career path

Opportunity and Intention: Never Say Never

Dr. Adrienne Cooper, Vice President at Florida Memorial University, Miami Gardens, FL

Dr. Adrienne Cooper, recently appointed to the role of provost and executive vice president at Florida Memorial University, began her academic career as a pre-engineering student, then earning a B.S. in chemical engineering before completing a Ph.D. in environmental engineering. During this time, she had two “nevers” in mind: It was never her intention to teach, and if she did teach, she would never end up in administration. The story of her career path from STEM student to teacher and researcher (which includes funding from NSF) to university administrator is posted on the MCB blog as part of MCB’s commitment to familiarizing the STEM community with non-academic career development.

What is your educational background?
I had good role models. Both my parents were academics, earning their advanced degrees while I was an undergrad. My father was a physicist, and I was a daddy’s girl, and, so I went to work with him often. By the time I reached high school, I realized that I wanted to help people. I considered becoming a medical doctor, but I didn’t feel that I had the necessary compassion. When a representative from Arkansas Power and Light visited our class and told us that engineers use math and science to make life better for people, I realized that I could help people, and without the yucky stuff!

After taking pre-engineering courses at the University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff, and graduating with a chemical engineering degree from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, I worked as an engineer at the DuPont Corporation (Delaware). I felt as though I needed to know more about “work,” and my parents’ examples of attaining their degrees later in life helped free me of the idea that my education must be completed on a timetable. I worked at DuPont for eight years before returning to school.

How did you end up in university administration?
After earning a Ph.D. from the University of Florida, I was an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina for five years before moving to Temple University for another three years of teaching and research. Seven proposals that I submitted to NSF were funded, my research career was underway, and at my next position with Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University I served as program coordinator. My next move was a total leap of faith: I was invited to apply to South Carolina State University to serve as the associate vice president of research.

Early on in my academic life an advisor told me I should consider administration, as did a trusted mentor later on. At this point, I had 14 years’ experience as a teacher, which I’d been sure would never be my career path, and now I had been invited to an administrative role, which I’d also been sure I would never do. However, I believe in taking advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. My next move was to Bethune-Cookman University, where I served as associate provost. I have served at historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) for about 10 years. Today, I am passionate about the opportunity to help HBCU institutions stay culturally relevant while meeting the needs of their student populations.

What do you hope to achieve in your current role?
Florida Memorial is building on a rich tradition of nurturing our students while preparing them to succeed in the global environment. Our president has an incredible vision that includes increasing enrollment and connecting with business, community, and other academic institutions in the area. My experiences as an engineer, an academic, a researcher, and an administrator give me the perspective to play a key role in our growth.

Words of advice for current STEM students?
I have two pieces of advice: Learn deeply, and be open minded, generous of heart. By learning deeply, I mean to know what you know, but also be willing to hear what people have to say – and to dismiss what’s not helpful. Being generous of heart is especially important for under-represented minorities. Meet people where they are – be kind and generous – you’ll get a lot further.