Everlena Holmes opens her eyes at 2 a.m. to begin her morning. In those quiet hours before the rest of the world fully awakens, the Virginia Tech alumna revels in the lack of disruptions. For the retired dean, her days are full with helping others.

Holmes, who received her Ed.D. in 1981 in education administration from the School of Education, is the embodiment of the Virginia Tech motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve). Now living in Chattanooga, Tennessee, she dedicates her life to community building and service. 

She began the Block Leader program, which helps residents stay informed about happenings in their neighborhoods and encourages communities to build a sense of pride and common purpose. To support those in need of assistance in signing up for health insurance, she also launched Enroll the Region. And there is the Hamilton County Voters Coalition she started, composed of nonpartisan community-based organizations and volunteer groups that work toward a future in which every adult votes in every election. 

For Holmes, this life of service is her form of luxury. Helping others is part of who she is, she said. Even during her time at Virginia Tech, she had a reputation for being involved in community-minded activities. This was so much the case that her faculty advisor, Lloyd Andrews, intervened when it was time for her to prepare her dissertation. To allow her to concentrate on her research, Andrews and his wife created a distraction-free environment for her in their home. For a few weeks, they gave her peace, quiet, and three meals a day.

After this, she went on to help establish what is now the Virginia Tech Black Alumni Association. 

Holmes, a third-generation educator, discovered Virginia Tech through her mother, who introduced her to Houston Conley, then a professor in the School of Education. She decided to apply to the university, but as Holmes waited for an acceptance into the program, another opportunity arose.

The World Health Organization wanted to send her to Africa to open a school for medical record keeping. She had done that work for the WHO in Barbados. At the time, Holmes was not a novice in higher education health administration. But she decided to get her doctorate instead and get the qualifications she needed to rise through the ranks of academia.

From early childhood, Holmes — who grew up in a family of teachers, spent many hours in their classrooms and helped out when needed — planned to go into secondary education. After earning a bachelor’s degree in business education from Kentucky State University, she worked as a substitute teacher while waiting to get a contract for a full position. This experience taught her that teaching in the primary grades was not for her.

As she regrouped, she took a secretarial job at a veteran’s hospital. From there, she moved into the medical records area and found it fascinating. For 11 years, she served as a medical records administrator.

And then her position intersected with higher education. Central Oregon Community College recruited Holmes to develop an associate degree program in medical record technology. With this experience, she knew it was time to get her master’s degree, which she earned from the University of Houston in consortium with Baylor College of Medicine, also in Houston.

Feeling more comfortable with this intersection of higher education programming and allied health, she developed a new program that not only helped the hospitals but also allowed her to advocate for women in the workplace. Holmes called it Two-Plus-Two.

“I always thought about women getting married, having a family, dropping out of school, and not having a profession,” she said. “I came up with a program that allowed students, for every year they spent in college, to acquire marketable skills that would qualify them to get good-paying jobs.” 

For each year, students would receive different certifications, along with associate and baccalaureate degrees. 

As Holmes progressed on her higher education path, she set her goals on becoming a dean, especially when she realized the health administration higher education field lacked diversity.

“The reason I wanted to be a dean,” she said, “was because I didn’t see any African Americans, Latinx, or Asians in my discipline or in the allied health field — period. And I thought I could be a role model, just like Vice President Kamala Harris is today. If they saw me in a leadership role, they would realize they too could do something with their lives.”

After earning her Ed.D. from Virginia Tech and doing postdoctoral work at Harvard’s Institute for Educational Management, Holmes spent the rest of her career in higher education. She was chair of the Department of Health Record Science at Eastern Kentucky University and the Department of Health Information Administration at George Washington University. As an associate dean of the College of Allied Health, she also served as chair of the Department of Health Information Administration at Tennessee State University.

Her deanships in the field included Hunter College with the City University of New York, East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania, and the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles, from which she retired in 2001. She said she has not had a moment of rest since and finally settled in her family home in Chattanooga. 

“The solid education I received at Virginia Tech, plus the faculty and friends I met there,” she said, “contributed to my having a successful career that has continued into my years of retirement as a community advocate.”

At 7 p.m., when the evening is just beginning for many, Holmes settles into bed; the next day will come soon enough. 

Written by Leslie King