College in the family
Get to know Clark’s executive cabinet. The leaders of the college have long titles and lots of degrees, but they’re also … people. Each month we’ll feature a story about these individuals so you can learn a little more about the people leading Clark College. Read the previous profiles of Dr. Michele Cruse and Brad Avakian.
Education is the focus of Vanessa Neal’s career
When Vanessa Neal first navigated her way to college, she knew she’d found her place. Since then, Neal has spent most of her adult life working at colleges in various capacities. She is currently Clark’s interim vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion, her second job at Clark. She previously worked in human resources, eventually serving as Clark’s director of talent acquisition and development.
As an undergraduate student at the University of New Mexico, Neal was a full-time student while serving as a new student orientation leader, resident adviser, athletic tutor and she helped run the Black Student Union.
She also had a college internship working for Def Jam, the influential hip-hop record label. Neal chalks up that experience to being in the right place at the right time. She was talking to the residence hall director when the director received a phone call from the record label’s New York headquarters. The director handed the phone to Neal.
“The person said, ‘this is kind of random. I work for Def Jam and I have some artists who are going to go through New Mexico. They’d like to stop at your school,’” she said.
This was in the early 2000s, before social media had conquered marketing. Labels like Def Jam needed people on the ground to spread the word about new music. Neal was the first Def Jam college representative at the University of New Mexico. As an unpaid intern, she handed out CDs and swag, brought physical copies of CDs to radio stations, organized listening parties and—when artists arrived on campus—helped them meet the audience.
“It was a cool moment in time,” she said. It wasn’t something she viewed as a career path despite a longstanding interest in music (Neal played clarinet and saxophone in middle and high school).
Dedicated to dad
In graduate school, Neal also worked full time at the University of Denver.
“I think it sealed a lot of the deal for me,” she said about her path to working in education.
Toward the end of her graduate program, Neal’s father was diagnosed with cancer.
“I was actually doing my thesis at the base of a hospital bed,” she said.
Her father passed away on the same day Neal completed the program. She dedicates her graduate degree to her father.
“My parents were mentors to me,” she said.
They frequently spoke with her about the transformative power of education. Her father talked about the importance of students taking their education seriously.
After graduate school, Neal continued to work at the University of Denver. Her favorite part of the job was the graduation ceremony, which she helped organize. She loved watching students move across the stage to cheers from their family members, a sight that still prompts tears of happiness, she said.
“College is often a family decision and graduating from college is really a family celebration,” she said. “An education is something that can never be taken away from you. It’s a way to break open new possibilities.”
Drawn in education
Education has been a passion in Neal’s life for some time.
“Each time I’ve stepped outside of higher education,” she said, “something always draws me back.”
These days, Neal spends most of her free time with her sporty 8-year-old son, driving him to tennis, basketball and baseball practices and cheering him on during games.
Neal, who identifies as bi-racial, enjoys sharing her cultures with him. She is teaching him to make tortillas, using her family’s traditional techniques, which require practice to finesse.
“We don’t use a recipe,” she said.
She is soaking up the time until her son embraces another one of Neal’s passions and heads off for his own college experience.
Story by Lily Raff McCaulou