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Interview with Eleanor Wright, October 29, 2002 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Title:
Interview with Eleanor Wright, October 29, 2002
Date:
October 29, 2002
Description:
Eleanor Wright discusses her career and background in this two-tape interview, which took place during her third year in the phased retirement program. Dr. Wright began teaching in the School of Education in 1975. Her specialty is special education. In tape, 1, Dr. Wright describes her experiences establishing the bachelor's degree program in special education at UNCW; her time as department chair (1991-1996); and her 2 years as Associate Dean of Watson School of Education. She also discusses completing her Ph.D. in 1983 while working full-time.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee: Wright, Eleanor Interviewer: Lack, Adina Date of Interview: 10/29/2002 Series: Voices of UNCW Length 43 minutes

Lack: Hello, my name is Adina Lack. I’m the archivist and I’m here with Dr. Eleanor Wright who is interviewing with us for our oral history project. Dr. Wright is a professor in the School of Education and we’ll be finding out about her history and her career here as part of our Voices of UNCW oral history program. Today is October 29, 2002. We’re in the conference room of Randall Library.

Lack: Welcome.

Wright: Good morning.

Lack: Thank you for coming here.

Wright: You’re welcome.

Lack: Dr. Wright if we can start with your background, where were you born and where did you grow up?

Wright: Okay, I was born in Dansville, New York. I spent the first nine years of my life in western New York State and we moved to North Carolina, to Pine Bluff, North Carolina in the sand hills in 1947. I attended elementary school there and then we moved to Greensboro in 1950 so I finished out my school career in Greensboro, actually in the Guilford College area.

Lack: Did you attend public schools?

Wright: I was in public schools all the way through, Guilford County from 7th through the 12th grades.

Lack: And where did you go from there?

Wright: From there I went to Mars Hill College for two years. At that time Mars Hill was a two-year junior college and then I transferred to Greensboro College in Greensboro, lived at home. Actually there were seven of us that transferred from Mars Hill to Greensboro together. Going from Baptist to Methodist was interesting. We were dubbed the holy 7, I’m not sure it fit, but that’s what we were called.

Lack: Women?

Wright: Seven women. Greensboro College had just become coed three years before I got there so there were still relatively few men living on campus or even in classes at that time because Greensboro College was historically a women’s college, not to be confused with the University of North Carolina-Greensboro which was called Women’s College, but actually Greensboro College was Greensboro Female Seminary if I remember correctly dating from the 1800’s.

Lack: Was it originally established as a religious school?

Wright: Well it’s under the Methodist church. It is private, still operated under the auspices of the Methodist conference and it is considered a Methodist college. At that time Mars Hill was a Baptist college and still is, so both of them were private religiously affiliated schools. From there I started working for the Guilford County public schools, but the next year started on my master’s degree. I decided I wanted to go to New York back to my roots so I went to the State University of New York at Geneseo.

Lack: For your graduate program?

Wright: For my graduate program. I did that part time in the summers, also took some courses at UNC-Greensboro and also at North Carolina A&T.

Lack: What was your graduate program?

Wright: Both my undergraduate and graduate programs were in special education with emphasis in the area of mental retardation. My graduate program was called a Master of Arts in Curriculum for Children with Retarded Mental Development, which is a mouthful.

Lack: Long name for a degree.

Wright: Right, right. And then I was still working for Guilford County Public Schools at that time. I spent three years in the classroom, two years teaching children at the elementary age who were classified as now mildly mentally retarded, then started the high school program in Guilford County, worked with that program for one year and then moved into the Guilford County Public Schools Office as their, I think I first was called helping teacher and later was called Director of Exceptional Child Services. I stayed there until 1972 when I got married.

Lack: Did you do your doctorate in there or was that later?

Wright: No, that was later. I did my doctorate after I came to Wilmington.

Lack: You got married?

Wright: Got married, lived in Virginia for about 15 months, then moved to Wilmington. In the meantime, I had a baby, so I had a small child when we came to Wilmington. Started talking with some people over here as well as people at Chapel Hill and East Carolina University. UNCW offered me a position in the psychology department just teaching one course. At that point, I taught Psychology of Exceptional Children and then I also taught ed. psych. This was before the special education program here was developed.

I also did some teaching in the summer for the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in one of their extension programs at Sampson County and I also simultaneously began working part time for the extension division of East Carolina.

Lack: Your affiliation with UNCW started in what year?

Wright: The fall of 1973.

Lack: As of now, you were telling me that you’re the faculty member who’s been here the longest?

