NEW BERN - The last five years have produced a significant increase in the number of working adults seeking to complete their undergraduate degrees. Whether they dropped out of college or never started, workers now understand that their chances of remaining employed increase with a college degree. Some of them have lost their jobs and found no substitutes with their current skills and knowledge. Others have read the signs and are preparing for the future.
Sharon C. Bryant represents one of millions of working adults who has chosen to return to formal education to earn her degree. Bryant, a New Bern native, works part- time at the public library. She is also the African American Outreach Coordinator at Tryon Palace, responsible for the African American lecture series, Walking Tour and the famous Christmas celebration, Jonkonnu.
Bryant always wanted to continue her education, and in 2012 while taking classes at a local community college, she heard a radio announcement for the University of Mount Olive. The one-night-a-week classes appealed to her, so she enrolled.
Often times, adult learners can be intimidated when returning to school, feeling out of practice. Bryant knew she was walking headlong into her fears as she started. “I cried all the way to the first class. I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “However, when I met my class, we bonded.”
Bryant confesses that she had no fondness for English, writing or public speaking, all tasks that are required in her public outreach position. “I never liked English, but the UMO instructor made it fun and easy to comprehend,” Bryant said. She credits the frequency of scholarly writing assignments with improving her writing skills. “One thing is for certain, you will learn to write at the University of Mount Olive,” Bryant added.
Already Bryant’s studies have benefited her work. Her coursework in management provides opportunities to apply classwork in strategy, organizing, planning and managing people.
Bryant recalls the day she was asked to stage a historical representation of African American life in the late 19th century based on the research that had been done on Jonkonnu. Her challenge was there was only two weeks to prepare. “It has grown from a little bit of nothing into a production with up to 40 actors and musicians today,” she stated.
The prop room next to Bryant’s office contains an assortment of period hats, dresses, pants, shirts, vests, shoes, aprons, instruments, parasols and accessories. She knows exactly where everything is located.
“I’m an organizer,” stresses Bryant, and from her career path at the Palace she is also a high achiever. Starting at the Palace in 1999 in a clerical role, Bryant moved into the role of public information assistant when it became vacant. Former State Representative William Wainright tapped Bryant to help lead a change at Tryon Palace in 2001. He said, “I need someone who can stand her ground and tolerate resistance to expand the Palace’s historical perspective to include African American life in the late 1800s.” Bryant mused, “Two people had already tried and given up, but I wasn’t concerned.”
It isn’t easy balancing work, family and college, but time management comes easily to Bryant. A positive outlook on life doesn’t hurt either. “Initially, people thought the African American community would not come out for events at Tryon Palace,” Bryant recalls. “The first year we offered Jonkonnu, the line wrapped around the block. It remains one of the most popular events we host.”
Bryant credits advisors from African American studies and history departments, East Carolina University, North Carolina Central and UNC Wilmington for the growth and success of Jonkonnu over the years. “They are my mentors,” she says. They were also directly responsible for her decision to go to college, as they valued her work and believed she could accomplish more. “They kept saying I needed to get my credentials if I expected anyone to take me seriously,” Bryant recalls.
Bryant will graduate within the next year with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a minor in human resources from the University of Mount Olive. It will be a big day of celebration and joy for Bryant who is working hard to achieve her dream of a higher education as she continues to build on a career that is making a difference for the people of Craven and surrounding counties.
The University of Mount Olive is a private institution rooted in the liberal arts tradition with defining Christian values. The University, sponsored by the Convention of Original Free Will Baptists, has locations in Mount Olive, New Bern, Wilmington, Goldsboro, Research Triangle Park, Washington and Jacksonville. For more information, visit www.umo.edu.