Atlanta 5×5 Profile:
Jacqueline Jones Royster
Jacqueline Jones Royster
Women@TheFrontier and Invest Atlanta have joined forces with The City of Atlanta to create a unique blog series called the Atlanta 5X5. Together, we’re compiling our list of the top 5 women Role Models, influencers, and visionaries in the Atlanta area. Today’s post celebrates Jacqueline Jones Royster, a leader at one of the top universities in the world who is connecting us to the human side of tech.
By Amy Hyatt Fonseca
Reader. Writer. Talker.
When asked to define her career, Jacqueline Jones Royster responds with these three words. Her voice resonates through the office as she speaks them, each syllable articulated with pure conviction. The words may be simple, but they matter to the distinguished scholar. Later, we learn why.
“Before my mother died, she would ask what do you do,” Royster says. “She ended up with her own answer to that. She said I read, write, and talk for a living. And I do!”
It probably wouldn’t surprise you to know there’s a bit more to Royster’s resume. She continues to thrive in the academic environment where only 2% of African-American women hold tenured positions.
Royster is the first African-American to hold the Ivan Allen Jr. Dean’s Chair in Liberal Arts and Technology at The Georgia Institute of Technology. As a professor of English in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication, her renowned research centers on rhetoric, literacy, and women’s studies. Prior to her role at Georgia Tech, Royster was named the first African-American Dean of the College of Humanities at The Ohio State University (OSU). OSU later appointed her Senior Vice Provost and Executive Dean of the Colleges of Arts and Sciences, making her the highest-ranking African-American woman on campus.
In speaking with Royster, one gets a sense she’s more than a list of firsts. Before the accolades, she’s a daughter, friend, teacher, mentor, colleague and passionate storyteller. She’s an academic willing to abandon the ivory tower and share the narratives of her Role Models: nineteenth-century African-American women. Beyond a university administrator, Royster is a teacher whose goal is to “never teach anyone to write,” but “to encourage the creative imagination.”
So, get ready to be inspired. The professor is in, and she’s sharing her story— a tale of wonder, curiosity, conflict, and old-fashioned hard work. We promise not to spoil the ending, but we’ll give you a hint how her story transpires.
Royster grew up in Greensboro, Georgia, the daughter of a public school teacher and a truck driver. She recalls that even as a preschooler she possessed an internal need to communicate. “I remember my aunt sent me a letter from Santa Claus…I figured that out,” she says. “I wanted to write back, so I wrote curly Q’s on the paper and asked my mom to mail it.” Royster’s mother agreed but suggested her daughter read the letter out loud first. Never one to lack in imagination, Royster made up the words in her head. That was the moment when reading and writing merged to become part of the fabric of her body.
“There was no room for not doing my best. It wasn’t about success or failure, but you owe it to yourself to do the very best you can…or you shouldn’t do it. No exceptions.”
When Royster reflects on stories about her parents, it’s with an obvious admiration. She says she began life “with the clear notion that she was loved,” but it wasn’t all they provided. Her parents armed her with a basic expectation she’s embraced to the marrow: if you want to do something, you should dedicate yourself to the cause.
“There was no room for not doing my best,” Royster says. It wasn’t about success or failure, but you owe it to yourself to do the very best you can…or you shouldn’t do it. No exceptions.”
The lesson paid off for Royster. She learned to read at the young age of 3 and graduated high school by 15.
While parental expectations may have set Royster’s future in motion, applying to Spelman College drew her closer to her passions. A wide grin touches her face as she recalls her experience applying to the liberal arts school. She admits, “Going to Spelman was my mother’s choice. She gave me the application and said fill it out! She actually hand-delivered it to Spelman.” Royster adds, “It was a good choice for me, though. I was young and choosing a college that was culturally welcoming made sense for this kid my parents were sending off to be on her own.”
As Royster’s mother had already speculated, Spelman provided the framework she needed as a young African-American woman. It normalized two particular ideas for her: women ought to go to school, and they belong in leadership positions.
“With my generation, there were constraints on what women could expect to do,” she says. “But [at Spelman] there were also glimmers that whatever existed didn’t necessarily have to hold you back.”
Royster contends her decision to stay in academia was environmental rather than serendipitous, but it became a place where she flourished. “The day I realized teaching was fine for me,” she says, “I walked out of my favorite teacher’s class, and said to myself if I could make students feel like that, I wouldn’t mind being a teacher.”
Royster’s experiences and education had given her the foundation to reach for success. Now, one question remained. How would she conquer it?
After graduating Spelman, Royster earned an M.A. and D.A. in English from the University of Michigan. She eventually found her way to OSU where she became Senior Vice Provost and Executive Dean of the Colleges of Arts and Sciences.