Wright: In special education, I’m the one who’s been here the longest. In terms of active faculty members, Dr. Bartolome preceded me and Dr. Bachner as well and Dr. Doss, but Dr. Bachner and Dr. Doss are now retired. Dr. Bartolome and I are both on phased retirement.

Lack: In the fall of 1973, part time.

Wright: In the psychology department.

Lack: Was that where they had a need?

Wright: Well someone I knew was teaching the Psych of Exceptional Children and there was a need for teachers to get coursework in special education. We in the 1970’s were much like we are now. We did not have enough teachers to work with children with special needs and they were trying hard to pick up courses anywhere they could find them to get appropriately licensed. They were teaching out of field.

So Wilmington was only offering at that time one course, but there was a lot of interest in developing a program here. But it took until 1975 for anything to happen in terms of courses being developed and getting authorization for a program to start.

Lack: Were you involved in that process?

Wright: I was not involved in anything until the spring or summer of 1975. Dr. Hulon came to me and asked me if I would look at the resumes for people that were applying for a position that had been created to start a special education preparation program. When we talked about what was needed, none of the people in the pool, and it was an extremely small pool, had any real credentials in either the area of learning disabilities or mental retardation and those were the two licensure areas that were supposed to be started.

So over the summer I got a call and asked since I did have licensure in those areas if I was interested in starting to teach some of the courses. Dr. Hulon very nicely scheduled me five 8:00 in the morning classes five days a week to start teaching. So I actually developed all of the initial courses that were offered in the program. I think we taught for each semester that first year so we did a total of eight courses that year brand new.

Lack: Wow, that was to get the bachelor’s degree?

Wright: It was for the bachelor’s degree and at the same time then we were writing the proposal to actually get the authorization to grant the degree and to grant the licenses because the degrees are separate from the licensure. The Board of Governors approves a degree.

The state Board of Education approves the licensure so we did that and that program was approved I think in 1976. Our actual graduates, our first graduates of the undergraduate degree program were the spring of 1979. We had a class of 10 that finished in the spring of 1979.

Lack: That’s what I was going to ask. Was there quite a bit of interest in this field?

Wright: We had 10 in our very first class. That held fairly consistently and then quite a number of teachers took course work with us, but actually were not degree seeking. They already had degrees in psychology or in another area or they already had a license in elementary education and were adding special education. Add on licensure is not something new. It’s been around for many years.

Lack: How did you develop an interest in this field?

Wright: That’s a long story. When I was in high school, I was in a small high school. It’s now Western Guilford, but at that time it was Guilford High School in the western part of Guilford County and I had taken all the college pre course work basically that was offered and wanted to take business courses, but we had a principal who believed at that time you couldn’t mix college prep and business.

So he offered all the business prep courses at the same time he offered the college prep courses. So I ended up with a half a day with virtually nothing to do. You probably wouldn’t believe it, but I also could get in a little bit of trouble at that point in time. So they sent me to the principal’s office to work in his office. So I answered the telephone, type because I could type, did all sorts of things there.

My senior year in high school, there was a need for someone to work in a private kindergarten. It was on the grounds of the school, but not operated by the school. So they asked if I would be willing to pick up milk from the school cafeteria, go over to the kindergarten and help the teacher with snack time for her kindergarten children and then get them ready to go home sometime after that.

She had taken in a little boy who was later to be diagnosed, as mentally retarded and he was somewhat of a handful. She had 20 some children and no aide and so I became her assistant for half of the morning for a dual purpose. It gave me something to do and it also gave her an extra pair of hands to help her. My job primarily was with this young man named Kenny whom still occasionally I see even from that long ago.

I think that interest and work with Kenny sort of sparked an interest. I went off to Mars Hill, determined I wasn’t going to take any science. I ended up doing all my work in math, transferred to Greensboro College and found out integral calculus was not for me. Differential was okay, but integral was my waterloo and Greensboro College had what I believe is one of the earliest special education training courses in the state.

I happened to have one of the professors for psychology who was instrumental in that program. So I switched majors in the middle of my junior year to special education.

Lack: From math?

Wright: From math and have been there ever since. Somebody told me about 1967, it was a dying field and I needed to look for something else, but I decided the children, unfortunately many of them were always going to be with us and that they were going to need teachers and I had a commitment to working with the children and/or helping get teachers who were qualified to work with them.

Lack: That’s great. So it’s not like you started out knowing you wanted to be a teacher.

