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.
Smith-Howell knew immediately that she wanted to pursue a master’s degree. Again, she credits her mother as the motivation behind her push straight to graduate school. “My mother earned a master’s degree with two little kids hanging on her…so she’s like ‘go, go, go!’ It made sense for me to continue in school,” Smith-Howell allows. She attended Louisiana State University where she first pursued debate studies, but later changed her emphasis to better grasp both the historical and contemporary context of communications. She worked diligently, and at twenty-two years of age, Smith-Howell held not only a bachelor’s degree but also a master’s.
The next step in her journey, she determined, was to gain work experience as an instructor, and for five years, Smith-Howell taught debate at Texas State University in San Marcos. Smith-Howell was the Director of Forensics as well, and once again found herself traveling the country for debate competitions. After a time, however, Smith-Howell yearned for a career in higher education. She no longer felt the pull toward debate, having become “burnt out” from studying and teaching it for so long. She decided to return to school and pursue her PhD, this time focusing on teaching and research. Smith-Howell began her PhD program at the University of Texas at Austin, writing her dissertation on communication education, presidential rhetoric, media coverage of the presidency, and civic participation. Throughout her studies, she focused particularly on speech communication, mass communication, and political science, but maintained a strong interest in public discourse. “If you’re going to understand public discourse,” Smith-Howell recounts, “you really need to understand media and political structures.” It was difficult for her to study the three communication specialties she desired and choose a dissertation path that was neither easy nor predictable, but with diligence coupled with a remarkable thesis advisor, Smith-Howell persevered.
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