Meet Tonya Parker
Native Maconite - Profession Assistant Dean to Cultural Affairs at Wesleyan College
By Nicole Thurston
When she walks into a room, her very presence lights up the place. Having never met a stranger, Tonya Parker will walk right up to you and begin a conversation. For her, it is about the connection. Her smile is healing, her words comforting, and her ability to truly listen has set her apart from the pack. Raised in Twiggs County, Tonya spent her childhood with her nose stuck in a book or riding her bike and wandering around her neighborhood. “Growing up I was the curious and ambitious child. If the answer was “no” I wanted to know why,” she explained. “I enjoyed my alone time as a child, and I still do as an adult. I always have been quite reflective; I have kept a journal since I was 12 years old.”
Unlike other children her age, Parker had to overcome a very tragic event that would put her on the path to serving others. Her father was killed by a 17-pound cement block being thrown from an overpass. It crashed into the car, killing him instantly, with both Parker (9) and her older sister (11) in the car. “I saw the whole thing happen. Something that traumatic changes your whole way of thinking,” she said, “I thought my mind would never heal from the vivid images that often recurred, let alone my heart and the emotions that followed. I can truly say that this accident drove me straight to God. It was either that, or insane. I needed something much greater than myself or anyone else to heal properly.”
Turning to writing and poetry was the therapy she needed more than anything. Her need to take these lemons and turn them into lemonade is what pushed her to eventually become the Salutatorian of Northeast High School in 1997 and attending Wesleyan College. “I felt a pull towards theology and religion while at Wesleyan. Even though I majored in English, and was two classes away from completing the Philosophy major as well, I decided to continue my education in theology. I was accepted into Candler’s School of Theology at Emory and Vanderbilt’s School of Theology. However, after starting a program at the Bibb County Teen Parent Center and several communities under the Macon Housing Authority, I felt the need to stay and fulfill a more immediate purpose.” She would then go on to study at Beacon University’s Christian Life School of Theology in Columbus, GA. She ended up with a Master of Theology.
But this was not the only turning point. “The other life-changing event was my divorce in 2012. I was completely devastated when my husband of 5 years abruptly left me without explanation. It was the kind of thing in which you come home, divorce papers are on the table, his closet is cleaned out, and you’re left trying to understand what happened and why.” Parker had been working for the Girl Scouts of Middle/Historic Georgia for over 13 years at this point. “I went from being a camp counselor in college, to a membership manager and camp director, until ultimately I became an executive camp director in which I supervised, directed, and supported other camp directors for 86% of the state of Georgia.” Though her job was fulfilling and she made a lasting impact of thousands of girls’ lives, she knew she needed a change.
Which led her to catapulting the Tubman African American Museum’s education department to major success. After almost four years with the museum, an opportunity would come along that would bring her full circle, using all of her life experiences and education. “I am now the Assistant Dean of Diversity and Inclusion at my alma mater, Wesleyan College,” smiled Parker proudly, “What I hope to accomplish at Wesleyan is very similar to what I hope to accomplish in the community. My goal at Wesleyan is to develop and implement educationally meaningful and inclusive experiences. We are a very diverse campus and I aim to help bring out the best of our differences to enhance learning and understanding by intentionally creating inclusive experiences. Every student, staff and faculty member should feel a sense of belonging at Wesleyan, and all of us can if we are open and willing to try.”
If that is not enough, she also teaches a group of middle and high school students called “The Movement” at Harvest Cathedral every Sunday. She became a licensed and ordained minister in March of 2015, and she is only 37 years old.
“We cannot change one another, but we can directly change ourselves.,” smiled Parker, “If you want to see something different, do something different. That is something that I live by. Gandhi stated, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I do that everywhere I go. I live what I believe and I hope my example makes a positive impact on others.”