Wright: No, I started out swearing I’d do anything else but. In high school, I did not want to teach. I had had an interest in nursing, but science, women were not encouraged in the 50’s to go into science particularly and it was pretty much a male-dominated field. Our professors mostly were male. They did not encourage women. The idea was we could be secretaries and nurses or mothers. So this was sort of something I stumbled into almost by accident later on. But I think a lot of it went back to what I had done with Kenny in the kindergarten setting.

Lack: Did you see him progress?

Wright: I followed him over the years. I know his parents and in fact not too many years ago I was sitting in Stanley’s Barbecue in Greensboro and he and his father came in so he’s now of course an adult. He ended up being labeled as severely mentally retarded. He did have some brain injury. As far as I know he still lives in a group home in Greensboro, but made a great deal of progress from where he could have been considering what was available at that point in time.

Greensboro had some very, very good programs for children with particularly mental retardation and also cerebral palsy and other multiple disabilities.

Lack: So going forward again to Wilmington, you came here. You started teaching a whole bunch of courses in psychology.

Wright: Right and then switched out of psychology and just started teaching the courses in the education department. We developed a course that was a survey of exceptional children called Intro to Exceptional Children. We did a course in mental retardation, one in learning disabilities. We developed one in the area of assessment that we call diagnosis because children have to be evaluated educationally in order to be qualified to receive services.

We developed a course that was called Prescription Development, which was everything you wanted to know about an IEP which all children with disabilities must have an individualized education plan and then a behavior management course and then the seminar that goes along with the internship or practicum. All those were the beginning courses that we developed back in the mid 70’s.

Lack: And is it for elementary through 18?

Wright: The licensure is for kindergarten through 12th grade. It’s a K-12 license. Children are eligible to be served beginning at age 3 all the way through age 22 if they have a disability and need to be in a school setting. Actually under some of the new legislation there is provision for the children to be served birth through 2, but that’s not handled within the public school setting. That’s the responsibility of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Lack: What about some states, I don’t know about North Carolina, there’s a provision for them to be served after age 18, right?

Wright: Up until 22. Then under other legislation there are many services provided for adults with disabilities through primarily Section 504, the rehab plan and the Developmental Disabilities legislation and Social Security Administration because people with disabilities are covered under Social Security. So there are many programs and Medicaid covers a number of them that need health services so there are a variety of programs out there and community mental health centers address their needs as well.

Lack: What have you found most rewarding about teaching students who want to become teachers?

Wright: I like seeing their enthusiasm and seeing them become successful. We have a number of our students that I’ve been privileged to work with that now are administrators of services for exceptional children. We have some that are principals and assistant principals and some that are directors of alternative school settings. So it’s just really interesting to see how they’ve progressed and to know that children are learning because they’re out there.

I may not be able to have a direct impact. I guess my philosophy over the last several years is I can’t directly work with more than 8 or 10 children at a time, but I can work with many teachers over a period of time that will impact many, many children for years to come. So when I see improvements in services at the local level and someone says, “Well I was one of your students at UNCW”, that’s where I get my reward and it feels really good to know that some children are not in institutions. They’re being better served. They’re doing more than we ever thought they were capable of doing because of some of the people that I’ve had contact with have been their teachers.

Lack: That would be a great way of making an impact. You have a lot to share. To educate other teachers, that’s a great way to put it. So let’s talk a little bit about the university in Wilmington when you arrived. Well what did you think of Wilmington after being in Greensboro and other places? You first got here in 1973.

Wright: Wilmington was a small town. I had lived in Greensboro and then I lived in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, which is Newport News, Norfolk and the Virginia Beach Hampton area. We actually lived in Hampton. My husband was working at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company. So that was a huge sprawling metropolitan area.

Greensboro at that time was a smaller city, but Wilmington was a town. When I got here there was no Independence Mall. They were just building what was Longleaf Mall and whoopee, we had a Wilco, which was our claim to a big department store. Belks and Efferds were still downtown. College Road was a two-lane road. Oleander was not much more than that and I can still remember almost nothing out in the section between where Forest Hills ends out to the intersection of College Road and all the way on out there was almost nothing on either side of those roads.

Lack: Trees.

Wright: Trees, open fields, farm land. There was a little house that sat in the corner of South College Road where the shopping center now sits. There were just a few buildings here. I don’t remember exactly the first building. I know the three up on the front quadrangle were there. Kenan Hall was there. I believe Kenan Auditorium was there and just the Hanover Hall, the back part of what’s now the gym and coliseum complex.

