By Timothy E. Rodrigue
Last June, two days before a scheduled trip to Belize to continue her studies as a budding astrophysicist, Sarah Brown had an epiphany. The former Miss Jackson State University realized her passion for studying the relationships of the universe no longer interested her as passionately as before.
“I really did a lot of meditating and praying about whether I wanted to do what I’m good at or what I’m passionate about,” Brown recalls.
As an undergraduate, Brown had nearly earned a 4.0 GPA, a feat that required studying for 10 hours a day and included three, two-week summer trips to the University of California at Berkley to examine the mysteries of how the universe and all of its parts work. Nevertheless, Brown had made up her mind. She wanted to pursue her master’s in public administration.
During her reign as Miss Jackson State University, Brown, a native of Jackson, Miss., established “Jackson Public School Girls Rock,” an organization designed to change the lives of girls that Brown saw more than a bit of herself in repeatedly. Many had it rough; others worse.
“I knew that I wanted to make sure that JPS Girls Rock not only continued and grew into something more inclusive; I wanted to make sure that the impact that I was making went global,” Brown recalls. “But I couldn’t do that in physics because it was taking too much time.”
While turning down an all but assured financially sound career in science may seem foolhardy to most, Brown stated that was another primary reason for changing her life.
“I don’t live for money,” Brown said. “I know what I need, and I’m okay with it. I didn’t want to focus on money.”
With JPS Girls Rock, Brown focused on part of her Miss Jackson State University Platform—Think Big. That platform called for giving back to her community in three primary ways: bigger service, bigger impact, bigger success. She turned bigger impact into a mentoring program. Bigger success materialized in the form of GRE workshops, LSAT workshops, and anything else that students needed to help them matriculate to the next level. Bigger service evolved into JPS Girls Rock as Brown sought to find the reasoning behind Jackson’s high HIV and teen pregnancy rates.
“I had to do a lot of thinking, a lot of researching, and I came up with a relationship that self-esteem can correlate with dropout rates; it can have a correlation with teen pregnancy because all of these things are how you feel about yourself, and what do you want to see different?” Brown said. “So, with that, I spoke to over 3,000 girls—a few guys—I started focusing on guys at the end of my project when I developed more skills in that area. I spoke to them about how to value yourself, and how to not let where you come from determine where you are going.”
Implementing new ideas and innovative ways of thinking is great in concept, but bringing change to fruition by convincing your target audience is an altogether different notion. As an adolescent girl growing up in Jackson, Miss Jackson State University is the equivalent of royalty. How can “royalty” possibly understand the problems of a regular person? Brown had been on billboards, in commercials, the spokesperson of the university in many instances, and beyond reproach. In reality, Brown came from a single-parent home. She started working at IHOP at the age of 14, and continued to do so for five years (working the 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. shift at that). At 19, she worked for a funeral home.
“I went out to the schools and shared my story with the girls, and I told them what I went through,” Brown said. “How I saw my mom struggle; the things that I dealt with. And they were just like, ‘I can’t believe you’re like that. I can’t believe that you go through what we go through.’ You have to understand that you can’t get to everybody if you can’t share your story about how you got there. It’s like planting a seed. Once you plant that seed, it grows. It takes time. It takes patience.”
After abandoning her once impending trip to Belize, Brown began practicing patience in earnest. She applied to several MPA programs, but the lateness of her applications all but assured she would be sitting out the fall semester and waiting until the spring to continue her new life. The situation was confusing, but not to Brown, who decries the culture that “everything needs to be perfect all the time.”
“I was just at home every day, wondering what I was going to do with my life,” Brown said. “And then people would show up saying, ‘Hey, Sarah!’ and have that face looking like you have to please people and asking, ‘What happened with you going to Belize?’ And I would say, ‘Oh, I’m not going. I decided not to go.’ ‘You decided not to go?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Well what are you doing?’ ‘Well, I don’t know.’ And it’s about honesty. It’s okay to not have the perfect glamour answer. It’s okay to say you don’t know.”
Brown calls the experience “humbling.” After all, hardly anyone had ever heard her utter the phrase, “I don’t know” previously. Then LSU, more specifically, LSU Public Administration Institute Director Jim Richardson, responded.
“Jim Richardson was amazing,” Brown said. “I just could not believe he responded, and I had put in the subject line ‘Meeting Request’ because I believe in effective communication. So I was trying to set up a meeting with him. We met. He was responsive. I enjoyed it, the professors, and the program. I immediately fell in love with LSU. I felt like everyone there cared about my future and wanted to help me. It made me feel like I could follow my dreams. I feel like LSU is giving me the opportunity to take what I want to do to the next level.”
According to Richardson, the LSU MPA Program is a perfect fit for Brown and her goals. Core courses include studies in economics, budgeting, finance, organizational behavior, program evaluation, and human resource management.
“Sarah’s community efforts are important components of her academic training, and the LSU MPA Program’s evaluation and organizational behavior aspects are a vital part of what she is doing and where I believe she is headed in the future,” Richardson said. “She is a great example of how someone can take this degree and truly make it the experience they need to succeed.”
In the few short months that Brown has been in Baton Rouge, she has already begun planting the seeds and replicating what she watched grow back home. She has turned her passion of lifting up the minds and hearts of children and teens into part of her LSUMPA curriculum as her MPA project. Naturally, going out into an alien community proved difficult, and initially the girls were harder to reach than Brown had found back home.
“But they have the same stories,” Brown said. “They have been hurt, raped, abused, neglected. I think that is why I have been able to reach them in many cases. It was tough at first. ‘Who is this girl?’ Just like with all of the girls in Jackson though, I told them I would forever be their big sister.
“Everybody walks around and tries to look like they aren’t going through anything, and then they realize that everybody is going through similar things and it draws them closer and wants to make them have success. That’s what it’s about. It’s about building relationships and understanding we all go through things, and let’s help each other out. You have to work together. You can’t do it alone because you will fall.”
Brown’s crusade is to not let others fall. This is what she is supposed to do, she says. Still, there are those few, miniscule moments when everything isn’t going according to plan. The difference now is she understands that everything doesn’t always have to go according to plan, and she has the proof that the plan is only a map with many roads leading to the final destination.
“I have a book with more than 200 testimonials from JPS girls telling me I changed their lives,” Brown said. “Any time I’m having hard times, like even struggling with something in class, I just look at that book, and I just tell myself that I have to keep going, and I have to figure this out. That’s my motivation.”
The Public Administration Institute at LSU's E. J. Ourso College of Business offers a 42-hour degree program that emphasizes management and financial skills for those leading public agencies, nonprofit and healthcare organizations and for-profit organizations that interact with governmental agencies. PAI's faculty members are student-oriented and nationally recognized for their expertise in their fields. For more information, visit www.business.lsu.edu/pai or call 225-578-6743.