“An educational leader with a passion for change and a championship pedigree.”
While at North Carolina A&T State University, Emilee Christopher, a 2009 graduate, learned two important lessons; how to make a plan and how to quit. As an educator and co-founder of a non-profit organization, she has committed her life to inspiring and educating others to do the same.
The child development and family studies alumna is the director of operations at Girls Prep Lower East Side Middle School in New York, N.Y. There, she spends her days entrenched in all aspects of the school’s operations, from finance and human resources to safety and food services.
Throughout her life, Christopher has been faced with a surplus of choices that have put her decision-making skills to the test. It all began in 2006 with the help of an associate professor in the School of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, Dr. Thurman Guy. Dr. Guy helped her make a major decision to leave the Lady Aggies basketball team and fully concentrate on her academics.
Upon graduation, the heavily involved student moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts where she earned a master’s degree in education policy and management from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
It is her drive for continuous learning that propels Christopher to higher heights and enables her to make tough decisions.
“I made a promise to myself that I would never settle for less than what I felt I was valued for or could learn from while on the way to my ultimate goal,” she says.
What was growing up like for you?
Emilee: I was born in Newark, New Jersey, right across the water from Brooklyn. I was there for a very short time of four years. My family then relocated to Atlanta, Georgia, where I spent some time until I was in the second grade. We transitioned to North Carolina, where I would say I was from. I lived in Raleigh and I stayed there all the way through undergrad at North Carolina A&T. A lot of moving and shifting around but strong family ties, especially within my immediate family because we left our extended family in New Jersey, and my parents moved their careers forward.
Let’s talk about your experience on “The Graduates NYC.” How did the opportunity to become a cast member come about?
Emilee: A lesson I’ve learned in life is that it’s all about who you know and it’s all about timing. A friend of mine, Rashad Drakeford, linked me up with the producer of the show, Randolph Sturrup, who is a FAMU graduate, and he just he wanted to have a conversation about an idea of this show he was interested in doing. He wanted to find the right mix of people. He told me, ‘Rashad brought your name up and I’d be interested in learning more about you.’ That was maybe 2 to 2.5 years ago that Randolph and I sat down in a coffee shop in Midtown. He said he needed to me create a video reel of me answering some questions and then we’ll show it to potential investors of the show to see if we can make this a thing. Two years later, I’m getting a phone call from him telling me the show got picked up by Aspire. We had a follow up meeting and I said, “Let’s do this!”
What has the experience meant for your career as a professional?
Emilee: For me, it was one of those bucket list item you didn’t know was a bucket list item, like “If I ever ended up on TV, that would be nice!” I always thought about if I were to be on TV, what would I want to be talking about? I remember a couple years ago I was working on a non-profit and I did a small piece for Fox News. It was really dope, just to be on-air, talking about content that matters. When the pitch for the show came about, and it was about really understanding the life of the Black millennial, specifically those that went to HBCUs, and how we are working to fulfill our dreams, build our careers, impact the youth…I would love to talk about those things. I think those are conversations we aren’t having on a broad scale enough. We are having open dialogue about things that happen across the globe on the show.
When did you decide to dedicate your life to education?
Emilee: A lot of it comes from my mom. I reflect and think about the random things she made me go to. She used to spend a lot of time volunteering. I remember having access to academic programs and afterschool programs that helped shape me into who I am. Of course when you’re in high school, everyone’s like, “I want to be a doctor, or a lawyer.” I knew I wanted to help people and I was thinking about those civic careers but I didn’t start thinking about education until I was getting ready to go to college. I had an internship at a local hospital in Raleigh and it was really great because I wanted to be an OB/GYN for a long time. I got to that point in my rotation, saw my first birth, and that was a lot to take in all at once! I kept thinking about how I could help people and I kept getting drawn back to helping kids.
You went to NCA&T and you went to Harvard. Were those experiences everything you expected?
Emilee: A&T was everything I expected and more, and same thing about Harvard, but Harvard was a different type of challenge. I knew when I was about halfway through A&T that I wanted to be in education. I wanted to shape what I wanted it to look like. During my junior year at A&T, I had an internship at our child development lab on campus where half of it was teaching and the other half was administrative support. I loved the kids in the teaching part, but I felt stuck in one classroom and I wanted to impact broader. When I had the administrative rotation, I said, “This is it!” I don’t know what this looks like though because when you think about education all you see are teachers and principals. I knew I wasn’t ready to go into the workforce and I wanted to better understand what was in the education space. I looked over Harvard’s program and professors, and Education Policy and Management and felt like it would be a great fit.
Talk about your roles that you have in education in New York City and what you do.
