Dr. LaVena Wilkin creates and builds dreams at Sullivan University

When Dr. LaVena Wilkin first attended Sullivan University, her goal was to earn an associate degree. This was no small step for Dr. Wilkin, as she was not sure she was “college material.” Given her uncertainty, she could not possibly fathom the idea that she would later become the Director of the Ph.D. in Management Programs at Sullivan. In fact, at that time, Sullivan did not even offer a bachelor’s degree, much less a doctoral degree.

Through the years, Sullivan evolved, and the university provided Dr. Wilkin with opportunities for both academic and professional growth.

Revisiting a dream of going to college

Just getting to the point of pursuing an associate degree took a leap of faith and even a bit of serendipity.

Dr. Wilkin was not a traditional student who entered college right after high school. Her parents could not afford to send her to college, so she got a job working at a construction company answering the phones and doing light clerical work. After working there for eight years, she saw a commercial for Sullivan Junior College of Business, and she decided the time was right to earn her degree. She made an appointment with Jim Klein, who was an Admissions Officer at that time, and he enrolled her in classes on the following Monday.

She was a shy, quiet person who was not fully confident in her abilities to succeed in college, especially after being out of high school for so long. “The professors at Sullivan were awesome,” she says. “They not only taught the subject matter, but they also instilled confidence in their students.”

Even with the added support from her professors, Dr. Wilkin almost left school when the time came to take a public speaking course, because the idea terrified her. Once again, her professors encouraged her, and she completed that course and her degree.

Several years later, at the commencement where she earned her MBA, she gave the “Greetings to the Graduates” speech in front of the entire graduating class, their families and all the professors. Dr. Wilkin said, “My professors believed in me, so I learned to believe in myself.”

Discovering a love of learning

During her early years at Sullivan, Dr. Wilkin discovered a love of learning. When she decided to pursue her bachelor’s, Sullivan did not have a four-year degree program in place, so she applied to and was accepted at the University of Louisville. About a year into UofL’s program, she was notified that Sullivan was offering a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration, and there was no question about what she would do. She left UofL and went back to Sullivan. In 1997, she was also fortunate enough to be a member of Sullivan University’s charter Master of Business Administration program.

“Even at that level, professors cared about you as a student and they cared about your success,” Dr. Wilkin says. “Dr. Jeff Johnson’s graduate-level quantitative methods and microeconomics courses were tough. Yet, he worked with students and helped us succeed. Those courses helped me tremendously when I took the research methods courses for my doctoral studies,” she explains.

While in her MBA program, the two gentlemen who owned the construction company where she had worked since she was 17 years old began talking about selling it. She took another leap of faith and talked to them about buying it. They agreed. Throughout her MBA program, she wrote papers that eventually became her business plan. She wrote papers on marketing, management and human resources. In her accounting class, she researched and wrote about valuing a small business, and both the sellers and the bank agreed upon the price established through that paper. On May 1, 1998, she bought the construction company she started working at 23 years earlier.

Helping others realize their dreams

In 1999, Jim Klein asked Dr. Wilkin if she would like to teach Small Business Management to associate-level students. The project in that class was writing a business plan, and he knew she had experience with that. She walked out of class that first night thinking, “I love this! I now know what I want to do when I grow up!”

Having practical experience in the business world and as a company owner, she was able to go beyond the theoretical approach of the textbook and provide specific examples of how these concepts worked in the “real world.” She loved teaching and she loved her students. Most importantly, she felt as though she was giving back in some small way by helping people realize their dreams, just as her professors encouraged her and helped her accomplish goals.

In 2001, she sold the construction company and joined Sullivan University as the Associate Director of the Evening and Weekend Division. She worked closely with non-traditional, adult students. Dr. Wilkin believes she understood their needs and concerns because she had walked in their shoes.

Dr. Wilkin’s love of learning continued, and she earned her Ph.D. in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. She had also been part of Sullivan University’s growth from a junior college to a master’s degree-granting university. She and other colleagues pitched the idea of offering a Ph.D. in Conflict Management to the leaders at the university. They then found that it was more feasible to offer a Ph.D. in Management with four concentrations: strategic management, conflict management, human resource leadership, and information technology management. As they worked on program design and curriculum, she and her colleague, Dr. Teri Daniel, often discussed how unique it was that leaders would listen to ideas.

“The ideas may not all be accepted, but people listen,” Dr. Wilkin says. “This is not the norm at other universities where there are so many bureaucratic levels and political posturing.”

As the Director of the Ph.D. in Management Programs, Dr. Wilkin is proud of the program Sullivan University has created. The faculty and administrators involved in the design process had many discussions about the unnecessary hoops they had to jump through on the way to earning their degrees.

“Our goal was to create a rigorous program that would provide students with the tools to conduct their research and help them succeed,” she says.

According to Dr. Wilkin, Sullivan’s Ph.D. program is unique because students learn how to conduct research in their courses by completing both quantitative and qualitative pilot studies. They introduce problems, write literature reviews, design methodologies, go through the Internal Review Board process, collect and analyze data, and discuss their results.

A Ph.D. candidate recently said to Dr. Wilkin, “I know how to approach my dissertation research because the program taught us what to do.”

“One of the greatest lessons I have learned is that I can do anything I set my mind to do. I learned that as a student at Sullivan University. I am humbled to be part of this organization that gave so much to me, and I hope through my encouragement and teaching, I am able to help my students know they can bring their dreams to fruition,” she says.

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