When LaTonia Collins Smith, EdD, ’14, first began her application to the doctoral program in education at Maryville, she hit a bit of a snag when it came to writing the essay.
Then she met a colleague at Harris-Stowe State University who was the second person to tell her that a Maryville degree would be a big boost for her advancement in higher education, so she decided to get back to work on her essay.
That was in 2011. Her diligence paid off, as she earned her doctorate in higher education leadership and has steadily climbed the career ladder at Harris-Stowe, culminating with being named the institution’s first female African American president.
The Maryville program “was everything that they advertised it to be,” she said. “It was relevant. It was rigorous, and it was reflective. It allowed me to reflect on my previous career as a social worker and public health practitioner, so I could utilize skills I already had to work in a career in higher ed.”
Collins Smith, a St. Louis native and graduate of St. Louis Public Schools, has been serving as interim president at Harris-Stowe since last June, after filling jobs ranging from project coordinator in the office of counseling services to provost and vice president for academic affairs. She also is co-principal investigator of a $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to strengthen STEM education in Missouri.
That discipline has been a primary focus for her, particularly for minority students. She wants to make sure that students who may not be able to afford a larger university can still become proficient in science, technology, engineering and math.
“In August, Governor Parson signed a bill for Harris-Stowe to have a statewide mission in STEM,” she said. “That aligns with our overall mission to provide an accessible, high-quality and diverse education for the underserved.”
Fulfilling that mission will help the university live up to its potential, Collins Smith said.
“Our university is a jewel in the St. Louis crown,” she added, “and being the first female African American president at Harris-Stowe, I want to be a living example for Black and brown girls, letting them know that their dreams are possible. When the going gets tough, they can take a moment to reflect on my trajectory — and how I worked my way up the ranks to get to the place where I am today — to know they can do it, too.”
Her time at Maryville definitely helped her reach the president’s office, Collins Smith said.
“I enjoyed my experience in the Maryville doctoral program so much that I’ve probably personally recruited someone into every cohort after me,” she said. “I have been an advocate for the Maryville doctoral program even with colleagues in the K-12 system, helping them to decide if the higher ed track is for them.”
Collins Smith’s agenda for her tenure as president of Harris-Stowe is an ambitious one: increased enrollment, a few construction projects, new partnerships and new relationships, an established foundation, fundraising and better involvement of alumni engagement. “It’s a big list,” she said, “but it’s doable.”
Did her training at Maryville specifically address the challenges at a historically Black college? Collins Smith replied no and quickly came up with a plan to remedy the situation.
“That’s a good question,” she said, “and it’s probably something I should talk to the Dean for the School of Education about.” Stay tuned.