Telling Herstories: Big risks yield high rewards

Published By: ChaNaè Bradley March 13, 2024

Dr. Dorothy Conteh, retired Fort Valley State University vice president for academic affairs, recounts her experiences.

Dr. Dorothy Conteh is a pioneer. She took risks and charted new territory to make a difference in the lives of families in underserved communities in Georgia and abroad. 

Having initiated child development programming at Fort Valley State College (FVSC) in the 1960s, the 82-year-old recently reflected on how her unplanned experience at the 1890 Land-grant University provided a rewarding and fulfilling career.

“This was the first real job I accepted,” Conteh said.

The journey to Middle Georgia began with an interview that she hesitated to take. At the time she was content with her position at Tuskegee University, her alma mater. However, Conteh was encouraged to apply for the position of director of the nursery school and instructor at Fort Valley State College.

“I really was not interested for I had personal attachments to Tuskegee University,” Conteh said. But her mind changed after a visit.

“I got here (FVSC) and said, it’s not so bad.

Excitement increased when she learned there was a new and beautiful nursery school. At the time Meyers Hall was a new building. After her interview, she was offered the job as director of the nursery school.

“The nursery school was the laboratory for the home economics (now family and consumer sciences) program. I was responsible for teaching pre-school children and supervising students who came into the lab to learn about children,” Conteh said.

With a degree in home economics education, along with work experience as a trainer for Head Start and service as a lab teacher for people who worked with children, Conteh had the ability to initiate many opportunities at FVSC.

“I wrote the original Head Start grant,” she said. “At the time, Head Start was a community action program. It was never designed to be operated at a college or university,” Conteh said. Willing to try something different, Conteh proposed the idea of FVSC operating a Head Start program.

“I sold the idea that we could be a training setting for Head Start programs across the Southeast. Reluctantly the administration agreed that we could apply for grant funds. We applied and were awarded the grant,” Conteh said proudly.

Conteh said child development was her passion and Head Start was a tool to help disadvantaged families prepare their children for school.

“We knew the communities around Fort Valley needed resources. Not only children, their parents too. As time went on, we got involved in a lot of areas that were related to community development and education,” she said.  Some of the activities included teaching courses to parents and helping parents earn degrees.

“It (Head Start) became an educational site for many of the people we served,” she said. Fort Valley State University’s Head Start Program is still active within eight counties in Georgia. These counties include Crawford, Crisp, Dooly, Macon, Peach, Pulaski, Taylor and Telfair. In total, FVSU Head Start facilities currently serve 727 children from ages six weeks to 5 years-old and their families.

In addition to initiating Head Start, Conteh also had a strong teaching background. When she arrived at FVSC in 1966, she said home economics education was the only major available in the discipline now referred to as family and consumer sciences.

As time progressed, Conteh and her colleagues expanded the program by developing food and nutrition as well as infant and child development programs under the home economics discipline.

“Like agriculture education, home economics was a versatile program. It’s a cross section between food and nutrition, clothing and textiles, housing and home management, infant and child development and parenting. It was a well-rounded degree,” she said.

Many of the graduates of the program have gone on to own childcare centers, work for Head Start, or become teachers, housing specialists and nutritionists throughout the state and nation.

Beyond initiating Head Start and expounding upon home economics education programming at then FVSC, Conteh also provided experiential learning opportunities by creating study abroad programs.

“I authored the first Fulbright grant at Fort Valley State. I was always interested in international travel because my dad was in the military, as were all of his brothers,” she said.

The Fulbright Study-Abroad Grant provided an opportunity for 13 faculty members from Georgia Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’S) to travel to Ghana and Cameroon. Participants spent ten weeks studying and conducting research on in-country issues which would be used to support in-county programs and strengthen university course offerings. 

Due to her unique experiences, she wanted to expose Fort Valley students to international activities. At the time, the dean of the College of Agriculture had several contacts in the Dominican Republic.

Conteh was asked to travel with him to the Dominican Republic. There, she made contacts and realized Haiti was on the other side of the Dominican Republic. The countries were starkly different from one another, despite their proximity to each other and the U.S.

“I saw it as an opportunity for our students to get some exposure to a different culture,” she said.

For six years, Conteh and her colleagues traveled with and placed students in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) always had programs in many developing countries including Haiti and the Dominican Republic. These programs focused on teaching women how to garden, can food and prepare food more efficiently. They became strong allies in this effort to expose our students.

“There were no childcare centers. We helped them develop their first childcare program. USDA helped us. They gave us a site for doing it. Our students helped to set it up. A couple of our students also worked in the orphanages in Port-au-Prince and the Dominican Republic. These were places where children did not have parents,” she said.

Many of the parents had been killed at war and the children were labeled street ‘urchins.’ The children slept at the orphanages at night, and they begged on the streets during the day,” Conteh noted.

“It was a bad situation for the children. Four and five-year-old’s begging on the street because they didn’t have parents,” Conteh said.

Conteh said these experiences for Fort Valley students were lifechanging.

“Many of our students were first-generation college students. Some came from poor, small, rural towns and had little exposure outside their community. A few had never been to Atlanta.” Thus the study abroad program enriched the exposure of both students and faculty.

Conteh said some of her students could identify with poverty but saw it from a different perspective in a foreign country.

After serving the institution in multiple capacities, Conteh’s latter part of her tenure at Fort Valley State University was her role as vice president of academic affairs. She held this position under president Dr. Kofi Lomotey.

Having had international experience, teaching and community development experience, she was selected and served in that capacity for three years.

In 2005 Conteh retired from Fort Valley. Nearly 20 years later she remains active as a childcare and youth development consultant.

“I work heavily in my church,” Conteh said. She is chair of the trustee board. She also works with girls 8-15 years old in the “Godly Girls” ministry. The retired educator said she has spent years working to teach young girls etiquette, relationship skills and personal development. They also work on building self-esteem and study the Bible. 

“I see that as my work for now,” she said. Even though she is not employed by the university, Dr. Conteh is committed to making sure youth have what they need to become well-rounded and productive as adults.

“A lot of this work means providing training, support and letting the girls know that you believe in them,” she said.