Second in a series of profiles highlighting successful local African-Americans.
CEDAR FALLS, Iowa --- Failure was never an option for Gloria Gibson.
As a girl growing up in East St. Louis, Ill., Gibson was always told she would be somebody someday. The encouragement started at home with her mother, who was convinced Gibson would go on to be a teacher, a prestigious position for a black woman at that time.
"I remember at a very young age lining my dolls up and my teddy bears and I was the teacher," Gibson said. "... That became a seed. Then it became my dream and my aspiration."
Dwight Watson grew up in the '60s in a still-segregated South Carolina. Despite the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, which outlawed "separate but equal" schools, Watson's first experience in an integrated classroom was in 1974. But that never stopped him from planning for the future.
Today, the two of them are among only a few minorities in administrative positions at the University of Northern Iowa. Gibson, the provost and executive vice president, was hired in 2009. She is also serving as the interim president while Benjamin Allen is on medical leave. Watson, who was hired last year, is the school's College of Education dean.
The road less traveled
Early on, Watson's teachers took note of his academic abilities and encouraged him to pursue education beyond high school even though the high school graduation rate for African-American males hung around 40 percent at the time.
"When I was growing up I still felt the only opportunities for black males was either teaching or preaching," Watson said. "To be a teacher, you had to go to college."
But pursuing educational opportunities beyond high school wasn't easy for Watson or Gibson. Student loans weren't an option when Gibson enrolled at Southern Illinois University in music education. She taught piano lessons through high school and college to pay for her education. Throughout her education career she usually was the only or just one of two minority women enrolled in the program. Even as a doctoral student in the '80s Gibson remembers feeling the pressure of being a minority student.
"It is a different kind of feeling. On one hand, I had the confidence, but you have to realize that your support shifts a bit and you have to begin to look to others for that support," she said. "One of the things I encourage students today: you have to have a mentor, but that mentor need not always be of the same gender or same race. There are others you can look to for that kind of relationship."
Watson received a small federal Pell grant, but worked three jobs to pay for the rest of his education at a local community college and then the University of South Carolina.
"Money was tight so I figured I needed to do this as quickly as possible so I always took 18 or 21 credits, and then I took time to got to summer school," he said.
That work ethic continued after he landed his first teaching job in his hometown. Instead of taking professional education courses to keep his teaching license current, Watson opted for grad school and to make the hours studying work for him.
In his first year as a teacher Watson also took several master's level courses four nights a week. He finished that degree in two years, took one year off and then moved to North Carolina to begin work on his doctorate.
"I just thought that you just continued to the next progressive step until you couldn't go to college anymore," he said.
The next generation
Though decades have passed since Watson and Gibson were students in a high school or college classroom, they said in many instances little has changed. Many African-American students are still in families in which their parents are not college graduates.
"One of the difficult things, if you are going to college and your parents didn't, you find out quickly that your abilities and intellect outpace your parents," Watson said. "That is a struggle because you can't rely on your parents to help you academically."
Watson said one solution is to reinstate the "fortress of support" like the one that surrounded him growing up in the South. In his day the three points of the triangle were the school, the church and the family, with the child nestled snuggly in the middle. For those who do not belong to a religious organization that piece could, and should, come from the community.
"Communities need to think about how do we empower or how do we support or encourage our young people," he said.
Gibson said, in general, high school graduation rates are not where they should be, and when African-American students and particularly African-American males are pulled from the mix the outcomes are "troubling." With so many single-family homes and "distractions" like television and computers Gibson said others must step up and offer the support mechanism many of these young students are missing.
The need for such programs in Waterloo was one of the reasons Watson first applied for the opening at UNI. He spends time in the schools, talking with teachers and community leaders about how to better educate kids.
"What I want to ingrain in lots of schools is that college begins in kindergarten," he said. "... I don't want people to be fearful or removed from what college is about."
Part of that is getting students, especially first-generation students, on campus sooner, a task that both have devoted themselves to at UNI.
"Because of their commitment, quality of leadership and personalities, Provost Gibson and Dean Watson are already making a difference at UNI in terms of diversity," said UNI President Benjamin Allen.
The university's new strategic plan, which was developed under Gibson's direction, includes a "stronger goal with respect to diversity than any other strategic plan," he continued.
"The very effective leadership that both are providing during these challenging times serve as an affirmation for other minority faculty, staff and administrators that UNI is a place to be successful," Allen said. "Their presence also, and maybe more importantly, is a reminder for all of us of the talented people we miss out on serving if we do not add diversity to our leadership team."