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 when they received their graduate degrees. As a young girl, Smith-Howell was mesmerized most by the gowns these women wore and thought, sign me up, so I can wear one of those. Little did Dr. Deborah Smith-Howell know that her future position as Dean of Graduate Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) would afford her multiple memorable opportunities to don that special robe.
Not surprisingly, after graduating high school, Smith-Howell attended college. Her parents allowed her to enroll but with one exception: Smith-Howell had to remain nearby since she was only sixteen years old. “I really was incredibly young,” Smith-Howell contends, “but it was a great experience.” While enrolled in Meridian Junior College (now Meridian Community College) in Meridian, Mississippi, Smith-Howell “just kind of drifted” into debate, which eventually lead to a major in communications. Smith-Howell admits to having had a love for history and biographies when she was young, but she ultimately specialized in communications because of her passion for argumentation and debate. Although feeling she lacked the broad experience of her peers, Smith-Howell embraced the newfound opportunities available and began traveling the country attending debate competitions.
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.