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Headed by Woodhouse, African-American women share career experiences

In the background were inspiring images: Bessie Coleman, the first female African-American pilot; Althea Gibson, the first African-American woman to win Wimbledon; and Madam C.J. Walker, the first African-American female millionaire.

At the forefront were inspiring women: Michelle Woodhouse, provost of the Norfolk and Portsmouth campuses of Tidewater Community College; Cynthia Payton Morrison, Circuit Court clerk in Portsmouth; Ashley Smith, former Miss United States and current WVEC reporter; and Janet Sellars, EEOC director at NASA – panelists for a discussion on black women in the workplace at the Portsmouth Student Center in celebration of Black History Month.

Woodhouse recalled her start as a high school marketing teacher unable to break into the administrative ranks in the Chesapeake Public Schools. That led her to take an assistant principal position in Gloucester, and a year later, she got a call from the Chesapeake Schools asking her to come back.

Detours can be a good thing, she stressed.

“My going to Gloucester was one of the best things I did in my entire career,” Woodhouse said. “I don’t think you can just stay in one spot. Honestly, my career has had more stumbles than successes.”

Morrison agreed, sharing her story of growing up in Waverly during the Civil Rights movement. “I always had a dream to go to college,” she said. “But I never thought about college costs until I hit my junior year of high school.”

A bag full of scholarship offers paved her way, and sight unseen, Morrison, arrived at Hollins College in Roanoke – culture shock for a kid who hadn’t been that far from home.

“I wanted that education more than anything else,” she said. “When you make up your mind you have a goal you want to obtain, stay focused. Don’t let other people define for you how and what you are.”

Smith, formerly Miss United States 2011, connected with the students, reminding them, “I was sitting where you are just last year. To be on this side of the table is very humbling.”

She assured them that she, too, struggled in classes and felt uncertainty about her future. She built relationships that led to professional connections and finally landed her current position at WVEC – which forces her to set a 2 a.m. alarm. “Because of the homework I did, I have a career today,” she said. “When you’re doing a job you enjoy doing, it’s not that bad.”

Sellars credited her mother for exposing her to a wealth of cultural activities in her home, Washington, D.C., despite the family living on a shoestring budget. She suggested the students learn to prioritize and give back. “That’s a must,” she said. “Subtract some things out of your life to add to your life.”

“You’re going to have obstacles,” Woodhouse said. “Know what you want and you’ll get there. Life is not a perfectly straight line. It’s dotted along the way.”