Katricia Pierson may have a new title on her business card, but the newly installed president of East Central University is not changing her approach to academic leadership. For Pierson, that approach has been a lifetime in the making.
Pierson took the reins at ECU from retiring President John Hargrave March 1, having spent the past two years serving as provost and vice president for academic affairs — Hargrave’s second in command.
The path that led Pierson to ECU began in the hills and woods of northeastern Oklahoma.
Pierson was born in Tulsa, where she attended school through the sixth grade before moving to Jay in Delaware County.
“I grew up on Grand Lake,” Pierson said. “It’s beautiful but it’s a heavily wooded retirement area — my grandparents called it their summer home. As a teenager, my closest friend was miles away.”
Pierson’s mother was a public health nurse, and her father was a truck driver.
“I had a very working-class upbringing,” she said.
Pierson finished high school in Stillwater in 1979, then “bounced around” back and forth between Oklahoma and Wyoming.
“My mom, through her job with the Public Health Service, by then was working outside the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, so I went up there,” Pierson said.
By 21, Pierson was a divorced mother of two who, having seen her mother struggle as a single parent, decided she needed to make a change.
“I’m 21, I’m divorced and I’m on welfare, and I’m like, ‘I’ve got to do something here, this is bad,’” she said. “A friend of mine was working on his master’s degree at (the University of Oklahoma), and he said, ‘You can do this!’ So I packed everything up, and I went to OU.”
Pierson pursued a degree in journalism, but near the end of her undergraduate studies, her younger son began to experience respiratory issues and fell ill.
“I was a senior, and I started missing classes. They were doing a lot of tests because he had a lot of lung problems, so I called my mom and said, ‘I’ve got to take a break.’ And she said, ‘Why don’t you come home, live with me and let’s get him well,’ because (the doctors) thought it was cystic fibrosis,” Pierson said. “It wasn’t, but I had to take about a year off to get him recovered. It was just a viral form of pneumonia, and he was just a really sick little boy.”
Pierson completed her bachelor’s degree at the University of Wyoming in 1988, adding English and a teaching certificate to her studies in journalism.
“I started teaching so my kids and I had the same hours,” Pierson said. “I ran the school newspaper and the yearbook. To this day, there’s something about old-school print — I love it. I think it’s an art, knowing your story is too long and you have to cut an inch. You think in space and size, so what are you going to eliminate from your story?”
Pierson’s grandparents retired to Claremore, which brought her back to Oklahoma.
“I got a job teaching at Foil outside of Claremore,” she said. “It was a tiny little school with about 500 students in K-12, and people were wonderful — absolutely wonderful. Five years in, the principal said, ‘You’re going to have to get a master’s degree. You’re going to have to start working on it.’
“Well, in my mind getting a master’s meant you quit your job and you go back to school. I didn’t know you could do both, so I quit my job and I applied to different universities. I studied journalism and English, and I thought that meant I had to get a Master’s in journalism or English. So, I applied to English programs because, quite frankly, I thought that seemed to be easier,” she said.
Pierson was eventually accepted into a masters program at the University of Arkansas.
“Arkansas picked me up and paid me a graduate assistantship, which I didn’t even know existed, and I thought, ‘How cool is this? I get paid to teach a couple of classes, and they’ll pay for my school,’” she said. “So, I went to Arkansas and once I started teaching at the university level, that was it — I never went back. I love it.”
But it wasn’t long before she realized her desire to become a university professor meant going back to school, again.
“I realized to teach at the university level I would need a Ph.D., but my advisor wanted me to go somewhere else to get it,” Pierson said. “They like diversity to make you marketable, but at the time my sons were in high school and I had a daughter, so moving wasn’t really an option.”
Pierson completed testing to enter the university’s post-graduate program and convinced the powers that be to allow her to pursue her Ph.D. there, in Arkansas. She went on to earn her Ph.D. in English with a concentration in medieval British literature.
Once finished with her Ph.D., she took a job teaching at Pikeville College in Kentucky.
“I spent three years at Pikeville College teaching,” she said. “Rural Appalachia is a tough place to live if you’re not from there. It’s claim to fame is that it’s kind of the epicenter of the Hatfield and McCoy feud. Its rural, almost into West Virginia and Virginia — it’s right at the peak of the far eastern corner. It’s coal mining country, and it’s rough. My mother would send me clippings of jobs closer to home.”
From Pikeville, Pierson took a position at William Woods University in the center of Missouri and spent seven years there before taking her first position as assistant vice president for academic affairs at ECU in 2011.
Pierson has had to struggle and climb to reach the office she now holds, and she said she understands a lot of what today’s college students are going through, specifically citing working, single parents trying to earn degrees to change their lives.
As the university carefully navigates an era of uncertainty brought about by budget cuts and state revenue failures, Pierson said she is confident the university can overcome the challenges ahead.
“I feel blessed to be (ECU’s) ninth president,” Pierson said. “And I will do everything in my power to see to it that it stays strong.”