In the 1930s, women were not expected to have career aspirations. If they did enter the workforce, it was likely as a secretary, telephone operator, teacher, nurse or domestic worker. The Great Depression had made jobs scarce across the country, and for African American women, racial discrimination further challenged the availability of meaningful work. Such was the path that Vashti T. White ’72, ’75 MA navigated when she graduated from Montclair High School in 1937.
“After high school I attended the Newark YWCA Secretarial School, graduating in 1939,” she recalls. “I was employed by the National Board of the YWCA (Eastern Region), from 1941 to 1949.”
While there, White was promoted to office manager of the Business Education Section, becoming the first African American manager in that position. “I enjoyed working at the National Board and wanted to continue learning as much as I could in the field of business education.”
Her interests brought her to work at what was then Montclair State College, where she continued to gain secretarial experience as part of the College’s Business Office staff, and she began to think about how she could expand her knowledge in other areas. “I wanted to become a student of the college,” says White, who went on to earn both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in business education from Montclair, in 1972 and 1975, respectively.
“I have always been an avid and lifelong reader,” White continues. “When I was a young child, I would often sneak a book to bed and read it under the covers when I was supposed to be asleep! Therefore, it was natural for me to gravitate toward education and pursue my personal goal of learning as a priority.”
White’s business experience enhanced her teaching career at East Orange High School, which has since closed. “I developed and taught the first Medical/Dental Receptionist Course of Study,” she says, noting that during her tenure there she served as chairperson of the Business Education Department. She also taught courses such as Business Law, Consumer Economics, and Record Keeping.
White later joined the adjunct faculty at the College, teaching Secretarial and Business Studies courses. “I was the Telecourse Learning Manager for It’s Everybody’s Business, the first television course offered by the College’s Department of Business Education and Office Systems Administration,” she says. “I also served as an adjunct instructor in the Department of Secretarial Studies at Essex County College in Newark, New Jersey.”
White’s leadership extended to the community, through generous – and often groundbreaking – volunteer activity. “The most inspiring volunteer work that I was a part of was in 1974, when I was initiated as a charter member of the Beta Phi Chapter of Delta Pi Epsilon, the national honorary professional graduate association in Business Education,” she says. “I was the first African American charter member, officer, and representative of Montclair’s chapter.”
Over the course of several years, White served as the chapter’s secretary, vice president, and president.
In addition, White was an active member of the Historical Society of East Orange, New Jersey; a facilitator and instructor for the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) Tax Counseling for the Elderly program; and a volunteer for several committees of East Orange’s Elmwood United Presbyterian Church. She was editor and publisher of the Church’s first newsletter, assisted with the food pantry, and continues to stay connected to the congregation’s Youth and Young Adult Ministry.
Whenever possible, White spent time outdoors cultivating a thriving vegetable and herb garden, harvesting plenty to share with family, friends and neighbors. Having recently celebrated her 106th birthday, physical activities like gardening are no longer part of her day – but she is quick to note that she was still climbing trees at the age of 92!
When asked about her favorite Montclair memories, White points to the thrill of advancing through her courses. “What an exhilarating feeling to realize that all of my hard work and late nights finally paid off,” she says.
Although it has been a while since White visited the campus, she tries to glance through Montclair magazine to see how the students are doing. “The pictures are very colorful, and the captions are engaging,” she says.
The changes White has witnessed are vast, including the introduction and use of computers in all facets of education as well as the availability of STEM and STEAM programs. “Even with all of this progress, there is a continued – and critical – need for students at all levels to demonstrate effective skills in communication, literacy, grammar, reading comprehension, writing and mathematics,” she says.
White is especially pleased to know that the University actively reaches out to high schools throughout the community to ensure that students of a variety of income levels have access to high-quality higher education.
Of course, White is quick with a reminder of the responsibility students accept when they enroll in college. “Complete your assignments in a timely fashion and avoid any short cuts, because it will only cost you dearly in the end,” she advises. “Your conduct and actions as a student will become part of your reputation. Don’t let it jeopardize your goals.”
To White’s mind, education can promote something even greater. “In addition to academics, time must be spent on demonstrating examples of empathy and how to show kindness to self and others,” she says. “There is a strong need for these areas to be incorporated into the curriculum for all ages and into the workplace as well, to help make for a better world.”