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#WhyIChoseEducation: Sheronda Witter ’19 PHD

As the STEM Next Opportunity Fund’s Out-of-School Time Partnerships Fellow in the Office of the Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, Sheronda Witter works to ensure access to high-quality afterschool and summer learning programs for students across the nation.

When Sheronda Witter ’19PHD left for college, she promised her grandmother that she would become a doctor. At the time, she thought she was promising to become a medical doctor, but a volunteer experience mentoring middle school girls inspired her to pursue a career in education instead. Still, Witter was determined to fulfill the promise she made to her grandmother, who had since passed away, to earn a doctoral degree.

After receiving her bachelor’s degree in intercultural youth development from Furman University, Witter earned a master’s degree in youth development leadership at Clemson University. This prepared her to serve as a 4-H youth development agent in Orange County, North Carolina, and later as the director of the North Carolina Center for Afterschool Programs. 

While serving as a 4-H Agent , she enrolled in the NC State College of Education’s Ph.D. in Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development: Educational Research and Policy Analysis concentration. In 2019, walking into the commencement ceremony at PNC Arena with her advisor, Associate Professor Tamara Young, she realized she had fulfilled her promise. 

“I was in tears,” Witter said. “I don’t think it really hit me until that very moment. PNC is packed. There are thousands of people in there. My family is there. I’m there. I’m walking in and Dr. Young and I are side by side, and then it hit me, I’m a doctor.”

Earning her doctoral degree has helped open new doors for Witter. While she loved serving and advocating for   afterschool and summer learning programs in North Carolina, in September she accepted an opportunity to make a wider impact as the STEM Next Opportunity Fund’s Out-of-School Time Partnerships Fellow in the Office of the Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education

In the role, Witter works to ensure access to high-quality after-school and summer learning programs for students across the nation. She looks at barriers, such as lack of a program, transportation or cost, that prevent students from taking part in out-of-school time learning opportunities, and then works with partner agencies to address them.

Her time in the College of Education prepared her, Witter said, to drill down on the number of students who are unable to engage in out-of-school time programs and find ways to provide access. “NC State teaches us how to analyze and interpret data,” Witter said. 

For Witter, spending time with caring adults, like her grandmother, has always been important. Now, she works each day to support out-of-school time programs that provide access to caring adults to others.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Why I Chose Education:

I was informed that a local middle school in the Greenville, South Carolina, community had reached out to Furman University. They wanted some support from the university to work with their girls.

I spent a lot of time at Barnes & Noble and purchased a lot of books on self-esteem and self-image, and I designed a mentoring curriculum to engage young girls. That following fall, I presented this concept of a mentoring program called Ladies of Distinction to my peers at Furman. And I was so grateful to have some of my peers at the university join me to serve as mentors to the young girls at the middle school. So, that was a new initiative that we launched centered on engaged learning. 

When we were going to the middle school to mentor the girls, we thought that we were making a difference in their lives, but when I look back in hindsight, I realized that they were actually making a difference in our lives. I can speak specifically for myself, they completely changed my life. 

After that first year, I was like, “I don’t think I want to go into medicine.” I just felt a huge pull on my heart to go down a totally different path into education. Through service to our mentees, I fell in love with this field, and I have not looked back since.

How Education Has Shaped Me:

One of the amazing things about education is the care and the relationships. Whether they are your teachers, your bus drivers, your guidance counselors, your after-school or summer program learning program providers, your coach or your mentor, caring adults have a huge opportunity to make such an impact on the lives of young people. 

For me, that happened when I was in high school in ninth grade, and I absolutely fell in love with my high school chemistry teacher, Ms. Triplett. Ms. Triplett was such an inspiration for me. I admired her; I learned so much from her, and I fell in love with chemistry because of her. We had so much fun in her class, doing experiments, and it was just so inspiring and so amazing. 

And she looked like me, and I looked up to her. It was the notion of representation, and I felt like I could do it. And that’s part of the reason why I wanted to become a doctor of medicine, because of her chemistry class. I fell in love with science through her classes, and we still communicate weekly, 22 years later. She’s on speed dial, so she’s like a second mom to me.

You have the opportunity to impact the lives of our young people, and you cannot take that opportunity for granted. What you say to them matters. 

What I Enjoyed Most About the College of Education:

Definitely the system of support that’s available. Specifically, I have to acknowledge Dr. Tamara Young. Dr. Young was my advisor, and she actually was my first professor at NC State. I was just so amazed and inspired by her and her passion for the field of education, particularly for research and evaluation. She definitely challenged me and was very supportive throughout my coursework, and then also, of course, where it matters the most, the dissertation. She was very supportive as my dissertation chair, really, really helping me navigate that process because it can be very daunting. It meant so much to have that support from her as well as my full dissertation committee. 

I was also inspired by my counterparts. Everyone comes from different areas of expertise. With this particular program, you are taking courses with individuals in K-12 education, in higher education, in adult education and workforce education. We all are bringing to the courses our wide range of perspectives and experiences and it just makes the courses rich, because you’re able to kind of learn from everyone’s experiences. 

Also the flexibility. When it comes down to courses within the program, you’re able to have a little bit of choice with some of the courses. You get to tailor your coursework to fit your particular niche. So, I was able to take a course in social work and also I was able to take a course from North Carolina Central University, in their law program. They were outside of the College of Education, but I had the flexibility because of the College of Education. 

What Others Should Know About the College of Education: 

You’re going to love it. All of the things that I valued, appreciated and still am grateful for from the College of Education, you will experience. 

NC State’s values, the College of Education really embodies them. One of the ones that really stood out was excellence. That is NC State’s first core value and that definitely was a part of my experience within the College of Education. I saw nothing but excellence and I experienced nothing but excellence and so you know, if you are deciding to pursue a doctorate, make sure that you come in with a spirit of excellence and navigate this experience with a spirit of excellence and hold your professors up to that standard, too.

The Last Thing That Inspired Me:

I absolutely love North Carolina’s out-of-school program providers and the passion that they have for our students across the state. Especially in the midst of COVID, program providers in North Carolina demonstrated that they are heroes, superheroes, because they truly, truly, truly rose to the moment and they were finding creative ways to engage and continue to serve our students. 

It was so hard to leave that role because of the amazing program providers but, in this current role, I have the opportunity to admire and serve the program providers nationwide even more. Ultimately, everything that our program providers do is to create opportunities for our young people to be engaged. If there’s something that I can do on the national level to make sure that every child has opportunities to be with those amazing program providers, sign me up. I’m willing to do the work that is needed to be a voice, to be an advocate and to amplify their voices, so that we can ensure that all of our students that want to participate in programs have every opportunity to do so.

This post was originally published in College of Education News.