Leap of faith: Local leader heads to Harvard

Betty BeanKnox Scene, Our Town Leaders

Last week Drema Bowers turned 56.

Next week, she’ll move to Boston, where she has accepted a job as assistant director of student support at Harvard Divinity School. This will be the Greeneville native’s first time to live outside the state of Tennessee.

She’d never been to Boston until this May, when she went there to see her elder son, Thomas Mitchell, receive his master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School. While she was there, she had a couple of conversations that got her thinking:

One was with a social worker friend of Thomas who told her that her professional training and experience would make her “very marketable” in Boston if she ever wanted to look for a job there (Bowers is director of student and advocacy at Pellissippi State Community College and has also been director of service learning & civic engagement and a counselor).

The other was with Thomas, who had been student government president at West High School and earned his undergraduate degree at Rhodes College in Memphis. He told her that he didn’t want to return to the South to live. He asked her to consider moving to Boston and bringing his younger brother and sister, George and Donna Mitchell (recent college graduates), with her.

She had a lot of internal debates and vividly recalls her regrets at paths not taken – primarily when she passed up an opportunity to attend her dream college – Virginia Commonwealth. And she decided to go for it.

“I’d never considered applying for anything, but I started thinking, ‘Let me see if I really am marketable…’”

So, she applied for a couple of interesting jobs and quickly found out that Thomas’s friend was right. One of the job openings was at Harvard Divinity School. She didn’t mention Thomas when she filled out the application forms.

“The more I got into it, the more I realized, ‘I really do think I want this job.’ I knew I would enjoy being able to help those who are going out to help others – not all divinity students go into the ministry, you know. If I can show compassion to them, they’ll show compassion to those they are going to go out and work with. But it was a long process.

“I’ll be working with students who have non-academic barriers outside the classroom. That’s exactly what I’m doing now,” she said. “The second part of the job is academic coaching – making sure disability accommodations are being met. I work with a team that does that here, so I have some understanding. It was like the job description had been written for me.”

She got through the first round of interviews without telling Thomas and was past the point of no return when he told her he’d changed his mind about heading back down South. He was going to take a job as an assistant minister in an Atlanta-area church.

“When I told Thomas, he really wanted to talk to me and to be sure I knew why I wanted the job. I told him that I loved having the opportunity to be able to help those who are going out to help others.”

Once he understood her motivation, he started helping her learn the ropes of living in a big Northern metropolis.

“He’s been helping me know the safety aspect of this. He wants me to have a community of support and he’s connected me to churches. He wants to make sure my mental health is being taken care of and he doesn’t want me to feel isolated.”

The hardest part will be leaving her two younger children behind and upending the good family life they have built here. But they are walking their own paths (George got his degree in website design this spring from Austin Peay State University and is working for Americorps, which has placed him in a job with Stan Johnson’s Seeed, an organization that helps young people who have aged out of youth programs and need to develop job skills. Donna, who is a graduate of UT’s College of Communication and Information, has a job she loves at the Arts and Cultural Alliance. Drema knows that they will do well.

Bowers is immensely grateful to the Rev. John Gill and the rest of her church family at the UCC Church of the Savior.

“Those church members have really made a difference in my life and the kids’ lives, and I will miss them terribly,” she said.

“Thomas will be ordained in Atlanta in November. I have to say I was surprised that he decided to move down South, but I think he’ll eventually find his way back up North again one day.”

She also believes that nothing is set in stone.

“My daughter is my best friend, and we spent so much time together during the pandemic. We did a lot of talking and decided that once it was over, if we made it through, we were going to live our lives differently. I won’t be up there forever – I think it’s for a season. All I can say is it’s something I have to do.”

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.

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