As a doctoral student at Trevecca, Dr. Gwendolyn Sutton completed her dissertation on the underrepresentation of African American women in leadership positions within higher education. Soon after, she was defying many of the statistics she’d uncovered in her research by becoming the president of Tennessee College of Applied Technology Memphis.
“When I was appointed it was overwhelming. No one on my dad’s side of the family has ever earned a doctorate and so I was the first, and then I was the first one to earn a position of this stature,” Sutton said. “I've been on cloud nine.”
Sutton served for 20 years with the Board of Regents after getting her start in financial aid. She worked in a number of administrative positions and eventually as vice president, so when the position of president became available, she felt ready to apply.
“I applied, and here I sit as the president of the college, and I'm the first female president the college has ever had in this history,” Sutton said. “That is not an accomplishment just for me, it's an accomplishment for society. I like people to see that these things are attainable, but you have to put in the work to get there.”
As president, Sutton has many responsibilities, including overseeing three campuses, but her primary goals are to help students thrive in their classes and to advocate for them with area employers.
“I'm around in the classroom areas, ensuring that the instructors have the equipment that they need, ensuring that the students have resources that they need,” Sutton said. “I'm also out in the community talking with agencies, connecting with the businesses and chambers, to be a voice for students in those spaces.”
The highlight of the job for Sutton is interacting with the students and making sure they know she is on their side, cheering them on as they move forward in their education.
“I walk around wanting them to know that I am a person, even though I'm a president, that I'm approachable and that they can come and talk to me. I just want to be visible and let them know that they’re not alone. You know, I've been in some of their situations,” Sutton said.
“One of the things I tell them all the time is ‘I'll see you on the day of graduation. I can’t wait to shake your hand walking across the stage.’”
Years before securing this position, Sutton was finishing her master’s degree and believed a doctorate was in her future. When she asked around about universities, Trevecca came up again and again. She was drawn to the Doctor of Education in leadership program in part because it was clear she would not have to do it alone.
“I'm a member of Women in Higher Education in Tennessee, and one of the young ladies who served on the executive board with me recommended it,” Sutton said. “She spoke so highly of Trevecca, mentioning that I would have mentors and advisors, people who would walk with me through all phases of the doctoral process. And that's what drew me, I knew I would have support.”
Sutton’s experience in the program was a positive one. She found that she had the support of not only her professors, but her fellow students as well.
“The first group of classes were overwhelming. I loved that though, because it gave me an idea of what to expect. When I saw the structure and the deadlines, it was very easy to follow as long as I stayed on task,” Sutton said. “And I love the cohort model. The relationships that I built were phenomenal. We still talk to this day.”
Trevecca also instilled in her leadership and communication skills that were key in the hiring process, and they continue to serve her well in her position as president. Her advice to others, especially women like her who desire to go further in their careers and in leadership, is to work hard and commit entirely to whatever opportunities are in front of them.
“You have to do the work and don't give up. There will be disappointments along the path. Unfortunately, we're in a society where there is not always respect for African-American females, but don't let that stop you from taking the next step,” Sutton said. “If you put your heart and soul into whatever you want to do, no one can stop you.”
Photo Credit: Tonya Reeves