Contact: Allison Matthews
STARKVILLE, Miss.—Prominent women leaders took the stage Wednesday night [Nov. 1] at Mississippi State to reflect on their successful career paths and the challenges they have overcome.
The panel discussion on “Women’s Leadership in the Rural South” featured MSU Provost and Executive Vice President Judy Bonner; Rev. Allison Stacey Parvin, ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and pastor of Beth-Eden Lutheran Church in Louisville; Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill; and Camille Scales Young, principal and director of Cornerstone Government Affairs in Jackson. Susan Seal, executive director of MSU’s Center for Distance Education, served as moderator.
Bonner, who is in her second year at MSU, served for three years as president at the University of Alabama, among other substantial leadership roles. She said leading in higher education often may look different than in other fields, such as the military or business.
“In higher education, you are a leader among peers. Shared governance is important,” she said. “You come to consensus as you are deciding how to move forward.”
She recounted her journey through the ranks of higher education as one bolstered through relationships with mentors and a focus on the immediate tasks at hand.
“I spent my time focusing on doing a really good job at what I had been asked to do, and I really did not spend a lot of time thinking about what the next opportunity might be,” Bonner said.
Parvin said her leadership style has been molded from the church and seeing discrepancies in what was taught in the church and the realities of life in the rural South. Her leadership perspective is about community building and “creating a space where all people are loved and all people are respected,” she said.
“Often times, it is the community that taps the leader,” Parvin observed. “That’s an important piece of leadership, to recognize when you’re tapped and to offer your gifts and abilities to make the world a better place; but also, to tap it in somebody else and see the gifts and abilities that other people have and help raise them up.”
Spruill said she “was coming of age when the answer was ‘girls don’t do that,’ but it’s up to us to see those opportunities and seize them.”
The mayor recounted her role as an officer and pilot in the U.S. Navy, where she became the first woman to land a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier. She later was a Delta Air Lines pilot and the first female mayor of Addison, Texas.
“There are many paths to leadership; there are many ways to view what you do,” said Spruill. “I view mine as a role in public service.”
She explained that her path was not necessarily planned, but “I saw things that I wanted to get done, and you just roll into that course of action.”
She advised future leaders to be proactive and “search for opportunities.”
Young said finding work that an individual enjoys and is passionate about is imperative to becoming a leader in his or her field. “[Leadership] means utilizing the gifts and talents that God has given you; it means using the skill set that you have learned through education or experience,” she said.
“But most importantly, be fearless,” Young emphasized. “It is a scary world, but you really have to be bold. You have to be courageous, and you have to learn how to be self-sufficient.”
She said as a black female, “I’ve had to be twice as good to get half as far,” describing challenges in the field of governmental affairs. Showing people that she was willing to work hard led to opportunities.
Young advised young women to avoid a common pitfall: “Don’t wish away the time because it does fly by.”
She also advised audience members to be mindful of what they share on social media because that content could impact them later in life.
The MSU President’s Commission on the Status of Women hosted the event, which also was sponsored by the Gender Studies program, Student Association and I.D.E.A.L. Woman organization.
MSU is Mississippi’s leading university, available online at www.msstate.edu.