There was one dormitory and I believe when I first came in ’73, I believe the back half of the library was there because I remember when the front half was built facing toward Chancellor’s Walk when it over doubled the size of the library. It was very small. There were around 2500 students. Most of the students, of course, were commuters. Most of my first teachers in my classes were currently teachers in the public school system.

Lack: With a two-year degree?

Wright: No, they already had their four-year degrees and they were currently teaching and they just needed to get appropriate licensure. They were licensed in something else more than likely and had been recruited from…some of them were home economics and there weren’t any home economics positions anymore. Some were social studies and there weren’t enough social studies positions. Some were elementary, just a wide variety of backgrounds. They needed to get what’s called in field to be licensed appropriately.

Lack: Were some of them not that interested in special education?

Wright: No, most of the ones that were there if they stuck it out past the first year were interested. They sort of said I found my niche. Most of them were not disinterested. Once in a while you’d run into one that I used to call mattress teachers. They used special education as something to fall back on. It was like I can’t get anything else to do so I’m going to do this, but those were really very, very few and far between.

Many of the ones that I worked with those first years here have retired, but they stayed in special education through the rest of their careers so I feel like they were where they wanted to be and felt like they were making a difference with children. Not many of them did not want to be there. Most of the ones that came in that route didn't last long. If they took a job in special just because there was nothing else and they had to work, the demands were too much and they would not stay. They would transfer into another position as soon as it came open or they would find something else to do.

Lack: I can see that. It’s not something that would be easy for anybody.

Wright: No and I think you have to have a real commitment to watching children grow and learn, but you have to have different expectations for what’s learning. Many of the children we work with, particularly the ones I work with because my specialty is really mental retardation, these are children who are not academically oriented and so you’ve got to get used to the slow progress.

You’ve also got to understand learning is even learning how to put on your shoe or to pick up a fork or a spoon and to feed yourself. That also is learning and if I’m a teacher, my responsibilities are to help them learn that. So we do a lot of teaching of things that are “non-academic”. If you want to teach academics, then some phases of special ed it’s appropriate, but in other aspects of special ed, it’s not what we do. We’re in a functional academic curriculum. We’re in a functional routine kind of thing.

Lack: You came to the university and who was on the faculty at this time?

Wright: I think I can name them all. When I came to the university in psychology, John Williams was the chair of the department, Michael Bradley was there and the man [who had been] teaching the courses in exceptional children was Dr. Darwin Newton. I had known Darwin when he was a guidance counselor and Director of Guidance Services in Charlotte Mecklenburg and when I came here and saw him, he and I got in contact and he really was looking for someone that would be interested in teaching the course in exceptional children that was a teacher because his background was more guidance and psychology.

I haven’t seen Dr. Newton in years, but those were the three that I remember from the psychology department. I believe Dr. Robert Brown was here and also Dr. Sue Lamb in psychology. In the School of Education, at that time it was a Department of Education, Dr. Harold Hulon was department chair. Calvin Doss, Betty Stike, Paz Bartolome and Saul Bachner were here as full time faculty members.

When I came into the Department of Education in 1975 to start teaching special ed courses, Dr. Hulon had just stepped down as department chair. He was still on the faculty. Dr. Bachner the first semester was sort of acting chair of the department and then the second semester of that first year which was the spring of ’76, Dr. Cahill took over some time in that period of time and actually I believe Dr. Harkin was hired in the spring of 1976 as chair of the department, but at that time there was a move to reorganize the college.

It was all one college and they were going to reorganize into divisions so there would be three professional schools and a college of arts and sciences. Dr. Plyler at that time was the dean of the college. Then later he became Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Then the School of Education was formed, the School of Business and the School of Nursing as professional schools with Dr. Harkin as the first dean.

Lack: When I interviewed Dr. Harkin, he said he was hired with the understanding that he would be dean of this school.

Wright: Right and it was our understanding when he was hired because I participated in the interviews. At that time also there was a woman here by the name of Eloise Muller who was teaching some of the methodology classes in elementary. I believe she taught the reading and the math methods classes. We had some part time people supervising. Jean Bullock was one. I want to say she was Dr. Norman Kaylor’s wife and I’m blocking on her first name.

Then Mary Bellamy was supervising the students in foreign languages because all of the secondary licensure areas were in their home departments, academic departments. I know that Mary Bellamy was supervising because she used to come to our faculty meetings. We were very small. We fit in one room, which was room 103 and we had lots of room to spare. We held a faculty meeting so it was a very small department.

