Editor’s note: February is Black History Month, and in an effort to commemorate the many men and women who have been an influential part of African American history, The Sampson Independent will feature someone from the community each Tuesday in February.
ROSEBORO — Principal Tonya Colwell sat in her office at Roseboro Elementary School, filled with pictures of happy family members and former students.
She reflected on a time when a former student, wearing a military uniform, returned with his wife. A moment with Colwell at Lakewood High School changed his life.
“He just thanked me,” Colwell said with a smile. “I was an assistant principal and most of the time, the assistant principal has to deal with discipline.”
The moment made the student grow up and placed him on the right track. For Colwell, it’s one of many rewards of an education process that changes the lives of students forever. Her journey begins in Clinton, where she grew up as the daughter of James and Hazel Colwell. She attended area schools and was very active in the band and athletics at Clinton High School.
“My parents believed in keeping me busy,” Colwell said.
She was influenced by community members and her mother, an educator who taught for more than 30 years. Some of her other influences includes her father, a former Marine; Gene Hales, former educator; and Dr. Freddie Williamson, the current assistant superintendent of Hoke County Schools. Education was instilled in her at a young age. One of her role models was her coach, Karen Fox. Colwell said she pushed academic success.
“Back then we’d have to run if we received a C,” she said about the passing grade, which was still unacceptable. “That’s your F — you’re running.”
With a natural talent in athletics, she earned a basketball scholarship to attend Campbell University and was the first from the school to receive one. The university was close to home and provided a family atmosphere. Beginning in middle school, she attended several basketball camps at Campbell, which allowed her to become familiar with the university.
Colwell received several degrees from Campbell University. She earned her a bachelor’s in physical education in 1989 and a masters in education in 1991. In 2005, she earned a masters in school administration. She later became an assistant coach and educated students in the exercise science department during her 12-year stay.
Colwell returned home to Sampson County to watch over her parents as they became older. It was a hard decision to leave Campbell University after being a part of the institution for more than half of her life. One of her first jobs was cutting hair. Her father was an established barber in town for many years. She later landed a teaching job in Goldsboro before coming back to Sampson County.
Her first stop in Sampson County was Roseboro-Salemburg Middle School. Later, she became the assistant principal at Lakewood High School before holding leadership positions at several schools in the district. She has been with Roseboro Elementary since 2012.
“I fell in love with elementary school,” Colwell said. “Of course, all levels have their pros and their cons, but kids coming to an elementary school every morning smiling, wanting hugs … it gets your day started right.”
Roseboro Elementary is where she wants to call home.
“We have great staff and we’re very family oriented,” she said. “I feel like the kids fit right into that system as well.”
As principal, Colwell’s goal is to make the school a better place by making sure students show growth academically and socially.
“We want them to be an all-around good person,” she said. “Whatever we can do at this level to help them move up to the next level is great. We want to help set the foundation for them to become productive citizens in the future.”
To help the children become successful, the school believes parent involvement is also important. Several academic-based events are held to attract parents, in addition to dances and carnival style gatherings.
When Colwell is not leading the school, she’s in community service projects with members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. and attends Campbell University basketball, where she stays involved with coaching and watching referees for the Big South Conference as a neutral observer. She also donates her time to recreational departments in Sampson County, where she tries to help parents and students with life skills.
Giving back is special to the longtime educator.
“My favorite quote,” she noted, “is ‘what comes from the heart, goes to the heart.’”
Reach Chase Jordan at 910-249-4617. Follow us on Twitter at @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.