Series of Service
Read a sample of our online Q&A series, which highlights some of the college’s closest donors, friends, and former students.
By Rachel Knight ‘18
Selfless service is more than a phrase in Aggieland; it’s a way of life. From the time each Aggie first sets foot on campus, they are indoctrinated into the Aggie core values belief system, which consists of six ideals: respect, excellence, loyalty, leadership, integrity, and selfless service.
Though a desire to selflessly serve bonds the Aggie family together, some go above and beyond by giving back to their alma mater after finding success in their careers. These Aggies pay it forward by funding student scholarships. They embolden life changing research. They set an example for generations of Aggies yet to come and provide hope for a better tomorrow.
The College of Liberal Arts pays tribute to such dedicated Aggies in an online series of Q&As conducted with donors, Liberal Arts Development Council members, and Liberal Arts Advisory Council members. While the interviews are shortened and condensed for clarity, the influence these Aggies have on students, the College of Liberal Arts, and Texas A&M University itself reaches beyond state borders and will continue in perpetuity so long as Aggieland continues to produce outstanding leaders, thinkers, and innovators.
Kamilah Jones ‘99: Carrying On The Family Legacy
The late Woodrow “Woody” Jones, Jr. was the first Black dean in the history of Texas A&M University. Today his daughter, Kamilah Jones ’99, carries on the legacy he helped build in both the Jones and Aggie families.
Like her father, Kamilah is a dynamic leader. She uses what she learned from her family, cultural experiences, and the College of Liberal Arts to mobilize consumers and communities toward social impact by delivering award-winning brand experiences. She’s developed marketing communications programming for major brands like Verizon, Lexus, McDonald’s, Teach for America, PepsiCo, Obama for America, and Sun Chemical, to name a few.
In this interview with Kamilah, we learned what she’s up to now and how she’s carrying forward her family’s legacy.
Tell me a little about your childhood.
The foundation of my childhood was faith, learning, and culture. I grew up in San Diego, California, where my dad was a political science professor at San Diego State University. I spent a large part of my childhood traveling around the world and spending time on university campuses.
My parents were committed to building and empowering communities, so I spent a good portion of my upbringing giving back — whether that was volunteering at homeless shelters, teaching systemically underserved students, or serving HIV-positive children in Kenya. By focusing on meeting their needs and taking the time to understand their experience, I became committed to continuing the work as an adult and developed more compassion for our collective humanity.
Your dad was a pillar in the College of Liberal Arts and a champion of diversity at the university. How has your relationship with him influenced your opinion of both the college and the university itself?
If you are a daughter of Dr. Jones’, you are raised to be a leader.
When I arrived at Texas A&M, yes, I was Woody’s daughter, but I also was independent and led within my cohort. I got involved right away in different campus organizations, and I started mentoring incoming students from diverse backgrounds to ensure they had an inclusive experience.
Early on in my college journey, my father introduced the multiculturalism requirement for general education courses. There was immediate pushback on campus, even within the student body. There was deep resistance to having to learn about the fullness of our diverse human experience.
Yet, while there was resistance, many students were incredibly excited and engaged by the updated requirement. We felt that it was beneficial for all students to learn more about cultures outside of their own to create stronger leaders who could further impact our global society. We organized a march in support of the requirement and also had several meetings with university leadership.
Ultimately, the requirement moved forward and is a lasting part of my father’s legacy. The university created space for that necessary, healthy dialogue to get to a place of shared understanding and collective leadership to move forward. That experience is why I intentionally make space on teams I lead to have courageous conversations, especially on diversity, equity, and inclusion. It’s crucial to facilitate shared understanding and collective impact.
What do you consider your dad’s legacy at Texas A&M?
My dad’s legacy is alive within the College of Liberal Arts and across the university today. From curriculum to faculty to expanded degree programs, he was an innovator and had a clear vision for liberal arts being the university’s heart and soul.
Every time I run into former students or staff, the first thing they do is talk about my father. He was an advocate for people. He deeply respected the work of faculty and believed in strengthening diversity, equity, and inclusion. He would fight for students, talk with parents, and give second chances when hope seemed lost. First-hand, he knew that a college degree could provide generational impact and spent his personal time mentoring students. Any given Sunday, there would be students at our house for dinner because he took that time to ensure both undergraduate and graduate students were thriving.