Lack: And now do you have faculty meetings with everybody?

Wright: There was a faculty meeting that I missed yesterday. They had to hold it at University Union 100 and we almost filled University Union 100 back in August. When we had our faculty retreat, we did it here on campus and we had all the faculty and our staff and we just about filled room 100.

Lack: For curricular studies?

Wright: No, this was for the School of Education and Specialty Studies. Because when we developed the School of Education, we split into two departments. Primarily the Department of Specialty Studies handled the foundations of all of our programs at the undergraduate level and graduate level and then they were handling the graduate course work. At that time it was curriculum instruction and administration.

The Department of Curricular Studies held all the in-house degree programs, elementary, middle grade, special education and then the graduate programs in reading education and special education and elementary education. Secondary education was also in that department initially. In 1991, we did some realignment and moved the responsibility for what we call secondary and allied program areas from curricular studies to specialty studies, which made the departments a little more even.

Lack: For undergraduates now, they don’t get into the school right away, right?

Wright: No, undergraduates cannot be admitted until they finish at least 45 hours of their studies and they have to have a 2.7 GPA and they also have to pass the three sections of the praxis which is a nationally administered exam similar to the SAT in terms of its administration and structure, but it’s mandated by the State Board of Education in order for anyone to be admitted to a teacher ed program and to receive license. They have to pass that before they’re admitted.

That same thing holds true if they’re in the history department or math department and they want to be a teacher and go that teacher track. They also before they can take any education courses or upper level education courses have to meet those three criteria as well. They take the foundation courses in education, anything numbered at the 200 level, they can take without being admitted to the School of Education. But once they are beyond 200 level courses, they must be admitted to the School of Education to proceed.

Lack: Well was it a collegial environment?

Wright: It’s always been a very collegial environment and I think one of the things we prided ourselves early on was to make sure that we brought people in that wanted to participate collaboratively in doing things. We tried to have if we had multiple sections of courses; we want them taught in a similar, at least with the same goals and objectives.

We may vary in the kinds of activities we have them do or our styles of presenting, but we at least want the base to be the same so the student comes out of a class in mental retardation and two of us have taught the class, we want them to at least have had similar experiences or comparable experiences. So I think we’ve been very collegial in that way.

There’s a lot of collaborative efforts that do go on. As you get bigger, it’s harder to maintain that small feeling just like it’s hard in a town to maintain that feeling as it gets larger, but I think we’ve worked really hard at trying to have a collegial nature. We’re told by people from the outside that come in that we are a very welcoming, very collegial group. We may fuss and fight among ourselves, but we always pull together and try very hard to go for what we believe is appropriate in terms of next steps.

Lack: Right, that sounds good. So when you came here as you described very well, the university was small. The department was smaller although it had grown some by the time you got here.

Wright: Grown a little bit.

Lack: How has it evolved since then?

Wright: I think the proliferation of programs has been one major issue because we only had elementary and secondary when I came here. Special ed was started after I came here at the undergraduate level. So we’ve had a proliferation of programs to meet the needs in the region. So we’ve added middle grades education.

We added reading education at the graduate level. We did not have a master’s program. We did not start developing master programs until 1979. So after Dr. Harkin arrived, we began the School of Education. Then we began doing the master’s programs. The other thing I think we’ve done is tremendously enhanced our outreach efforts.

We started a number of years ago with a model clinical teaching project trying to work collaboratively with the school systems in trying to improve the clinical practice of our students so we’d have what people refer to as a seamless experience going from the college level to the school setting, that it would not be a shock. Students wouldn’t come back and say nobody ever told them it was going to be like it was out there.

So we’ve tried to work very collaboratively beginning very early on with that model clinical project evolving into our professional development system where we collaborate with ten school districts in our catchments area for southeastern North Carolina and have true partnerships. A lot of different efforts have gone on in that area.

Then I think transporting our programs to remote locations either using technology or physically going to these places. I think we tried a number of years ago to do some satellite courses at our various community colleges with varying degrees of success. I think our most successful effort has been the Onslow Extension Program where we now offer the entire elementary education program in Onslow County and we also offer a significant number of courses that will meet the needs for a number of programs.

For instance reading foundations is required in elementary and special education so students can take those courses there. Our foundations of education 301 instructional program design and evaluation is required across all programs. So we have those common core courses at the upper division level, which we are responsible for in Onslow County. They’re offered both on the Coastal Carolina Community College campus as well as on the base at Camp LeJeune.

