When Dr. Allana Hamilton started her college journey more than 30 years ago, becoming a college president was not part of the plan. But when she stepped into the presidency of Jackson State Community College in January, she was well prepared for her new role.
Dr. Hamilton, or Lana as she is known to her friends, started her post-high school education at Tusculum College in northeast Tennessee on a pre-med scholarship. Her plans were to channel her love for biology and the sciences into becoming a doctor.
Plans change, of course, and people you meet along the way often play a role in those changes.
Born and raised in the Appalachian foothills of northeast Tennessee, Dr. Hamilton can look back over her life and point to the people who first led her into going to college, into changing her major in college and who encouraged her into new roles after she graduated.
As she talks about her life, she conveys a friendliness and openness that stems from her small-town upbringing. Her new job at Jackson State is the first time in her 51 years that she has moved more than 100 miles of where she was born.
She points to three early factors in her life that encouraged her to be the first member of her family to graduate from college.
“As I grew up, my parents always emphasized the importance of education,” she said. “They wanted to make sure I had those opportunities.”
In middle school and later in high school, she then had teachers who took an interest in her. Her teachers and family encouraged her involvement in the Girl Scouts, 4-H and service-learning projects. Family vacations were camping and hiking trips. In high school, her interest in the sciences led her into the college-bound track.
And that’s where the third influencing factor emerged – her peers. “Within that track, my peers were going to college. You get caught up in that – visiting colleges, making applications to different colleges. It really does make a difference who you hang out with in high school.”
She decided on Tusculum College after she was offered a scholarship there in the pre-med track. Between her academic and work-study scholarships at the college, she was able to graduate and meet her goal of not accruing much college debt.
As luck would have it, she worked in the registrar’s office, and her boss, she said, was observant.
She was a junior and starting to study for the MCATs to get into medical school, when her boss heard her say, “I think I can just endure this.” “Endure what?” she was asked. After being encouraged to follow her true interests, she was able to change her major to biology and keep her scholarship.
In graduate school, she had a teaching assistantship to teach biology labs. “I just fell in love with the teaching aspect,” Dr. Hamilton said. That filled her fall and spring, and working as a seasonal naturalist in the Tennessee State Park system filled her summer. Again, much of her job was teaching park visitors about the park’s flora and fauna and the region’s Appalachian culture.
“I was learning how to attract people to my programs, keep them and attract them back for more programs.”
Her boss at the park was also a mentor, always encouraging her to try new topics for park visitors.
With her master’s degree nearing completion after two years, she started applying for positions in the state park system and in college teaching positions within a 250-mile radius.
Northeast State offered her a job first. The technical school was turning into a true community college with an academic track and needed a natural sciences department. She finished her coursework in August 1991 and started her adjunct teaching in August 1991.
The changes at Northeast State brought in an influx of people and opportunities, Dr. Hamilton said. “I started to be put in positions of leadership.”
She was dean of the college’s science division in 2008 when the school’s vice president of academic affairs took a six-week medical leave of absence. The college president asked her to fill in the temporary position.
At first, she told him, “I can’t do that. I felt I was comfortable with the sciences, but didn’t know the other disciplines.” When he asked her again, she couldn’t say no again.
The six weeks turned into more than a year. The former academic vice president was not able to return. The college changed presidents.
“The train kept going,” Dr. Hamilton said. “I told myself I would keep doing the job until someone tells me to go back to teaching.”
Under the new president, her “temporary” position eventually came open. She applied for it. “I felt very comfortable. If I wasn’t the college’s choice, I would have been proud to go back to being a dean or member of the faculty.”
She got the job.
The next step in her career would be a college presidency. And that’s where Dr. Hamilton was about five years later when Dr. Bruce Blanding announced his retirement and the State Board of Regents began its search.
Deciding to take the job offer at Jackson State after 25 years at Northeast State came down to the people she met both at the college and in the Jackson community, she said. “I was encouraged by the support people had for Jackson State.”
Her goal is “to work with faculty, staff, students and the community in developing Jackson State as a premier learning institution.”
That involves providing unique ways to accessing the college’s facilities, programs and services; continuing to respond to the needs of area industry; strengthening the positive educational experience for all students; and bettering their opportunities as they leave campus. “We want them to be successful, whether they go on to another college or into the workforce.”
Her open-door policy for her office is part of her efforts to improve campus communications and hear what others have to say.
She does miss the classroom, she said. “I miss the face-to-face of being a part of a student’s learning. As a faculty member, you get to see those ‘a-ha’ moments in learning.” Today, she said, she asks herself, “How can I facilitate as a leader to experience those a ‘a-ha’ moments?”
She still enjoys outdoor activities – hiking, riding bikes, fishing and camping – and plans to discover those outdoor opportunities in West Tennessee.
She’s honored to be president of Jackson State Community College. As the college celebrates 50 years of educating the people of West Tennessee, she is proud to be a part of planning the college’s next 50.
“I am blessed,” she said. Though her religion is private to her, she adds, “I grew up with a strong religious background. I believe that being here is God’s will. He placed me where I need to be at this time in my life.”