When you’re the first at anything, especially the first Black American to make that accomplishment, you’re the one that carries the legacy of your community with you. The truth is my dad faced deep-rooted adversity when he took on the role because of his race, and yet he also had strong allies who rallied around him so that he could bring his vision forward. He had an incredible development council with Eddie Burge, G. Philip Huey, and others who stood by him as both thought partners and friends.
How have you used your liberal arts education so far in your life and career?
My liberal arts education is the foundation for the work that I do. I believe a liberal arts education provides a depth of understanding across multiple cultures and disciplines that allow you to see a more holistic picture of what is happening and why it’s happening.
When I approach problems or challenges in the workspace, I am the person who will ask you to step back, look at the whole picture, and ask why. I’ll ask who’s being affected (not just the immediate person, but broadly), how can we process and think about this differently, and what are the ways to change or evolve our thinking. Having a liberal arts education makes you more open and adept at navigating change and evolving for the better.
Should other people join the council as well?
Absolutely! One of the things I learned from my father as a child was that if you want to continue to see things grow and become the best version of what they can be (including yourself), you have to make the investment.
It’s easy to sit on the sidelines, but the best work comes from getting involved. That’s true about the student population of Texas A&M; we are not sit-on-the-sidelines people. We get in there, pull up our sleeves, and get to work. I would encourage any alumni from the College of Liberal Arts who want to get more involved in creating and shaping the college and the university’s future to get involved in the Liberal Arts Advisory Council or the Liberal Arts Development Council.
What do you want your legacy to be at Texas A&M University?
My hope is that by lending my leadership and talents to the College of Liberal Arts that students will thrive and live into their calling. Texas A&M should always be a place where all are welcome, all are seen and valued, and every student in the college is empowered to be the best version of themselves.
Brian Smith ‘92: Selfless Grad & C.E.O.
Brian Smith ‘92 is no stranger to hard work. He held his first job at his parents’ restaurant in the second grade, ran a lawn service business while also working various jobs to pay for college, worked his way up through the investment business shortly after graduating, started a wealth management company with three other young go-getters, and successfully grew and ran that wealth management company until 2013 when they sold it.
Smith still works hard today as C.E.O. and managing member at Smith Texas Enterprise Ventures LLC. Though this role keeps him busy, he still makes time to serve Texas A&M University and the College of Liberal Arts. In fact, the following interview was conducted over the phone as Smith worked from a $10 million commercial development project jobsite.
Tell me a little about your childhood.
I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. My dad’s degree was in chemical engineering, and he was a supervisory engineer for Procter and Gamble when I was born. We moved from Cincinnati to Elkhart, Indiana, and lived there a few years when I was a young kid while Dad worked as a manufacturer and supervisor for White Hall Laboratories, the company that made Advil.
When I was 7 we moved to Fort Worth, so I consider Fort Worth the place I grew up. My parents bought a restaurant in Fort Worth from some friends, and that’s what brought us to Texas. That was an unsuccessful venture. They had the restaurant for about five years. My dad and mom both worked full time plus they ran the restaurant. They wound up having to close the restaurant, and that was pretty hard financially on us.
I worked in second grade at my parents’ restaurant. Then when I was fourteen, I started working at a barbecue restaurant as a dishwasher. I worked at a Chick-fil-a all through high school just to pay my expenses. I bought my car, had to pay for gas, and paid for college.
How did you decide to attend Texas A&M?
After I graduated from Southwest High School in 1988, I spent my first semester in college at Texas Christian University on a partial scholarship. TCU felt too small though, and even on a half scholarship, I had to work four days a week to cover my half of expenses. Within a few weeks I felt like I’d made a mistake.
I had some friends who went to Texas A&M, and I’d gone down to visit them. I realized while visiting my friends who were at Texas A&M that I really loved it. I loved that it was big, and for me that was something totally different. So, I applied to transfer to Texas A&M. I started my second semester in the spring of 1989 at Texas A&M, and loved it!
