Dr. Sammy Spann is Fort Valley State University’s first male family and consumer sciences graduate to earn a doctorate.
Imagine working three jobs while being a full-time student and athlete. Now visualize being only 15 years old. Before he earned the title of doctor, Sammy Spann was a young African-American male trying to make it.
Born in Albany, Georgia, the Fort Valley State University alumnus and his mother, Carolyn Spann, eventually made their way north to Macon to live with his older sister. His mother later moved to Tuskegee, Alabama, to finish her degree, but Spann, the youngest of five children, decided to remain in Macon. “I felt like I was a hindrance on her,” he said. “Her life was taking her on a different trajectory.”
Before his freshman year at Northeast High School, Spann asked an older friend to rent an apartment for him. The 15-year-old worked three jobs, played sports and tried blending in as a typical teenager.
“I lived on my own from ninth to 12th grade,” Spann said. “I kept it a secret because I was afraid of Family and Children Services and other people finding out.”
Although his mother was unhappy about the situation, Spann said this was something that he had to do. “She called and checked on me almost every day. I had such a respect level for her that I didn’t want to let her down,” he said. Sometimes living without electricity, Spann would bring his dirty clothes to football practices to wash them, and his coach would let him rest during class on days when he came to school tired.
Also struggling at an early age with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a speech impediment and five years of special education in elementary school, Spann had little interest in attending college.
“I had a school counselor tell me that I needed to learn a trade instead of going to school,” he said.
However, a FVSU program benefiting low-income students provided an opportunity for the 1999 Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS) graduate to step out of his comfort zone and challenge himself. He realized his true calling through Camp Adventure, which allowed him to travel the world to work with American military children.
The Fulbright scholar’s aspiration to help children led to the decision to major in infant childhood development. “I also wanted to understand why I was put in special education and why the barriers were created against me. That hunger for trying to find out why led me to getting a master’s degree and Ph.D.,” he said.
Upon graduating in 1999, Spann received a scholarship to attend the University of Northern Iowa to pursue his master’s degree in special education. He also created a program, “Confidence through Self-Control,” to teach children how to self-regulate their behavior. In 2001, he graduated and returned to his alma mater as the FCS recruiter, bringing more than 65 new students to FVSU.
After a year, the University of Toledo in Ohio hired Spann as a graduate student. In 2009, he earned his doctorate in special education with severe behavior. “I walked out on faith and came to Toledo. I’ve been here for 16 years,” Spann said.
Serving in a new role as associate vice president and dean of students for the Division of Student Affairs, Spann works among 23,000 students. He recruited 72 students, mostly from FVSU and Florida A&M University, to Toledo to attend graduate school on scholarships.
As Spann continues to grow in his new position, he knows every day that he’s likely to run into someone like him who’s trying to overcome a challenge when the rest of the world is telling them they can’t make it.
To remind himself of where he came from, Spann keeps a framed Macon Telegraph clipping of his story from high school in his office. “When I get above myself, I look at it and lean on the experiences I had at Fort Valley,” he said.
As FVSU’s first male FCS graduate to earn a doctorate, Spann said the faculty created a strong foundation that gave him the resiliency to get to where he’s at today. Those influences also came from outside the gates of FVSU. A local Marine Corps veteran served as a great mentor for Spann. “He knew deep down that I could do something better than what I was doing, and he made sure to push me to do it,” he said.
His father, Samuel Williams, a Vietnam veteran, also instilled a strong work ethic. “He’s my hero,” Spann said.
Setting an example for his wife, Melissa, a 2002 FVSU chemistry graduate, and daughters, Jada and Joi, Spann said he wouldn’t change anything about his journey. “When I look back on what I went through and how I got there, it amazes me,” he said. “I’m 44 years old, I’ve traveled to 63 countries and I got my Ph.D. before I was 35. I’m grateful.”