This wasn’t the life LaVerne Gyant had sketched out for herself.
She had grown up in Chester, Pa., designing her own clothes – and, under the loving tutelage of her grandmother, Lottie Ennett, sewing those garments by hand and by machine.
Yes, fashion was what she loved, and when she enrolled at the nation’s oldest historically Black college – Cheyney University of Pennsylvania – to earn her bachelor’s degree in fashion merchandising with minors in accounting and marketing, it was with the hope to go to New York.
First, Gyant thought, she’d go back to her old job at Macy’s. Then, after she finished a master’s degree, off she’d go to the Big Apple to work for a major apparel-related company. Finally, she would open her “own little boutique” in NYC.
But different hands were holding the needle and thread for the daughter of Louis Gyant, an office technician at Tyco Electronics, and Lucille Gyant, a clinical technologist at DuPont.
“I had these big, grandiose ideas of what I was going to do once I got my merchandising degree, but somebody else had other plans for me,” LaVerne Gyant says. “Education was not my first choice: Education chose me.”
Gyant, a professor in the NIU Department of Counseling and Higher Education, is now retiring this spring after 27 years in the College of Education.
Her imprint across campus, and her field, is indelible.
During her 17 years as director and associate director of the NIU Center for Black Studies, she expanded classes, resources and programming that included mentoring and Study Abroad while also establishing the John Henrik Clarke Honor Society to recognize Black students for their academic accomplishment, community service and leadership development.
Members of S.I.S.T.E.R.S. and the Zeta Nu Chapter of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority called her advisor. Members of the African Heritage Studies Association and the Zeta Gamma chapter of Phi Beta Delta International Honor Society called her president.
Peers, meanwhile, saluted her with numerous accolades for her work.
Among them are the 2014 Yvonne Captain Faculty Award for Outstanding Contributions to International Education from Phi Beta Delta, the 2015 Wilma D. Strickland Award from the NIU Presidential Commission on the Status of Women and the 2016 Deacon Davis Diversity Award from the NIU Presidential Commission on Race and Ethnicity.
In 2006, Gyant was one of NIU’s 25 Amazing Women. This spring, she was one of five recipients of the inaugural Richard A. Flournory Engagement Award that recognizes faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends who have worked to make NIU a more inclusive place.
She led international study trips to Ghana. She served an appointment to the U.S. Student Fulbright Committee at NIU to review students’ essays and proposals. She volunteered in Kenya at the Jane Adeny Memorial School for Girls, founded by College of Education colleague Teresa Wasonga, and presented on the experience at a research conference.
Gyant regards it all humbly, thinking instead of the students who’ve crossed her path.
“I want students to know that they have an opportunity to contribute to society. I want them to know that there’s nothing they can’t do, and that even though I’m hard on them, I’m pushing them to make sure they do their best,” she says.
Students have taught her the same lessons.
“I learned to have confidence in myself from my students. I also learned to push myself. They also taught me the importance of being an ally and an advocate,” she says. “It’s been important for me that I open the door for conversations and discussions, and for my students to have the habit of asking things I don’t know. I’m willing to say, ‘I don’t know,’ and then I go back and start looking so that I have a better understanding about those things.”
Her journey began in a similar fashion.
When Gyant announced her intentions to attend graduate school, the husband of one of her Cheyney professors called to tell her of a master’s degree opportunity in Adult and Continuing Education at his employer – Penn State – and unknowingly foreshadowed a similar event awaiting in her future.
“I was scared when I went to grad school because I was the first person in my family to go to graduate school – I was first-generation – and, the first day I walked on Penn State’s campus, I wanted to go back home,” she says, “but I was able to connect with some good friends, and we all supported each other during our graduate school years.”
Her sewing skills also supported her – financially, that is – as she performed alternations for classmates.
One of her professors, James B. Stewart, then convinced her to stay at Penn State to earn her doctoral degree, which delivered her first opportunity to teach in the Black Studies program.
“My first class was during apartheid time, and I was really not paying any attention to the apartheid movement, so my students were way ahead of me,” Gyant says with a laugh. “I was reading up on apartheid an hour before class.”
