York, USA — With her mother gravely ill, Leanora Brown had a choice to make: stay at home with her so as not to risk her being alone if her condition worsened, or attend her high school graduation which she had been looking forward to all year.
Brown opted to stay home with her mom, who eventually passed away days later. Her death dealt a devastating blow to herself and her siblings. That situation, however, would help to shape her resolve to succeed.
Before her passing, her mom had tasked her with the responsibility to care for the youngest of her siblings. It was a vote of confidence, especially for the fact that she had older siblings and she felt she could not let her down.
Thirty years later, Brown is one of only two black professors among a faculty of more than 50, at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in the United States (USA), after gaining her PhD in economics, specialising in public finance.
With a student population of more than 11,450, the university, which was founded in 1886, is among the oldest in the United States. It offers a total of 97 undergraduate, 88 graduate and 50 minor programmes, according to its website. Courses are offered in bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral disciplines.
In an interview with the Jamaica Observer, the Spanish Town, St Catherine native spoke of the difficulties she faced in landing a good permanent job, even after obtaining her master’s degree with upper second class honours in economics from The University of the West Indies (UWI) before leaving Jamaica.
She had previously attended the Ensom City All-Age; St Catherine High, and Portmore Community College from which she gained a diploma in business education.
She eventually landed a job for a year at the World Bank’s Jamaica country office in Kingston after leaving UWI. While there, she said, she was exposed to “some of the brightest people in academia”, most with PhDs. She listened in awe as they discussed the various economic variables, and while she was curious, a little voice kept telling her she was just not bright enough to earn a PhD.
All that would change, however, when she was offered a two-year teaching job at The UWI, by Dr Michael Witter, then head of the Department of Economics, on the understanding that she would go on to pursue her PhD at the end of the two-year period.
Brown agreed, and so armed with a full scholarship consisting of a tuition waiver and a stipend for the entire duration of her programme, plus an F1 Visa which allowed her to enter the United States as a full-time student, she headed to Georgia State University in 2006.
Despite her concerns about the cold climate and cultural issues, Brown said she was able to adjust and there was a small group of Jamaicans with whom she was able to blend in easily.
“What I found extremely challenging was the work load for the programme. It was tough and intense. A single homework could take anywhere between four and five hours,” she said.
“Added to the pressure, I was forced to take some time off for the birth of my daughter, so instead of completing my studies in five years, I did it in six. I did not have much, if any of a social life, and there were times when I felt I should just give up and return home,” she confessed.
“I had to keep reminding myself of the reason I decided to come and that failure was not an option.”
Brown said that her resolve to succeed was also bolstered by an advice her father, Delroy O Brown – a retired senior superintendent of the Department of Correctional Services – gave her while she was facing challenges finding a good permanent job. He advised that I “get all, and the best education as the jobs will eventually come later”.
She eventually graduated in 2012, and spent a year at the University of Illinois’ Augustana Liberal Arts College as a visiting assistant professor. A year later, she joined the staff of the University of Tennessee.
“One of the things I noticed when I got here was that only a tiny fraction of the student population was from the black or other minority communities. As word spread that a black professor was part of the faculty; however, there was an uptick in the number of black students,” she said.
Still, only 170 of the more than 2,000 degrees awarded by the university in 2020, went to minority black students, according to the university’s website.
Since joining the university’s faculty as an associate professor of economics, Brown has chalked up an impressive list of awards, including the 2022 Excellence in Research Award from the university’s Gary Rollins College of Business.
She has authored and co-authored several pieces of work – among which are ‘Trade Liberalization: The Jamaican Experience’ which she prepared for The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), and essays on foreign aid and government spending, and tax effort.
Much of her work has been published by respected trade journals such as The Journal of International Trade & Economic Development.
Brown, whose expertise is always being sought on matters relating to her training and work, is also a regular guest on various television news programmes in Tennessee, where she has provided expert analysis, opinion and advice.
As one who is always aiming for more, Brown said she is working to achieve her goal of permanent tenure in her position.