Adviser shows undergraduates the way for two decades
It would seem that Carolyn Cannon grew up with the odds
stacked against her.
Her father had 11 children with three wives, and Cannon came
along at the end of the string as the oldest of two children he had with his
Carolyn Cannon has advised Carolina undergraduates for more
than 20 years.
To put that in perspective, she said, some of her nieces and
nephews are older than she is. Her oldest sister is only 10 months younger
than her mother, who is 83 and still living on the family farm in Kershaw
County, S.C., where she grew up and where her father raised everything from
tobacco to okra, cantaloupes to cotton.
What she took from home was her father’s example and
determination not to be beaten down even when people seem bent on keeping
you down. He was a bulwark of strength to his family and at the Canty Hill
Baptist Church where he built a reputation for honesty and competence, Cannon
“He probably didn’t finish high school, but he was well
respected within the community by African-Americans and whites as well,” she
said. “He cared about a lot of things and believed
people should work hard, that things weren’t going to be handed to them. He was
no-nonsense, get-the-job-done kind of person.”
He was also a stubborn and proud man who knew his mind and
was not afraid to speak it — all qualities that could land a black man in
trouble at that time and place, especially
As a little girl, Cannon remembers driving home from town at
night and passing open fields and seeing men covered in white sheets
illuminated in the yellow glow of a burning
cross. Once, when rumor spread that her
father might be affiliated with the NAACP, the Ku Klux Klan threatened to pay
him a visit. Cannon was too young to know if the rumor was true, but she
remembers when he stayed up all night waiting by the window with a gun in his
Because of nights like that, Cannon grew up believing her
father was not afraid of anything. And that proved to her that she did not have
to be afraid, either.
Her father has been gone for 24 years now, but she likes to
think that she carries a big part of him within herself. The world is a far
different place than the one she was born into 57 years ago, but many of those
same lessons about the value of determination and strength still apply today,
Maybe that is why, as associate dean and director of the
Academic Advising Program, Cannon tries to pass along those same lessons to
some of the students who, sitting across from her, are battling some inner
demon they must overcome.
It is her high standards of professionalism and devotion to
students that earned Cannon a 2007 C. Knox Massey Award.
If Cannon got her determination from her father, she got her
compassion and common
sense from her mother, who her father met while she was teaching in the
one-room schoolhouse beside the church.
From first through eighth grade, Cannon
attended Hickman Elementary where the
principal, the teachers and the students were black, and all grew up knowing
each other or knowing of each other within the rural community.
But teachers in each grade saw something in Cannon and a boy
in her class that made them expect more from the two. And because they expected
more, she believed she could do more – and did. “I never felt I was a
teacher’s pet, but teachers would always push this guy and myself very hard and
when they needed students to represent our school, we were always chosen.”
She started high school at the all-black high school in the
county where she took harder classes with city kids. Many of those kids, she
noticed, had parents who were teachers.
Then in 1965 South Carolina passed
“freedom of choice” legislation that allowed some of the best and brightest
black students to attend white schools. In essence, it was a half step to comply
with Brown vs. Board of
Education, the Supreme Court decision passed 11 years before striking down
segregation in schools.
At the start of her junior year, Cannon was among the
handful of students picked to attend
the all-white Camden High School. Even now, she is not sure if that
“opportunity” was a
blessing or a curse.
The rich kids from Camden pretty much left her alone, but
the poor white rural kids who rode with her on the bus made sure she knew she
was not welcome. Looking back, Cannon thinks the rich kids accepted her because
she was not a threat to them, while the poor kids saw some long-held advantage
All the teachers at Camden were white and a couple seemed
much like the mean kids on the bus, she said. But Cannon encountered other
teachers who cared about the well being of their students regardless of color.
One was Mrs. Bettis, a woman from
Argentina who taught Spanish. “She was one of the most amazing people I had
ever met,” Cannon said and aspired to be like her.
The changes of ‘68
Cannon rejected the idea of applying to the mostly white
University of South Carolina for the historically black South Carolina State
University in Orangeburg.
Her parents questioned the wisdom of her decision when, on
Feb. 8, 1968, police fired into a crowd of some 200 students who had gathered
on campus to protest the segregation of a bowling alley. Three students were
killed and 27 others were wounded.
