The landscape of higher education is changing, as are the needs of the students who choose to pursue a college education. As our world evolves and becomes increasingly connected through social media and other public outlets, more options become available; more awareness of college debt surfaces; and more urgency to start making money floods students’ minds.
Dr. Felecia M. Nave, president of Alcorn State University, is a leader who knows the value of creating multiple pathways. She is a leader who does not deny that the college experience is not for every student. With that awareness, she is leading the 150-year-old university into the next era. She is a leader who both respects and honors the past and does not shy away from forging ahead.
Her presidency—and specifically her presidency in this particular moment, in this particular place —is what higher education needs in order to truly evolve.
Dr. Nave returned to her alma mater, Alcorn State University, as the 20th and first woman president in Alcorn’s 150-year history on July 1, 2019.
“The glass ceiling was shattered for the 67 percent of our students and countless alumni, who until this moment had never experienced a female representative in this seat,” said Dr. Nave.
She graduated cum laude from Alcorn in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. She went on to earn her master’s in chemical and environmental engineering and her doctorate in engineering, both from the University of Toledo.
She has since spent 20 years as an innovative educator and leader in complex collegiate environments and now serves as the institutional executive officer of Alcorn, the nation’s oldest public land-grant HBCU, located in Lorman, Mississippi, with branch locations in Natchez and Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Dr. Nave and her husband, Tracie, met at Alcorn as undergraduate students and are the proud parents of four children: Jaylon, Justin, Kennedy, and Jonathan.
A commitment to the next 150 years of Alcorn’s growth
An Alcorn legacy, Dr. Nave is personally and professionally invested in Alcorn’s mission to develop well-rounded future leaders of high character who can be successful in the global marketplace.
Dr. Nave recognizes that, as an HBCU in rural Mississippi, Alcorn is uniquely positioned to give Black and brown students the space to explore and celebrate their identity, free from the prejudices, pushes, and pulls, of the outside world.
She combines a deep understanding of student needs and incredible expertise to ensure students receive an excellent, hands-on education while developing as humans.
Dr. Nave has dedicated her professional career to serving at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), which has given her a diverse perspective and broad understanding of HBCU culture and tradition.
She feels humbled by the opportunity to lead this evolving community and envisions Alcorn as a leader amongst the nation’s elite HBCUs in the next 150 years.
A grounded and collaborative leader, Dr. Nave is committed to developing, supporting, and sustaining programs that ensure the university’s success, including planning and resource alignment, shared governance, a student-centered approach, and a commitment to the professional development of the campus community.
In her role, she works relentlessly to create a positive campus experience for all students, faculty, and staff—which currently includes 3,300 students from 34 states and 24 countries and provides 46-degree tracks for undergraduate and graduate programs.
A desire for a purposeful life
Despite growing up in a household of educators, education was not Dr. Nave’s first choice of career. “I spent my time growing up grading papers and averaging grades, so it was absolutely not what I wanted to do as a career,” she recollects.
Dr. Nave wanted to be a corporate executive in the field of engineering and hoped to work in a corporate-based space where she could make a broader impact. But midway through her PhD program, she felt the need to reflect and introspect to find what career choice fit best and fulfilled the greatest sense of contribution or purpose.
During her tenure as a graduate student, Dr. Nave was researching and making deodorant. “As nice as it was and as much of a necessity as deodorant is, I just didn’t want to die and have on my tombstone, ‘She made great deodorant’,” she recalls.
It was at this time she began considering other career opportunities where she could create and sustain the most purposeful life. She also wanted to ensure her work did the same for those she served. To that end, Dr. Nave returned to teaching, but this time, in the higher education space.
Dr. Nave drew inspiration from the faculty members who had an impact on her trajectory at Alcorn State University and more specifically, how they were able to craft a portfolio of work experiences beyond classroom teaching. She gravitated toward work that included the community, the pipeline in student development, student engagement opportunities, and conducting research.
A Return with Pride and Resolve
Her work in higher education was in many ways unexpected. Dr. Nave knew that in order to lead well at this moment in time, she needed to maintain a spirit for teaching and an eye for innovation.
“There’s a certain amount of pride, of humbleness, and just pure joy in being able to come back to a place that has meant so much,” she says.
When she was announced as president, Dr. Nave took stock of all the people who had a hand in helping her grow and develop; her K-12 teachers, Sunday school teachers, and people in the community who went to Alcorn.
She notes that it has been a humbling experience to come back and be given the opportunity to take care of something that was so important to them and that many have poured their life’s work into, and make sure that the institution is positioned well and respected in the state and across the nation.
“It’s been fantastic to engage these students, and you start to remember and see yourself in them,” she says. “It’s indescribable—but absolutely phenomenal and remarkable to be back.”
