Entrepreneur and educator LaNita Jefferson ’07 assured Hollins students, “You can make your own tables. You don’t have to wait for someone to invite you to a seat at the table,” during the 10th annual Career Connection Conference (C3), September 30 and October 1.
Jefferson was the keynote speaker for this year’s event, which welcomed alumnae/i from across the country to showcase the lifelong power of a liberal arts education, share their insights on life and work, and help students connect to others in their networks. Thirty-five alumnae volunteered their time and talents to serve virtually as conference leaders for 2021.
“What a momentous and important occasion to celebrate the deep and engaging connection between the liberal arts and career success, and the critically important link between our alumnae/i and current students,” said Hollins President Mary Dana Hinton.
C3 2021 began on Thursday, September 30, with networking, mock interviews, and a program on “Identity in the Workplace” featuring guest speaker Krishna Davenport ’96, an activist and advocate for the equal treatment of Black women in the workplace, specifically Black mothers. On Friday, October 1, C3 presented sessions covering a range of career fields, including Global Health; Business, Finance, and Data; Driven by Mission: Working in Nonprofits; Museums and Archives; Landing in Unexpected Industries; and Entertainment and Media.
Jefferson is a licensed professional counselor, adjunct professor, and social justice activist in Columbia, South Carolina, whose goal is to raise awareness of the benefits of mental health to marginalized communities. She told a Hollins Theatre audience that she considers herself “a determined person. I have goals that I make attainable and I achieve them, I believe in what I can do and I believe in myself. As my husband once said, ‘Whenever you say you’re going to do something, you do it.’”
But she admitted she didn’t always have that mindset. “There was a time when I felt I wasn’t good enough for certain things” including college. “I felt that I wasn’t smart enough. So what changed my mind and was the beginning of me believing I can do what I want to do? That actually happened right here on the Hollins campus.”
Jefferson described how she was deeply homesick throughout her first year at Hollins. When she returned for her sophomore year, her unhappiness persisted. “I made up my mind that I’m just not the type of person who belongs in college. I decided I was going to go back home, get a job, and hang out with my friends – that’s all I felt I deserved and all I felt I needed to do to be happy.”
Jefferson met with her academic advisor, then-Professor of Sociology William Nye. “‘Sounds like you have a plan there, LaNita,’” she recalled him saying after she explained her decision to leave Hollins. “Then he said to me, ‘So what are you afraid of? Are you afraid to experience anything different from what you are used to experiencing? Are you afraid of what potential Hollins is going to unleash? Tell me, what’s your biggest fear?’”
Afterward, Jefferson said she thought a lot about Nye’s questions. Ultimately, she admitted to herself, “I was afraid. I was really afraid to do anything different outside of what I was used to at home. And then something happened: I challenged myself to show I’m not afraid and I’m willing to try different things.”
Jefferson said she began speaking up more in class and “talking to people who didn’t look like me.” She got involved in leadership positions with Hollins’ Black Student Alliance and other multicultural organizations on campus. “I just told myself, ‘I’m gonna give it shot. I’m gonna give it a real chance.’ I felt like I owed it to myself. I fought for what I wanted.”
After graduating from Hollins, Jefferson spent three years working in various positions before getting what she called her first “big girl job.” She loved it. “It was my first insight into mental health and I knew this was what I needed to do to figure out how to become a therapist.” A promotion at first heightened her optimism, “but I started changing. My mental health declined.” She began having trouble eating and sleeping, and she would often have to pull her car over to the side of the road on her way to work because she was having panic attacks. Finally, she was called in to meet with her supervisor.
“I got fired, y’all. Most people would be upset by that, but I was so relieved. I needed that door to close so that I could realize there were other doors already open. I needed them to push me out.”
As she got in her car to leave that day, “I sat there for a while and then something came over me. I said, ‘LaNita, you will never ever let another job or another person come in front of your mental health again. You are worthy, you have a voice, and you will use it. You will make another opportunity for yourself. You deserve that.”
For Jefferson, that opportunity manifested itself in her pursuit of a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine. “I immersed myself in becoming a really good counselor who could help people medically and mentally. It was my calling.” She focused her sights on opening her own private practice to provide holistic mental health in her community, but in addition to completing her graduate degree she would also need to pass a licensure exam. The first time she took it, she failed, but she remained undaunted. “I had heard the word ‘no’ so many times: ‘No, you can’t do this.’ ‘No, you shouldn’t think that way.’ I was so used to the word ‘no’ that I wasn’t afraid of it anymore. All ‘no’ means is to try again.”
When Jefferson took the licensure exam a second time, she decided to do it on her birthday. Her anxiety was high, and when breathing exercises didn’t help calm her down, she sought encouragement from her favorite rap song, “Juicy” by Biggie Smalls. “There’s just something about how that song hits your soul. It’s all about success and trying hard and celebrating the good things in your life. The chorus says you know very well who you are and no one can hold you down. Reach for the stars. Believe in yourself and dream as big as you want.”
Jefferson passed the exam, and with her friend, colleague, and business partner, opened Carolina Assessment Services LLC in 2019. As of today, the practice has served over 200 people in South Carolina. This year, she launched The Cohort LLC with another friend as a means of empowering others to fulfill their dreams through entrepreneurship. Currently, she’s a Ph.D. candidate in counselor education at the University of South Carolina.
“What I’m trying to do is help make space for people like you, students like you, that may be afraid to tap into your potential. That may be afraid to step outside of the box. It’s okay to find and create opportunity. It’s okay to be you. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Be yourself and believe in yourself. And don’t be afraid of the word ‘no.’”