Wouldn’t it be great to be able to live your dream? Well, this lady is actually living her dream of leading a boarding school for low-income students. It’s been a dream since she wrote about it on her entrance essay for the University of Virginia. Autumn Adkins Graves is the first African-American woman president of Girard College.
That’s significant because the school is the legacy of Stephen Girard that in 1833 established a school for white orphan boys and only admitted African-American males in 1968 after years of legal battles and picketing and admitted the first girl in 1984.
Autumn was born in Monongahela, Pa., right outside of Pittsburgh. The youngest of four children, she was seen as her mother’s “special project” as there are 16 years between her and her closest sibling. She came along when her mother was in her forties and her parents were planning to adopt.
The family moved to Richmond when she was in the fourth grade and her first career goal was to be a teacher. She later considered something similar to managing a hedge fund so she could make a lot of money to open a private boarding school for inner city children or a sports agent.
A sports colleague advised against the latter saying that she was too nice and cared too much about others rather than about the money the athletes would make more for her as a sports agent.
She says that her father worked a lot and her mother was the primary caregiver and messenger for the family. They encouraged their children to be positive, loving and to work hard. For the family, school was not an option, it was expected. There was not a question of if, only when one would go on to higher education.
Her mother stressed doing your personal best, following your passion, and being a lady…how a lady behaves, sits, walks, talks and conducts herself.
When “AJ” (family nickname for Autumn Joy) was dating as a teenager, her mother would lovingly admonish her “don’t embarrass me and don’t ruin my last name.” Some of her best advice came from her father who told her “don’t take yourself too seriously.”
An avid history buff, she’s currently reading “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot, which relates the story of an African-American woman from Virginia who died at the age of 31 and whose cancer cells provided for major medical research without her knowledge. It’s a story of cancer, racism, scientific ethics and crippling poverty.
A defining moment for Adkins Graves was when she applied for job to head a New England private school. She was a finalist and felt it was good fit after a long interview process. However, in the end, it was traumatic.
It was, she said, “the first time I really felt racism.” She was informed that they “must go with a safe choice in these uncertain economic times.” For Adkins Graves, it was raw and painful. She says that she actually wailed for a moment because it took the wind out of her sail and she thought, “What’s the point?” However, two weeks later, the headhunter for Girard College called.
In retrospect, she believes she needed to have that experience to have the drive she has now in preparing students at Girard College.
“Without question I make sure they know they have skills and abilities and that it’s okay to hurt and to not be paralyzed by it. They should be aware that there’ll be another opportunity and to always be prepared for it and not think all people are like (the interviewer for the New England School). I was tempted to call him and tell him…but I didn’t.”
Just three days before her Girard interview, she met her husband-to-be, R. Vann Graves, and discovered that they had a Virginia connection. It was a blind date about which both parties were reluctant. However, Adkins Graves says now, “he’s my dream and he’s so cute.” She really enjoys being a wife and looks forward to starting her own family.
She notes, “I want to be a good wife; I’ve been a career person for so long. It’s very different to have another role that I play in a family, and I take it very seriously. It’s important to have balance between my job (which is such important work and good work) and my family life.”
Spending time with her husband and with family and friends relaxes her. Travel and great restaurants bring her joy, noting that Philadelphia has many great choices. She deems herself a magazine junkie and while she will read a book using a Kindle, she doesn’t want to give up the pleasure she gets from turning the pages of magazines and seeing the many pictures and reading the many interesting stories they contain. She wants to integrate technology into a reading program at Girard.
Before she turns 50, she wants to visit all 50 states (she’s been to 39). Someday, she’d like to get a Ph.D. in something other than education, possibly history or psychology. At different times and phases in her life, she’s had different theme songs. Her battle cry used to be the Gloria Gaynor anthem, “I Will Survive.”
Since she got married, she now favors the Bill Withers tune, “Just the Two of Us” as her relationship with her husband is both tender and special. Her two all-time favorites continue to be “His Eye Is on The Sparrow” and “All Hail the Power.”
With respect to mentoring, “for me, it’s not formal. I think mentoring is about wisdom, knowledge and experience. I’m just getting to that point where I feel that I have something of significant value to offer to someone; I talk to young people and gently raise questions about where they are in their careers to help them lesson themselves.”
Adkins Graves is a graduate of University of Virginia (BA), and Columbia University Teachers College (MA). She was assistant principal at Friends Seminary in Manhattan, dean of the Upper School at Sidwell Friends (Washington, D.C.), director of special programs at Mercerburg Academy (Pennsylvania) and upper school counselor and community service coordinator at the Breck School (Minneapolis).
Adkins Graves views education as much more than books. “One has to work smart and be able to have a practical education, to use it as a vehicle for access to family sustaining jobs so one will know how to feed them selves; how to take care of one’s body; how to restore one’s soul; how to make good choices for you and your partner, and how to be good parents.”
She has enjoyed teaching history and found it exciting to watch children learn about how “dead” people impact their lives today and figure how they will impact the future and why we do what we do.
In this position, she is an employee of the board of directors of the City Trusts, and reports directly to attorney Bernard Smalley, chairman of the Girard College Committee of the Board of City Trusts.
Notes Smalley, “she has completed her second year and has worked extremely hard given the challenges she’s faced with the overall school environment as an outsider coming in and learning the ways of Philadelphia — and [there are challenges] with the decreased budget at a time when there are multi-plans for the future of Girard College and its vision. She still has a bit to learn, as do we all.”
Girard currently has 185 employees, down from 260 due to budget cuts. One of her priorities is to make the school open to the Philadelphia community and to break down the “wall.” As such, Girard hosts the MLK Day of Service, works with the Fairmount CDC, hosts many different events and serves as a rental facility for special events including weddings, receptions and corporate meetings.
Adkins Graves is building relationships with the alumni association which consists of a group of people who are committed and supportive. She loves her job!
She is active on the boards of Shipley School, the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, the Library Company, the NY Branch of Children’s Defense Fund and is a member of The Links-Philadelphia Chapter.
She describes her leadership style as one that is open, direct (maybe too much), wanting staff to understand why she’s doing what she’s doing, wanting staff to take some direction and mix it with their own expertise and check in with her. Keys to success for this driven lady have been lots of prayer, faith in the unknown, surrounding herself with good people (who are smart and have good souls) and having the ability to grow.
Her heroes and sheroes are the everyday people from whom she’s learned so much. Many of them do extraordinary things that often go overlooked. She believes that unfortunately, young people underrate the value of work — they have a sense that everything should come instantly because they’ve made “any” effort. They’ve seen too many experiences of the flash and glamour and get rich quick messages and not enough of how to be a regular person — which is so meaningful and rewarding. She encourages young people to “Work Hard! Play Hard! Pray Harder!”
A FEW OF HER FAVORITE THINGS:
Book: “Green Eggs and Hair”
Movie: “The Shawshank Redemption”
Color: Royal blue
Food: Her mother’s macaroni and cheese and good Italian food