By Dani Moritz-Long
In sixth grade reading class, few of us selected literary masterpieces for our book reports based on the caliber of an author’s writing or our passionate interest in a novel’s themes and narratives. On the contrary, most of us quickly counted the pages of available books or defaulted to a novel we had read over the summer.
Courtney Demings, now a coordinator, program advisor, wasn’t much different. Recalling her sixth grade book report selection process, Courtney says she chose Martin Luther King, Jr. for her book report topic, but not because of a genuine desire to learn more about him or a deep-set appreciation of the movement he’s famous for. In actuality, Courtney explained, she chose Dr. King because she thought it would be an easy task to regurgitate historical facts and analyze his well-known “I Have a Dream” speech. What she discovered, however, was inspiration and a passion that would change the course of her life.
“By the end of sixth grade, I believe I read 20 to 30 books on his life,” she recalled. “His leadership, quiet spirit and love for people captivated me.”
This interest continued and followed Courtney into her adulthood. She expanded her studies to include his wife and co-laborer, Coretta Scott King, Ambassador Andrew Young, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, and she found opportunities to share her research and passion with others.
In March 2018, she joined her aunt on a civil rights pilgrimage. Led by civil rights icon and leader Congressman John Lewis, she and others traced Martin Luther King, Jr.’s steps from the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, to the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was assassinated in 1968.
“There were students, athletes, business leaders and civil rights leaders engrossed in this experience,” Courtney said. “It changed my life. For the young girl who lived and breathed books on the civil rights movement, it was a dream.”
Recalling one particularly powerful experience, Courtney said, “In Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, a gentleman, John Suttles, and his wife sat next to my aunt and me. My aunt introduced me to the couple. During our introduction, I found out that this man was beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, on Bloody Sunday. As we were leaving the sanctuary, Mrs. Suttles turned to me and said, ‘You’re my future. I’m depending on you.’ I have to admit that I was shocked and unsure of what to say at this moment. Mrs. Suttles gave me a charge, a call to action. It was an honor to be surrounded by giants of humanity, people who bled, sacrificed, marched for millions of individuals that they would never meet. Such a pilgrimage is awe-inspiring and life changing! I desire to live up to Mrs. Suttles’ call and make a difference in society for the betterment of humanity.”
One way she’s answering this call is by changing lives at Valencia — an institution devoted to equity, access, diversity and inclusion.
Specifically, Courtney, who has a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in educational leadership, changes lives for West Campus students studying engineering by building bridges from Valencia to the University of Central Florida. Through this role, she participates in developmental advising and creates campus events and other opportunities to help students refine their skills and develop academic and career pathways.
She also channels her commitment to inclusion by developing workshops, like Seeing and Being, Finding Value in the Workplace.
“Our department is actively engaged in the concept of building morale,” she said. “I think that building morale can also emerge as a deeper exercise within a department. At the core of building morale is value, validation and acknowledgment. It’s a way of saying, seeing and being. It’s a way of saying the South African expression, Sawubona — the acknowledgment is that we see each other. Orland Bishop, founder and director of the Shade Tree Multicultural Foundation in Los Angeles shared this quote in the Global Oneness Project, Sawubona video, ‘That becomes an agreement … Seeing has empowered us to investigate our mutual potential for life.'”
Overall, Courtney explains, she finds inspiration for her work in her ability to serve and make a difference in the lives of students. Perhaps more aptly put, Courtney finds inspiration in the realization of dreams.
“I am always amazed by our students resiliency and humbled by their stories,” she said. “I meet students who have relocated to the United States from other countries and successfully acclimated to our higher education system. I meet parents who are working full time and pursuing a degree. I’ve met a stay-at-home mom who is coming back to Valencia after 15 years of not being enrolled in school. Our students are dreamers, achievers and, yes, overcomers. Their drive inspires me to continue to pursue excellence in my career, education and life.”
Commenting on her ability and passion, Assistant Director of Advising Lynn Desjarlais said, “I am always impressed with Courtney’s ability to make a student feel like that they are the top priority when meeting with her. Courtney is always looking for creative ways to help students navigate difficult educational situations with compassion and empathy. Courtney works hard to ensure that the information that she is providing to students is in alignment with information from the University of Central Florida. Her ability to make connections with faculty, staff and students strengthen her knowledge base making her an expert on the West Campus and within her division. Courtney is an incredible asset to the program advisor team.”
Know of someone who embodies one of Valencia’s values (learning, people, diversity, access or integrity), who has been an employee for at least one year? Send the colleague’s name to us at The_Grove@valenciacollege.edu. He or she might be one of our featured colleagues, subject to supervisor’s approval.