How have you used your liberal arts degree in your career and life so far?
I would sum that up in one word — communication. I started, ran, and sold a wealth management firm in Austin over a period of about 25 years. As the C.E.O. of that company, I had to do a lot of verbal and written communication. I had to deal with a lot of legal documents, reading, editing, and writing. My liberal arts degree prepared me really well for that.
The liberal arts showed me how to take complex ideas, emphasize them, and turn them into a relevant argument that could be communicated easily and interpreted relatively quickly.
I understand that the Stacy A. ‘94 and Brian E. Smith ‘92 Endowed Scholarship in Liberal Arts was actually inspired by your relationship with a first-generation student. Tell me a little about that.
I served on the scholarship committee of the Capital City A&M Club numerous times over the years. We awarded 10 scholarships each year. One year, a particular applicant caught my eye who I felt strongly deserved a scholarship. I found myself in the committee meeting advocating for this applicant.
When we finalized our 10 recipients, committee members had the opportunity to volunteer to reach out to recipients and notify them that they’d been chosen. That year, I volunteered when the candidate I advocated for was chosen. When I called him, I shared the news, and he was very excited and very happy. I also offered to provide transportation to our Muster ceremony at the state capital, which is when we awarded the scholarships.
As I drove him and his family around that day, I really got to know them. That particular scholarship recipient is not only a first-generation college student; he’s a first-generation American. He came here in the eighth grade and didn’t know English. He is a remarkable person.
He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Texas A&M at the top of his class. He has gone on to receive his masters from Harvard and is currently in the Ph.D. program there. He’s worked hard. He’s busted his butt. He’s overcome so many obstacles to achieve great success. He’s a phenomenal young man and leader, and I know he’s going to go on and accomplish even more great things.
One of the things I said to him early on was, “You are getting an opportunity to get some doors opened for you and to have some help up. When you’re older and established, the obligation is you have to go back and serve and help others.” He’s done that and he continues to do that.
Why did you decide to further your service to fellow Aggies by taking on a leadership role in the LADC?
One of the things Texas A&M teaches us is the importance of selfless service, leadership, and loyalty. For me it’s a natural manifestation of those core values. Just like I said to my friend, there’s a certain level of obligation of responsibility that comes with receiving from others. I learned a lot at Texas A&M from the people who had come before me.
Why is it important for people to support the College of Liberal Arts at Texas A&M University specifically?
One of the most obvious reasons is that we as a college touch more Texas Aggies than any other college. More students at Texas A&M University participate in our curriculum than the curriculum of any other college. What better way to make sure you’re touching as many lives as you can than by supporting the liberal arts?
The College of Liberal Arts doesn’t teach people what to think. It teaches people how to think. I don’t mean to diminish the value of teaching people how to be an engineer or how to function in business. Those are obviously important and very valuable as well, but liberal arts is the college that has the broadest impact. As such, it’s worthy of our support — both our treasure and our time and talents.
What do you want your legacy to be at Texas A&M University?
I’ll leave legacies up to other people. I don’t want to have input on what my legacy is. I want to just be quiet, keep my head down, do what needs to be done. I’ll let other people be the judge of what a legacy of mine should be in the end.
Sarah Hlavinka ‘86: Successful Aggie Businesswoman
Sarah Hlavinka ‘86 might be the Aggiest Aggie you’ll ever meet — just ask her friends from the University of Texas at Austin School of Law where she was in fact voted the Aggiest Aggie. After graduating from Texas A&M University as a history major and Spanish minor, Hlavinka headed to Austin to study law. She made it clear that while she was studying at the University of Texas, she was an Aggie through and through. She took old and new friends to Texas A&M football games, and made sure they all had a good time — even the t-sips.
After graduating from law school, Hlavinka started her career working for a private firm in Houston. When she thought she had enough experience to market herself as an experienced employee to companies and their in-house legal departments, she started looking for a new opportunity. Her job search initially led her to Cooper Industries, and she’s held a series of in-house positions since then.
