As a girl in rural East Texas in the 1930s, Mildred Sirls, a granddaughter of slaves, picked cotton to help her family survive. Through sheer determination, she obtained an education and rose to become Dr. Mildred Sirls Pratt, a tenured professor of social work who left a lasting mark on her field and her students.
Over the years, she kept copious handwritten notes on pads and stray bits of paper, documenting her struggle to overcome poverty and achieve professional distinction in an era when the doors of academia were largely closed to black women. Eventually, her daughter, would compile these notes and publish her mother’s story as the book, A Black Woman's Journey from Cotton Picking to College Professor: Lessons about Race, Class, and Gender in America.
Mildred Sirls Pratt’s daughter—Dr. Menah Pratt-Clarke—shared the inspiring lessons she learned from her mother and spoke about the importance of living an impactful life as part of a wide-ranging talk at Stevens Institute of Technology titled, “The Power of One Woman’s Voice.”
“Her life,” Dr Pratt-Clarke said of her mother, “was an example of challenging and disrupting the status quo.”
Dr. Pratt-Clarke appeared as part of the Provost’s Lecture Series on Women in Leadership. Past speakers in this series include entrepreneurs, policy experts, corporate leaders, technology innovators and a former White House physician.
“This lecture series showcases the achievements of prominent and successful women in a variety of fields,” Provost Christophe Pierre said in introducing Dr. Pratt-Clarke. “Our goal in presenting these talks is to inspire our entire university community—but especially our female students, faculty and staff—to overcome obstacles, seize opportunities and make the most of their strengths.”
A Transformative Leader
Dr. Pratt-Clarke is the Vice President for Strategic Affairs and Diversity at Virginia Tech. She is also a professor of education in the School of Education in Virginia Tech’s College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, with affiliations in Africana studies, women’s and gender studies and the Department of Sociology.
“We must remember that we rode on the backs of those who came before us and we must be the backs for those who came after us.”
She has more than 20 years of administrative, academic and legal experience in higher education, with a focus on large-scale institutional transformation. Prior to joining Virginia Tech, she served as Associate Chancellor for Strategic Affairs and Associate Provost for Diversity at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for nine years. She was also the University Compliance Officer, Assistant Secretary of the University and University Counsel at Vanderbilt University for eight years.
Speaking before a packed lecture hall on April 17, Dr. Pratt-Clarke noted that her mother courageously confronted obstacles that might have prevented her from gaining education and advancing in academia.
“How did she do it?” Dr. Pratt-Clarke asked. “With her voice.”
Using her mother’s story and her own experiences as a springboard, Dr. Pratt-Clarke urged the audience to absorb the lessons of those who fought for equality in the past and to continue working on behalf of the marginalized and disadvantaged.
“We must remember that we rode on the backs of those who came before us and we must be the backs for those who came after us,” she said.
“Each of us at some point will have power,” she noted. “How will you use it? When will you use it? Who will you use it to help?”
At the conclusion of the lecture, Christina Puntiel, a third-year chemistry major, received the Provost’s Lecture Series on Women in Leadership Award, which carries a $5,000 prize. The award was established last year and is given annually in conjunction with the Provost's lecture to a student who demonstrates leadership in academic and community endeavors.
A leader in a number of organizations on campus and a member of several honor societies, Puntiel is vice president of the American Chemical Society and the West Indian Student Organization. Next academic year, she will be the president of the American Chemical Society. She is also a member of the Diversity & Inclusion committee and holds the title of Socioeconomic Status Advocate.
Dr. Pratt-Clarke’s lecture capped off a day of activities at Stevens that included a post-lecture reception that gave students, faculty and staff an opportunity to meet the guest speaker.
Earlier in the day, a small group of undergraduate and graduate student leaders and Stevens staff heard from Dr. Pratt-Clarke at an intimate luncheon held at the Lore-El Center for Women’s Leadership, a unique living and learning residence for undergraduate women at Stevens.
At the luncheon, Dr. Pratt-Clarke, who at one time was an aspiring professional tennis player, spoke about her career journey, which took through numerous stops in law and academia. She advised her audience about the importance of making connections and building a professional network, and she spoke about important professional skills such as the ability to negotiate and the need to establish a healthy work-life balance. Dr. Pratt-Clarke also noted that sometimes, you have to allow your career to take you in unexpected directions.
Her message resonated with those who attended. Nneka Udeagbala, a third-year software engineering student who attended the luncheon, said she appreciated hearing about Dr. Pratt-Clarke’s professional journey and indicated she would take her advice to heart.
“As students, it’s hard for us to think about the future,” she said. “It’s nice to hear that not everything has to be planned, that sometimes, it’s OK to let things happen and see where it takes you.”