Learning to benefit from a broader worldview
Seeing herself as a servant leader, and part of a group of women who have made history, Dr. Nave is excited about the fact that women continue to shatter the glass ceiling.
She sees a woman vice-president of the United States, and the first Black woman on the Supreme Court, as opportunities for young Black women to see that anything is possible.
She also notes that, through shattering the glass, there’s going to be pain, there’s going to be some cuts and bruises, sometimes on the front end, sometimes on the back end.
“But it’s important to stay true to yourself, remember who you are, to persist, to overcome, and to be determined to accomplish your life’s purpose because it will help benefit someone else and make the world a better place,” she states.
Dr. Nave’s message is to not get stuck in the mindset that this is the way it has always been but to always keep oneself moving along that continuum, without changing your core values. To be who you are, be true to yourself, but understand that as time changes, your experiences change, and your approach has to change so that you can benefit the people you’re trying to serve.
She believes that success is not always about the top position or getting an award, but about seeing progression, continuing to find ways to have an impact on people, and being part of something bigger than self.
“It really is about that positive progression and knowing that you’ve had an impact and made a difference in the area, space, and time that you’ve been allotted,” she says. “I feel very blessed and fortunate to have had the opportunity to grow, to be shaped and developed by individuals all around the world, who have positioned me to benefit from a broader worldview.”
Dr. Nave believes in looking for areas where she can utilize her skills, giving back, infusing the knowledge and resources that she benefited from, and passing that along to someone else.
“In this role as president and as I look at my career, my depth of knowledge and experience, the compassion and understanding has grown,” she observes. “I have been fortunate to be elevated to larger platforms and to impact larger groups of individuals and people.”
Dr. Nave believes that it is through having the experiences, position, influence, authority, and the wherewithal to shape decisions, that she can have a longer-lasting impact. Her challenges have been consistent at each level, especially with regard to her identity.
“I’m a woman, I’m Black, and I’ve chosen to be in an area where you see a very low ethnic or gender representation, yet I’ve been able to achieve and excel by advancing through the academic ranks and into administrative roles at the highest level,” she points out.
Dr. Nave observes that people have the capacity and the intellect to understand the benefit that someone brings to the table and that their race or gender does not define how they can contribute to moving an organization forward. But are they willing?
“I’ve experienced the racism, the sexism, ageism, and colorism. But I’ve also experienced being in a space and place of isolation as I’ve progressed as a leader,” she says. “Each step of the way, I am asking people to both trust and support the vast experiences I’ve had throughout my career, coupled with my dedication to staying current and forward-looking when it comes to higher education norms, will only serve to benefit the communities we serve. Remaining steadfast in a vision, yet with a spirit of collaboration, is paramount for any successful leader.”
Why higher education needs to transform
Dr. Nave points out that the pandemic was like a cliff that we’ve been walking toward for a very long time in academia but have not been willing to embrace or make adjustments for.
“I think the pandemic has left us with some really good, transformative changes in higher education, in understanding that you can teach from any and everywhere,” she states. “So we’ve been forced to integrate technology more in how we deliver higher education.”
Dr. Nave also points out that while there is value in face-to-face socialization and engagement with students, educators should not see that as the only way to connect with them, but rather embrace technological advances and how we engage students.
She observes how the world is seeing the importance of HBCUs and the resources that have been invested, whether through philanthropic donations by individuals like novelist and philanthropist, MacKenzie Scott, or partnerships with Fortune 500 companies.
Dr. Nave believes that this focus will put HBCUs in a position where they are held more accountable for the quality and the relevant, educational experience that they provide for their students.
The changing needs of the digital generation
Another area that Dr. Nave sees as ripe for innovation is getting to a more student-centered approach and understanding of how to engage and deliver education to students of this generation.
“What worked when I was a student doesn’t work for today’s youth,” she points out. “We have to be more responsive, more open to understanding what their needs are, and how they view education and its importance and significance.”
Dr. Nave points out the challenges of figuring out how to best serve students, who were born into technology, and have access to more information than at any other time, so you don’t have to stand up in front of a lecture board and feed it to them.
“They can Google it, watch a YouTube video. So you’re really more of a facilitator,” she says. “So being creative in how an instructor develops or designs their lectures, is a key component in course content delivery.”
Dr. Nave notes the even greater disconnect between K-12 and higher education, which is creating a gulf that students are falling into and not achieving success.
Dr. Nave observes that educators are being called in a big way to adjust the way they engage with today’s students who want to be treated more like adults. As a result, educators must change how they engage with them.
“They’re a technically-driven generation, so they want responses instantly,” she notes.
Another challenge that Dr. Nave believes educators and institutions need to be acutely aware of and properly equipped to handle, is the mental health challenges of students, particularly in the Black community and other communities of color.