By the time Cannon enrolled in August, Martin Luther King
Jr. and Robert Kennedy Jr. had also been killed and the whole world seemed
ready to unravel, Cannon remembers.
Amid the chaos, her world showed
possibility. As she had planned, Cannon
graduated in four years with a degree in Spanish
education, but her vision of becoming another Mrs. Bettis shattered in 1972
when she went off to teach Spanish at Malcolm X Shabazz High School in Newark,
N.J., where rioters had torn up the streets four years before.
“It was much too hard for a new teacher,” Cannon said.
“There were so many students who didn’t have the motivation to be in school and
I didn’t have the experience to know
what to do.”
She soon got a call from a former college
instructor who was at the University of
Connecticut working on his Ph.D. He invited her to earn a master’s degree in
educational psychology through a fellowship program for minority students.
The call, she said, amounted to someone throwing her a
lifeline. She still wanted to make a difference in young people’s lives, but
realized that for her a high school classroom was not the right place.
She thought she would become a high school guidance
counselor, but she began to take courses in higher education administration and
did a practicum looking at factors that lead college students to succeed or
Without knowing it, she had stumbled upon the path that
would eventually lead her to a
22-year career at Carolina in student advising. But it took her husband, Robert
Cannon, who she met at South Carolina State, to bring her here.
His career as a history professor took the family from
Augusta College in Georgia to North Carolina A&T in Greensboro, then to
Atlanta where he headed the affirmative action offices at Georgia State
University and later for the University Board of Regents for the state of Georgia.
Cannon, meanwhile, became director of special programs in
the College of Engineering at Georgia Tech. In 1984, right after she got a big
pay raise and promotion at Georgia Tech, her husband applied for the
affirmative action position at Carolina.
Robert Cannon, who had earned his Ph.D. at Carolina, felt he
had little chance of getting the job — until then-Chancellor Christopher
Fordham offered it to him.
“Surely, you are not taking that job in
Chapel Hill?” she remembers saying. “I don’t think this is an opportunity I can
refuse,” he replied. Days later, Cannon, Robert and their son, Keita, headed to
Finding her own way
For her husband, coming to Carolina was an exciting new
opportunity, but for Cannon it was a discouraging step backward.
Once again, though, she found people
eager to push her on.
Among the first was Steven Birdsall, professor
of geography, who as the associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences
15-hour-a-week job for Cannon as a staff
adviser in the college to help students with
But those 15 hours were inadequate, both for Cannon and the
students needing her help. That’s why, when she heard about the
opening for a full-time director of career
planning and placement services in the School of Law in 1985, she applied and
was hired by Dick Baddour, then assistant dean.
At the law school she met former
Chancellor Ferebee Taylor, who was working part time there. He wrote a letter
of recommendation for her next job when Gillian Cell, the first woman chosen
dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, asked her to serve as the director
of the Summer Bridge Program that helps
minority students from rural North Carolina get acclimated to college.
Cannon had only one question:
Winning the Massey
Cannon said she was very happy in that role, but the
University had bigger plans for her. The biggest came in 1999 when she was
named to the newly created position of
associate dean and director of the college’s Academic Advising Program.
Charged with combining the General
College and College of Arts and Sciences
advising programs, Cannon also oversaw the addition of a fulltime staff of
advisers to the small cadre of part-time
The advising program began with eight full-time staff
advisers, 19 part-time faculty advisers and 12 staff members. This fall, the
program had 25 full-time staff advisers,
26 part-time faculty advisers and 12 support staff members.
Despite the progress, Cannon said, there is a need for more.
Advising is not a bureaucratic process,
Cannon said. It is about building a
relationship that is deeper than checking off degree requirements or keeping
students enrolled for at least 12 hours each semester.
toward advising is that students and advisers are partners in
planning,” she said. “We must help
students with their self-discovery and
discuss their interests, needs and values.”
Colleagues, in their nomination letters
for the Massey, described Cannon as
someone who gives students a better
understanding of the University’s policies and, in the process, shows them
options for holding onto their hopes and dreams.
It is this one-on-one interaction with
students, she said, that is the most
rewarding part of her job.
“I’m not there to tell them what they want to hear,” Cannon
said. “I’m not there to listen to their excuses. I’m there to find out exactly
the kind of situation they are in and to help them determine what steps they
must take to leave this university
with a degree.”
Her job is to show them the way. And that lets her know that
she is exactly where she needs to be.