The Master Mentor: Dr. Alvetta Peterman ThomasNovember 02, 2012
Dr. Alvetta Peterman Thomas, president of Atlanta Technical College, is not your typical college president. Well, I should say, not like any college president I've ever met. She's accessible, but not in a politician type of way ... really accessible. If you meet her in passing, she will engage you and you'll feel as if you've known her for a while. And when you see her again, she will receive you in that vein. Hint: Dr. Alvetta invests herself in people; Not because of what she does but because of who she is. She told me, in our first meeting, that she believed in mentoring. But, having been with her for just an hour, I already knew it.
This series would not be complete without a conversation with her.
Where did it all begin for you? Did you always know you wanted to be a college president?
I didn't always know I was going to be a college president. That's one of the things I always thought was unique about my story, but the more I tell my story … I find out it's not so unique. I started out in life thinking I was going to be an attorney. But because I was going to have to go to law school in the northeast in order to have it paid for, I wasn't going to a cold weather climate. And for me to allow climate to shift my career goal means that I wasn't that committed to it anyway. So, I was kind of unsure of what I wanted to do.
I took a very indirect route to becoming a president. I've worked as an archivist, as a writer/editor for a military magazine ... I've taught school but there were a number of things that put me in a great position to be where I am today. What I think put me in the best position for presidency was when I landed a job with the U.S. Army Department of Defense as an education specialist. In that job, I reviewed curriculum and developed curriculum for army training programs. That kind of set the stage. And [from there] as I moved around the country, the jobs I got were in various phases of education; all of those experiences combined put me in the places where I could be a college president. As I was going through those things, I didn't realize it. I didn't decide I could be president of a college until about five or 10 years ago. Having a great mentor who was president of this college made me realize that I could be president. In fact, she told me that I could be president before I even thought about it … Once she told me, she kind of spoke power into it. I'm here successfully because a lot of people mentored me along the way, not just my predecessor.
From my coming to know you through Atlanta Tribune coverage, you've always talked about mentoring. Is it because you were mentored at every step that it organically became a profound tenet for you or have you always had a mind for mentoring?
I've always been the type of person who likes to help others. So, because of that, mentoring is natural to me. But, having so many people mentor me, I developed a greater appreciation for it as being important. There's a lot of research out there about mentoring and the importance of it … and why we should give back what has been given to us.
Who were some of your mentors?
My firsts were my mother and grandmother, very strong women, who lived in an era where things were difficult ... I grew up in the height of the civil rights movement in Montgomery, Ala., so things were quite challenging for them. Despite those challenges, they were very successful at work and they had successful social relationships. They always told me that I could be and do anything that I wanted to be or do. The level of confidence they instilled in me laid the foundation. In high school, a teacher B. Caroline Holmes pulled me to the side and told me that I could be anything that I wanted to be despite some challenging circumstances because I was a teenage mother. I spent a semester away from high school to have a baby but when I came back the next semester, Ms. Holmes looked at me and said 'okay, now you've taken care of that — let's move forward' and I graduated from high school when I was supposed to. In undergraduate, Birdie Larkin sent me to Clark Atlanta University to apply for a scholarship in political science … I applied, got it and the rest is history. Joseph Silver, now president of Alabama State University, was a mentor. And in the first job I got with the Department of Defense, I didn't know anything about writing and editing but my mentor Willie Garrett taught me how to edit for magazines, how to write appropriate articles for magazines … Every step along the way, in my career, I've had strong mentors. And my mother remained my mentor until last year when she passed away. The lessons that I've learned from them are those that I keep near and dear to my heart and hope to give back to other young ladies.
What advice can you give women who are trying to find their purpose or nurture their passion?
To not give up on your passion … that's the first thing. The second is always do your best when you're working toward your passion because you never know who's looking at you. I believe I benefited from great mentors because regardless of what was going on in my life, I always tried to do my very best. And because of that, they could see the best in me and feel comfortable pushing me forward.
Stay focused on lifelong learning; you never stop learning. One of the biggest challenges I see with some young women is that they want to fast forward … they want it immediately. But, you've got to know there's a process. There's nothing wrong with working your way up to your goal. You're not going to go and be a business analyst to start with; You may have to start off being a customer service analyst … sometimes you may have to take a demotion to get to where you need to get. So, stay true to your passion, commit to lifelong learning and always do your best.
If you could write a letter to your younger self, what is one thing you would say?
How do you celebrate yourself?
I think the biggest thing I do is to sit down, get quiet and read a good book; I consider that a celebration. But, I'm always happy when I can look back and see the impact I've made on someone else.--