We’ve worked really closely with both Camp LeJeune and particularly Coastal Carolina in the development of these programs and working on the articulation between students getting a degree at the community college level and then being able to move right into the upper level courses and finish their degrees without having to travel to Wilmington. We’ve also made use of the instruction of technology distance learning to do that as well. So I think our outreach efforts have greatly increased in the last 25 years.

Lack: How did it develop that you developed a base in Onslow County? Was there a real need for that, did they come to you?

Wright: That came about, I was involved with the beginning of that. We recognized we had a number of students who were commuting from Onslow County down here. They’d come into class, they’d be worn out. The times of day were hard. It was hard for them to get here for 8:00 classes. A number of them are military dependents and we also saw some interest from military who were exiting out of the military and wanting to look at second careers.

With the teacher shortage, this began to be a real push. So surveys were done around the region to determine where there was a critical mass of individuals. We held orientation meetings or interest meetings in Onslow County as well as a couple of other locations, but got the biggest interest in Onslow County. We would have as many as 150 to 200 people come to some of these interest meetings. So there was a critical mass there.

We also had a very receptive host in the president of the community college at Coastal Carolina in Dr. Lingle. Also the base at Camp LeJeune was very interested in helping people as they exited from the military find second careers. We had some logical ties there. We were working with the base at Camp LeJeune in terms of placing students who wanted to do internships up there.

We found ourselves more and more traveling to Onslow to help them with their internship so that they would be closer in the region and they started saying well if we can do internship here, why can’t you do courses here. We started saying well, why not. So that was sort of how it started. We realized we had a critical mass of teachers every year requesting to do their internship in Onslow.

We couldn’t physically place all the students in New Hanover, nor did we want to. There was a real demand in Onslow for that. So that’s where we found the largest critical mass of people who wanted to remain in their local community and the interest was there. We started with elementary education. We have done some with the early childhood program. With special education, they can take some of the core courses, but also particularly for people who have a degree already, we can do a number of the licensure courses via distance learning. So they can take much of their course work in these other programs up there.

Lack: Right now do the faculty go up there? Would you say that half the courses are taught by real live people and half are through technology?

Wright: It’s probably at least two-thirds are taught on site. Our faculty travels up there. We also developed a real cadre of faculty who are part time with us and some full time which reside in that area that have the same credentials as here and then we do some of the courses by distance learning. So it’s really a combination, but probably haven’t looked recently, but probably I would guess about a third would be distance learning. A good deal of it is on site.

Many of our faculty really enjoy that population. They’re usually a little older. We got some data analysis early on. They tended to be a few years older, more of them had degrees already than our typical college campus group. Many of them are with families and family responsibility and I would say way over 50% have ties to the military. I would say probably closer to 75% with ties to the military. That’s just a guess.

Lack: When did that start?

Wright: We started looking at that sometime after 1991 and I’m not sure of the very first date, around the mid-90’s, probably about ’94 we started offering the courses.

Lack: Dr. Wright, you were also department chair.

Wright: I was department chair at the time we started the extension program.

Lack: When were you department chair?

Wright: I was department chair from ’91, I started in the fall of ’91 and I was department chair until ’96.

Lack: How did you like that?

Wright: It’s a challenge. I had been an administrator for nine years in the public school setting and I was ready for a challenge. I am probably a better developer than I am maintainer. I like starting new things and so I was ready for a challenge and a change and was sort of looking for that. I found it to be quite a challenge. I love the program development aspects. I liked working with the people. I liked helping recruit quality people to teach classes.

Juggling of schedule was a challenge. Juggling resources is always a challenge. I found the personnel aspects difficult. I think anytime you have to deal with personnel decisions and issues, it is very difficult. And it’s hard when people have been your friends to then have to be someone who has to make a decision about their lives and their careers. I found that well, I don’t like to think of it in terms of a boss, but going from a colleague to someone that has to make decisions about whether they’re going to get promoted or tenured and just making judgments.

I think making judgments about people you know well is very, very difficult. I found that very difficult. I said if I could have been department chair all but at promotion and tenure time and merit pay time, I would have loved it. But I found that very difficult and we were in a transition time where we were doing a lot of fast growth and building with lots of new procedures being put in place under a new dean.

It was a difficult position to be in. I enjoyed it and felt like we did a lot of good things during that time and made a lot of substantial changes, but it was not an easy position. It was a challenging one, let’s put it that way.

Lack: It sounds like a good way to describe it.

