A 30-plus year enthusiastic, creative, and passionate educator, mentor and advisor who believes that students of all ages, economic, social and ethnic backgrounds can learn and thrive in a learning environment that is stimulating, comforting and appropriate to their unique talents and abilities. "That" is the perfect description for GVSU's Cassonya Carter. Her passion for helping others and mentoring students, along with the gift of song, makes her this week's Powerful Woman: Let's Talk!
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Produced by women about women. Powerful Women, Let's Talk is a series of interviews with women who are trailblazers and have helped shape our world transforming who we are and how we live. Powerful Women, Let's Talk is made possible in part by Family Fare, keeping it real.
Jennifer Moss: Hello everyone, it's time for Powerful Women, Let's Talk thanks so much for joining us today. I'm Jennifer Moss and today's powerful woman is Cassonya Carter. She is the senior academic for the office of student services with the Kirkoff College of Nursing at Grand Valley State University. For more than 30 years, she's been a creative and enthusiastic and passionate educator, mentor and advisor and not only that but, she has a beautiful voice which has led to her being involved with various plays, musicals, gospel recordings and whole lot more. She has sung the national anthem for various athletic events including get this the Detroit Pistons and so she's very involved in the community and is the founder and still a member of the voices of GVSU, a wonderful group. This happened when she was an undergrad student at Grand Valley back in 1987. Cassonya Carter I want to welcome you to Powerful Women, Let's Talk.
Cassonya Carter: Thank you Jennifer. I count this an honor and a privilege.
Jennifer Moss: Absolutely we're glad to have you here with us, thank you. So you know, I don't know exactly where to start because you've been involved in so many things but, I think I want to start with the voices of GVSU. Now, that started long ago, but you're still in it, you're still volunteering your time to keep that going and you also have become a mentor to many students which they even give you a nickname momma CeCe. So, how did you come up with the voices of GVSU was it out of a particular need?
Cassonya Carter: Yes, it was back when I was a student at Grand Valley. I was very active in my church choir at that time and you know being on campus it was really hard to go back and forth because at that time I didn't have a car either and so I was really really missing my church choir and missing that connection because I had an awesome mentor and choir director Craig L Tyson has passed away, but he would always call and motivate, you know and keep me encouraged to stay involved in school and keep it up and you know he knew that I missed the choir so having that mentorship and him calling him to keep me uplifted really kept me going and then I started talking to some of the students that were there and they were missing, their church choir was missing them. So, I started the Voices of GVSU as a way for us to stay connected to our roots and be on one accord you know, through song.
Jennifer Moss: Absolutely and again you have a beautiful voice and you all have done numerous performances in so many places. Have you not?
Cassonya Carter: Correct. We've had the opportunity to sing on various programs with one of the Clark sisters Dorinda Clark-Cole, we sang on programs with her -- we've even had the opportunity to sing at Marvin Sapp’s Church in various churches around the Greater Grand Rapids area, the Detroit area and the Chicago area when I was an admissions counselor at Grand Valley. I used the choir as a recruiting tool so we had the opportunity to go into various high schools to introduce them to Grand Valley but, got them introduced to the gospel choir and later on I found a lot of students came to Grand Valley because they were exposed to the gospel choir and we're excited about the opportunity to continue on doing what they love to do in their home city, their home church that they didn't have to give that up and I got a chance to meet a lot of parents who were excited when you're sending their -you know son or daughter to a PWI that knowing that someone that looks like them was going to be able to watch over their son or daughter.
Jennifer Moss: And so, and the need for that, I mean did you think that when you started back in 1987 that it would grow to be as big as that is? You all are pretty much in demand and in a number of places.
Cassonya Carter: I had no clue at that time and at that time it was really the focus on what I was missing and then when you grow older and mature and you see things outside your own little box. I thought that the need was there and the need was not about me anymore, the need was about giving back and pulling in. So, what I had been nurtured and matured with Craig L. Tyson and Jerome Bennet, some of my music mentors and Dwayne Bennett from GRCC, another one of my music mentors I was able to give what they gave me, so it was a roundabout way set up.
