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First Professor

Sonya Douglass Horsford

First in her family to earn a doctorate degree

By Rodney Smith


OOV:  I was told by your sister that you are the oldest, between the two (2) of you, of Gil Douglass a retired Air Force member.  For the record I want you to know that I did not prompt her to say who was the oldest.

SH:  Yes, I’m the older of the two.

OOV:  While speaking with your dad he did mention that you and your sister have been competitive since you were teenagers.  You are both accomplished professionals now; do you think that competitiveness helped lead you to this point of achievement in your life?

SH:  Well, I guess, due to pursing a Doctorate, I just always loved school and since my husband didn’t want me to be a professional student, I decided to pursue a terminal degree and complete my studies.  It was more of a personal goal and the fact that I love school and learning.

OOV:  That love of school led you to become the first one in your family to receive a Doctorate degree, were you pushed by your parents and was this something that they saw in you all along?

SH:  Yes, It was ingrained in us as children.  The importance of education, our parents really sacrificed.  I would say that they worked with us to ensure that we always continued our education, so it really wasn’t an option.  It was just us deciding what we wanted to study.   College was everything pursuing education was everything, and they worked hard to save up the money to make sure that we had what we needed to pursue higher education…So without them we wouldn’t have been able to do it.

OOV:  As a generation of people, your generation seems to be one of the break through generations, in achieving higher levels of education; did you feel any pressure on you because you were the first?

SH:  Not pressure…No….I mean I think again, going to college, after high school was not an option for us.  It was just expected, it wasn’t really any pressure.  It was just natural for me and actually I was working in the city at the time, the city of Las Vegas, and they had a tuition reimbursement at the time, so…it would’ve just been silly for me to not take advantage of it. After getting a masters (degree), I didn’t want to stop; so I looked into doctoral programs, and there was a limited amount of programs that align with my interest at UNLV.  When I saw the educational leadership program, I thought that it was something that I would enjoy, and it would be valuable, so I just kept going.  I can say that from the time I was in pre-school until the Doctorate, I was in school probably every semester and every summer of my life.

OOV:  I’m sure the young people will be so pleased to hear that!

SH:  It was just a natural thing and I think, it’s easier actually if you just go straight through and I think that Sandra (sister) spoke about that too.  She graduated college early and went straight into her law studies; so if you stay in study mode, it’s a lot easier to go on.

OOV:  You mentioned a leadership program; what is or what was it and how do people find out about it?

SH:  Educational Leadership is a field that is basically educational administration, organization, culture and theory, so people who desire to have leadership or administration positions in education, as; the school principal, the assistant principal, superintendent, are generally those who enroll in the Education Leadership program. The best way to start is by going to the College of Education (UNLV) website, where there are several departments, one of which is Educational Leadership.  The Clark County school district also has a joint program for people who aspire to leadership positions and they have leadership development, training programs, as well.

OOV:  There seems to be many different programs to help youngsters here in Clark County, but we constantly hear of youngsters falling through the cracks.  What was it about you and your environment that helped you to succeed in this same district where so many others fell?

SH:  My parents, if you wanted to live, then, you were going to do well in school.  I remember a joke about this;  I got a 96% on an assignment or test, the question was, “Where’s the other 4%?”  So, it was just an expectation of excellence that we received from both of our parents.  You know, not only the expectation, but through their actions, and them working, and saving their money and sacrificing things that they needed to make sure Sandra and I have resources for college is really what I think…..They went without a lot of things so we could go to school.

OOV:  It sounds like it really was a family affair.  It just wasn’t you saying, “I’m going to do it,”  but it was also the sacrifice of your parents, the encouragement of your parents.  Do you see that same effort in families today?

SH:  I do, I think a lot of times we focus on the negative.  The focus is on those who drop out or get kicked out of school who aren’t doing the things we would like to see them do, but I think I see a lot of motivated and engaged youth, too, who are leaders in their own right and are very involved and making an impact in their communities.  Yes, I think that collectively there is more that we could do, as a society, to support them.  You have some students that have the desire but may be the first generation of their families, or don’t have the money or the mentors to help them navigate, what could be a difficult system to understand and to be a part of.  If you’ve never been to college, and Sandra and I were first generations, it is a foreign process. Unless you have people and counselors in the community who are where they can support you in that, it can be intimidating.  Making sure that we provide mentorship and serve as role models for children is very important.  Help filling out forms and with the whole application process, identifying scholarships, someone they can talk to when they’re experiencing frustration and loneliness during their college years can makes a huge difference

OOV:  Did you have a mentor?

SH:  I don’t know whether I had a mentor, I went to Colorado State a small college, because the population of students of color was a small group of us there.  We really banded together, so we kind of encouraged one another.  Again, my parents wouldn’t have let me done otherwise, and to ensure my parents were proud of me and that I represented them well was the key motivator for me. 

OOV:  It is true that there can’t be others until there is the first.  You mentioned mentors and the community giving back.  What do you do to give back and to help those who are following your example?