Wright: And then I went from there to associate dean and spent two years as associate dean working with all the outreach programs. Again that was interesting because it was things I had never dealt with before like charter schools, our relationship with the school like in science and math, those kinds of things. So that was really challenging and interesting, worked a lot with the professional development system cause it was at the inception of a new professional development model if you will.

I worked with all the school systems in getting all the formal agreements signed, the details hammered out, those signed, agreeing how we would do things and there were a lot of changes during that period of time in our outreach efforts. It was a challenge again to be a part of that, but a very enjoyable one.

Lack: How long were you associate dean?

Wright: Just two years.

Lack: Was that Dr. Tyndall.

Wright: It was with Dr. Tyndall as associate dean. I was one of two associate deans.

Lack: Did you teach as well?

Wright: I continued to teach. I think our requirement was at least three courses a year so I taught one course each semester while I was associate dean, did the same thing as department chair and then sometimes would carry some extra like a independent study or a thesis committee or something like that in addition.

Lack: Well that covers one of my questions. I was going to ask what positions have you held and what did you teach. We kind of covered that. Anything you’d like to add?

Wright: No, primarily I taught all the courses to start with including behavior management which I’m sure Dr. Lou LaNunziata would cringe over because that was not my area, but at least we got the course started and then when he came in the 80’s, turned that responsibility over to him. The other thing, did some work in the area of learning disabilities. Also have worked a lot with program planning and development.

One of my interests is program planning and development and in our master’s program, we had a course for leaders in the field of special education in how to go about conceptualizing programs and developing new programs because in the 70’s and 80’s there was a real proliferation of programs in the public schools that you had to think about, how do we serve a new population of students like students with attention deficit disorders.

How do you conceptualize program planning, not one child at a time, but for groups of children you know have needs? How do we set about doing that. So I did quite a good deal of work in that area when I was teaching. But still have continued, my first love is the area of mental retardation. I continue to teach two courses each year in the area of mental retardation and then surveys of exceptional children at either the graduate or undergraduate levels.

Lack: Did you get your doctorate at some point?

Wright: Well I started once and stopped to have a baby and started back again. I started at UNC-Greensboro. Because I already had two degrees in special education, I wanted something that was a little bit varied and so I was looking at UNC-Greensboro and their doctoral program in curriculum and instruction and then pairing that with a minor in special education from Chapel Hill.

I got started on that about 1970-71, but then got married in ’72, had a baby the next year and then moved so I sort of put a doctorate on hold until Dr. Harkin came. I was talking to him at the end of one year and said I really felt like I needed to go back to school. I was getting out of date in my knowledge base in mental retardation and learning disabilities. I’d done some seminars and things like that.

He said, and this is the best advice I ever got in all my life, “If you’re going to go back to school, go get the Ph.D. You need the union card.”

Lack: What had you been considering?

Wright: Well I had just done some summer courses. You know, I’d take two weeks here and go take a course. I went to Florida and took a real good seminar in learning disabilities with one of the leaders in the field and I had gone to a number of seminars where I could keep my license current, but also college course work. I also had wanted to finish up my curriculum instruction supervision license and make sure that I had the appropriate credential because I thought at some point I might go back as an administrator of special education in the public schools.

So I wanted to make sure that that license was current. I was always working to maintain my teaching credential, that required at that point since I wasn’t teaching in the public schools at least two courses a year. So what he was advising was just don’t keep taking a couple courses here and there to renew your license. Apply it toward the Ph.D. The only Ph.D. program at that point was Chapel Hill’s and it was in special education rather than in curriculum and instruction.

Since I was working at the university in special education, he strongly helped me think about that area. So I went to Chapel Hill, talked with people there in the program and at that time Chapel Hill had three tracks within their special education doctoral program. One was in research, one was in human services administration and one was in college teaching. So I opted for the college teaching track. It didn't mean we had much less research course work, but it meant our emphasis in terms of our internships and practicals and things like that were different.

So I went the college teaching route and then still kept my emphasis in the area of working with students with mild disabilities at the secondary level, which was one of my major interests and still is. I still am very interested in students at that upper level. So I finished in ’83. I never stopped working here. I’ve worked here at least part time or three quarters time all the way through. I took two years part time and then came back full time.

Lack: You have a daughter?

Wright: I have a son. He was 5 when I went back. He spent two summers in Chapel Hill with me. He sometimes went with me when I took exams and commuting was not easy. Interstate 40 did not exist so I probably could tell you every stop between Wilmington and Chapel Hill. I could tell you every Hardee’s and McDonald’s and at that time there weren’t that many.

