Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Tougaloo College's Super-connector: Cynthia Spence

Cynthia Spence delivers presentation, January 2020
Photograph by H. Ash 

Listen. If you're tracing the histories of English majors from Tougaloo College who went on to earn PhDs, then one of the most important figures you'll inevitably encounter is Cynthia Spence. What's so fascinating about her contributions to the success of students and faculty at the school is that she's never been an employee at Tougaloo.

Instead, as director of UNCF/Mellon Programs since 1995, Spence has been our super-connector--linking students and faculty at Tougaloo to opportunities well beyond the college. You've perhaps heard of the term connector before, which was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point (2000). Connectors are folks who occupy multiple, sometimes far-flung communities and cultures, and they have a special knack for providing access to those realms for new members, allowing us to benefit from what those spaces have to offer.

I've previously written about connectors, so what makes Spence a super-connector concerns her positioning as director of the UNCF/Mellon programs and as a long-time faculty member at Spelman. For twenty-five years now, she has been working with students, professors, and administrators at all thirty-seven UNCF schools. Think for a minute what that means: someone in decades long conversations with hundreds of educators and African American students from black colleges.

Folks talk about someone with institutional memory. Well, Spence's memory is multi-institutional. And to the extent that she collaborates with students well beyond undergrad, her network extends into a wide range of PWIs.

In just about any conversation, Spence is going to utilize the phrase, "What we've seen...." That's the moment where you should grab your pencil (or phone or tablet) and take notes. She's going to let you in on a development that she's witnessed evolving over the course of years and years with multiple people. What we've seen, she'll say, is that "strengthening faculty strengthens schools." Or, what we've seen or even what we know, she'll note, is this or that approach is really vital for supporting students. She pulls these observations from a vast repertoire of knowledge and experience.

The English majors at Tougaloo College have profited tremendously from Spence's connections. She was the one including faculty members on special seminars and travel experiences across the country or to Senegal and South Africa. She was the one accepting dozens of undergraduates into the Mellon Fellowship program. Spence was the one who sent out those emails/nudges to apply for this summer program or that fellowship or that job. She's done it for decades. That's what a connector does. 

Show me an English major from Tougaloo who became a professor, and I'll show you a beneficiary of local connectors and a super-connector.

A notebook on English majors from Tougaloo College

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