Chrissy Davis Jones grew up aspiring to become a pediatrician.
Having distinguished herself both academically and athletically in Denver, she received multiple scholarship offers. She chose the University of Wyoming because “I wanted a change.”
The change she got wasn’t what she expected.
“I’d attended a large, very integrated high school and hadn’t encountered discrimination,” Davis Jones recalls. “At Wyoming, I discovered how real racism is.
“The first time I met with my faculty adviser, she kept trying to put me in a box – questioning whether I was smart enough for some classes. It was curious, because she had my transcript and test scores.”
Later that first semester in an advanced chemistry course, all 300 students had to stand in line to get their exam results.
“When it was my turn, the professor looked at me, looked at my A grade, and said, ‘I guess you people really are smart.’
“I wasn’t sure what he meant by ‘you people’ – whether women or minorities. But as I walked back to my dorm, I’d made up my mind that I was done with Wyoming. So I called my mom and said, ‘I’m coming home. I can’t deal with this place. These people are horrible.’
“My mom said, ‘OK. So where are you going to live?’
“I said, ‘Well, I’m coming home.’
“And she said, ‘Oh, no, no, no. Quitters can’t come back here. You’re going to have to get a job and find your own place.’
“At the time, I couldn’t believe she would do me like that. But looking back, I realize it was the best thing she could have done.”
Davis Jones did go on to become a doctor, but not a pediatrician. She earned her doctorate in education, and currently is Spokane Falls Community College’s acting vice president of student services.
Earlier this year, the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators named her Community College Professional of the Year.
During a recent interview, Davis Jones discussed discipline, attention to detail and the value of tough love.
S-R: What were your interests growing up?
DJ: Reading, writing, science and math.
S-R: What was your first real job?
DJ: When I was 12, I worked at D’Clement Custom Florist.
S-R: Doing what?
DJ: I’d clean up. And I was good at it.
S-R: How did you land that job?
DJ: One day I was playing with my friends, and I saw the shop owner, Deborah Clement, taking out the trash. So I walked up to her and said, “I could do that for you.” She said, “How old are you?” I said, “I’m 11 and a half.” And she said, “When you turn 12, come back and see me.” So on my next birthday, I went back and said, “I’m 12 now and ready to work.” Miss Deborah had a long talk with my mom, who said as long as I kept my grades up and went to church, I could work. So I did.
S-R: Was it for the money or the adventure?
DJ: A little bit of both. I didn’t have much growing up, and I wanted to contribute to help my mom, who raised three of us.
S-R: Did you have a favorite class in high school?
DJ: I had two – chemistry and trigonometry.
S-R: Any extracurricular activities?
DJ: I ran track – the 100, 200, 400 and 4x400 relay. I also played basketball and was a cheerleader.
S-R: How did you both compete and cheer?
DJ: Back in the day, girls played before boys, so I would play, go to the locker room, shower, change into my cheerleader outfit, and cheer at the boys’ game.
S-R: What led you to the University of Wyoming?
DJ: I was offered both athletic and academic scholarships to institutions such as UCLA, Howard, Colorado State and Rice University. But I accepted an academic scholarship from Wyoming because my grandmother made it clear I had to stay close to mother. I wanted a change, and, sure enough, that’s what I got. The only person I knew was someone from my high school who played on the football team.
S-R: What did the discrimination you encountered teach you?
DJ: That I’m very impatient (laugh), but that I’m also stronger than I thought. I got involved in student government and student activities, and wasn’t afraid to speak up.
S-R: What was your major?
DJ: After that bad experience in chemistry, a peer suggested I talk to Mary Hart in the social work program. My first reaction was “I don’t want to take people’s kids,” because in my world that’s what social workers did. But Dr. Hart was a wonderful person, and I ended up with a degree in social work.
S-R: Then what?
DJ: A faculty member asked what I planned to do after graduation. I told him I was going home to work and help support my family. He said, “No, you have to at least get your master’s. As a woman of color, you’re going to need those credentials.” So I enrolled at the University of Denver, which allowed me to work full time while earning my graduate degree. I finished a two-year program in one year, then got a job as director of student success at Seward County Community College in Kansas.
S-R: What brought you to Spokane in 2010?
DJ: My job as SFCC’s director of academic advising and counseling, and I’m grateful to the hiring committee. Once here, my responsibilities grew to include student orientation, mental health services, peer services, multicultural programming, the academic early alert system and student conduct. When our president, Janet Gullickson, left for a job in Virginia last May, I was appointed acting vice president for student services.
S-R: Back when you were an undergraduate, a faculty member said you’d need credentials. Was there ever a point where you moved beyond that expectation?
DJ: No. (laugh) No. No. No. No. And the older I get, the more I see it.
S-R: People demand credentials?
DJ: Yes, because when I was hired here, it was a promotion to dean level. And I didn’t fit the traditional mold of what a dean looks like. The question I was asked most frequently by colleagues and people in the community was how old am I.
S-R: How old are you now?
DJ: I’m 37.
S-R: Can youth be an advantage as well as a drawback?
DJ: It can work both ways. In basketball, a triple threat – being able to shoot, pass and defend – is a good thing. I’m a different sort of triple threat. One, I’m younger than people expect for this job. Two, I’m a woman, so I’m always having to prove myself. And three, I’m a minority – African American and Native American. People looking for diversity might see those as an advantage. But that also means I need more credentials to win over skeptics.
S-R: Are there any lessons you learned growing up that have proved useful in leadership roles?
DJ: Track and field taught me discipline – being able to visualize myself running and having markers in my head telling me when to accelerate or slow down. Today, I use that same skill to remind myself where I need to engage more or pull back. Also, when I worked at the florist shop, I made sure everything was clean, right down to the baseboards. That helps me not only see the big picture, but also focus on details.
S-R: What’s some good advice you’ve gotten along the way?
DJ: A former colleague told me, “Chrissy, not everyone who looks like you is for you, no more than people who don’t look like you are against you.” I’ve had many mentors and sponsors in my life who don’t look like me. So as I move up, I make sure to pull others up with me.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
DJ: The students. I go looking for them whenever I have a free moment, because that’s who I work for.
S-R: How do community college students differ from those at four-year institutions?
DJ: We have a high percentage of first-generation college students as well as students who come from intergenerational poverty. I can identify with both those populations. I see a little piece of myself in each of our students.
S-R: What about Spokane has surprised you?
DJ: That there are so many opportunities to get involved in the community. Coming from a major city, I was used to more barriers. Here, everyone is welcome and encouraged to get involved.
S-R: You’ve built a national reputation through involvement with many organizations. Have other institutions courted you?
S-R: What are your aspirations?
DJ: I am going to be a community college president one day. I don’t know where, but I do know that’s going to happen. I believe every lesson I’ve learned, going back to my first job, has prepared me for that role.
S-R: Does your mom ever remind you of your moment of doubt in Wyoming, when she wouldn’t let you come home?
DJ: (laugh) No, but I remind her as often as I can. And I thank her!
S-R: When is your baby due?
DJ: Feb. 28.
S-R: Can you picture yourself 18 years from now telling your daughter or son, “If you quit school, you’re not moving back home”?
DJ: Yes, I can, because now I get it. Quitting is not an option.
Writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached at email@example.com.