In 2007, a job with ABM Industries, a facility services company, took Hlavinka to New York City for a decade. While in New York, she became a member of the 2017 Class of the David Rockefeller Fellows Program and of the Women’s Forum of New York. She was then general counsel for Xerox in Connecticut for an exciting bit, before deciding to return home to Texas. Today she is a senior vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary for a company called Itron in Austin.
Throughout her career, Hlavinka has made time to tap into her Aggie roots every chance she gets and support the College of Liberal Arts. We chatted on the phone with Hlavinka to learn more about her story, her time at Texas A&M, and the legacy she plans to leave.
Tell me a little about your childhood.
I was born and raised in a very small town called East Bernard, Texas, which is about 50 miles south of Houston. I was one of six children born in seven years, none of whom are twins, so there was a lot of activity in the house.
Some of my very first memories are in the car going to see Aggie football games. My father is class of ‘56, so we grew up being involved at Texas A&M to the extent that we could with so many children. Sometimes it was hard to get us all into the car to go to ball games, but we did it. It was a great way to grow up.
What was your first job?
My first job was actually working as a janitor in my father’s business. My family started a tractor dealership business more than 75 years ago, which we still run today. My father is trying to retire at the age of 85! My brothers are actively involved and have grown it with the help of wonderful employees. We have multiple locations in the Gulf Coast region.
My family has an incredibly strong work ethic and this was instilled in all of the children. I was probably 11 or 12 when I started working at the shop. I would clean the bathrooms, stock the shelves, mop the floors, things like that. I translated that work ethic into babysitting at some point, and then worked at a grain dryer when I was in high school.
How do you think your first jobs influenced your life and career?
I certainly think that having a sense that I needed to work and that work was very important had a great impact on me. Particularly, my parents instilled in me and my sister that we needed to be able to support ourselves, because one never knows what life will bring. (My sister has a Bachelor of Science and Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Texas A&M.)
My parents were both incredibly supportive, but it was a bit unusual for fathers in the late 60s and early 70s to tell their daughters they could be anything they wanted to be. But my father did and I am forever grateful. In fact, he will probably be a little disappointed when Joe Biden doesn’t select me for his VP running mate (even though it’s not the party Daddy aligns with)!
How did you decide to study at Texas A&M University?
My family has two topics of conversation: Texas A&M and agriculture. Still, we could have studied anywhere we wanted. My family values education of all kinds.
Texas A&M was just the natural fit. When I went to college in 1982, my oldest brother was there as a senior, my sister as a junior, my next oldest brother as a sophomore, and then I was there as a freshman. It was very special to have all four of us there together at the same time. And then my brother was a yell leader and my parents were Parents of the Year in 1986 (how could they not be). How fun is that!
How did you choose your major?
I took general studies as long as I could while deciding which direction to head. Then I took a World War I class from Dr. Betty Unterberger, who was a world-renowned history professor. One class with her and I was hooked. I then concentrated on World War II and the Vietnam War.
Tell me a little about Itron and what you do as a senior vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary there?
Itron is a $2.5 billion publicly traded company with 8,000 employees worldwide, which enables utilities and cities to deliver critical infrastructure services such as gas, electricity, and water.
I do something different everyday as general counsel. I might be working on intellectual property issues or working with the board of directors or answering questions for the C.E.O. I have a wonderful team who supports me and helps me think those things through.
Why is it important for successful people like you to recognize the value of a liberal arts education?
Graduates with a liberal arts education are trained to think about things from so many angles. It’s not math. It’s not a science. It’s an art! And I think the world needs a lot of that right now.
You also have a degree from the University of Texas, so what makes Texas A&M stand out as a place you want to support?
It is the most special place to study in the world and is transforming into a true world-class university. I want to contribute to that transformation, where we can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any institution in the world.
What do you want your legacy to be at Texas A&M University?
I don’t think about it in that way so much. I don’t have children, so I think about having an influence on future generations and how I might do that without children.
I want to contribute resources to enable students to attend Texas A&M and maximize their potential. Maybe one of those students will change the world by curing cancer. Or maybe one of those students will go on to be an incredible teacher in rural Texas who then influences a young child in his or her classroom to grow up and be that person who cures cancer.