CEOHP Practice Interview:
Andrea Lawrence on challenges and mentoring

Andrea Lawrence

Interview with Andrea Lawrence, Spelman College
on June 26, 2005 in Lisbon, Portugal
Interviewed by Elizabeth Adams, James Madison University
File: lawrenceByLA-20050626-challenges.mp3
[7.1 Mb, about 7 minutes, opens in new window]

E: Today is June 26th [2005] and we are interviewing Andrea Lawrence of Spelman College. The interviewer is Elizabeth Adams of James Madison University

A: My mother was a registrar at Spelman College. She ... started out as a special assistant to the president and then when he retired he made her registrar. And then she was registrar for a number of years. My father was a teacher and he ended up working with special education in the sense of helping place students in jobs at Emerson Township High School, which I believe was one of the largest high schools in the country.

Well, I started out at Spelman College since my mother was there. My grandpa said, "You're going to Spelman." { not understandable }, I think. And I really wanted to go somewhere else, but after I got there I had a great time. Met my future husband, dropped out and got married my junior year. So then was a question of what was I going to do next. When he went to graduate school at Purdue, I decided I would finish my education because my grandmother was nagging me every week. So I did -- and in mathematics, I majored in mathematics. And that was my first exposure to computers. Spelman didn't have any computer science courses at that time. It was the 1960s. But Purdue did. And I don't think they had graduated their first undergraduate class in computer science, but they had math electives that were computer courses. So I did assembly language and FORTRAN and numerical methods and all those things as math electives. Then I stayed home and raised kids for like 15 years and it was that, at that point, I decided to go back and get certified to teach in the high school. I did that and taught for a while and I decided to restart my life. I had, I guess, a midlife change. I left my husband, took the kids, went to grad school. And it was sort of ironic because I went to grad school in computer science because I didn't think I remembered how to do good proofs in math. [both laugh]

And I knew I knew how to do the programming piece. And also I had done some computer science things while I was doing my certification program. So I was feeling a little more up-to-date on the computer science than I was on the theoretical mathematics. Also the chair of the department said if I wanted to do computer science she could get me a TAship. Since I had no job it sounded like a good thing. So I went to Atlanta University, got my Master's, worked as a TA at Spelman, and then when I graduated, they hired me. They told me, "You've get to go back to school and get that Ph.D. if you want to stay working here."

E: So you did.

A: I did.

E: Where did you get it?

A: I went to Georgia Tech. It was kind of interesting, because there were very few women in the graduate program and there were no minorities, so I was their -- a somewhat double ... a triple minority. I was older than everyone else. I was one of very few women, and I was the — used to have to say, "I am having a meeting of the minority club -- I'm here."

E: OK, very good. Have you ... I hear that you have experienced some things that others might think of as challenges but you seem to be breezing over them. Are there any things that you think of as particular challenges in your life?

A: Well, a number of things. One is the way I did it -- the in-and-out nature of my schooling, you know, 15 years here, a gap here, a three-year gap here and another three- or four-year gap there. Every time I would start over, it was such a challenge to get back into the mold, to balance out the other responsibilities -- the children, trying to feed the children, all those kinds of things. So I think my biggest challenges have come from trying to re-enter the so-called pipeline at various points. Almost felt like I had to bore holes in.

And some of the challenges have come from people's attitude, especially when I first went to Tech. I ran into two different kinds of people. I ran into people who were very supportive and helpful, and some people who assumed that because I had gone to a minority institution for my Master's I didn't know anything. And it was interesting because I did basically two-and-a-half years at Spelman and a year and a summer at Purdue for my undergraduate. And I discovered that if I mentioned that I was a Purdue graduate they treated me completely different, even though ... and I got a little bit of that when I went to Purdue. My advisor decided that I needed to go back and retake all my math courses. And I said, "No, I don't think so." But it's a bit of a challenge because he is so ... it was funny because he pulled out that same textbook that I had used at Spelman that I had at home. He said, "Well, if you study here you might want to look over this textbook to see what you know basically."

E: Do you think your students at Spelman are experiencing that same bias today?

A: Yes, some of them at some places. Spelman does have a strong record for producing students who go on to achieve the Ph.D., so that has helped. So when they go to schools where they have been before we don't have that issue, but we do sometimes have an issue with schools who look at only the GRE scores and the fact that it's a minority institution or a small institution. And perceive that the students will not be prepared.

E: So that ... You've just pointed out that role models can make a difference. Is that part of the reason you went back to Spelman? As opposed to going to a non-minority institution?

A: That's exactly the reason I went back, and exactly the reason I have not accepted some offers to leave. Because it's ... to be a woman in this field, and then again to be a black woman, makes you such a minority that if you can't see that people can do it, it makes a really hard to believe that you can.

E: So your students have you there.

A: They have me there and I'm half model, half Momma. And I'll have one of them come back and they'll say, "Well, Dr. Lawrence told me I was going to graduate school and she took me to school and introduced me to the chair and next thing I knew I was enrolled!" And I've had several stories like [that].