U of A Graduate Seeks to Change Lives as EKU Dean

Elizabeth Smith
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Elizabeth Smith

A college education from the U of A changed Elizabeth Smith's life — so much so that she's devoted her career to help change the lives of others in the same way.

Smith's three degrees from the U of A — a bachelor's degree in political science, a master's degree in higher education leadership and a doctoral degree in public policy — helped prepare her for success in academia. In July, she will become the dean of the College of Education and Applied Human Sciences at Eastern Kentucky University.

For Smith, the new position offers a unique opportunity to help students the same way the U of A helped her during her educational journey. Hailing from a low-income family in Oklahoma, Smith came to the U of A as an Honors College student receiving a generous scholarship. Her undergraduate experience "opened [her] eyes to a world beyond what [she] had ever known."

"The faculty members I engaged with as an undergraduate helped me to see that I could be part of changing the world," she said. "Specifically, Dr. Todd Shields was my mentor in political science who taught me to conduct research through my honors thesis. Dr. Janine Perry, Dr. Charles Robinson and Dr. Brinck Kerr showed me that teaching was fun. Ultimately, I loved college and never wanted to leave."

Motivated by her own transformational experiences in college, Smith set out to change the lives of others. After graduating with her bachelor's, Smith started in the Admissions Office at the U of A and eventually completed a master's degree in higher education as a staff member. She later worked as an academic counselor at the university for the Federal TRiO Programs, which provide outreach, services and resources to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

"I noted the disparity in resources at different schools," she said. "This work with low-income, first-generation students pushed me to study public policy and education policy so I could be a part of improving schools for students from all backgrounds."

Her doctoral research focused on optimal P-20 partnerships, referring to creating a seamless education pipeline from early childhood through postsecondary education. The program not only challenged her assumptions about education and poverty, it prepared her for a career in academia. She attributes her success in part to Mike Miller in the College of Education and Health Professions, who offered "frank advice" about preparing for the academic job market and what it was like to be a faculty member.

"My doctoral faculty were really open about what it was like to be a faculty member, and that information was essential in preparing me to understand the job market," Smith said. "The Public Policy program was the perfect program for me because it helped me to examine problems in education while considering issues in many other areas that impacted schools, including health, economic and agriculture policy." 

"Dr. Anna Zajicek's class on social inequality, in particular, was formative to my research and legislative work on equity in education policy," she added. "I have the advantage of a broad, interdisciplinary perspective on the issues I research because of the Public Policy program."

After earning her Ph.D., Smith rose through the ranks at the University of Tulsa, beginning as a planning director for the Yale National Initiative, a partnership she developed between the University of Tulsa, Tulsa Public Schools and Yale University to improve teaching in Tulsa schools. Shortly after, she became chair of the university's Department of Education, a position she held for three years before becoming vice provost for academic initiatives and faculty affairs at the university.

In her new role as dean, she seeks to collaborate with faculty and organizations in the region to create partnerships for future educators, community leaders and mental health professionals.

"I look forward to continuing my policy work by partnering with Kentucky state leaders and legislators to improve teacher retention and incentivize high-quality preparation for educators and community leaders," she said. "Half of EKU's students are the first in their families to go to college; I'm honored to have the opportunity to support individual, family and community transformation through education."


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