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#WhyIChoseEducation: ‘Education Has Something for Everybody,’ Says Karen Terrell Jackson ’14PHD

Headshot of Karen Terrell Jackson with quote: Education Has Something for Everybody

On the banks of the Pearl River, which forms part of the Louisiana-Mississippi border, sits a U.S. Geological Survey Hydrologic Instrumentation Facility (HIF) where Karen Terrell Jackson ’14PHD spent her summers as an undergraduate student and aspiring chemist.  

“We would go out there and test dissolved oxygen meters and pH meters,” Jackson said. “The part I hated about that job was I had to wash all of the glassware. But it was fun to be able to go out and test equipment.”

Jackson, an assistant professor of leadership studies in North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University’s College of Education, can see now how her early interest in research and testing led to a career in educational evaluation. But, at the time, she never imagined she would be an educator, much less the recently named president-elect of the American Evaluation Association.

“I had sworn I would never be an educator like my mom,” Jackson said. 

While Jackson had fond memories of her mother testing out experiments at home before implementing them in the classroom, she also recalled the low pay and long hours. So, after college, Jackson spent the next 10 years as a chemist in Louisiana, helping with cleanup at an EPA Superfund site and doing water quality testing for the mining company Freeport-McMoRan. 

Only when she moved back to Mississippi did she gain firsthand experience as an educator, tutoring kids in the community until an assistant superintendent called her up and asked if she wanted to teach. She said no, but the mother of one of the young students Jackson tutored encouraged her to give it a try.

“I said, ‘OK. I’ll do it just for the rest of the year,’” Jackson said. “I’ll be here from January to May. And then I’ve been in education ever since.” 

What changed Jackson’s mind was her students at Picayune Junior High School. 

“I really loved teaching middle school algebra,” Jackson said. “Those kids — the seventh and eighth graders — they were just smart and asked good questions, and they were fun. I say I’m a middle schooler at heart. I had a lot of fun, and I did a lot of hands-on activities with them.”

Jackson’s students built kites to better understand geometry, conducted a study on how music can impact classroom behavior to gain research experience and, when Hurricane Katrina was heading toward the Gulf Coast, put up a map on the board to track its path. 

“On that Friday, they put Katrina where it was out in the Atlantic,” Jackson said. “And then of course, by Monday, the whole world was different.”

After Hurricane Katrina hit, Jackson’s friends invited her to live with them in Wilmington while she waited out the recovery process. Eventually, Jackson decided to move to the area on a permanent basis and taught mathematics at Eugene Ashley High School and Cape Fear Community College before deciding to earn her doctoral degree in the NC State College of Education’s educational research and policy analysis program. 

“That’s how I got here,” Jackson said. “A strong wind blew me.” 

The field of educational evaluation, Jackson soon discovered, was the perfect place to apply the diverse set of skills she gained as a researcher, scientist and classroom teacher.

“There’s just so many opportunities, both big and small, where evaluators can use their leadership capabilities to help other people,” Jackson said.

Soon after earning her doctorate in 2014, Jackson joined the faculty at N.C. A&T and has worked in the community as an educational evaluator. She was named president-elect of the American Evaluation Association in December, and she is looking forward to implementing the organization’s strategic plan and leading its annual conference when she steps into the presidential role next year.

“It means a lot to me to be able to represent the evaluation community,” Jackson said. “As I think about my conference theme … the types of evaluations I’ve had the opportunity to do are generally related to issues for marginalized groups. And so, I really hope that our conference can be in some way representative of some of those groups that I’ve had the opportunity to work with.”

Jackson’s winding path from chemist to educational leader has had its twists and turns, but to her, one of the best parts has been her discovery of the impact individual educators are able to make. This was driven home to her when she had a chance run-in with one of her middle school students from Mississippi and discovered they were earning a bachelor’s degree at NC State. 

“I remember having chills,” Jackson said. “What an amazing opportunity, to be able to plant seeds in people’s lives and then to be able to see the fruits of some of that labor is amazing.”

Why I Chose Education: 

I didn’t even know that the educational research and policy degree existed when I started to explore a doctorate, but when I read about what you could do, the research component was something I was really attracted to. I worked as a chemist for almost 10 years. There was a scaffolding from doing research in the lab with chemicals to researching people.

The ability to explore, to satisfy your curiosity, to imagine things, to see what other people are thinking about certain things and the ability to create things — all of that is built into education. Whether you’re a kid or mid-career or a lifelong learner, education has something for everybody. 

I was an avid reader from very early on when I was a kid. It’s natural for me to want to explore and to read and to learn about other things as well as people. Education creates opportunity. It’s a space where you can explore your imagination and be creative, especially when we can get kids interested in using their imagination. There’s so many educational resources out there right now that can spark your imagination and get us into that creative mode. 

How Education Shaped Me:

The influence of my mom being an educator — I didn’t realize how strong that was until I actually got into the classroom and had that opportunity.

I say this a lot to my students, you don’t know what you don’t know until you know. I walked down this path and just learned things that I didn’t know. It goes back to being curious, being open to new opportunities, to networking and meeting new people. All of those things, I think, are things education creates the space for us to do and, because I was open to opportunities, I just was able to carve out a career that works for me.

I do hope that when I share what I do and how I do it and how I got here, that it also inspires other people. It does take a lot of work. I remember, especially in my Ph.D. program, there were things I didn’t attend or didn’t go to because I made that sacrifice so that I could focus on my studies. But I will say it was probably the most valuable time I spent. My dad used to say you know once you have it, nobody can take it from you. 

Education has been a constant in my life. And I’ve intentionally sought out opportunities or took advantage of those opportunities when they presented to engage and to learn more about things that I didn’t know about.

What I Enjoyed Most About the College of Education:

Definitely the relationships I developed, the friendships that are still ongoing, that’s probably one of the most valuable things that I took away, in addition to the degree. When I think about my experience there, I think about the people, and I think about how we used to help each other. We would meet wherever we could to meet — a coffee shop, Hunt Library — just getting together and taking the opportunity to just think outside the box and explore things. 

I remember Dr. Paul Bitting. I had his ethics class, and I teach ethics now to Ph.D. students. In his class, he told us that as long as we could justify the problem that we were going to address and our solution to the problem, that we could come up with any solution. Being in that kind of classroom, where there were no limitations, was so rewarding and then you got to really see how other educational leaders think and how they’re thinking about education and problems in education, and also they heard your thoughts about how they were addressing the problem. There’s so much power in that. It’s almost like a human laboratory. 

What Others Should Know About the College of Education:

If they’re thinking about getting a graduate degree, go explore, go talk to the faculty and find out what they’re working on and how their ideas might be related to you or what you might be able to contribute to their research in the area that you’re interested in. People are very friendly and open and want you to be there so go check it out; make an appointment.

The Last Thing That Inspired Me:

I lost my brother, Altoral Terrell, on Oct. 14. I’m inspired by him. He’s almost five years younger than me, but we were really close, and it is still very fresh. But he was also an educator. He taught welding at Lively Technical College in Florida, and he was also a pastor of a church. Since he passed away, so many people have reached out to share how he impacted their life. So, that’s who has inspired me right now. I know that he lived an amazing life and was an amazing man. He was an educator, and he touched so many people’s lives. My sister-in-law told me about a little 10-year-old girl at church who came up to her and gave her a letter. And she said, I just wanted to let you know how Pastor Al touched my life. He’s my inspiration right now.