Foster kid to college VP
Pulling up to the dorm at Stanford University as a member of the Aspen Presidential Fellowship was a watershed moment for Dr. Kimberly Britt ’94. Britt is in a community college presidential leadership program run by Stanford University and the Aspen Institute.
Britt qualified for the program as the vice president of academic and student affairs at Reynolds Community College in Richmond, Va., a school with 10,000 students and three campuses. The Fellowship trains community college leaders to lead community colleges and build success strategies for students. Arriving at Stanford, Britt sensed, “It’s not about me – it’s about all these students who are like me. “We’re not that different,” she said. “I just kept on and kept on. I wanted to see if I could do it, if I would make the cut.”
Britt, who earned a PhD, was told by a high school guidance counselor she wasn’t college material. She chose Charleston Southern University because she knew she needed a smaller school if she had a chance to make it. “I was admitted to CSU on a provisional status and had to meet a certain GPA to remain,” said Britt. Her foster mother, Emmogene, encouraged her to go to college and drove her down for the tour.
Experiencing the changes as a student is one thing, but Britt says looking back at it as a college administrator and seeing what happened is quite another. She said, “Higher education can be a tremendous source of healing when done well. My time at CSU transformed my soul.”
Shelter Home to College Freshman
As a senior in high school, Britt would avoid the cafeteria and hide out every day in a bathroom that students weren’t supposed to visit. “I was so shy, so shame filled from physical and sexual abuse, it was hard to blend in with my peers,” she said. Used to hurt and isolation, Britt hid the fact that she was a foster kid from most of her CSU classmates, only sharing the fact with her college sweetheart and her roommate.
She remained in the South Carolina foster care system until she was 21 and graduated from CSU. While she was at CSU, the state would have Britt and a young man from the College of Charleston, also a foster student, talk with social workers. “I didn’t really process it at the time,” said Britt, “but we really were rare – there were only two of us in the state.”
Nationally, 10% of foster children earn a college degree, with 90 percent being left behind. Britt, who went on to earn a master’s and doctorate degree, is an anomaly.
Her freshman year, Britt went to work in the university’s purchasing office for the late Linda Parker. Christmas break of Britt’s freshman year she was sent to a foster home in Horry County for two weeks where the woman was a raging alcoholic because of a paperwork glitch that kept her from going to her usual foster home. Over time, Parker learned the realities of Britt’s life. Parker appealed to then-president Dr. Jairy Hunter, and a plan was worked out where Britt could stay on campus during breaks and work.
“It is the role of a president to put strategies in place to help students to succeed,” said Britt. “That’s what Dr. Hunter and Linda Parker did for me,” she said. Parker found a dental professional who did all Britt’s dental and orthodontic work for free. “She and her husband, Mike, kept up with me all these years. She was always there for me. You don’t forget the people who mentored and supported you. Every time I visit campus, the joy and peace is still so strong. CSU changed my life.”
Britt remembers having 35 cents in her pocket for a holiday weekend. Able to stay on campus, she bought a bag of chips from the vending machine and ate them throughout the weekend on a timed schedule. She remembers the poverty and the pain. She remembers the greatest rejection, when her mother stayed with the man who abused Britt. “She chose him over me,” said Britt. “That’s a pretty strong rejection. It makes you a different type of leader with a different type of purpose. Is it to make you great or to help others?” But she had a family who also encouraged and supported her.
A Great Run
Her sophomore year, Britt walked on to the cross country and track teams. She did it for the money. “I found out you could get a scholarship which I used to buy clothes, books and go to an occasional movie with friends.
“Coach Jim Settle was really the person who transformed me from a victim to a survivor. He told me, you either remain a victim or decide you are going to be a survivor,” said Britt. “Everyone one else on the team had run in high school. I told him, I want to race, and he said, ‘Well, you’ve got to be faster.’”
Team members were required to run eight miles every Sunday. Britt marked out a four-mile route that would take her through the neighborhoods across from campus to come out on Rivers Avenue at the Baskin-Robbins ice cream store. She would enjoy an ice cream and sometimes Arby’s, which was on the opposite corner, and run the four miles directly back to campus. “I was so happy I was able to run that far and was able to get ice cream,” said Britt.