Emilee: My full-time job that helps me pay my bills is Managing Director of Talent at Public Prep. Public Prep is a network of single-sex charter schools in NYC. We have three schools in the South Bronx, and two schools in the lower eastside of Manhattan. We are really working to change the face of education by not just pushing academic goals, but pushing academic rigor along with character development. How are we really developing the whole child? I’m actually the basketball coach at the lower eastside middle school. As I kept going through undergrad, grad school, and volunteering, I realized that I love the middle school age group.
What’s the biggest challenge for you in education?
Emilee: When I think about the work that I do from a policy perspective, what we’ve seen across the board for years is the decline of the quality in people coming out of teacher education programs. People don’t want to be teachers. I think American society doesn’t value teachers enough.
Finding a passion will guide you to find your purpose. What is your passion and when did you know?
Emilee: I would say that my passion is education. It’s helping youth figure out who they want to be. So many people helped me figure that out and I think it’s only right to pay it forward. I think I figured out that education was “it” my sophomore year at A&T when I stopped playing basketball mid-year. I had a really dope internship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and it was really transformative. A pivotal trip for me was when I went to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. It was a leadership experience with Gallup, where they brought 25 random HBCU students together. We talked about things like, “Who are you?” and it was the first time I’d really had those conversations. The whole experience started off with a survey called “The Strengths Finder 2.0”. I always knew I wanted to be a leader and work with people but you look for those words that help you articulate that and “The Strengths Finder 2.0” gave me that language.
There’s a disparity between people who are realizing their dream and those that aren’t. What separates those people?
Emilee: Drive. If you have a dream and you want it, you just have to go get it. It’s as simple as that. If you have a dream and aren’t doing anything to go and get it, it has nothing to do with anybody but yourself. Some people will say, “My boss got in the way” or “This got in the way” and I live by the mantra of “Ask for forgiveness, not permission.” Stop waiting for the OK from someone else to do what you feel is right.
How do you define success? What motivates you to chase success on a professional level?
Emilee: The realm of education has so far to go. It’s still very reminiscent of the old-school school house, with kids sitting in rows, with books and there’s a bell. I think we need to reconfigure how education is working. We need to transform it. The children who are learning now are not the same children who the education system was built for. Success looks like making steps towards that. It’s helping my current organization develop and refine education in our small realm and replicate that. I think that success for me is malleable. It’s not, “Here’s my bar.” It keeps changing. It’s at the end of the day, really seeing I’ve impacted change. My success is not lived through me, it’s through those I’ve impacted.
The political climate in America right now is very hot. A lot of people on social media are using the term “stay woke.” What does it mean to you?
Emilee: It means stay aware and stay relevant. Know what’s going on. You need to stay aware of what is going on around you because you never know when the circumstances might change. You also need to know what your place is in all of it. I don’t want to say I’m just “staying in my lane” but I do know that education is how I want to impact change. When you start spreading yourself too thin, you’re not effective. Things are going to keep changing around us, especially as Black people. We have to stay aware because we have to stay apart of the narrative.
What would you say frustrates you the most about today’s culture?
Emilee: Today’s culture, especially when you think about social media, is that “presence” means “active”. When I say that, I mean, you putting a post up means you are now a full part of the movement. We appreciate your post, but have you gone to talk to your local Congressman? Are you going out in the community talking to kids? What are you actually doing behind these posts? The movement is multifaceted. It is not just through social media. It is not just through marches. It is not just through policy. We have to attack discrimination from every angle.
Do you feel like you know yourself? What would be three attributes that make up Emilee Christopher?
Emilee: I feel like I know who I want to be. I feel like I know where I came from. I’m ever evolving. The person I am today will be a little bit different than the person I am tomorrow, and that person is different from the person I was 5-10 years ago. I would say consistency, decisiveness, and strength. I try to be decisive in my decision-making by leveraging the information that I have so I can make the best decisions for me. I try to be consistent as possible because I have a daily mantra that says, “Do what you say you will do.” When I fall short, I own up to it and move forward. I also show strength- I’m there for my friends, family, and colleagues and whoever needs support. Life is hard, people have different challenges and struggle with different things so I think it’s all of our jobs to learn from each other and respect each other.
What advice do you have for young students and professionals that want to be extraordinary as an educator?
Emilee: For the younger people, like 18 and under, you have a choice and it is your fault if you don’t use it. You can gain access to whatever you want now on the Internet. Don’t ever let anyone tell you “no.” Choosing to sit back and be comfortable is also a choice. Choosing to strive for better things is a choice. For the young professionals, one thing that impacted me is this concept “Don’t be afraid to quit something.” In life, I’ve learned that your path will change and adjust and the fear of getting outside of your comfort zone and not quitting something will hold you back from your blessing. The way I pivoted from being in a school to being in education to being HR in talent was because I made a decision that I wanted to leave the school I was at because I felt that I was stagnant. I knew nothing was going to change until I shook something up. For those struggling to figure out their next step is, or trying to understand “Is this right for me?” sometimes leaving something is just as powerful as getting a promotion.