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Adviser shows undergraduates the way for two decades

Carolyn Cannon has advised Carolina undergraduates for more than 20 years.
Carolyn Cannon has advised Carolina undergraduates for more than 20 years.

It would seem that Carolyn Cannon grew up with the odds stacked against her.

Her father had 11 children with three wives, and Cannon came along at the end of the string as the oldest of two children he had with his third wife.

To put that in perspective, she said, some of her nieces and nephews are older than she is. Her oldest sister is only 10 months younger than her mother, who is 83 and still living on the family farm in Kershaw County, S.C., where she grew up and where her father raised everything from tobacco to okra, cantaloupes to cotton.

What she took from home was her father’s example and determination not to be beaten down even when people seem bent on keeping you down. He was a bulwark of strength to his family and at the Canty Hill Baptist Church where he built a reputation for honesty and competence, Cannon said.

“He probably didn’t finish high school, but he was well respected within the community by African-Americans and whites as well,” she said. “He cared about a lot of things and believed people should work hard, that things weren’t going to be handed to them. He was a no-nonsense, get-the-job-done kind of person.”

He was also a stubborn and proud man who knew his mind and was not afraid to speak it — all qualities that could land a black man in trouble at that time and place, especially with whites.

As a little girl, Cannon remembers driving home from town at night and passing open fields and seeing men covered in white sheets illuminated in the yellow glow of a burning cross. Once, when rumor spread that her father might be affiliated with the NAACP, the Ku Klux Klan threatened to pay him a visit. Cannon was too young to know if the rumor was true, but she remembers when he stayed up all night waiting by the window with a gun in his hands.

Because of nights like that, Cannon grew up believing her father was not afraid of anything. And that proved to her that she did not have to be afraid, either.

Her father has been gone for 24 years now, but she likes to think that she carries a big part of him within herself. The world is a far different place than the one she was born into 57 years ago, but many of those same lessons about the value of determination and strength still apply today, she believes.

Maybe that is why, as associate dean and director of the Academic Advising Program, Cannon tries to pass along those same lessons to some of the students who, sitting across from her, are battling some inner demon they must overcome.

It is her high standards of professionalism and devotion to students that earned Cannon a 2007 C. Knox Massey Award.

Helping hands

If Cannon got her determination from her father, she got her compassion and common sense from her mother, who her father met while she was teaching in the one-room schoolhouse beside the church.

From first through eighth grade, Cannon attended Hickman Elementary where the principal, the teachers and the students were black, and all grew up knowing each other or knowing of each other within the rural community.

But teachers in each grade saw something in Cannon and a boy in her class that made them expect more from the two. And because they expected more, she believed she could do more – and did. “I never felt I was a teacher’s pet, but teachers would always push this guy and myself very hard and when they needed students to represent our school, we were always chosen.”

She started high school at the all-black high school in the county where she took harder classes with city kids. Many of those kids, she noticed, had parents who were teachers.

Then in 1965 South Carolina passed “freedom of choice” legislation that allowed some of the best and brightest black students to attend white schools. In essence, it was a half step to comply with Brown vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision passed 11 years before striking down racial segregation in schools.

At the start of her junior year, Cannon was among the handful of students picked to attend the all-white Camden High School. Even now, she is not sure if that “opportunity” was a blessing or a curse.

The rich kids from Camden pretty much left her alone, but the poor white rural kids who rode with her on the bus made sure she knew she was not welcome. Looking back, Cannon thinks the rich kids accepted her because she was not a threat to them, while the poor kids saw some long-held advantage slipping away.

All the teachers at Camden were white and a couple seemed much like the mean kids on the bus, she said. But Cannon encountered other teachers who cared about the well being of their students regardless of color.

One was Mrs. Bettis, a woman from Argentina who taught Spanish. “She was one of the most amazing people I had ever met,” Cannon said and aspired to be like her.

The changes of ‘68

Cannon rejected the idea of applying to the mostly white University of South Carolina for the historically black South Carolina State University in Orangeburg.

Her parents questioned the wisdom of her decision when, on Feb. 8, 1968, police fired into a crowd of some 200 students who had gathered on campus to protest the segregation of a bowling alley. Three students were killed and 27 others were wounded.

By the time Cannon enrolled in August, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy Jr. had also been killed and the whole world seemed ready to unravel, Cannon remembers.

