It doesn’t take long in Juanita Harris’s presence to understand how this SAU Alum has already earned multiple honors. She has been decorated with her school’s 2012-2013 Teacher of the Year Award and the 2013 Early Career Award from Kappa Delta Pi despite the fact she’s only been teaching four short years.
Ms. Harris’s warmth and respect for her students is present in every interaction she has with them. She even addresses the students by their last names as a sign of respect for her first graders.
“What I give them is what I think they are due, but also what I want from them in return,” said Harris. “Because they may not get it at home”.
Juanita said she appreciates the importance of positive interactions and support because her mother, Virginia Harris, instilled it in her from the beginning. Despite working tirelessly as a single parent to provide for her children, “Mama Harris” would sit up with Juanita once she got home from work, while Juanita finished her schoolwork. There was even a desk that her mother had set up for her in the living room. “Mama Harris” believed so much in the importance of education, that she would invest in tutors to help when needed. When the time came for Juanita to start considering colleges, her mother’s voice was one of the steadiest in her ear, suggesting she consider SAU.
“She did so much to get me to college, the least I could do was finish the program,” Juanita said as she laughed.
In addition to her mother’s endorsement, mutual kindness and respect had a great deal to do with how she initially chose to attend SAU. Her first introduction to SAU came when Sarah Jennings, dean of enrollment services at SAU, visited her high school.
Juanita was immediately taken by the warmth and sincerity with which Jennings addressed all of her questions. Her positive impression of Jennings led to a tour of the SAU campus in a golf cart with Jennifer Rowsam, now the director of the SAU Advising Center. Ms. Harris said she fell in love with the feel of the campus, and the fact that it was close enough to her home in Texarkana, but far enough away that she felt like she had her independence. She also appreciated how clean, quiet and beautiful the campus was. She felt like it was the perfect choice for her education.
“And I also really liked that golf cart,” Juanita joked.
Once on campus, Juanita wasted no time getting involved and immersing herself in her new home. She was actively involved with the Association of Baptist Students (ABS), and the Black Students Association (BSA). She was also a part of the Genesis Ministry Choir, acting as president for two years. She worked as a Resident Assistant, and became a President’s Ambassador, earning the right to drive one of the coveted golf carts that helped her to fall in love with the campus in the first place.
The unbridled love and enthusiasm that Juanita expresses for her time at SAU is also extended to her time in the Early Childhood Education (ECE) program. The program’s field experiences outside of the classroom were critical in shaping Juanita’s teaching career, she said, because they gave her the opportunity to experience a wide variety of different classrooms and levels. They also helped her to articulate which levels she had a passion to teach.
After discussing the field experiences, Juanita was quick to honor the professors that helped her to succeed.
“Mr. [Judge] Larry and Dr. [Karen] Ferneding really cared about me as a person. They were concerned about me both inside and outside of class,” she said. “That’s the culture of SAU; they really care. It’s not just a façade to get you there.”
In addition to the support she found with her instructors, Juanita also found great benefits to studying as a part of a cohort.
A cohort is a group of students who move through the program together, from the very first day until graduation. The cohort was reassuring for her, because she knew if she didn’t understand something, there were people she could go to for help.
“[The cohort] set us up to work together and collaborate just like we do in a school. It showed me how to work collaboratively, in a shared responsibility,” Juanita said. “It’s the same here in a professional environment: we divide and conquer.”
Juanita credits much of her early success and accomplishments to the experiences and knowledge she gained while studying at SAU. After her ECE program, Juanita returned to SAU to successfully complete her Master’s in Curriculum and Instruction.
Juanita, with her hand on her heart, added, “I am so happy I went to SAU. That’s MY SAU.”