While there, she continued her pursuit of reading, writing and talking. She published three books: Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change among African-American Women, Profiles of Ohio Women, 1803-2003, and co-edited Calling Cards: Theory and Practice in Studies of Race, Gender, and Culture. Later, She co-authored Feminist Rhetorical Studies: New Horizons in Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Also during this time, Royster presented countless papers at major conferences and gave over 86 invited talks.
“For me, I’m a problem finder/problem solver type person who likes to do interesting stuff. I like to invoke that critical, creative imagination. My response [to Georgia Tech] was I would like to see that happen.”
So, how did this scholar in rhetoric, literacy and women’s studies make it from OSU to Georgia Tech? “The basic story,” she says, “was that I worked hard for decades and got the first sabbatical that I was able to take.”
In reality, Royster returned home to take care of her ailing mother.
That’s when she received a call from a headhunter who said both Emory University and Georgia Tech had open positions for a dean. “I said no thanks! For Georgia Tech, you must have the wrong person,” Royster says. “It never occurred to me that I would work at a technological university. My sense of Georgia Tech was riding up North Avenue to get to the Atlanta University Center. The school used to have this wall around it…but I didn’t care what was behind the wall.” She adds, “I appreciated living in an era that was highly scientific and technological, but it didn’t have a draw for my attention.”
Until one day, it did.
When Royster interviewed at Georgia Tech, she learned about the school’s plan to build a stronger, more visible liberal arts program, connecting the human experience to a technology-driven world. “For me, I’m a problem finder/problem solver type person who likes to do interesting stuff. I like to invoke that critical, creative imagination. My response [to Georgia Tech] was I would like to see that happen.”
Royster’s resume proved she possessed the background Georgia Tech needed to strengthen the college. She stepped into her new role as dean with a clear goal in mind: read, write, talk…and rise.
If you Google Royster’s name, you’ll find she continues to garner praise and awards for her work. But even with the acclaim, she doesn’t see herself as a Role Model. “I don’t think about being a Role Model,” she says. “I just do the best I can, and I try to be responsive and respectful to others. I try to listen first.”
To Royster, the ultimate definition of mentorship is what she calls the “Alice Walker motto.” She explains, “Your mentors may be the people who bring you soup—anyone who believes in you and supports what you do.”
So, where does Royster find her Role Models? When asked about them she leans forward; her eyes widen behind dark, rectangle frames. She slips into storyteller mode when she speaks.“The women I study have been amazing mentors to me,” she says. “I’m totally inspired by the lives they’ve led. Two that I talk about more than the others are Anna Julia Cooper [one of the most prominent African-American scholars in US history] and Ida B. Wells [journalist and early leader in the Civil Rights Movement].” Then, her serious disposition disappears, and she playfully jokes, “but when I work on a new project, I love the one I’m with.”
“Given the conditions of our world, we need people with nerve.”
It only takes a few minutes talking with this prominent communicator, to realize her enthusiasm for the past is contagious—but she’s also focused on the global role of women in the future. Two major initiatives she’s pushed to the forefront are Africa Atlanta 2014 and the Ivan Allen College Global Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative (GWEI).
Through Africa Atlanta 2014, Royster and the Ivan Allen College established a yearlong series of events highlighting Atlanta as a nexus for reinventing the cultural and economic bonds among Africa, Europe, and the Americas. Following the success of the initiative, Royster helped establish the GWEI, a program designed to connect women entrepreneurs across national boundaries and to help them to enhance their professional skills and strengthen their networks. The inaugural program connected African women and Atlanta-based women.
Why the focus on women? Royster says, “Given the conditions of our world, we need people with nerve.” A couple of women from Atlanta who she believes embody this spirit are Sister Precious Muhammad and Tracy Bates. Muhammad is a businesswoman who worked with the college to open the Westside Communities Alliance’s Community Computer Lab, a service to provide free computer access within a supportive environment. Bates serves as president of the Historic Westside Cultural Arts Council and preserves the history of that part of the city. Both remain vital initiatives to the positive growth for Westside Atlanta communities.
Before we realize it, an assistant lightly taps at the office door, reminding us that Dean Royster has other appointments—students to mentor and colleagues to guide. With only minutes left in the interview, we ask her about her continual rise to success. “Success for me has been about feeling balanced inside,” she says, “because to me, that is success, where you get up everyday thinking you are living the life you feel good about. That sense of peace…that is success.”
We nod our heads in agreement and realize it’s a courageous intersection in Royster’s story—a perfect way to summarize this Role Model’s view of success.
After clicking our recorders off and saying goodbye, we stroll back through the doors we entered earlier. We talk about the interview and realize we feel changed by Royster’s words. Perhaps, her inner fire has somehow weaved its way into our imaginations.
To us, Royster’s story echoes the sentiments of her own Role Model, Anna Julia Cooper who said, “I had devoured what was put before, and, like Oliver Twist was looking around for more. I constantly felt (as I suppose many an ambitious girl has felt) a thumping from within unanswered by any beckoning from without.”
“Reader. Writer. Talker.
Now, stand back and watch her Rise.