Taking Opportunity to New Heights

Tonya Oaks Smith puts her heart into higher ed

By KD Reep

If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.
Tonya Oaks Smith is the embodiment of this nugget of advice. The executive director of marketing and communications at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Tonya is always in motion.

“Currently, I live in Little Rock with my husband Keith, our 18-year-old daughter Bekah and two dogs, Luna and Jolie,” she says. “When I started at Henderson State University, Bekah was almost done with her junior year at Little Rock Central High so we decided I’d commute to Arkadelphia each day so she could finish her senior year where she was happy and settled.
Now that she has graduated and decided to attend Henderson State, we decided to buy a
home in Arkadelphia. That means I’ll have at least 10 more hours in my week!”

This isn’t the first time Tonya has taken on multiple tasks at once. In addition to being a professional communicator, mom and wife, She earned her master’s degree while working for the UALR William H. Bowen School of Law in Little Rock and volunteering her time to Youth Home, a private nonprofit mental health provider that equips and empowers youth, adults and families to become healthier contributing members of the community by providing compassionate emotional and behavioral health care. Tonya is also a member of the board of
directors for the Higher Education Web Professionals Association; is an avid runner, clocking more than 20 miles each week; and a yoga practitioner, which calms her mind and centers her body.

While routine has helped keep all her various duties organized, it’s knowing what is important and what isn’t that helps Tonya maintain perspective. “I suppose being a mom-professional means figuring out what’s worth a battle then fighting that battle and not worrying about the stuff that really doesn’t merit the fight,” she says. “That holds true in the office and at home.
Sometimes the energy is just not there to worry over what my child wears to school, and that’s OK. Sometimes you have to write a check instead of being a room mother, and that’s OK, too. But sometimes it’s really important that you take time off to help with things—like the college search. I’ve spent a lot of time in the past year working to incorporate as much of Bekah’s final year in high school into my schedule as I could.”

Tonya’s focus has always been on education. Her career in higher education began in 2006 at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She then worked for the Bowen School of Law for more than four years before joining Henderson State University in 2014.

“I started my career as a reporter and eventually moved into a leadership role in the newsroom,” Tonya says. “When my daughter started attending school, I decided that I wanted a more ‘normal’ schedule so I moved out of the newsroom and, serendipitously, found communication work in higher education. The move to higher education changed my life and opened so many doors—just like it does for so many college students.

“Now, I cannot imagine working in any other area. I firmly believe in the transformative power of education at all levels, but especially at the college level,” she says. “Today, achieving a two- or four-year degree can make an incredible difference in one’s ability to get better jobs and earn a better living. Hopefully, one thing higher education also does is create life-long learners who can adapt to changes throughout life. That’s a very powerful thing: to know you can help impact a person’s life in that way.”

Tonya is a firm believer in the power of opportunity, and she infuses this concept in every part of her role as the chief marketing officer at Henderson State. Noting that almost 60 percent of the entering class of 2014 was first-generation college students, Tonya made it a priority that every person in a student’s life understands the process of higher education and how it benefits them all.

“One of the most important things we can do as communicators in higher education is making sure our audiences understand the process and can maneuver through what can be a confusing experience. The American Association of State Colleges and Universities, of which Henderson State is a member, has a tagline—Opportunities for All—to which member schools subscribe. It drives what we do as communicators as well; we help make attending a college or university accessible, and we empower our students to achieve their dreams.

“Choosing a college or university is a journey for a family. More important than that, it’s a deeply personal journey for the student. Each child has to find the campus where she or he feels at home; that comfort level will impact their ability to complete a degree. You need to sit
down with your student and have an honest discussion about what your family is able to afford when it comes to higher education. This can help shape which schools you consider as a family or it can help you be more inventive in finding scholarships and financial aid opportunities. “In our discussions about college, Bekah reminded us that she was not me or my husband, which means she won’t make the same decisions as we did. Allowing your child to learn how the system works and become her or his own advocate will be a lifelong skill.”

Her dedication to opportunity extends into the team she leads at Henderson State, too.
“I’m never really sure that I do a good job of what most people call balance. My perception of balance means I make enough time to do all the things that are important to me, and I work to pull all the disparate elements of my life together. Bekah has always been welcome in my workplaces, and now that I’m trying to be a good leader, I want my colleagues’ children to feel welcome in our office, also. I don’t know that I know any different from being a mom and
having a career at the same time. I was pregnant with Bekah when I started working as a reporter; the only time when she was a baby-in-the-belly that she wasn’t moving was when the press was running. She has gone with me on interviews and to events and photo shoots. Being a mom-professional has meant finding places that welcomed me and acknowledged that my role as a mother is as important as the bottom line. I’m lucky I could find places
like that to help me build a career that I’m proud of.”