Jennifer Moss: But it worked and it worked really well, and I know that the kids you serve as a mentor to so many students, I mean obviously you are at the Kirkoff College of nursing, but you also serve as a mentor to so many students. How did that come about did that have something to do with the choir or did that just have to do with you and your belief in in education?
Cassonya Carter: I think a combination of both because I think that everybody needs a balance and if we only focus on sure I can get a student to come to Grand Valley or to go to college but, we need things to keep them there. They know if they're just focusing all on their academics and they have no personal life we're going to lose them so they need that balance to be able to take a break, I mean we as adults need a mental break -we can,t just work work work. We have to take a break during the day as well. So making sure that the student that you know has that balance and knows that okay, I can't get home, but I got someone that I can call and I always tell the students you know- I don’t care what time it is if you need me call me, I'd rather talk a student out of doing something that may cause them harm you know whether it's a bad choice even if my female student decided to go somewhere and they find themselves in a compromising position, call me I will come get you. I just think knowing- having that support system is so important in these days and times of back then too knowing somebody cared enough to keep you on track all the way but, also listen I wasn't there to judge them, I'm there to help support them, you know because I didn't do a lot of things as well and I don't mind sharing because I'm a strong believer that what you go through is not just for you, it's also to help someone else go through life and I look back even with losing my mom at such a young age, you know when students lose a parent, I'm able to share, I’m able to help I'm able to hear their heart, I'm able to you know share with you know I still go through it, you know here I am at a certain age, you know even now at 57 I still have those days where I miss my mom and now that my dad’s gone, you know gone home to be with the Lord, I miss my dad. So you know it doesn't stop, you know what most people say oh you'll get over it, no you don't get over it, you get through it.
Jennifer Moss: Absolutely that's a good word there and so you, you're in the education field, you're helping the students and you have a belief about education right about students of all ages, everyone should be able to thrive? Tell me about that that belief.
Cassonya Carter: That belief is that students don't care how much you know, so I could have a PHD be very polished and so on so forth they want to know that you care so that's so important, you know, I'm not a fan of pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, I'm not a fan of that even though a lot of people say it. I just believe that it is up to us as educators to pour what we know into the students and to be there to support them along their journey because they're coming to us as great students already.
Greatness is already inside of them, that's my belief. We are there to help pull that out of them, we're there to nurture them and allow them to grow. Yes, they're going to make mistakes and things like that but, to not allow those mistakes to hold them hostage.
Jennifer Moss: Yes, and so as we talk about powerful women have there been any barriers that you perhaps have encountered as you traveled along your careers path and I asked that knowing that you had a daunting experience in your life and tell us about that near-death experience and would that be encompassed as a barrier to you would you think?
Cassonya Carter: Yes, it would. I had a near death experience where I ended up having a bowel obstruction. I didn't know I was that sick where it caused an emergency surgery in through all of that I ended up in the hospital in a coma and then had a stroke and woke up from the coma and I was paralyzed on the left side and not knowing if that was permanent and things like that and it messed with a lot of things within me. I stuttered, I had to learn how to walk, talk and just get me back together and it was really hard because you know when you are used to helping others now you've got to get the help yourself and that was really hard then to you know I thank God for just Grande Valley and the support system that they had at that time even with being able to not have to worry about OK, you know get doctor visits, you know being at Mary Free Bed because I was with Mary Free Bed for like about a month if I recall, but then I also had to go there for over a whole year of rehabilitation in order to even be able to drive
Jennifer Moss: So you had to re-learn everything?
Cassonya Carter: Yeah, until I passed that test couldn’t drive. So I remember someone would come and pick me up and take me to choir rehearsal because I couldn’t drive so all of those things to have to depend on individuals to help me out and that was that was a struggle to have to do that but, again I know that we go through things to help someone else so you know when I have some students that may be struggling with their voice or stuttering I tell them believe it or not, I still stutter too and I still do. These are the things that I've been doing to try to help me get over that or I get a little nervous now because certain things don't work the way they used to I have to think a little bit harder but, I used to be able to remember numbers or remember things. I write down a lot of stuff and sometimes that can notice the difference. I had to build my confidence back up that I can do this and that I'm not a hindrance and you know all of those things that having something like that happen to you play a part in building yourself back up, but you know, I'm a strong believer in faith, I’m a strong believer in God and my faith and I know that that was very instrumental in me not giving up.
