By ZOË WATKINS
Laura Monks is officially retiring from her role as president of the Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Shelbyville.
Now, the 51-year-old said she is looking forward to traveling and working on the farm with her husband in southern Lincoln County. Making way for a fulfilling career and solid retirement was something Monk’s mother impressed on her at an early age and it’s something she hopes to impart on students and young professionals.
“You want to retire when everything is at a highpoint,” she said. “We work so hard making a living but we need to make a life. And that’s what we encourage our students to do.”
Having led TCAT-S through the pandemic and helped facilitate the new campus planned to open next year on U.S. 231, Monks is certainly leaving on a highpoint.
But to get to this point took her being a lifelong learner, vested in student engagement, and with the support of many great mentors.
It started with a MacBook
Monks recalled that about the time she was in the eighth grade, Apple donated Mac computers to all the schools. Taking a computer course, she learned how to program in basic and loved it.
Originally thinking she wanted to become a nurse, Monks began at Motlow State Community College studying nursing. But switched over to computer programming the next semester.
“It clicked. You know you always want to find something you are good at and it just came so naturally,” she said.
She then received her undergrad in computer information systems from Middle Tennessee State University, graduating in 1997. While working on her undergrad, Monks worked at a full-time position in financial aid at Motlow. She would get off at 3 p.m. and then attend night classes. “So I had that work experience,” she said.
After graduation, she went on to work in computer services which she did for eight years at Motlow.
But something was missing: student interaction.
So, she went on to get her Master’s in Higher Education and Supervision. “I knew that in order for me to continue being promoted I needed a master’s degree in a collegiate setting,” Monks explained.
With her background in computers, she served as Director of RODP (Regents Online Degree Program) at Motlow when online classes really starting to take off. She also helped with new student admissions, orientations, and served as an SGA advisor.
“So I really got a taste of several different facets of student services,” she said.
Several years later, she became Director of the Motlow campus.
“And that is where I got some really good experience on all the facets of running a college campus — from facilities, managing faculty, building a schedule. And it was really important to me for the community to know that was their campus,” said Monks.
That meant doing more to connect with the community and chamber and encouraging people to have meetings on campus. It also included letting industrial recruiters in Lincoln County have an office on campus so that way when new businesses came to town, they had a direct connection to education and a future workforce.
Creating this “campus culture” also highlighted her time as assistant director and then president of TCAT-S.
“Doors opened and I just had some really strong mentors in my career who saw things in me that I didn’t see and encouraged me,” said Monks.
To bigger, brighter futures
One of these doors led to TCAT-S, where Monks served as assistant director for a year and a half under Director Ivan Jones, another great mentor of hers.
After serving as interim after Jones’ retirement, Monks became the first female president of TCAT-S in November of 2017.
She had already started on her doctorate in the fall of 2016, eventually moving on to a program at the University of Memphis’ Lambuth Campus in Jackson where she graduated in 2021 with a doctorate in Leadership and Policy Studies.
Her dissertation compared how the needs and engagement of college students—such as faculty, transportation, food and housing insecurities—also impacted students in the technical college atmosphere.
Bringing relevance and pride back to technical educations was something that Monks and teams across multiple TCATs honed in on.
Where once blue-collar work was generationally looked upon as low-wage, dirty, and uneducated, Monks said today they are building technical career opportunities that pave the way for a strong, high-paying, in-demand workforce and furnishing the need with well-equipped graduates.
“We work very, very hard in connecting those students with an employer in relationships that we establish with our industry partners. The programs are very intentional because that is where the jobs are in that particular area,” she said.
Monks said this is one of many changes that came to technical education in addition to having a lot more dual enrollment classes offered.
“In some cases these students are done or almost done with their degree and can go to work making a whole lot more money than I did with my bachelor’s degree,” she said.
TCAT accreditation is based on completion, placement, and licensure. They have to maintain a 60% completion rate, a 70% placement rate, and 70% licensure rate. TCAT-S has over 90% rates on all of those categories.
“I know how powerful education has been in my life and my family’s life, and that it’s so important for students to have not just one advocate but several advocates on campus. It’s so important for them to know that somebody cares, that there is somebody working for them to have resources, and to have the best faculty. And I think that’s another reason why our completion and placement is so high is because that student has a relationship with that faculty member.”
Part of that was also building a “campus culture” at TCAT-S, where faculty, staff, and students were excited to come to campus every day.
This was challenging through the pandemic as many technical classes require hands-on classroom experience. “They literally all shifted within two weeks to online. That was a big lift,” Monks recalled.
But they were only online for eight weeks and they never dropped in enrollment, even getting new programs started in the subsequent years, such as pharmacy tech, correctional officer training, and expanding trucking classes.
“Our students had goals and they had jobs and industries that needed them, so we couldn’t just say we can’t produce any graduates this term. That would have drastically impacted industry. That was a challenge, but we learned a lot and came out better and stronger,” said Monks.
Monks officially retired on Sept. 1. Interviews for the three new presidential candidates—Daniel Owens, Jimmy Wright, and Sidney Hill–were held on Sept. 27. Jeff Sisk is serving as TCAT-S’s Interim President.