But I literally would stop, get a cup of coffee, jot down notes, keep on driving, stop and jot down notes if I needed to. I usually spent two to three days a week in Chapel Hill when I was there. I had a lot of support. I had a mother and father who were supportive living here in Wilmington, a mother-in-law that would come at a drop of a hat, a husband who was always there and a son who was luckily in day care, young enough to be in day care, but not so young I felt like I was neglecting him. So it turned out to be a very positive kind of thing.

Lack: That’s impressive though.

Wright: Well what you do is you do it one hurdle at a time. I also had the support, Dr. Harkin and the faculty here was very supportive. We began hiring personnel. Dr. Steele was here so she was taking over the learning disabilities classes. I did a lot of the field supervision so that was more flexible. I actually remember leaving Chapel Hill, driving to Alberson, which is the north end of Duplin County because we had two student teachers there.

I would do my observations and conferencing with them and then drive on home in time to be home for dinner. So it takes some juggling to do that, but I tell people that have families it is not impossible to get a degree. Now interstate 40 is there. We also have doctoral programs at Fayetteville State, at East Carolina and at North Carolina State which all are closer as well as South Carolina. A number of our faculty have gone to South Carolina because they’re a little bit closer and perhaps an easier commute sometimes than Chapel Hill.

Lack: You are a good example. And you can tell people it might take a little while, I did it.

Wright: Well we have a young woman right now who is at the University of South Carolina with two children and she has a supportive mother and father that are helping her out and she’s working on her doctorate down there. I’d like to think she’s one of our homegrown products, that maybe my example made a little bit of difference because I do talk to a number particularly of young women.

Young men as well, but particularly young women to say it’s not you can’t have it all, you can do it, it is possible, let me tell you the things you need in place for it to take place. I also had a very good mentor group at Chapel Hill that was very committed to helping institutions like UNCW increase their capabilities here.

There just were not that many people coming out with doctorates. I went in with a class of six and only four of us finished. So it’s not a large field and there is a high demand. Every time we do recruitment in the field of special education, we do not get large pools. Our last recruiting effort, I think we had 12 people who applied for the position. It’s just very, very difficult. It’s not Wilmington, it’s nationwide. There are just not that many doctoral producing programs and that many people out there interested in teacher education. So it is a relatively small field.

Lack: A good experience?

Wright: It’s been a wonderful experience.

Lack: I don’t know if people can say that about their Ph.D. experiences.

Wright: I looked at it one hurdle at a time. Someone else, in fact my mentor who is no longer living told me take it one hurdle at a time. He said if you look down the road long distance, you’ll think it’s impossible. You’ve got to get your course work out of the way first. Then you’ve got to get your prelims and you’ve got to get your proposal and get them approved. Then you’ve got to collect your data and do the dissertation.

He said take it as if it were a race and it’s a hurdle race, take it one step at a time as fast as you can or as slow as you can. It took me five years to finish it, but I only took two years off part time. I came back and worked full time all the way through during my prelims, my proposal, the data collection and the dissertation.

New Hanover County schools were very helpful in helping me collect data. They allowed me access to records so I could do a study and did all my data collection here. Computers were just coming in so I could feed my data into the computers here on key punch cards. It fed into the computer at the Triangle University Computation Center and then would analyze my data and send it back here.

Lack: It was a huge time-saver.

Wright: It was a huge time saver because otherwise I would have had to go to Chapel Hill to feed in my data. I would have been running back and forth a lot more, but because of that Triangle University Computation Center capability and UNCW’s foresight and a link was already here to it, I could do my data analysis here, which was a real time saver.

Lack: Did that change things after you had your Ph.D.? Was it helpful for you?

Wright: Oh, it was very, very helpful. I learned a lot in terms of higher education. I learned a lot about how to teach. I had some wonderful faculty members at Chapel Hill that were really very versed in the ins and outs of colleges and universities and how they were organized. I think it helped me as much in the program development that we did. It also helped in terms of career track because I was here as either an instructor or a lecturer. I would not have been able to continue.

It certainly gave me a career path. When I finished my Ph.D., I was put on a 10-year track, then awarded promotion and tenure. It makes a big difference. I would not still be here if it had not been for that and certainly would not have been able to be in any leadership roles as coordinating the special education program or as a department chair or as an associate dean. I value that degree highly.

It was, in Dr. Harkin’s words, a union card in many ways because it is the key to higher education and remaining there in a career advancing role.

Lack: Good payoff. We will continue later.

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