Jennifer Moss: And really not a barrier per se but, more like a stumbling block because you surely pulled it back together.
Cassonya Carter: Yes. Like even with some things I still can see if I can get this together this is not going to happen like right now, Ill battle with Crohn’s for the rest of my life and so you know I get infusions every 8 weeks to try to help maintain my immune system and things like that so that I can continue to have every bit of normalcy that I can and watching what I eat and trying to exercise and all of those things that help us stay healthy.
Jennifer Moss: Absolutely and it's a lot of work sometimes in doing that, but you know
what you need to do so that you can enjoy your life correct? You've come a long way because you also are now after all of that I know you're running like 5k’s and 10k's so you've come a long way in turning that around.
Cassonya Carter: Yes and I enjoy it and I enjoy it to the point of being able to give my disease, a black eye. I don't love running, I don't you know from that standpoint this is not my life. This is my passion to prove that you don't have to allow your short comings to dictate your future so I'm not going to Crohn’s beat me, I will beat it. It is in my life, but it does it doesn't dictate my life.
Jennifer Moss: Wonderful that's that good attitude to have. So Cassonya, on your road on the journey in life, you know we all strive to move forward. Many women say or they look back and say you know it took a while for them to get comfortable to find their own voice and kind of like to own it. Are you comfortable in your own skin and if you’re not or if you weren't at some point what would it take to get comfortable or kind of have that that strong voice?
Cassonya Carter: I had to learn how to love me, you know sometimes we're so busy trying to fit in the mold of what society says makes you successful, so you know sometimes we allow titles to dictate our success more than our own self-worth and that was a struggle for me because I always thought well if I don't have this title, if I don't if I'm not doing this, you know, I'm not making a difference but, what I've learned is I’m making a difference and somebody's life is impacted and for me that’s better than any $10,000 raise to know that someone was impacted and their life is better because we connected and that we were able to overcome some things together. I have I had a young man, I'm basically I'm a better man because of our conversation, I'm a better man because you checked me the at the door when I was doing some things when I didn’t have anything to do. Now I'm married and I’m a husband, I remember some of the things you taught me. $10,000 can’t do anything that what that can because now he carries that on it he passes it, you know the torch has been passed and now I see him doing things in his community and making a difference that right there changed my whole concept of my purpose and why I'm here. I'm not here for a title, I'm not here for position, I'm here to make a difference and to impact.
Jennifer Moss: Wow and you’re definitely there-you're owning your voice there. That's very good. So what leadership traits do you kind of like to see perhaps within you and yourself on this journey or those that you work with, those that you mentor?
Cassonya Carter: Lead by example, and you know, I know that’s always a cliché we always say but, be able to say OK I missed the mark, I messed up okay. Being able to own it as they say “own your stuff”.
Jennifer Moss: That's right they do.
Cassonya Carter: You know part of being a leader is also learning. One of the things that I love about my current supervisor or director Kristen Norton is that in our team of staff that we have she allows each one of us to shine with our strength, you know, so I have, we have a 2 staff members now, that are just computer literate I call one boy wonder and the other one girl wonder. I mean they just know. They know the computer and they process things with technology so quickly, that's not my gift.
Jennifer Moss: What do they say? Stay in your lane?
Cassonya Carter: I stay In my lane and she doesn't compare us to each other. She knows that it takes this do make this and work this and together we make a whole and that is good leadership. Recognizing the strength of your team because those strengths are going to make your team go forward and not trying to have everyone looking the same. So that some of the things that I love in a leader is allowing your people to shine at the same time building on some of my weaknesses, my weaknesses can become my strength and even if they don't they’re not as weak as they were last year.
Jennifer Moss: You have a good enthusiastic and positive way of looking at things. I'm learning things as I listen to you and talk with you and I think that's where you're going with all of the things when you talk about barriers or leadership, you take your experience and you give it- you pass it on. Whatever it is you've learned from, you pass it to the next person. So tell me this how do you balance your work life with your personal life, you know because work and as you know especially these days with all that's going on you know sometimes it’s hard it’s a blurred line sometimes so how do you balance everything.
Cassonya Carter: It’s hard sometimes because I'm learning to say no and sometimes I’m saying no and still saying yes.