SH:  The first and primary thing as a professor is my research.  I really focus on tackling some of the problems that I call separate as unequal education even today.  I identify the sources of those inequities; and what we can do as families and communities to address some of those disparities.  Secondly, the courses that I teach and the pairing up of educational leaders who are courageous and can understand the problems and actively find solutions ensuring that all children are treated fairly and have high expectations no matter their background.  Thirdly, is service and the latest program that I started is the Las Vegas Children Freedom School Program and it’s taken a lot of time but is very rewarding.  Being a professor of research, a lot of people don’t read your work, or its in academic journals that a lot of people don’t have access to, but doing this program and being able to see the children with us every day Monday thru Friday, 8:00 to 3:00 is inspiring.  It is a summer reading program, every day they have a good time; they have cultural affirmation, books where children look like them; sharing experiences together, and their teachers are college students and recent graduates, however, two teachers have Doctorates.   

OOV:  How important is that cultural piece that you mentioned to have books where there are images that look like the students who are reading it. How much of a difference does it make to the educational process?

SH:  It is critical, all the research will tell you that culturally relevant teaching and making sure that students have a positive sense of identity.  Whether it is racial identity or their ethnicity, it’s important that they can connect.  Research shows that when communities are separated, identities are lost.  Although we have mixed students in school settings, some students have brought into the lower standards of expectations in a particular race and a particular class of people, and that is going to impact learning.  I believe this is what causes the achievement gap not because certain students are more intelligent or less able to learn than others.  We are not having the same level of expectations for those students.  Until we address the differences of expectations, we will continue to see achievement gaps.

OOV:  Do we address this problem or is it the duty of the schools, parents, school board or legislators that should address the absence of cultural affirmation teaching materials integrated into the curriculum?

SH:   We can continue to study and research but if we don’t have the will to do it, and/or the political will to do it, things will stay the same.  It is the responsibility of all the people that you mention collectively working to change the achievement gap, through training teachers and changing or amending policies.  We must change the way we look at each other, not falling into the trap that because a student has a single parent home, a Spanish speaking home, or of the African American race, they cannot achieve at the same degree of others. Children are all brilliant in their own right.  Until we can honestly believe every child can achieve and we can pull out the greatness within them, we will continue to have reasons and excuses why they can’t achieve.  We are just going to have the same achievement gaps and separations.

OOV:  You mentioned culture, what is your cultural background and how has it affected you? 

SH:  Well, my father is African American, and my mother is Korean, first generation American.  She is first in her family to be a citizen of the United States, which has given me a really rich perspective.  I identify myself, politically, as a Black American.  I try to educate my students that it’s not because of race, it’s not really biological, DNA, it is really a category that has been created to stratify people.  In terms of education, my culture has been valuable to me. My mother, as a first generation American, wasn’t able to help me with my homework, she learned English from just being in this country.  We hear that certain children can’t achieve because their parents can’t speak English. I feel if they have a desire to speak the language they can still support their children.  Let us look at the potential and the wealth that they bring to the community, it is more important than talking about what they can’t do.  My mother is bilingual and so are lots of Latino families who are here, but we don’t look at that as an asset.  We look at it as if maybe something is missing or deficient.  I think it gives me sensitivity to that issue of students of immigrant background and also the lower expectations attributed to black children of America.

OOV:  So your mother is Korean, and she spoke English only when she came here, did she pass that language on to you and your siblings?

SH:  No, unfortunately, however, I always encourage and tell people to make sure they speak to their children in their native language, however, my mother was trying to learn English and that was her focus.  This happens a lot when parents are focused on learning English and don’t necessarily pass their language on to their children.  I encourage my mother to speak to my children in Korean; they probably know more than I do.

OOV:  It is good to pass down a second language.  From the political side of things, a lot of people know your husband, the majority leader of the State Senate, what has it been like to be a part of his rise through the political system and to also be a professional supporting him?

SH:  It’s challenging, it requires a lot of time management, I think that’s the most difficult part of it, especially because he has to be gone long periods of time during sessions, and we have 3 children.  With Steven, it’s easy because it’s really who he is, so I kinda joke about it.  Despite all the challenges, the hard work and the difficult decisions he has to make it’s who he is; and I think he thrives in those situations and he’s the same person all the time, whether at home or at work. It’s easy for the family to support him in that, it’s just who he is.  We are proud of him and the work that he’s doing.  As a family, we kinda have a mission statement that we want to try to serve our community and it all ties together.  We have really good quality policy conversations based on the work that I do, as a quality advisor.  It’s nice to have someone who values the work that you do and I value the work that he does, it just seems to all fits together. It wasn’t always that way but it has gotten to that point now, Steven has his life in politics.

OOV:  What’s in store for those 3 children with you as a professor and his rise as the majority leader?

SH:  Well, I think we’ll model what my parents used to say, “If you want to live.” If they want to have a home, they will definitely pursue education, and I will encourage them to explore different things, and find out what they like and what they enjoy doing.

“We are hopeful that they will fulfill their potential and their God given purpose and maximize it.  As parents, we are hopeful that we exposed them, even as children; to enough things where they will be able to find what they were designed to do and might enjoy doing for the rest of their lives.  That’s our dream for them.”

OOV:  Is there anything you would like to leave the readers with?

SH:  “Life is short.  The Bible says, “When night comes, no man can work,”So you just have to do what you know you’re supposed to be doing.  All of us know or have a desire or yearning to do something to make an impact; live up to our purpose, just go on and do it.  Don’t be scared, don’t question yourself, don’t dodge, do what you are supposed to be doing.”


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