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Joan Scott Wallace '52 chatted with students in Lydia's Lounge before delivering her lecture Thursday night. Shown with her, clockwise, are freshman Jasmine Lemon, sophomore Jelisa Coleman, and sophomore Iveree Brown. Wallace's lecture was one of the activities organized by the Black Student Alliance in observance of Romeo B. Garrett Week.
By Nancy Ridgeway
“When opportunity knocks, you have to put your foot in the door,” Joan Scott Wallace ’52 said as she delivered an inspirational message Thursday night in observance of Romeo B. Garrett Week. Wallace built a successful career in academia before serving under four presidents in positions ranging from assistant secretary of agriculture to ambassador. Invited to campus by the Black Student Alliance, Wallace remembered her college days and encouraged students to take the extra step and not wait for people to discover them.
“Even if you’re small, you have to behave like you’re a giant,” Wallace told the group. In college, she questioned a French professor who gave her a B as a final grade, even though she had earned A’s on all of her papers. When he wouldn’t change the grade, she took the matter to the next level and got her grade changed. “You are not going to lose if you tell the truth and have the proof,” Wallace told the students, noting she was fearless when it came to her grades.
That fearless persistence continued in her professional career. As she shared work experiences, it became clear she didn’t back down when difficult people stood in her way.
Wallace fondly remembered Garrett, Bradley’s legendary sociology professor who was an inspiration within the black community and beyond. Originally a pre-med student, Wallace changed her major to sociology. She clearly remembers Garrett’s politeness and how he tried to involve the entire class in discussions. When students heard comments about blacks being like animals, Garrett had an answer: “Animals have thin lips, and we don’t have thin lips. Animals are hairy, and we’re not. Other races are hairy, but not us.”
Wallace said she didn’t encounter racism among her peers and was elected president of her dorm for two years—despite a house mother who spread her racist perceptions. On Sundays, though, when the dorm cafeteria was closed, she had to eat in friends’ homes as most restaurants in the Peoria area would not serve blacks.
After graduating from Bradley, Wallace earned a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University and a Ph.D. from Northwestern University. She built an accomplished career in academia, rising through the ranks as assistant professor, associate professor, full professor, dean, and vice president. From there, she served under four presidents, becoming the first African-American assistant secretary of agriculture under the Carter administration.
“I didn’t know a soybean from sorghum,” Wallace recalls, noting she handled administrative policy for 120,000 people. “You can do these things if you have a management mind. You can’t be afraid of yourself. You have to step out on faith.”
Wallace brought in people from all races to work in her office. “I wanted to demonstrate that everyone has talent, and we don’t want to have a lily white office.”
When Reagan took office, she asked for a job in the international arena. “Again, you have to take the extra step,” she told the students. Wallace worked in 52 countries, providing technical assistance and training to developing countries; leading U.S. delegations to international and United Nations meetings; facilitating agri-business in the Caribbean basin; managing research in India, Pakistan, and Poland; and exchanging technology with 36 countries. Under George H.W. Bush, she served as a representative (Ambassador rank) in Trinidad and Tobago through the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation and Agriculture. She returned to Washington during the Clinton administration, managing the International Cooperation and Development Agency, and retired soon after.
Wallace closed her lecture by advising students to “be ready” as they begin their road to professional careers. She reminded them to put the foot in the door when opportunity knocks and said, “And then you hold the door open for your brother or your sister behind you.”