A Pioneer in the UNO and Omaha Communities
Mary Mudd has inarguably been one of the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s (UNO) strongest leaders. Beginning her career here in 1969, Mary developed a passion for the university and its students. She served UNO as Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, and she is responsible for two major projects: Project Achieve and campus housing.
Her work with and for students at the university is inspirational, and her leadership has extended into the Omaha community. Mary works as a real estate agent today and has been instrumental in the creation of projects to increase homeownership among minority families. UNO would not be what it is today without Mary.
Early Education Inspiration
Mary Mudd was born in the 1940s, during a time of transition. The world was changing around her; the United States was in the midst of mounting racial tension that would lead to the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, and women were still fighting for equality in education and employment.
She grew up in public housing on Atlanta’s west side, across the street from Atlanta University Center, which was the largest coeducational consortium of historically African American educational institutions in the country at the time. Every morning on her way to elementary school, Mary walked through the Mars Brown campus. Growing up next to the University Center and its activities, Mary always knew she would go to college:
“I didn’t know where I would go, but I knew I’d go somewhere. I grew up across the street from all these colleges—even though it was public housing—and I saw college students all the time, so it wasn’t unusual to think that I could do that” (Interview).
Mary did well in school and went on to attend Booker T. Washington High School, the first black public secondary school in Atlanta. Her parents supported her pursuit of education and encouraged her exploration of other creative outlets such as music, especially since her father played in a band himself. Mary began to play the clarinet at just seven years old. Music had and would continue to have, a great impact on her life.
She joined her high school band and traveled to colleges to play in competitions. Through band, she became familiar with Tennessee State University (TSU) in Nashville. Later, a TSU student teacher came to her high school to direct the band and encouraged her to attend the University, where she planned to pursue a degree in music.
After graduating from high school, Mary received a scholarship to attend TSU. Although Mary left for TSU with dreams of earning a degree in music, she soon realized that her passion was in education: “I took piano lessons growing up and I do love music, but I hated practicing. I wanted to be with people. With a music major, everyone spends their time locked up in little private practice rooms all over campus, but everyone is alone. I couldn’t do that” (Interview).
Mary changed her major to education, subsequently losing her full-ride scholarship to TSU. Her parents still supported her choice, and they all worked together to come up with the extra money needed to pay for Mary’s tuition. She recalls, “I just realized it was the right thing to do. And as long as I had a way of paying for college, I didn’t let that bother me … I started working in the residence hall office typing the old-fashioned way. When guys called on the girls, I would get on the PA system to announce visitors” (Interview). Even with this setback, Mary did not give up her dreams of graduating college.
With her parents’ support and blessing, Mary majored in Elementary Education. Shortly after graduation, Mary moved back home to Atlanta. She taught seventh grade for two years and decided to pursue her master’s degree part-time while teaching. In 1958, the United States government enacted the National Defense of Education Act, which provided scholarships to college students attending both public and private institutions. Because of this federal grant, Mary was able to attend college full-time at Atlanta University.
Mary worked hard to finish her graduate coursework, and she only had a thesis left to complete by the end of the 1964–65 school year. With very little work left, Mary received a job offer that would change her life.
Women's Job Corp. Center
Wellcome Bryant, a very well-known educator in the Omaha Public Schools system and an activist working for the Burroughs Corporation, visited Atlanta University. Burroughs Corp. had received a federal grant to open the Women’s Job Corp. Center in Omaha, Nebraska. The Center was a vocational program geared toward young women, ages 16–21, to prepare them for future careers. Bryant was working with the Center and Omaha Public Schools to recruit minorities from southern Black institutions to work for either the public schools or the Women’s Job Corp.
Mary and another graduate student from Atlanta University accepted Bryant’s offer and moved to Omaha on June 7, 1965. They moved into the Paxton and Regis hotels, located in downtown Omaha, which were home to approximately 900 young women in a dorm-like atmosphere. Speaking of that experience, Mary says that “it was like having a college campus, like having two University Villages [the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s (UNO) campus housing] downtown, with all the traffic going between them and all the people walking.”
As part of the Women’s Job Corp., Mary was hired as a resident advisor. Soon after, she became a supervisory counselor because she was almost finished with her master’s degree. This advancement put her in charge of the rest of the resident advisors, staffing, and training, and it also helped prepare her for her future career in administration at UNO.
To and From Omaha
On June 30, 1969, the Women’s Job Corp. closed its doors, mainly due to opposition from local businessmen working in the downtown area. As this opportunity ended for Mary, another emerged. She was hired by UNO in September of that year as a counselor and instructor for undecided and undeclared students. Not even ten years later, in 1977, she became the Director of New Student Orientation, a position that she held until 1981.