Gyant eventually became director of the Black Studies program, transitioning it to a department.
When she began looking to move on, someone from her professional network appeared with fortuitous timing. Her name was Phyllis Cunningham.
“I had been to Northern a couple times to attend some of the adult ed conferences, and I had met Phyllis, and I had recommended one of my former students to come here for a doctoral degree,” Gyant says. “Phyllis contacted me and asked me to apply, so I applied and here I am – longer than I expected!”
She happily welcomed her dual appointment as associate director of NIU’s Center for Black Studies and as faculty in the College of Education.
Teaching allowed her to empower students with ambitions and talent – Gyant’s alumni include Natalie Young and Tiffany Puckett, both of whom are now on the college’s faculty – and to find mentorship opportunities.
Directing the center offered the same, she says, as she counts NIU colleagues Jason Goode, Antoinette Jones and Michelle Pickett among the undergraduates who passed through the facility on Lincoln Terrace.
“I liked the idea of working in Black Studies because it gave me an opportunity to learn more about my history, but what was more important was watching the students, and how the students engaged with the information they received, and how they actually put it practice while they were on campus,” Gyant says.
“That, to me, was very rewarding, and that’s what I always tell people. Mentors don’t necessarily have to be older. Many of the students I had were my mentors. They were the ones encouraging me to get out there – to write, to produce, to go to conferences. They made me stretch myself.”
As college enrollments climb and become more diverse, she adds, “we need to have these cultural centers and study opportunities for our students so they can learn about who they are, and the contributions of other people who are a part of our society.”
“It gives students some sense of belonging and ownness on campus,” she says, “and it gives them motivation to know that they can succeed – that they can do anything.”
Such is one goal of the Dr. LaVerne Gyant Alumni Mentoring Program.
Gyant is playing an active role in helping to develop the initiative, which will pair Black undergraduates (“Dr. G. Scholars”) and graduate students (“Dr. G. Fellows”) with Black alumni for one-on-one mentoring along with academic, social and cultural experiences.
Each pair will focus on creating safe and supportive spaces that foster positive relationships, social competence and self-esteem in the name of an educator who once called it her “responsibility to make sure that the next generation is prepared to continue and build upon the legacy left to them.”
“This is a humbling honor for me,” says Gyant, who pledges to remain involved during her retirement, “and I am really looking forward to working with the program, contributing to it and making sure that the students are a success and that the program is a success.”
Leaving is bittersweet, but the time is right.
Gyant is looking forward to making trips to Norristown, Pa., to spend time with her 8-month-old granddaughter, Saoirse, adopted last July by her son, David Howell, director of Athletic Communications at Cabrini University, and his wife, Rebecca Rose Howell, a high school counselor.
She’s also eager to travel, to read and to sew “healing pillows” for friends and loved ones.
And, as when she handed over the reins of the Center for Black Studies in 2015, she has faith in the foundation she helped to lay.
“I had given all I had to give, and I realized that there’s a certain point when you have to let some new people come in, implement some different ideas and take it to the next level,” she says. “I felt very confident about what was going on at the university then, and I was very vocal in making sure CBS continues to grow: ‘Can’t nobody let anything happen, because if they do, I will chain myself to the door.’ The center is still a passion of mine, and I will always be supportive of it.”
Changes in higher education itself provide her the same assurances.
Diversity, equity and inclusion are administrative commitments “that none of us ever thought would become a major thing” and that “has opened the door to so many opportunities for all of us,” she says.
Meanwhile, classroom conversations with her graduate students demonstrate that “higher education is going to be challenged by these young men and women.”
“I tell my higher ed students that this was a great time for them to be in the program because so much has been going on with the pandemic, and with the social justice issues, and I believe that with the young people coming up now in higher ed that we’re going to see some great changes,” Gyant says.
“We’re not going to just see a lot of going out and talking. I think these students are looking forward to saying, ‘Let’s stop talking and let’s start taking some action.’ They’re looking forward to being more proactive than reactive,” she adds. “Some of the things we have been talking about for so long in higher education are coming to fruition with our new generation of higher ed administrators, faculty and staff.”