Amid the chaos, her world showed possibility. As she had planned, Cannon graduated in four years with a degree in Spanish education, but her vision of becoming another Mrs. Bettis shattered in 1972 when she went off to teach Spanish at Malcolm X Shabazz High School in Newark, N.J., where rioters had torn up the streets four years before.

“It was much too hard for a new teacher,” Cannon said. “There were so many students who didn’t have the motivation to be in school and I didn’t have the experience to know what to do.”

She soon got a call from a former college instructor who was at the University of Connecticut working on his Ph.D. He invited her to earn a master’s degree in educational psychology through a fellowship program for minority students.

The call, she said, amounted to someone throwing her a lifeline. She still wanted to make a difference in young people’s lives, but she realized that for her a high school classroom was not the right place.

She thought she would become a high school guidance counselor, but she began to take courses in higher education administration and did a practicum looking at factors that lead college students to succeed or fail.

Without knowing it, she had stumbled upon the path that would eventually lead her to a 22-year career at Carolina in student advising. But it took her husband, Robert Cannon, who she met at South Carolina State, to bring her here.

His career as a history professor took the family from Augusta College in Georgia to North Carolina A&T in Greensboro, then to Atlanta where he headed the affirmative action offices at Georgia State University and later for the University Board of Regents for the state of Georgia.

Cannon, meanwhile, became director of special programs in the College of Engineering at Georgia Tech. In 1984, right after she got a big pay raise and promotion at Georgia Tech, her husband applied for the affirmative action position at Carolina.

Robert Cannon, who had earned his Ph.D. at Carolina, felt he had little chance of getting the job — until then-Chancellor Christopher Fordham offered it to him.

“Surely, you are not taking that job in Chapel Hill?” she remembers saying. “I don’t think this is an opportunity I can refuse,” he replied. Days later, Cannon, Robert and their son, Keita, headed to Chapel Hill.

Finding her own way

For her husband, coming to Carolina was an exciting new opportunity, but for Cannon it was a discouraging step backward.

Once again, though, she found people eager to push her on.

Among the first was Steven Birdsall, professor of geography, who as the associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences created a 15-hour-a-week job for Cannon as a staff adviser in the college to help students with undeclared majors.

But those 15 hours were inadequate, both for Cannon and the students needing her help. That’s why, when she heard about the opening for a full-time director of career planning and placement services in the School of Law in 1985, she applied and was hired by Dick Baddour, then assistant dean.

At the law school she met former Chancellor Ferebee Taylor, who was working part time there. He wrote a letter of recommendation for her next job when Gillian Cell, the first woman chosen dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, asked her to serve as the director of the Summer Bridge Program that helps minority students from rural North Carolina get acclimated to college.

Cannon had only one question: “How fast?”

Winning the Massey

Cannon said she was very happy in that role, but the University had bigger plans for her. The biggest came in 1999 when she was named to the newly created position of associate dean and director of the college’s Academic Advising Program.

Charged with combining the General College and College of Arts and Sciences advising programs, Cannon also oversaw the addition of a fulltime staff of student advisers to the small cadre of part-time faculty advisers.

The advising program began with eight full-time staff advisers, 19 part-time faculty advisers and 12 staff members. This fall, the program had 25 full-time staff advisers, 26 part-time faculty advisers and 12 support staff members.

Despite the progress, Cannon said, there is a need for more.

Advising is not a bureaucratic process, Cannon said. It is about building a relationship that is deeper than checking off degree requirements or keeping students enrolled for at least 12 hours each semester.

“My philosophy toward advising is that students and advisers are partners in planning,” she said. “We must help students with their self-discovery and discuss their interests, needs and values.”

Colleagues, in their nomination letters for the Massey, described Cannon as someone who gives students a better understanding of the University’s policies and, in the process, shows them options for holding onto their hopes and dreams.

It is this one-on-one interaction with students, she said, that is the most rewarding part of her job.

“I’m not there to tell them what they want to hear,” Cannon said. “I’m not there to listen to their excuses. I’m there to find out exactly the kind of situation they are in and to help them determine what steps they must take to leave this university with a degree.”

Her job is to show them the way. And that lets her know that she is exactly where she needs to be.

Originally published by University Gazette: Sept. 12, 2007

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