In a new interview, new Harris-Stowe State University President Dr. LaTonia Collins Smith opened up about her unlikely path to the presidency, and her ambitious plans for the HBCU. Get the story from Amanda Woytus at St. Louis Magazine below.

Dr. LaTonia Collins Smith says she “stumbled” into higher education, but she also went from a part-time project coordinator role at the university to its president—the first African American woman to serve in that position—in just 12 years.

Dr. LaTonia Collins Smith, recently appointed president of Harris-Stowe State University, calls herself a “village kid.” It’s a nod to the community—the grandparents, aunts, uncles, great-aunts and -uncles, and cousins—who stepped up to raise her after her mother died when Collins Smith was 7. But her teachers were important, too, including the one who supported the second-grader the year after her mom passed away. Collins Smith, who is from The Ville, originally thought she wanted to be a teacher herself but instead went into social work and public health. (She holds master’s degrees in both from Saint Louis University.) Then she saw an opportunity at Harris-Stowe, “to be who I needed in undergrad. I needed someone to help me to navigate that space and to be a listening ear and to show me what needed to be done.” Collins Smith says she “stumbled” into higher education, but she also went from a part-time project coordinator role at the university to its president—the first African American woman to serve in that position—in just 12 years.

How did you pivot from social work to higher education? I have a dear friend who was working here. She called me one Saturday morning, and she said, “I hate to wake you up, but there’s a job for you at Harris-Stowe.” I said, “No, there’s not.” She said, “I’m telling you, this job is for you. It has your name on it. We’re looking for someone with a master’s in social work or a master’s in public health. You have both.” I came up on a Saturday and dropped off my résumé. I got a call on Monday, I interviewed on Tuesday, and I accepted on Wednesday. It was only supposed to be for nine months.

Clearly it went a little longer. What happened? I was the part-time project coordinator for a grant through SAMHSA [Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration] sponsored by the White House initiative on HBCUs. My role was to work with a small group of students who would become peer educators. They were going to do programming on campus to educate their peers about HIV and AIDS, substance abuse, and hepatitis—stuff that nobody wants to talk about, especially in that age group. I said, “OK, I can do anything for nine months.” I added it to my plate. I started here in February 2010.

In July 2010, I took a trip to Florida with my peer educators. One of my students did an amazing job on the introduction for our presentation, and one of the funders asked if we could bring him to D.C. to do that same thing in September. He went, he was phenomenal, and our grant funding was extended for another four years. It became a well-oiled machine, so I started volunteering in other spaces on campus where I saw gaps. I fell in love with this place. I fell in love with the students. I saw myself every day. What I mean by that is that I saw students who were from neighborhoods much like mine. Their stories were much like mine—being raised by grandparents or their moms had passed away. They wanted so much more in life. 

You mentioned gaps. Where were you seeing a need at that time? When I started here, there were three full-time counselors. We had state budget cuts, and they reduced us to one counselor. Because of my background, I filled in gaps in that space. I would rush here at 4 o’clock, and sometimes I would be here until 10 o’clock, 11 o’clock at night. My husband said to me, “You must really like it at Harris-Stowe.” I thought he was being funny because sometimes I wasn’t coming home until 10 or 11 o’clock. And he said, “No, because you’ve never once complained.”

I decided that I would go back and work on a terminal degree, because in higher ed, you have to have alphabet soup behind your name. I had no desire to go back to school, but I knew in order to get to the table and affect the change that really needed to happen, I had to further my education.

Speaking of change, what is your vision for Harris-Stowe? Right now, our priorities are making sure that we increase student enrollment, and we also want to increase our partnerships with companies, organizations, and even our partners in higher education. The other thing is making sure that we continue to develop our STEM infrastructure, to make sure that we build a new STEM building with classrooms and research labs for our students. My vision for Harris-Stowe is simple: We won’t stray from our mission, which is to provide an affordable, accessible, and diverse high-quality education for the under-resourced, underserved, and underprepared. But what you will begin to see is our involvement more in the community that’s around us, and the community in which we live, which will help impact the region, and ultimately, global society. 

Is Harris-Stowe’s partnership with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency an example of that? It’s important to me to make sure that students of color understand this new building that’s built in their neighborhood, which is my neighborhood. In my conversations with NGA, my interest is twofold: Number one is to create access and opportunity for my students, but also to make sure that younger generations in K–12, creating this pipeline where they can see themselves and they’re learning GIS, understanding it early on.

You’re also opening a new Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in the fall. It’s important for us to be able to assist small businesses and even our students who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs. We have so many bright students who start their own business. We want to make sure they understand all the components of being an entrepreneur—making a business plan, financing, taxes, marketing, and communications. 

It was important for me to challenge our faculty and our team to think outside the box, as we look at how we can be beneficial and assist the community. We started our first cohort for the entrepreneurship certification program two weeks ago, and those individuals are ex-offenders. This is important because, when you look at the news, it’s: “Businesses don’t want to come to St. Louis because of the crime.” We’re looking at, “How do we stop the cycle of you’re incarcerated, you’re out, and then you look for a job, you can’t get a job because you’re an ex-offender, do you go back to doing what you do.” We’re looking at, “How do we intentionally create a space for those individuals?”