The East Knoxville and Pellissippi State Community College communities came together Wednesday, June 30, to honor Rosalyn Tillman, dean of the college’s Magnolia Avenue Campus from when it opened in 2000 until her retirement this spring.
“A magnificent leader and community influencer,” “one of the pillars and matriarchs of our community,” “a role model,” “a woman of integrity and standards” and “an advocate” were among the words speakers used to describe Tillman at the retirement celebration, held at the Magnolia Avenue Campus. They remembered her tenacity and commitment to making the Magnolia Avenue Campus, the fourth of Pellissippi State’s campuses, a “gleaming institution” for the community.
“Dean Tillman set a standard for what she wanted this campus to be,” said Phyllis Nichols, president and CEO of Knoxville Area Urban League. “We were not going to be a site sister in East Knoxville. We were going to be a shining example on Magnolia. … The students were going to be proud to walk in these doors.”
Originally from Chicago, where she taught elementary and middle school, Tillman began her career at Pellissippi State as a math instructor in August 1991 and later served as program coordinator for developmental math, attaining the rank of associate professor of Mathematics. When Pellissippi State purchased the former Knoxville Catholic High School building on Magnolia Avenue, Tillman became the new campus’ first – and only – dean.
“This was the only east campus (of Pellissippi State) when we opened 20 years ago, and we had the opportunity to serve this community in a way that they had not been served before,” said Tillman. “There was a reluctance at first to come inside a college door, but now they had a place in the neighborhood, and we tried to make them feel comfortable.”
Not only did Tillman make sure the students who attended the Magnolia Avenue Campus had the same resources and opportunities as those who attended the college’s other campuses, Tillman made sure students knew they could succeed.
Jan Sharp, now director of Pellissippi State’s Academic Support Center, reflected on what it was like to be a nontraditional, first-generation student at the Magnolia Avenue Campus in spring 2005 with four children at home.
“On my first day, Rosalyn Tillman comes in with a group of faculty members, and they’re all dressed in full regalia,” Sharp said. “The point of her coming in dressed in that attire was to prove to us that (1) if we work hard enough, graduation was just right around the corner; (2) nothing was going to be handed to us; and (3) we should always ask for help if we need it. … She told us where her office was and to come get her anytime we needed to talk or if we needed assistance with anything. If we couldn’t find something, she would walk us to where we needed to go. And I really looked up to her for that.”
Tillman remembered a nail technician who came to her office 30 minutes into her first class, complaining, “I can’t do this. I’m too old.” Tillman talked to her, and the student ended up going on to get her degree in education.
“That always has stayed with me because she was so devastated,” Tillman said. “We have been able to change people’s lives.”
In addition to serving as dean at the Magnolia Avenue Campus, Tillman served as Pellissippi State coordinator for Project GRAD Knoxville, which brings Austin-East and Fulton high school students to campus each summer to offer students a glimpse of college life. The program has helped boost the average high school graduation rate for Austin-East and Fulton students from 50% to 83%.
“We give them all kinds of experiences they wouldn’t ordinarily have so that they will think, ‘I can do that,'” Tillman explained. “When they get back (to high school), school isn’t ho-hum. It changes attitudes.”
Just under 3,000 students have participated in the Project GRAD summer institute under Tillman’s guidance and direction, said Tanisha Fitzgerald-Baker, program and analytics director for Project GRAD.
“Dean Tillman is so committed and dedicated to the outcome and excellence of our students,” Fitzgerald-Baker said. “The expectations are very rigid, and now right under 3,000 students understand what they can be, where they can be and how they’re going to do it.
“Even though you try to be behind the scenes, it’s very hard to dim a light meant to shine as bright as you,” she added, to a chorus of “Amen!” from the audience.
The Rev. Renee Kesler, president and CEO of Beck Cultural Exchange Center, agreed, noting she has lived in the community her entire life and knows the area “like the back of my hand.”
“You lit up something,” Kesler said to Tillman. “There was some darkness, but you brought the light.”
Kesler compared Tillman to an unnamed wise woman in the Bible who uses her voice to stand up for her community and save her city from destruction in 2 Samuel.
“She said, ‘Let me handle this,’ but she didn’t do it by herself – she knew she couldn’t,” Kesler said. “A wise woman knows that if I’m going to be great, I have to surround myself with other great people. And the Bible says she went back to the people, and she had a collaboration meeting. And that’s who you are: the collaborator. You know to bring people together to get it done.”
Not only will Tillman be honored with a memorial brick at the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, Pellissippi State President L. Anthony Wise Jr. unveiled Wednesday a sign naming the Magnolia Avenue Campus courtyard in her honor.
“You sought so many ways to connect the college to the community and the community to the college,” he said. “Not only are we naming the courtyard in your honor, but we will be renovating it and making it accessible to the whole community as a teaching space and learning space. Thank you for giving us your very best.”
Tillman, who prefers to stay out of the limelight, humbly shared her successes at the Magnolia Avenue Campus with her small but dedicated staff and called her work for Pellissippi State not only her pleasure, but also her passion.
“I just want to be remembered that I did some good for somebody,” she said.