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As the president of Huston-Tillotson University, Colette Pierce Burnette is in pursuit of what makes her happiest: fulfilling her destiny as an educator by building an environment in which all students have a voice, feel challenged and are actively encouraged and pushed to grow toward greatness in the world outside the classroom.

By Doyin Oyeniyi, Photos by Annie Ray

“I think education is the civil-rights issue of the day, and I think that education is a weapon,” Colette Pierce Burnette says. “It’s a weapon against poverty. It’s a weapon against ignorance. It’s a weapon against all the things that ails society. When you get that education and no one can take it from you, it gives you options.”

Pierce Burnette is explaining her view on education while sitting in her office in the Anthony and Louise Viaer Alumni Hall at Huston-Tillotson University, a historically black school that officially became a university in 2005. The college was created when Tillotson Collegiate and Normal Institute, which opened in 1875, and Samuel Huston College, which opened in 1876, merged in 1952. July 1, 2017 marked Pierce Burnette’s two-year anniversary as the president and CEO of the university.

When Pierce Burnette talks, a small smile occasionally makes an appearance. It’s the smile of somebody who wears her confidence easily, who’s sure of what she knows and what she’s learned. Pierce Burnette will be 60 in December, and as she talks about education and the path that brought her to her current position as the second female president in Huston-Tillotson’s history—and the first female president since the schools merged in 1952—it’s clear she knows what she’s talking about.

The belief in the dynamic power of education was instilled in Pierce Burnette at a young age and confirmed again and again by her experiences. Her father’s large family migrated to Cleveland, Ohio, from the South, and she grew up with them in the city in the 1960s and ’70s. But for Pierce Burnette, her story really starts with her grandmother, who she describes as a light-skinned black woman from South Carolina. It was her grandmother’s experiences of discrimination alongside her husband, Pierce Burnette’s grandfather, a dark-skinned black man, that led her to place an emphasis on education in Pierce Burnette’s life.

“I know she truly appreciated the value of an education and what it could do for the quality of your life,” Pierce Burnette says.

It was her grandmother who began drilling math skills into Pierce Burnette’s mind at a young age. She recalls trips with her grandmother to the butcher shop, where her grandmother would request extra butcher paper. Once back home, her grandmother would write her math problems and English lessons on the paper and paste them throughout the kitchen—a teaching method that allowed Pierce Burnette to solve problems and memorize spelling while she ate. On days when she had tests, sometimes Pierce Burnette wouldn’t be allowed to eat until she completely understood the information. Her grandmother’s rigorous training piqued her interest in math, and soon, she excelled at the subject. Today, Pierce Burnette still sees the value in those abilities she learned.

“I think young people should take as much math as they can,” Pierce Burnette says. “Whether you’re going to be a history major, a journalist, a philosopher…math makes you think critically and it stretches the brain in ways that other courses of study cannot, that other subjects cannot.”