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Alumnae discusses leadership roles

Nikki Taylor | Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Saint Mary’s alumnae and Board of Trustees member Paula Dawning spoke about her life and qualities she thinks are important for women in leadership roles at the Saint Mary’s Leadership Luncheon Monday.

A South Bend native, Dawning took the audience through her life and the important lessons she took away from her varied experiences. She said she can see the formation of leadership qualities throughout her life.

For example, Dawning was the fifth of thirteen children.

“Being one of thirteen kids, you learn how to speak up for yourself, or you’ll get lost in the crowd,” Dawning said. “You learn how to fend for yourself.”

Dawning was very thankful for her Saint Mary’s education and the opportunities it gave her, including the chance to spend her sophomore year in Angers, France. While in France, Dawning had her first real experience with being different, as she was one of the only African-Americans in the city.

“I learned how to go in and be different, and be unique. That served me well in corporate America,” Dawning said.

After graduation Dawning worked as an admissions counselor at the University of Notre Dame, and then moved to work for 22 years at AT&T in sales, where she became the first African-American to manage a national account with Volkswagen.

Her job at AT&T required her to move all around the country. Dawning said one must be open to change to get ahead in corporate America.

“Change is the only thing that is certain,” Dawning said. “You need to embrace it and move quickly.”

Dawning made a major career move when she left AT&T, and corporate America all together to became the superintendent of the Benton Harbor Area School District. She switched careers to do something more service oriented, she said.

“I left corporate America because I felt that I had been given so much and I wanted to give back, and education is service,” Dawning said.

As superintendent, Dawning said that she continued to learn leadership lessons. One such lesson was that no one is right all the time.

“After you graduate you leave behind the teen years where you think you know everything, and realize that you still have a lot to learn,” Dawning said.

Dawning told of a time when as the superintendent she was asked by a concerned parent to review the lyrics to a song that one of the high school marching bands was going to play in an upcoming parade. Dawning looked at the lyrics on the Internet and did not approve. She told the band to play a different song. The story proceeded to be picked up by over one hundred different news venues, including CNN and Sports Illustrated, and was spoofed on “Saturday Night Live”.

She ended up telling the parents that if they got up a petition the band could play the song in the parade, which they did. That did not stop Dawning from getting a barrage of e-mails and requests for interviews.

“If you say nothing it dies a natural death,” Dawning said about her handling of the media.

She learned an important lesson from this experience. “You have to learn how to recover because you don’t always get it right,” Dawning said.

Dawning also offered advice to students about how they can be more successful leaders. She stressed that a good leader lets other people know that they are valued. She also spoke of the importance of good communication, and critical thinking skills.

Balance and being able to pace yourself are also trademarks of a good leader, Dawning said. It is also important, she said, to get involved in the community around you.

“It gives you a greater sense of purpose,” Dawning said.

Dawning summed up her talk by reminding the audience to be conscious of our legacies.

She asked, “When you take your last breath and look back on your life, what do you think about it