In foster care, there weren’t trips to McDonald’s or Burger King, especially when she lived in the group home in Conway. She said, “I loved being on the cross country and track teams. I got to travel and got the treat of fast food on road trips.”
Britt also joined the concert choir and traveled to Washington, D.C., with the choir and Dr. David Cuttino. “It opened my eyes to what there was,” said Britt. “I thought, I’m not hiding in the bathroom stall anymore.”
She credits Settle with developing her resiliency. “He just knew how to get under my skin and convinced me I could do anything I wanted to,” said Britt. At the end of her senior year, the team gave Britt the women’s team sportsmanship award. Patrick van Boden, the male sportsmanship winner the same year and close friend, passed away halfway through Britt’s PhD, and she dedicated her dissertation to him.
“CSU lifted those life barriers from my soul,” said Britt. “If I hadn’t gone there, I would not be doing what I do today.”
Becoming Dr. Britt
Britt was an English major and planned to become a high school teacher until she started student teaching and knew it wasn’t for her. Having to adjust quickly after dropping secondary education, she picked up a history minor.
After spending time in Linda Gooding’s History of England class, Britt decided to earn a master’s degree in English and become a professor. “Professor Gooding was a gifted story teller and really inspired me to be a college professor,” she said. She knew teaching college students was her calling.
Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana, told Britt if she would teach while getting her master’s degree, they would provide her with in-state tuition. She finished her master’s in English in three semesters and worked as a lecturer and ran the writing program for NSU for two years and bought her first car. “I thought I was on my way,” said Britt.
She went on to teach English at Horry-Georgetown Tech in Conway for 16 years. At Horry-Georgetown, Britt looked for the marginalized students and convinced them they could succeed. She said, “You can make it with the right supports. That’s the theme through every leadership position I have held.”
She pursued her PhD in higher education administration at the University of South Carolina just to see if she could do it. “I shouldn’t have finished high school, much less gone to college,” said Britt. In the pressure-filled situation, she tapped into the nuggets of wisdom that others had poured into her. She learned the first rule of leadership, know yourself. “Coach Settle helped me get to know myself and find the strength within me. That’s what I tap into when the going gets tough. What we learn when we’re younger helps us as we grow if we build upon it,” she said.
During her dissertation research, the committee suggested she interview the chancellor of the Virginia community college system. Britt said, “The chancellor challenged me to finish my doctorate and come serve in the Virginia system.” She took him up on the offer and worked at several Virginia community colleges before accepting her current position. Virginia has studied equitable outcomes and has put programs in place to help the marginalized be successful.
Now in the Aspen Presidential Fellowship, all the lessons Britt has learned are coming together. She said, we are studying how to help the most underserved be as successful as those not coming from behind. The partnership between Stanford and Aspen is about closing the achievement gap.
“The moments when you know you have gotten it right is when students come by to say you inspired me to make it,” said Britt. “Everything you have been through prepares you to help that one student in a way. Happens again and again and again. If I lose that humility, that servant heart, I can’t help them.” She has learned that if she helps the most marginalized to be successful, then others will rise under her leadership also.
Britt called on the strength she learned on the track team when she faced her biggest challenge yet early this year – losing her oldest daughter, Hunter, to suicide. She started running every day, pushing herself physically in order to heal emotionally. “I used the quiet time to process and to heal. The whole time, I heard Jim Settle’s voice screaming in my head.” Though difficult, she’s been able to come out on the other side in the healing process.
Britt is focused on finishing the Aspen program, taking next steps to serve as a college president to build teams and strategic initiatives to help all students be successful. She enjoys time with her youngest daughter, a junior at the College of William and Mary, and traveling with her closest friend.
Britt is fond of saying, “I’ve had a good run. I tell people, despite all the challenges, even with losing Hunter, my oldest daughter who passed away in 2020, that I do not hold on to anger, bitterness, and hurt,” she said. Life has challenged her, but she never gave up and remains at peace. “I have had a tremendous life with much happiness. To come out and not be hardened – praise God.”
Originally published in the Fall 2020 CSU Magazine.