“Mental health is not a topic communities of color have historically been willing to discuss openly; however, COVID-19 increased instances of gun violence, and the national and local civil unrest, has changed the landscape,” she observes. “Mental health has become a conversation being had by everyone. So, at the university level, it’s important to make sure that we’re on high alert, sensitive to and responsive, not just to their educational and social needs, but definitely to their mental health needs as well.”
Supporting women’s empowerment and diversity at Alcorn
As a woman leader who has historically been in male-dominated spaces, leading a campus of primarily women, Dr. Nave believes that the impact of women’s empowerment is critical. However, she asserts that in her own experience, women haven’t always been empowering to each other.
“I’ve always tried to create programs and initiatives that support females in their goal attainment and in moving into leadership positions. I see my role as being that facilitator, a connector, accountability partner, and/or cheerleader, helping them network and achieve success. Also, it is important that I share my experiences, being a mentor and role model, supporting programs for young girls, and living a life that is a visible example for what success looks like, and what they can achieve,” she says.
Dr. Nave also notes that diversity at Alcorn spans beyond race. Diversity also means having different perspectives, varying levels of physical abilities, religions, geographical diversity, nationality diversity, and gender diversity at every table.
“It’s important to me and shows up in our new strategic plan. That means we’re allocating financial resources, as well as human resources, to focus on programming that speaks to how students identify themselves and see themselves in the campus community,” says Dr. Nave.
She notes that Alcorn is always looking for ways to support students and faculty, as in the development of centers. For example, Alcorn does not yet have a women’s center, but it has been tapped. They also don’t have an LGBTQ center, but are looking to have one, and have LGBTQ organizations to support them.
Dr. Nave points out that the LGBTQ community participated in the University’s homecoming and parade, sponsored several multicultural events, and held open forums and opportunities for students to talk about who they are, how differences are just a different set of life experiences, and how they can be a part of the whole for the greater good.
“We’re always looking for ways to make people feel included in the community, regardless of who they are, what their circumstances are, or where they came from,” says Dr. Nave.
The key to balance
When it comes to balancing work and life, Dr. Nave is a hands-on president, who believes in having a solid foundation and infrastructures in place. Like the “Energizer Bunny” she is always working, but also supports other people’s work styles and work habits.
While she doesn’t believe in asking people to do more than she does herself, she also believes that there’s no such thing as balance, and knows that the key to success is having supportive people to lean on.
“I think a key to it is having a great partner. Tracie and I have been together for more than 25 years and so we know how to balance the ebbs and flows that come with a job in this position, with us both being in education,” notes Dr. Nave.
As her husband is a K-12 administrator, he understands the grind and the work that goes into making the university thrive. Having been part of the institutional life and their parents’ work experience, their kids also understand and value the work that their parents do.
“What lights me up and keeps me going on a personal level are my four kids and my husband; they keep me grounded,” says Dr. Nave. “They are the light of my life and my world, and just being able to be a part of their growth and development, and to know that we raise kids who are respectful, who appreciate other people, but who are no-nonsense, is what keeps me happy.”
A big, bold vision for the future
As the first woman president of a 150-year-old institution, that’s also her alma mater, Dr. Nave reveals that what keeps her going professionally is seeing her students’ faces light up and knowing that she had some small part in the transformation, especially when she gets notes from her students that say: I got this job. I’ve been promoted. I got this scholarship.
“My vision for the future is big and bold. We’re looking forward to continuing to elevate the university, to broaden being that institution of choice for students who can benefit from the educational experience that we provide here at Alcorn,” she says.
Dr. Nave will ensure that her students have access to scholarships, to being the best person that they can be, and that they continue to develop into a whole person, who is civically engaged, and have a leading spirit and heart.
Over the next five years, Alcorn is looking to continue to grow its footprint, be a leader, deepen its impact in areas of specific interest like agriculture, nursing, and STEM, and produce leaders for the future who will go on to change the world.
“We’re an institution to watch because there are great things on the horizon for Alcorn over the next 150 years,” declares Dr. Nave.
As an overcomer, having originated from the small, rural town of Prentiss, Mississippi that had no Black or women engineers and from a single-parent household, Dr. Nave sees herself as someone who is determined to succeed against all odds and believes that the only limits you have are the ones you impose on yourself.
“There are no limits, except for those you put on yourself,” says Dr. Nave. “Be courageous, be bold, go for it if it’s something that you want to achieve, and stand firm on what’s right, even if it’s not the most popular thing to do. If it’s the right thing to do, and for the right reasons, then that’s what you do.”
The future of higher education is changing, and with that, leadership too must change. Dr. Nave is not a leader who is trying to single-handedly change the landscape of education. Rather, she is a collaborative, responsive, student-centered leader who has walked the walk and returned to pay it forward and forge ahead.