Kimberly Smith, associate vice provost for student success initiatives in the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, has been elected president of the American Association of Blacks in Higher Education

The organization, which describes itself as the “voice for Blacks in higher education,” advocates for the advancement of Black faculty, staff, and students in the academic community. “We do a lot to address issues of equity and inclusion,” Smith said, “and we’re contributing to research that helps to better understand how to help these individuals be successful.”

Helping diverse populations succeed is already central to Smith’s role as associate vice provost at Virginia Tech, where she’s worked since 1999. Smith oversees programs that enhance student engagement and achievement, including Academic Advising Initiatives, the Minority Academic Opportunities Program, the Office of Veteran Services, University Studies, and the Student Success Center.

Her strategic focus on first-generation, low-income, and other diverse student populations is rooted in her own experience.  

Smith grew up in a single-parent, low-income family. Yet she always knew that college was in her future. “Despite the fact she never attended college a day in her life, my mother was adamant that I would go,” Smith said. “She made sure that I had opportunities to participate in activities that would put me in line to go to college.” 

But in her first year at the University of Richmond, Smith struggled academically. “Socially I had a great time, but maybe too great at a time,” she said. “As a first-generation student, I didn’t know what questions to ask. I didn’t know how to get help.” 

With hard work, Smith bounced back. She took campus leadership positions that rebuilt her confidence. By graduation, she’d landed a spot on the dean’s list. A summertime stint in the Nabisco factory, where her mother worked overtime to pay for her schooling, was also motivating in its own way. It taught her that “I never wanted to work in a factory again.”

Smith graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1993. She earned a master’s degree in counselor education with a concentration in student affairs from Radford University in 1996. While working as director of University Studies and Undergraduate Advising at Virginia Tech in 2009, she earned a Ph.D. in educational leadership and policy studies in the School of Education.

Smith never expected to spend 23 years at Virginia Tech, but her family, including three children ages 8 to 23, put down deep roots in Blacksburg. “The community embraced us so well. And then opportunities opened up for me here at Virginia Tech.” 

As president of American Association of Blacks in Higher Education, Smith wants to open opportunities to other Black people in higher education. She hopes, for instance, to launch a succession-planning initiative that elevates African American talent. “At Virginia Tech, we have a very high proportion of Black faculty and staff who are leaving,” she said. “Sometimes that is because of better opportunities, which we want people to take, but I also know that some of that is out of frustration with not feeling that they have opportunities to advance at the institution.”

More opportunities for Black leaders to job-shadow and receive mentoring will, she said, help them achieve more success. “It gives people an opportunity to contribute and to learn about someone’s job,” Smith said. “It’s just another form of mentoring, and we know the benefits of mentoring.”

Similarly, in her role with Student Success Initiatives, Smith wants to expand students’ vision of what’s possible. “The data that we collect on campus shows that not many students, particularly underrepresented students, come to Virginia Tech aspiring to do anything beyond a bachelor’s degree. But usually that’s because they don’t understand how advanced degrees could be beneficial."

Or they don’t have access to the same resources. Smith hopes to fix that too, by bringing programs such as the federally funded Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program to campus. It prepares underrepresented, low-income, female students to go to graduate school. “I know that this will open the window to create a pipeline for students here, as well as at the undergraduate level, to encourage them to go on to graduate school and participate in research,” Smith said.

Written by Melody Warnick