Jennifer Moss: Right I believe that.
Cassonya Carter: But, making sure I take some time out for me and if anything this pandemic has taught me is learning more about me and taking time for me because there was a time when we had we couldn't even you know, especially when we had a curfew and I think that was like the hardest time for me is when we had the curfew in Grand Rapids back in the summer with the unrest of George Floyd. And you know you're working all day you know by then I had started you know adding walking into my regimen because of being quarantined in the house and then we had the curfew and here I was working until 5, you know sometimes not getting out until a quarter after or 5:30 and then being told we get the in the house or we couldn't be out walking anything by 7 o'clock. That was very frustrating for me because now you've taken my me time away because that was the time that I sometimes would leave. Zoom call and all of that kind of stuff can get to you after a while because you’re in the same spot, it’s not like being at the office where you can getup and go walk down the hall or what have you and just walk into the kitchen *inaudible* but to have that taken away because sometimes I would walk so far that is like okay by the time I get home, it's like OK and a breath of fresh air change of attitude because the change of scenery. That was hard but, I still had to take the time out for me and that in the process of saying no and still saying yes, I'm learning in this season to take some time out for me and to say it's OK, it's OK if after I get off work that I don't get a chance to you know, let's say vacuum on that Monday, but OK it will be OK I can vacuum on Wednesday, it’s OK.
Jennifer Moss: You don't have to be stuck to a schedule, give yourself a break basically
Cassonya Carter: Give yourself a break from having this regimen that has to be perfect.
Jennifer Moss: Yeah, that's a big deal. OK so here is one of my all-time favorite questions ask every powerful woman this what makes you laugh? They say laughter is good for the soul, I know I love to laugh, so that's one of my favorite questions. What makes you laugh?
Cassonya Carter: I’m real silly but, you know most people really know me know I’m always finding something funny or a good meme. I love to watch silly shows that most people think like that is so stupid well, but it made me laugh. I love comedy. I do like things like The House of Pain just something that may not be real, but it just keeps me going but I love it. I love a good joke, clean jokes. What really makes me laugh is sometimes watching Family Feud.
Jennifer Moss: My goodness.
Cassonya Carter: It is just, it will keep you really tickled.
Jennifer Moss: Absolutely and sometimes you just you can't believe. You're more interested in those questions you're like why is that up there? Really?
Cassonya Carter: I’m like Really you said that. Which people did you answer of ask these questions to? Oh and my little nephew keeps me laughing. He’s not little, he’s 13 now but, some of his responses when we’re talking just tickle me because I’m like you really said that to me?
Jennifer Moss: One last question as so much is happening in the world that we live in today and people are often looking for a word of encouragement. I know we all are many days. Do you by chance have any favorite sayings or models that you use to encourage yourself and others?
Cassonya Carter: The challenge in front of me is not as strong as the power behind me.
Jennifer Moss: Oh wow that's good- good.
Cassonya Carter: What doesn't challenge you, you can't change. You know, you've got to be able to change and change is not always bad and sometimes we're conditioned to think that change is bad but, if change makes you better the challenge was worth it.
Jennifer Moss: Yeah that and the change is OK.
Cassonya Carter: Yes.
Jennifer Moss: Absolutely.
Cassonya Carter: And even if the challenge, you know the challenge that changes you is scary, you have to look at yourself better because it.
Jennifer Moss: Absolutely.
Cassonya Carter: You know you might not like the result but, you are better because of it.
Jennifer Moss: Cassonya Carter, thank you so much I really enjoyed this conversation want to thank you for joining us today and taking time to talk with us and of course I also want to thank you, our listeners for joining us once again for this edition of Powerful Women, Let's Talk. I'm Jennifer Moss.
Produced by women about women. These powerful podcasts focus on powerful women and how their strength transforms who we are and how we live. want to hear more Powerful Women, Let's Talk? Get additional interviews at WGVU.org or wherever you get your podcasts. Please rate and subscribe. Powerful Women, Let's Talk is made possible in part by Family Fare, keeping it real. It is produced by WGVU at the Meijer Public Broadcast Center at Grand Valley State University. The views and opinions expressed in this program do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU, its underwriters or Grand Valley State University.