Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette on Building Capacity
Mentoring matters. Just ask Huston-Tillotson University President Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette, who is nearing her one-year anniversary as head of the Austin institution.
Having benefited from the presence of strong mentors in her own life and having seen the impacts that mentoring makes on her students, Dr. Burnette understands the value of mentoring. She also recognizes the importance of physical spaces that facilitate mentoring in the community, which is why she is so excited about the creation of Big Brothers Big Sisters’ new Bennett-Rathgeber Mentoring Center.
“BBBS’ mission is parallel to Huston-Tillotson’s,” Dr. Burnette explained. “Our organizations exist to build the capacity of others. Bricks and mortar are not only tools that advance this work, they say something about its significance.”
“BBBS’ new mentoring center is a sign of growth and of spreading this good work further,” Dr. Burnette continued, “but it is so much more than that. The new center is a symbol of the difference that mentoring makes and it tells children, families and the community that they are worth investing in.”
“Mentoring is transformational. BBBS’ new mentoring center will have a transformational effect on the agency and on the community as a whole…. and when children and families walk in the door of that new space, they will know that they matter.”
Dr. Burnette’s connection with mentoring began at an early age. When her grandmother went to the meat market in Cleveland, Ohio where Burnette grew up, she would ask for extra pieces of the butcher’s paper. Her grandmother then wrote multiplication tables and vocabulary words on the paper and placed them around the kitchen. “My grandmother always made me toast and English tea for breakfast,” Dr. Burnette recalled with a smile, “and I couldn’t have any until I knew all of that day’s vocabulary words and math facts.”
Little did Burnette know that this early mentoring experience would lead her to become the president of a university in Austin, Texas, where today she is continuing her grandmother’s work as an educator and mentor. “I still carry her with me,” Dr. Burnette said. “I still carry the ‘black girl magic’ she taught me…the belief that I can do anything.”
Her enterprising spirit enabled Dr. Burnette to obtain an engineering degree and an excellent position in the corporate world. “My career is split in half,” she explained. “During the first half, I was a briefcase-carrying corporate executive, but I always had a passion to do something that required heart and mind. Then I tried working with higher education. A mentor of mine told me that I’d never excel if I didn’t have teaching experience, so, much to the dismay of friends and family, I quit my corporate job to teach at a community college.”
Seventeen years later she is still immersed in the world of education, a field that she sees providing opportunity for each generation. “My grandmother saw education as the key to opportunity,” Dr. Burnette remarked. “As a child, I didn’t know that college was optional. I just thought it was the ‘13th grade.’ It was what came after high school.”
“Every generation’s plateau is the platform or springboard for the next generation,” she continued, “and it is education that allows us to advance from one level to the next.”
This philosophy underscores Dr. Burnette’s passion for the work of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and mentoring organizations. She perceives these organizations as offering opportunities to groups that are often overlooked. “At Huston-Tillotson we do something special which is a part of mentoring. We wrap students up in a cocoon of safety and we help them understand that they are special, that they matter, that they are smart and that they can succeed. We give them the support and the tools they need to explore, to develop and to grow…which is what BBBS does as well.”
As the two organizations help individuals, Dr. Burnette knows that they are also helping the community as a whole. “Successful students and mentees become happy, productive citizens, and happy citizens are connected to the community and motivated to give back. BBBS helps students and families find better, more successful paths forward, and that helps everyone.”
“And I’m not just talking about economics or keeping kids off welfare or out of the juvenile justice system,” Dr. Burnette continued, “It’s so much more than that. When children miss out on opportunities to discover and realize their potential, our community loses doctors and teachers and artists. We lose wealth and capacity in a very different way.”
There is a natural connection in Dr. Burnette’s mind between BBBS and Huston-Tillotson University; a connection that extends to the new mentoring center. “BBBS’ new facility will take the agency’s work to a new level by building the organization’s capacity to add staff, to serve more children, families and volunteers, to engage with clients, donors and community partners and to serve as a greater resource for the community as a whole.”
“The new mentoring center will also make a powerful impression and statement, and when children see the new, bigger and better building they will think ‘This is about me. This is for me. I am important.’ And that sense of being valued is critical. It is what we all need to thrive.”