynn Perry Wooten wrote this book about crisis leadership and hearing them talk about these different theories and what they’ve learned and their outlook on various issues —  it wasn’t only about the content they were sharing; it was also just their presence that inspired me.