If you want a glimpse into College of Education Alumna of the Year Tonia Holmes-Sutton’s intense dedication to and enthusiasm for education, you can review her triple-degree academic credentials. Or take note of how education is the tie that binds her impressive work history and deep community involvement.
Or you can just take a short trip back in time to when Holmes-Sutton — already delicately balancing on the family and career high wire — decided to test her mettle by returning to UNLV in pursuit of her doctorate in educational leadership after earning a master's of education in 2004.
“Challenged by my own ambitions, I was navigating the beautiful chaos of life as I simultaneously pursued National Board certification, worked full time as a Clark County School District educator, and sought to balance my professional endeavors with my personal commitment of building a family with my husband,” she said. “I was continuously challenged to envision myself as a doctoral student, even as I wrestled with the statistics regarding rates of persistence and achievement within doctoral programs.
“I recall the late Dr. Teresa Jordan, who at the time was a professor emerita at UNLV, sharing that only 1 percent of the American population held doctorate degrees. I felt overwhelmed, stressed, and often anxiety-ridden as I committed to becoming part of that 1 percent.”
Despite the added challenge of needing to complete her research before the College of Education’s doctoral program was shuttered, Holmes-Sutton did indeed join that 1 percent in 2012. She’s since worked diligently as an education advocate for Nevada, including as a governor-appointed member of the state Board of Education from 2014-19; board director for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards; and a teacher and leader for the Clark County School District.
Additionally, Holmes-Sutton also serves as director of the Nevada National Board Professional Learning Institute: Empowering Teachers as Leaders and Learners, an organization she founded in 2017 that worked in partnership with the Public Education Foundation. She further supports educators through her work as interim state director of Teach Plus Nevada, a national organization whose programs empower teachers to take action to improve opportunities and outcomes for students.
Away from the education sector, Holmes-Sutton’s philanthropic efforts have included working with Three Square food bank and serving as a host family of foreign-exchange high school students for International Experience USA. She also is a past president of the UNLV College of Education’s Alumni Association.
The coronavirus pandemic has reminded all of us about the power and importance of being resilient. Share a moment from your time at UNLV that helped build resiliency in you.
It’s difficult to define any single moment, because in fact my entire experience as a UNLV doctoral student cultivated a resiliency that has propelled me into positions of leadership and service that I never could have imagined I would embrace. Yet, a moment of great significance that compelled me to acknowledge my resiliency occurred on Nov. 9, 2012, the day I successfully defended my dissertation.
That was the first time I was addressed as Dr. Holmes-Sutton, which caused me to pause and recognize all that I had endeavored to arrive at that point in life. That very moment would later remind me that I possess great resiliency, and I can and will continue to persevere in all that I do. In fact, we all possess this resiliency, and it’s what sustains us in all times and manners of crises.
If someone had told a 19-year-old you, “Someday, you’re going to receive an Alumni of the Year honor,” what would your reaction have been?
Disbelief. While I persevered and excelled as a student, graduating at the top of my class in high school and also later in college, I am constantly reminded with each new adventure endeavored and conquered that I was continuously dissuaded by my high school guidance counselor from going to college.
Then as I relentlessly pursued an ideal of perfection, I later was challenged by what I would come to understand was “imposter syndrome.” Despite realizing great accomplishments and academic successes, the echoed voices of others over the years had convinced me that my achievements were flawed and lacking — that it was only a matter of time before I would be unmasked.
So many years later, I am humbly honored and privileged to embrace my perfectly imperfect and beautifully flawed 19-year-old self, and whisper one word to her: believe.
What advice do you have for today’s UNLV education students as they try to navigate our changed world?
Embrace the uncertainty of now and what’s to come with great confidence, humility, and grace. Open your minds, your hearts, your lives to the changes that will inevitably persist for each of us. Lead, learn, and serve in these exceptionally unparalleled times of change and crisis — not only as education leaders and community servants, but as boldly impassioned UNLV Rebels, hearts scarlet and gray.