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Lifelong passion for teaching led Kimbrough to UWA

Dr. B.J. Kimbrough in her office at UWA.

Dr. B.J. Kimbrough joined UWA's faculty in 2006.

Once wooed by NASA high school program, School of Graduate Studies dean serves key role as university's chief diversity officer

Story: Phillip Tutor | Photo: Betsy Compton

Through words and deeds, Dr. B.J. Kimbrough’s influence at the University of West Alabama seems to permeate every corner of campus. She’s a dean. She teaches. She’s the university’s chief diversity officer, chairs UWA’s Diversity Committee and serves on the president’s council. 

Yet, that career accounting omits so much.

NASA once chose her.

Her oldest son operates a sheep farm.

She’s an unabashed history nerd.

Her husband is a tournament-level angler.

Five people live in her home. Only one is female.

“My house is loud and full of testosterone,” she said. “I love that.”

There are, in essence, two B.J. Kimbroughs. One is the dean of the School of Graduate Studies who rose to administrative prominence from UWA’s Julia Tutwiler College of Education. And the other is a self-styled outdoorswoman with a deep adventurous streak and a love of sports, which is convenient, considering she’s mother to three athletic-minded sons, including twin 11-year-olds.

But there’s a twist. An intelligent and driven teenager, Kimbrough constantly heard from adults convinced she should study engineering or medicine -- that teaching, her childhood desire, was beneath her. So, she did. On the urging of her algebra teacher, the summer before her senior year she applied to the NASA Summer High School Apprenticeship Research Program (NASA SHARP PLUS), a now-defunct national effort to improve opportunities for minority students in science, math, technology and engineering.

NASA chose only 200 students each year, with selectees sent to apprenticeship sites across the country. Kimbrough, then 17, got in and was ticketed for a site in California. It became an opportunity to tickle her toes in engineering and shadow a mentor at a global supplier of car components. That it was nowhere near her rural home in Marengo County -- 2,000 miles away, at least -- didn’t stymie the deal.

“I couldn’t turn it down,” she said.

Weeks later, she returned to Alabama resolute in her decision: engineering wasn’t her passion; teaching was. In California, the woman who guided Kimbrough’s apprenticeship recognized the misalignment before the program ended.

“She had to introduce me to people at work,” Kimbrough said, “and she went on and on about how great I was. But then she would say, ‘If there's anybody in this room that's an educator, it’s B.J. That girl is a teacher through and through.’”

A summer spent in California

If you leave UWA’s campus and drive southeast, cross the Tombigbee River, pass through Jefferson and Linden, the Marengo County seat, you’ll reach a place called Dixons Mills, which features a highway intersection and the few families who still live there. It dates to the earliest years of Alabama statehood, when a North Carolinian and veteran of the War of 1812 named Joel B. Dixon Sr. began building grist mills, saw mills and cotton gins on fertile land historically owned by members of the Choctaw tribe.

Kimbrough grew up in Dixons Mills, which she lovingly describes as “a small place” deep in Alabama’s Black Belt with a single four-way stop. It’s also where her desire to teach first blossomed, a place where a child’s vivid imagination allowed dreams of a future unhampered by the rural realities of her surroundings.

In Dixons Mills, a 7-year-old Kimbrough sat at the feet of her great aunt, a teacher, soaking in decades of classroom stories. When her great aunt retired, Kimbrough collected the refuse -- old poster boards, used bulletin-board materials, leftover school supplies -- and created her first classroom at home. Her dog and stuffed animals, sitting in chairs arranged in her bedroom, became her first pupils.

“I have always wanted to be a teacher, which is contradictory to what everybody wanted me to do,” Kimbrough said. “I was always a good student and made good grades, but I would be told I'm too smart to be a teacher, and that stuck with me. I sort of take insult even now to some of the things they told me.”

In truth, Kimbrough didn’t return from her California summer merely with a reaffirmed desire to teach. She arrived with a gameplan for making it happen.

“I don’t necessarily look at myself as a leader. When I saw something that needed to be done, I was willing to do it. That just evolved into more leadership roles because I didn't necessarily wait on somebody else to do things right. I took the initiative and made it happen.”

-- Dr. B.J. Kimbrough

Her goals were specific. She wanted to attend a historically black college or university for her undergraduate degree because she believed in their mission, culture and instruction she’d receive. Though she had scholarship offers elsewhere, Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, whose education program piqued her interest, fit the bill. She also wanted to earn her master’s and doctoral degrees at universities with more diverse student populations, which brought her to UWA and Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

At Stillman, the student from Dixons Mills unmoved by engineering’s allure learned quickly that she preferred teaching younger children instead of middle- or high-schoolers. In the Tuscaloosa County School System, she gained a preference for second-grade and fourth-grade classrooms -- the former because those students were a bit more independent, the latter because they hadn’t reached the bumpy roads that often come with middle school.

“I had very select groups that I wanted to work with,” she said.

Since joining the UWA faculty in 2006, Kimbrough’s roles have shifted but remain rooted in her professional passions of elementary education and diversity. After years of teaching in the College of Education, she now divides her time as the School of Graduate Studies dean and UWA’s top administrator on issues regarding diversity and inclusion. She also carves out time to teach online classes.

“I don’t necessarily look at myself as a leader,” she said. “When I saw something that needed to be done, I was willing to do it. That just evolved into more leadership roles because I didn't necessarily wait on somebody else to do things right. I took the initiative and made it happen.”

A ram and ewe in Marengo County

Even by rural expectations, Dixons Mills is a place where the census is spare and space is abundant. The family land in Marengo County where Kimbrough lived featured pastures and livestock, but she’s not a farm girl. She’s adamant about that. She considers herself outdoorsy, an admirer of nature who enjoys the innate beauty of Alabama’s Black Belt.

Her son’s sheep farm wasn’t part of her plan, either. Blame the pandemic. Bored, out of school and intrigued by a television program on sheep, Kimbrough’s oldest asked in the spring of 2020 if he could save his money and buy sheep. The answer: yes -- but only if he researched how much money he’d need for fencing, feed and the rest.

Today, there are 16 sheep, but the project began with only two  -- a ram and a ewe -- living on fenced-in acreage on Kimbrough’s family land in southern Marengo County. Her son’s goal is to breed the sheep and turn his burgeoning pandemic project into a financial windfall. But, he’s still in school. Labor is an issue. Sheep, like children, need attention.

“This is my son's big plan and his farm, but his daddy works for him,” she said. “So my husband has to go down there at least two or three times a week, and then I have family down there who’ll check on them.”

In a sense, the sheep aren’t the story. It’s the lesson they’re providing to a teenager ambitious enough to suggest a crazy idea, a lesson of responsibility and initiative. It also falls in line with Kimbrough’s career arc, the path of a Black educator who values teaching and leading and striving for improvement, be it about elementary education, campus diversity or, even, how to care for sheep. 

As an administrator at a regional university in Alabama, the significance isn’t lost on her. 

She welcomes it.

“The way I've positioned my mind around it is, it's bigger than me,” Kimbrough said. “I'm standing on the shoulders of giants. I owe it to my ancestors. I owe it to these people. I owe it to my parents, who sacrificed for me. I was that kid who was always curious. In the summer, they didn't have to tell me to read. I wanted to go and buy every book and bring every workbook home and work through it. I feel like I owe it to them.”