Vandiver grows from a legacy child to a public relations leader

Dana+Williams+Vandiver%2C+a+1998+alumna+of+Alabama+State+University%2C+is+working+as+the+Director+of+Public+Relations+at+the+Alabama+Association+of+School+Boards.+

Desiree Mack/Chief Photographer

Dana Williams Vandiver, a 1998 alumna of Alabama State University, is working as the Director of Public Relations at the Alabama Association of School Boards.

Camille Zanders, Staff Reporter/Writer

Outside of her demanding career, Vandiver also lives a fulfilling life as both a wife and a mother of three.

Many children grow up hearing stories about their parents’ alma mater, even visiting the campus, or attending events.  And then there are some children that are seen during football season running around with shirts that say “Future Hornet” across the front; indicating that the family’s expectations are for them to continue their collegiate legacy.

Dana Williams Vandiver grew up as one of these children and by continuing a familial pattern that began in 1954, she now serves as the Director of Public Relations for the Alabama Association of School Boards (AASB) in Montgomery, Ala.

Though she was born in Little Rock, Ark., Vandiver holds no recollection of her time there, so she considers herself to be a Montgomery, Ala. native. The city of Montgomery is one that her family grew very familiar with, considering many of her relatives attended Alabama State University in their college years.  The tradition began when her grandfather, Leonard A. Dacus, graduated in the class of 1954.  The legacy continued through many cousins, uncles and aunts, and her own father.

“My family has a really long tradition of Hornet Nation,” she states, ultimately meshing the Hornet life with her personal life.

Vandiver grew up in a single-parent household along with her younger brother and sister.  As a child inspired by a household name celebrity, Vandiver discovered her interest in communications and her dream of having her own show.

“When I was in middle school I was so enamored with Oprah Winfrey,” Vandiver said. “I thought that I wanted to be a news anchor or a talk show host.”

In 1992, she graduated from Sidney Lanier High School with a dream and the faith that Alabama State University would help her achieve that goal.

As a college student, Vandiver combined her passion for communications with her natural-born talent for journalism. Though she undoubtedly enjoyed the field of journalism, she quickly realized that she did not enjoy being placed in the spotlight.

“When I got to college I discovered that I was camera shy,” she remembers, ” I really didn’t like being the center of attention.”

This realization caused her to shift her focus from broadcast journalism to print journalism, which she attested to be very successful, considering her gifted writing skills. Vandiver wrote briefly for The Hornet Tribune, the student-produced newspaper, and also participated in internships with the Montgomery Advertiser and the Montgomery Independent, the city’s two major news sources. Though she no longer works in the world of print journalism, she appreciates the professional skills that she gained from the experience. She values, “that real-world experience of working alongside journalists that have been in the field.”

While writing for the Montgomery Advertiser, she was given the opportunity to write articles for the weekly Sunday column, and she remembers having her stories returned after having undergone heavy critiques and suggested edits.

“You know, journalists are going to tell you the hard truth!” she laughed, “but, now I appreciate it; I really did learn a lot from that.” Encounters such as these sparked Vandiver’s traits of professional flexibility and determination as she learned from her errors and adapted to what was expected of her.

“My thing was, you are never going to edit me on the same thing twice,” she confidently said. That same gritty attitude is what makes her so successful at her current position with the Alabama Association of School Boards.

Along with her involvement with print journalism, Vandiver joined student organizations such as the Public Relations Council of Alabama, English Honors Society, all while giving birth to her firstborn son, Wesley.  She carried a load that most people would struggle to bear, but was reassured and encouraged by many of the professors and staff members.

“There are some schools that you can go to and you are just a number, not a person,” Vandiver said.  “Professors at ASU really do care about you and really want to see you succeed. They are not going to let you fall back. If they see potential in you, they are going to make sure you live up to it.”

She holds reverence to Coke Ellington’s copy editing course, David Okeowo, Ph.D., who served as the Chairman of Communications Department, Bobby Parker’s orientation course, and Dorothy Autrey’s, Ph.D., African American History course, and more.  She felt like these professors and their teachings instilled university pride, which encouraged her to keep going.

“That ASU history, tradition, and legacy was really ingrained in me from those courses,” Vandiver said.  “It made me proud to carry on the university’s legacy.”

Okeowo, who is now retired, remembers Vandiver with great respect as well.

