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Donna Knight’s Love of History at the Heart of Her Work, Volunteerism

DonnaKnight2023.jpgDonna Knight’s fascination with history and a love for writing led her to two undergraduate degrees.

She earned the first degree in history from Lander University in 2012 and the second one in English in 2023.

While that might seem the norm for a “traditional” college student, Knight’s path toward college took a more winding route. She earned her degrees at Lander while working and doing extensive volunteer work in the community, including work as one of the University’s employees.

Wearing the titles of mother, grandmother and a “grandmother who is great,” Knight is the administrative assistant for Lander’s College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, where a plaque with the title “Boss Lady” rests on her desk in full view for anyone who enters the office.

While the words “Boss Lady” may sound intimidating, Knight has a gentle demeanor and is soft-spoken – qualities that belie her ability to organize and manage the college’s budget and class schedules, supervise student workers and assist faculty and students as needed. That “as needed” description covers many unscripted responsibilities, including the handling of administrative duties for the Ireland Study Tours program for students.

Knight also sets appointments and manages the calendar of Dr. Lucas McMillan, the college’s dean who recently was named interim dean for the College of Arts & Humanities.

McMillan is not hesitant to point out Knight’s strengths and abilities to keep the flow of the college moving forward and set the pace of the workload. “Donna Knight is critical to the life of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences,” McMillan said. “She is the center point of all spokes in our wheel.”

Not only does “she ably assist students and faculty with a myriad of requests,” McMillan said, but Knight also “helps plan events and programming, and keeps me ordered and grounded.  Many of our successes would not be possible without her.”

If anything, Knight’s career has been marked by a desire to help others and to work in jobs that often could be described as stressful. A former teacher at Greenwood Christian School and a litigation paralegal at the McCravy Law Firm, Knight came to Lander in 2011 to work as an assistant to Dr. Kevin B. Witherspoon, who was the director and executive historian for the Teaching American History in the Lakelands (TAHL) grant program.

Among Knight’s many duties associated with TAHL were the planning of educational programs, activities and agenda for educator’s participating in the program; coordinating seminars and weekend study tour activities; arranging book tours at cultural and historical locations, and coordinating TAHL’s  budget and financial records.

Even with that demanding job, Knight also was a permanent, part-time park interpretive ranger for the Ninety Six National Historic Site from 2012-16. With her passion for history, it’s not hard to imagine Knight leading guided tours of the site, where two major Revolutionary War battles occurred. Today, she is a volunteer at the park, where she works in the visitor center and leads tours during park events.

“I have a deep love for history, which oddly enough I didn’t have when I was younger,” she said.

However, a desire to learn more about her family’s own history, which includes Patriots who fought in the American Revolution and adventurous families who moved to settle the nation’s westward territories, led to the history degree. She continued on with studies in English so that she could write about history. “I liked the idea of the two areas of study interacting,” she said.

Knight earned her history degree while working with TAHL and being a park ranger. “People sometimes asked me, ‘can you ever say no?’”

Being in class was “a little overwhelming because I was much so much older than my classmates,” she said. “I tried not to be noticed in class. But after a while, I enjoyed the students and their enthusiasm. I felt better about being there.”

McMillan said non-traditional students play a critical role in the life of a University. “Non-traditional students give many contributions to any academic setting because of their longer sense of perspective, time management skills, and because they likely have a different rank-ordering of priorities compared with a 20 year old.”

In 2015, Knight became an administrative specialist in the Department of English & Foreign Languages, and she started writing. One of her first assignments was a memoir in which Knight wrote about the death of her 6-month-old son from a genetic disorder. “It was hard to do,” she said.

But the memoir, titled “Losing Todd,” earned her the Dessie Dean Pitts non-fiction writing award for Lander’s New Voices magazine in 2017 and inspired her to keep moving forward with her writing.

Since then, Knight has earned other awards at Lander. In 2018, she became the first recipient of Lander’s Employee of the Month program. She also received Lander’s Staff Excellence Award in 2020, and in 2021 she was a graduate of the first class of Lander’s Kauffmann Leadership Institute.

“Donna has rightfully been recognized with several staff excellence awards for her contributions to our campus.  Her skills include patience, listening, being detail-oriented, and being willing to reconsider operations for more efficiency,” McMillan said.  “She always strives for excellence and is relationship-oriented – a reason that other staff members turn to her for guidance.”