May 05, 2017

Graduating senior described as ‘change agent’

by Andrea Hahn

Naomi TolbertCARBONDALE, Ill. – By any standard, Naomi Tolbert is a successful student. 

When the Carbondale native walks across the commencement stage at Southern Illinois University Carbondale on May 13, she graduates with a bachelor’s degree in political science, specializing in international affairs. She carries with her a slew of accomplishments. To name a few: She is the 2016-17 student trustee on the SIU Board of Trustees. The American Political Science Association named her a Minority Fellow. She was one of 15 students in the nation to attend the 2016 Ralph Bunch Summer Institute. She has been a McNair Scholar, a recipient of the John S. and Nancy Jackson Scholarship for political science students, and an Emma Smith Hough Library Research Scholarship Award winner. 

With all those accomplishments, and more, it seems like she’s always been a successful, top-rated student. If you’d met her in junior high school, Tolbert said, your impression might have been different. 

Middle school and junior high school are widely recognized to be challenging times for children. Tolbert faced more challenges than many. Her mother died from breast cancer when Tolbert was 10 years old. Her father told her he wasn’t interested in pursuing a relationship with his daughter. Tolbert was hurt, angry and lost. 

“I don’t like the concept of ‘bad student,’ I don’t believe in that,” she said. “But I had some problems during those years. I was in a lot of detentions, I got suspended. I knew a couple of teachers felt like I would never go anywhere, especially not as an African-American female.” 

Tolbert took a good look at herself before she started high school and decided to change what people expected of her. “I decided to show everyone I could be different,” she said. “I had a few teachers who saw that and believed in me. I’ve been lucky. I’ve had people there to support me when I needed support.” 

Among those people is Patsy Watson, Tolbert’s great-grandmother. The oldest of 14 children, Watson was mothering people and taking care of them even when she was a child. She raised Tolbert’s mother and her uncle, and she raised Tolbert and her siblings as well. She put herself through nursing school, and still works a full-time job as a home health aide at the age of 82. 

“She taught me you can be an amazing person on your own terms,” Tolbert said. “You don’t need to define yourself by how other people see you.” 

She’s well on her way to doing that. She is a member of the University Honors Program, and served as the vice president of the Intercultural Experiences and Diversity committee there. She has held offices in the Beta Eta chapter of the Alpha Gamma Delta Sorority and the Panhellenic Association. She’s been a Political Science Ambassador, a four-year Excellence Scholar and a Horatio Alger In-State Scholar. She has served on Undergraduate Student Government, Model UN, the IBHE Student Advisory Committee, Center for English as a Second Language conversation partner and she was on the homecoming court in 2016. 

Tolbert said growing up with SIU in her backyard made her realize the diversity the university embodies. “We have students from all over the state, all over the country, even from universities abroad,” she said. “The university is like a different world.” 

Tolbert has nothing against travel, of course. A Rotary-sponsored trip to Brazil when she was in high school was a life changer, and since then she’s also been to Paris, France, through SIU study abroad. She’s a big believer in experiencing something new, something that will make a person realize their point of view is only one of many. 

“My first trip abroad was a real eye-opener,” she said. “I realized the world is a lot bigger than what I knew. I’ve seen poverty here, but the levels of poverty outside the United States can be so much deeper. But, there are so many opportunities, too. I want more people to have the opportunity to travel to another place -- I believe it will help people understand the world better and their place in it.” 

“I’ve received so much support at SIU,” she said. “My professors have all been helpful – willing to help me see the next level and then get to the next level. I used to feel like I had to prove everyone wrong. Here, I strive to make their belief in me justified.” 

Lori Merrill-Fink, director of the University Honors Program, said Tolbert is recognized by faculty, administrators and fellow students as a “trustworthy, responsible individual and a true collaborator.” 

“I have been most impressed with her poise, deep listening skills, and ability to confront delicate subjects,” Merrill-Fink said. “This is due in no small measure to her calling -- to be a change agent for peace and cultural understanding.” 

Tolbert said she has always been interested in ideologies of freedom and justice, and political science was a good fit for her. Initially she planned on law school after earning her bachelor’s degree, but now has accepted an offer to attend the University of Chicago to pursue a graduate degree in international relations beginning this fall.