Profile By: Carol B. Vande Kerkhoff
Dr. Deborah Smith-Howell knew from an early age that she would one day earn a PhD. Starting college at an age when most of her peers were still midway through their high school educations, Smith-Howell has indeed succeeded in her goal. Now the Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dean of Graduate Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO), Dr. Smith-Howell demonstrates that with perseverance, enthusiasm, and a consistent spirit, her dreams have become her reality. As a faculty member, she hopes to inspire UNO students to follow their dreams and to learn about themselves in and out of the classroom.
Deborah Smith-Howell’s journey in academia started well before her teenage years: “I’ve known since I was eight years old that one day I would earn a PhD,” reminisces the energetic professor. Growing up surrounded by a mother and grandmother who knew the enormous power of education, Smith-Howell describes learning as an established part of her life. “I assumed all mothers went to school,” she recalls earnestly. Her mother, Carolyn, was a teacher, and often returned to school to earn additional teaching endorsements. Because their mother had to travel some seventy miles from their small farming community of Quitman, Mississippi to attend classes, Smith-Howell and her younger brother tagged along on these journeys, spending hours on the weekends in the library as their mother completed course work. Smith-Howell also recounts the prestige bestowed upon her mother and the other doctoral candidates
After two years at Meridian Junior College and now eighteen years old, Smith-Howell was ready to venture beyond her Southern roots and leave Meridian. She received many scholarship offers from institutions in the south as well as one from a northern school. Because Smith-Howell “longed to get out of the South,” she accepted a scholarship from Northern Michigan University (NMU). Thinking she was attending a school somewhere near Detroit, Smith-Howell was shocked to discover that NMU was located well north of Detroit—in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. NMU is situated in Marquette, Michigan, some twelve hundred miles away from Meridian; additionally, this northern city averages one hundred-fifty inches of snow a year. This new setting was vastly different from anything Smith-Howell had experienced before. She completed her final two years of school at NMU, graduating when she was twenty-years-old.
Dr. Smith-Howell began her professorial vocation at UNO in 1989 as a faculty member in the then Department of Communications. While weighing her career options, Smith-Howell ultimately chose UNO for four reasons: size of city, size of institution, type of institution, and type of program. Additionally, she sought work at a public institution large enough to find variety in the types of programs offered, and discovered that UNO was the perfect fit with which to begin her professional path. Though pushed by some collegiate advisors to attend law school, Smith-Howell desired to remain in academia and teach. As a communications instructor, Professor Smith-Howell taught a wide range of classes including Rhetorical Theory and Criticism, Political Communication, and Persuasion. Along with her teaching duties, Smith-Howell coordinated the basic public speaking courses and was charged with training graduate assistants.
Dr. Smith-Howell became chair
In 2004, Dr. Deborah Smith-Howell’s sojourn in academia transformed again when she was appointed to a new assignment at UNO. Dr. Smith-Howell’s position on the campus is twofold: she is Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dean of Graduate Studies. According to the Office of Academic and Student Affairs, Dr. Smith-Howell is responsible for the Center for Faculty Development, Service Learning Academy/American Humanics program, and Civic Participation Project, as well as UNO curriculum and program planning and evaluation. The UNO Honors Program, Thompson Learning Community, Air Force ROTC, and Center for Collaboration Science also report to her. She chairs the University Educational Policy Advisory Committee, Academic Planning Council, and General Education Task Force—a UNO AQIP action project. She is a member of the Academic Quality Improvement Program (AQIP) Steering Committee, as well as the University Strategic Planning Steering Committee
When Smith-Howell first left Austin for Omaha, she could not have known that she would still be here 21 years later. Now that she is settled in her career with UNO, she enjoys reflecting on the changes that have transpired throughout the years. The main transformation on UNO’s campus is in the overall attitude change. Smith-Howell acknowledges, “I think we (UNO) have a better idea of who we are, why we are, and what we want to be in the future–I think it’s a very positive attitude.” She senses that the faculty has a better sense of pride in the kind of university they want UNO to reflect. Part of this change includes the evolvement of women’s roles on the UNO campus. When Smith-Howell became Department Chair, there were only three other women who held this position in the entire
Dr. Smith-Howell asserts that it is an exciting time on the UNO campus. One project that she is submerged in is the Community Engagement Center (CEC) that is set to open in October of 2012. According to Jenna Zeorian, with the University of Nebraska Foundation, the CEC will be “a facility that will support expansion of university-community partnerships, enrich student and faculty engagement in the community, and extend campus resources to the nonprofit community” (18). A part of UNO Chancellor John Christiansen’s vision in his 2011 State of the University Address, “The 60,000-square-foot facility will serve as a national model for engaged scholarship” and “raise the proverbial bar” in terms of service-learning offerings and community engagement in Omaha (Cooper 1). As an integral member of Chancellor Christiansen’s team, Dr. Smith-Howell is actively involved in the development of the CEC. As