‘Learning is a lifelong process’ | The woman who made history in Mississippi’s junior college system
COAHOMA CO., Miss. (WLBT) - Vivian Presley vividly remembers one of her favorite after-school activities.
She would endure hours of cursive and long division, carefully studying the behaviors and manners of her teacher, like an understudy patiently waiting for their big break.
And then, she would come home, and carefully line up her dolls in the most attentive way possible. Class was in session again, except this time, the student would become the master.
It’s one of many memories that she recalls as we chat fondly about her childhood. She remembers rumors going around that the Waverly Mansion near her hometown of West Point was actually a haunted house. She also remembers that during her senior year of high school she transferred to West Point High School because of what she calls “forced integration.”
But this specific anecdote where she’d teach her dolls about Tennyson and phonetics seems to perfectly usher in Presley’s dedication to education, which ultimately solidified her place in Mississippi history.
On January 6, 1992, when Presley would now be known as the first woman to head a junior college in the state of Mississippi, being appointed president of Coahoma Community College in Clarksdale, Miss.
Presley spent a total of 38 years at CCC, acting as president for 21 years. During her time as president, she was able to oversee a 200 percent increase in enrollment and more than $26 million in facility renovations.
It’s a position that she had talked herself out of applying for at first, but when reviewing Presley’s extensive background in education, it seems inevitable that she would be seen as a prime candidate.
In the Summer of 1970, Presley had just graduated from high school and was headed to Mississippi State University, which would serve as the setting for where Presley would routinely return to further her education.
She pinpoints the doll story as an early demonstration of a childhood dream to become a teacher, however she admits that she initially took a different path in her collegiate journey.
“I did not major in education, I majored in political science. Pre-law as a matter of fact! I got my bachelor’s degree in pre-law,” Presley explains.
However, it was her post-grad job search that facilitated the change in direction that would solidify her destiny.
“After that, you know you have to try to find a job when you get out of school. It was then that I decided to go back and get my master’s.”
Presley received her master’s degree in counseling from Mississippi State, which is where she says she found her true passion. This would ultimately influence the path she took in obtaining three additional degrees - master of education, educational specialist, and doctor of education.
The intersection between an intense love for education and helping students was introduced early in her childhood as well. As the daughter of an educator whose career spanned 40 years she affectionately recalls being inspired by her mother’s devotion to education, but also her inclination to help her students outside of the classroom as well.
“I always admired her for her dedication and commitment to education. Of course, when you grow up in a background like that, you know that education is going to be a part of your life for a long time.”
When she entered her junior year of college, she explains that her experience was a little different, because she was entering as a married student. And while this presented a new set of responsibilities to accompany her journey to graduation, Presley says that she always had the support of her husband and her parents.
“Yes I was a married student at the time, but education was always that top goal. I love learning!” she exclaims.
Her love for learning proved to facilitate a natural progression towards her doctoral degree, which she admits was not her primary goal at the time, but happened over a period of time.
Shortly after obtaining her master’s degree, she began working at Coahoma Community College as a counselor in student affairs, where she recalled some of her most rewarding experiences.
Counseling provided Presley with a number of positive opportunities. She was able to listen to students, which offered her an outlet for her to truly connect with them. This position also allowed her to spend her summer however she wanted to, which she of course filled with courses to continue her education.
Presley would continue to serve Coahoma’s community in a number of roles such as vice president for institutional advancement and executive vice president before the role of president became vacant.
It was not in Presley’s original intentions to apply for this role. However, after assessing the amount of love she had for the school, and refining her understanding of where the school was headed, the question became “Why not me?”
“Sometimes we talk ourselves out of things. We put limits on ourselves that other people may not. It’s really about the limits we place on ourselves...The rest is truly history.”
The role came with the challenge of having to make a number of difficult decisions, but Presley says she always worked to maintain a humanistic approach.
“It has to be impersonal in some way, but what is best for the institution? How can I do this in the most compassionate and humane manner as it affects everyone else?”
This approach to decision-making directly aligns with her personal philosophy, which she says has stuck with her through the vast majority of her life.
“Always do your best. Always be aware of the other person. Never lose sight of the humanness of people. Be respectful of other people. Never get to the point where you look down on other people. Compassion is a very important quality,” said Presley.
Presley also offers another piece of advice, one that she says is the direct result of her being an “old educator.”
“As much education and training that you can get. Get it. Learning is a life-long process. Never get to the point where you say ' I’ve done this’ or ‘this completes all that I’ll do.’ Always keep your mind active and look for further adventures on the way.”
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