Although her work kept her busy, Mary still found time to start a family and even begin work on her doctoral degree at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln. “That was a long haul,” said Mary. “I had two kids then. We made it, and I didn’t get a speeding ticket going back and forth to Lincoln.” A smile slowly spread across her face as she continued: “I was leaving Lincoln at 9:30 or 10 at night, and in order not to fall asleep on the drive home, I had to drive with my window down to keep my eyes open. I’d take two classes at a time, twice a week. It was quite a haul for a number of years. Six… seven… eight” (Interview). But, she eventually graduated with her Doctorate in Higher Education Administration in 1984.
Mary worked at UNO for another two years after completing her degree until her mother fell ill in 1986. She moved her family back to Atlanta to care for her mother until she passed away in 1988. Although she enjoyed being in Atlanta, a poor housing market made it difficult to move permanently. With “a house full of stuff in Omaha,” and an 18% interest rate, “we couldn’t put the roots down that we wanted to [in Atlanta].”
Mary moved back to Omaha after working as Dean of Students at Mars Brown for two years. “When I came back, I started knocking on the doors again, asking, ‘You got any jobs?’” She laughed softly at the memory. “And Dr. Joe Davis, who I consider to be my mentor—he’s retired now—said the position of [Counseling Center Director] was open. So, I came back and was director of the UNO Counseling Center and University Division” (Interview).
After working in that position for a number of years, Mary became the Assistant Vice Chancellor for Student Development Services, which meant being in charge of a number of areas such as the Testing Center and Disability Services.
In 1999, Mary became Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs. As Vice Chancellor, Mary was responsible for overseeing all student support activities. The Milo Bail Student Center, campus recreation, counseling, admissions, financial aid, testing, and the Office of Multicultural Affairs all reflect the energy Mary put into her work and the love she has for higher education and the university.
Bringing Progress To UNO
Mary has been an integral part of the University over the years. Among her greatest accomplishments at UNO, the two facets of her work of which she is most proud, are bringing Project Achieve to the University and getting student housing on campus.
Project Achieve is a student support service aimed at first generation college students. Mary wrote the grant that obtained the funding for this program, and it has been successfully renewed every four years since 1993. Mary reflected, “One of the things I’m really, really proud about is that I was able to write a grant—the first federal grant in this area that was awarded—for Project Achieve.
The goal of the project was to support students who didn’t have anyone at home to say, ‘Did you get your application turned in?’ ‘Did you file for financial aid?’—things parents who went to college know to ask. These are students who, if no one took the time, wouldn’t know what to do” (Interview). As quoted in Kris Kohlmeier’s article, “Project Achieve celebrates 10th year,” Mary “proposed funding the program after realizing first-generation students are a large percentage of UNO’s total enrollment. She says this is still true today, which is why the program continues.”
Mary was also successful in bringing housing to UNO’s campus: “The University had talked of it for many, many years, but nothing ever came of it. That was the only piece that UNO didn’t have. They’d been known forever and ever as a community institution. Some saw [housing] as a total negative...but it added a new dimension to the university” (Interview). She and some colleagues visited other colleges for inspiration, which led to the creation of University Village at UNO. The addition of campus housing provided “new experiences” and “allowed the university to establish itself as a competitor in the university system.” Mary proudly reflects on the fact that campus housing was really the “thing that changed UNO for the better.”
New Arenas for Teaching
After 32 years of service to the university, Mary retired in 2003. She is presently employed as a real estate agent for CBSHome in Omaha, but the teacher inside has never retired:
“I see real-estate or being a realtor, as being a service to the community because everything I do, I see as education. I work with a lot of young home buyers, scared to death, afraid to make wrong decisions. I use that moment to teach about homeownership and what they need to do to be prepared. It’s nice to make money, but I see it as an opportunity to educate the public in a different venue, which now just happens to be houses. I won’t be a millionaire, but it’ll supplement my retirement,” Mary said as she smiled (Interview).
Although her work keeps her busy, Mary has always found time to participate actively in her community. She worked as a board member of Girls, Inc., worked with the Visiting Nurses Association, was the president of her graduate chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority (of which she is now treasurer), helped create the Women of Color Luncheon, served as a chair for the Women in Leadership Conference last year, and even served on the Board of Directors for the Butler-Gast YMCA. Currently, Mary is a member of the Omaha Metropolitan Chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women and works with minority realtors and lenders to reach out to the minority community about homeownership. She sings in the Voices of Victory Choir at Salem Baptist Church. She was also instrumental in the creation of the Women of Color Awards to recognize “‘she-roes’” who make “valuable contributions to our community that would otherwise not be recognized” (Parker). And, the community has not forgotten the work she has done as one of those valuable women.
In 2003, Mary was honored with the Durham Western Heritage Museum’s Award on behalf of the African American Achievement Awards by the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, and she was also honored at the 10-year and 19-year anniversaries of Project Achieve.