Class of 2021: Portia Newman cares deeply about leadership, education policy and justice

After a rough start in college, Newman will earn her Ph.D. from VCU this spring. She aspires to promote diversity, community and social justice in education.

Portia Newman [View Image] Portia Newman was the first in her family to attend college when she enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to earn her bachelor's degree. She will graduate with a Ph.D. from VCU in May. (Rotcelis Rose Photography)

Growing up in Wilson, North Carolina, Portia Newman couldn’t have imagined the possibilities available to her in education.

“Being from a small town, I thought about being a doctor or lawyer because I knew they made good money,” said Newman, who will graduate in May from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education with a doctorate in educational leadership, policy and justice.

A first-generation college student, Newman attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for her bachelor’s degree thinking she would major in biology. After a rough start, she connected with the dean and made some life-changing decisions.

“I was struggling academically and that impacted my transition into college coursework. I wasn’t doing well. I couldn’t put two and two together,” she said.

She didn’t consider a degree in education until her adviser suggested she consider a teaching career. Newman balked at the idea because she thought the field was not as lucrative as medicine.

But Newman decided to take an interest survey and the results showed that her interests aligned with the field of teaching.

“It was a game changer,” she said. “It all worked out. I have been on this lifelong trajectory of education ever since. I am glad I made the decision when I made it. This is where I am supposed to be.”

After graduating from UNC with a bachelor’s in child development and family studies, she went on to earn a master’s in instructional leadership and education policy from the University of Illinois at Chicago. It was the first time she had been away from North Carolina.

“There were cultural and regional differences,” she said. “The inches of snow there made no sense to me.”

It was at the University of Illinois that she began to understand the idea of social justice and the state of education from the perspective of social impact, she said. “It was in Chicago that I made the connection between educational leadership and justice. It was an opportunity for me to scale how I viewed education.”

After graduate school, Newman served as director of leadership development for Education Pioneers, an organization that helps develop future leaders in education. She worked at the organization for five years, living in New Orleans the last two years.

“That catalyzed my efforts in focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion,” she said.

Living in New Orleans was a reminder of her North Carolina upbringing.

“You are always engaging with people,” she said. “New Orleans has a culture of people that is really prevalent. Volunteering to create community helped me process what impact looked like. It made me look at being intentional about engaging folks through leadership.”

Newman started her Ph.D. program in the VCU School of Education in 2018.

“In Richmond I had the opportunity to connect with other people but also I had access to family when I need it,” she said of the city’s proximity to North Carolina. “VCU is a good place to study. In my program we have people from so many different backgrounds.”

At VCU, Newman worked as a progress coach with the Altria Scholars program and as a program coordinator at the Graduate School, managing four professional development programs for graduate students. In addition, she worked in the research lab of Risha Berry, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the School of Education, and serves on the School of Education’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee.

“They were important pieces in how I navigate this degree, how to put my experience together,” Newman said.

While at VCU, Newman also has built a community for Black female doctoral students.

“I sent out a random social media flyer in 2019, saying a Black girl Ph.D. will be at this coffee shop at this time. I had 20 people from VCU show up,” she said. 

Newman doesn’t yet know what her future will look like, but she said she would enjoy a job that involves people and some type of social change.

“I’m keeping the future open because something cool might come up,” she said. “I don’t want to put restrictions on myself.”

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