Nestled amongst photos of her sons and various trinkets, a framed photo of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune can be found in the office of Dr. Pamela G. Senegal, President, Piedmont Community College (PCC).
When asked who her role models are, Senegal will give names such as Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, Ida B. Wells and Shirley Chisholm.
What do these names have in common? These individuals helped pave the way for African American women like Senegal to have success in their careers and to take pride in who they are.
“It’s [Women’s History Month] an opportunity to highlight the accomplishments of those whose stories have been left out,” Senegal said. “When we better understand how much women and the African Americans have sacrificed and accomplished, it inspires and informs our communities.”
Of the African American women who changed history, Mary McLeod Bethune is Senegal’s personal favorite. In fact, Senegal once dressed up as Bethune and won a scholarship for her portrayal. Bethune founded what is today known as Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona, Florida.
“She was the child of enslaved people and started with a vision for preparing African American women, with $1.50 in her pocket, at a time when we weren’t seen as worthy of the investment,” Senegal said. “She focused, networked, and worked incredibly hard to find donors, to teach, to recruit, and to convince others of the merit of her vision. Along the way she was also recognized as a civil rights leader and became an advisor to presidents.”
The women in Senegal’s family have also greatly influenced who she is both personally and professionally. Her aunt was one of the first African American women to attend Berea College in Kentucky’s Appalachian region as a nursing student.
“It’s inspiring for me to think about the courage it took for her to be there, in the hills of Kentucky, in her late teens, in the early 1960s,” Senegal said. “She told us about how challenging it was when she would try to take the vitals of area residents during health clinics and sometimes not being received well by patients. Yet, she persevered, graduated, and went on to earn additional advanced degrees, as well as be part of a successful private practice.”
Another role model and source of inspiration for Senegal is her mother. Having these women in her life motivated Senegal to become the woman and leader she is today.
“I saw my mother earn her doctorate, which proved to me I could do it,” Senegal said. “I saw her serve in senior leadership in K-12 schools and make a difference, reinforcing that I could do the same. “It’s hard to dream about careers you have never heard of, nor seen anyone who looks like you in those positions. If we’re going to bring about greater levels of equity in higher education completion, having diverse teams leading these institutions is an important component of realizing that aspiration.”
She continued, “I hope that having women and people of color in these positions is a signal to others that look like us that higher education is a safe space. I also hope that it will potentially inspire them to pursue similar career paths, create a community cycle, and motivate others locally or anywhere they want.”
“We do this work on the shoulders of our ancestors,” Senegal said when asked what advice she would give to African American women. “We are their wildest dreams coming true! Be clear about your calling in life and pursue it with focus and determination. Along the way, create a network of support to help stay encouraged along the way.”