“Dana was a very good student! … She graduated with top honors, you know; very dedicated, very focused on her studies, and very mature,” he said.

She especially remembers these professors considering they personally catered to her while she worked to balance her school work and her pregnancy.

“[They] had a real ‘come to Jesus’ meeting with me about what I was capable of and what they expected out of me,” she said.  Talks of encouragement such as this one is how Vandiver accepted that she was, and still is, just as capable as any other person from any other university. This idea and her confidence led to her graduation in 1998 with a promising career ahead of her.

Along with a bachelor’s degree in communications, Vandiver believes that the university gifted her with life skills that prepared her for her career journey.

“I would say that I learned some major problem-solving skills,” she said. “Like the mantra says, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.’”

This helped her in her first position at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. from 1999 to 2006, where she initially did community outreach work, but eventually advanced to working on their then newly launched website.  Shel also served as a writer and editor for their magazine, Teaching Tolerance.   She also wrote a book titled, Beyond the Golden Rule: A Parent’s Guide to Preventing and Responding to Prejudice.

In 2006, she accepted a new position at ASU as the main project manager for the, then deplorable, university’s website.

“When I came there we had a horrible, and when I say horrible, it was basically tables with basic information. It was not competitive with other schools.” Vandiver reflects on the experience with pride, since the renovation she has received much praise and respect from many ASU faculty and alumni for giving the university a worthy internet presence.

Finally, in 2016, she departed ASU to accept her current position as the Director of Public Relations for the Alabama Association of School Boards.

“What I love about what I do now is that it really takes a little bit of all the skills that I acquired from my other two positions,” Vandiver said.  “So I am doing everything!”

Her profession requires her to manage media relations and social media for the association, write and edit and for various newsletters and publications, oversee event planning for annual conferences and seminars, and utilize graphic design and website management skills. With all these responsibilities, Vandiver’s job keeps her on her toes.

“My day is never the same!” Though she may not be a broadcast talk show host, her passions for communication and relations are surely being fulfilled.

Vandiver credits much of her success to her ability to adapt to trying situations, especially in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic.  She has mastered the art of adjusting and overcoming.

“COVID has caused us to think out of the box and helped us to realize there are so many different ways to accomplish a goal,” she said.

She is part of a team responsible for training school board faculty members in a wide range of topics such as educational equity, crisis communications, financial accountability and more.  Many of these trainings are usually held at conventions, but the pandemic has prohibited some of the events from taking place this year.  As of recently, Vandiver is not only responsible for promoting the association’s new virtual offerings, but also working with her team to ensure the material is effectively presented over a common virtual platform; and she is doing so without breaking a sweat.

“You can tell me that I can not do something one way, but you better believe I am going to come back the next day with three or four possibilities on how to accomplish it,” Vandiver said.  “… Where there is a will, there is a way and I cannot be stopped.”

In the process of training others, Vandiver has learned things about herself. The Hornet who was once anxious about being in the center of attention has now grown into a confident woman that enjoys speaking at conventions and in front of large crowds. She assures that this growth has been the most rewarding aspect of her job.

“You actually know more than you give yourself credit for,” she said. “As long as you are confident, and project confidence, people will take in what you say.”  This confidence is the product of years of learning ASU pride, years of hard work, and years of great reviews and support from the colleagues around her.

She is currently in her 13th year of marriage to Marcus Vandiver, Ed.D., who is also an Alabama State University alumnus. She tells their story of meeting online, even though they walked the same campus.

“Even though we were at ASU during the same years, he graduated in 1998 just like I did, I did not know him,” she said while chuckling, “I don’t even remember seeing his face!” Along with her son Wesley, the Vandiver’s share two more children, Bryson and Kendall.

In her free time, Vandiver enjoys making art.

“I wish I made more time for it, but I have a talent for sketching and painting,” she said.  “I’ve always loved to draw.”

This skill is one that was passed down from her father, Norman Williams Jr., who was a painter and currently has artwork displayed in the Colvin-Feagin Community Art Exhibit at ASU.

Vandiver urges current ASU students to appreciate their professors in the same way that she did while she was at the university.

“When you are young, you think you know it all,” Vandiver said “… but I definitely would say to take advantage of [the professors] while you are there. They will never tell you anything to hurt you.”