Q. How has your community helped you navigate your career?
Bessie Nicole Barnes
[Shahnee Haire]’s the one who suggests local meetings that I should attend, how I can build my LinkedIn presence. She encourages me to show my face more in the community, pointing me in the right direction, and she’s really been helpful in allowing me to build leadership experience. The programs that she’s allowed me to plan and run have been good for building my portfolio.
Bessie is a 25-year-old graduate student at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke. She will earn her M.S. in Public Administration in 2017 from The University of North Carolina at Pembroke. She received her B.S. in Exercise Sports Science in 2014 from The University of North Carolina at Pembroke. She is from Durham, North Carolina, and currently resides in Pembroke, North Carolina.
What first sparked your interest in health and wellness?
I was initially pursuing a degree in psychology, but when I got pregnant with Londyn, I decided to look for a career in a field where there was always a need. My advisor suggested a career in health promotion. It really changed my perspective on being a good mom and challenged me to set a good example for my daughter of self-care. I want to be able to promote health and wellness in my daughter.
I’m also interested in modeling and dancing. I really enjoy being on stage. Dancing for me is a way that we can express our emotions through movement and show people how music really moves us.
As far as modeling goes, a high school friend of mine wanted to try out for Eminence Modeling Troupe, and she asked me to go with her. It was kind of ironic, though, because she ended up not making the troupe, but I did. I really liked it, so I decided to stick with it. Then once I was in college, I joined Pembroke’s Soleil Troupe. The director of that program still contacts me to tell me about local modeling opportunities that I may be interested in.
Are you currently where you want to be, or do you see yourself somewhere different in the next 5 – 10 years? How do you feel about where you are right now in relation to your goals?
I’m definitely not as far along as I want to be. I’m currently taking on internships and working on campus, which has put me in a good place. After I graduated from undergrad and applied for jobs, I felt so unqualified, so these opportunities allow me to build my portfolio.
I want to be a health fitness entrepreneur, but I haven’t quite mastered that yet. People usually suggest research, but every time I think about entrepreneurship, I get so overwhelmed. I would like to start a YouTube channel for dance workouts that I can do with Londyn, but I’m still trying to figure out a direction. I’ve taught dance fitness classes to R&B, hip hop and pop tracks, but there’s so many already out, so I’m considering gospel. When I taught classes on campus, some people were requesting workouts to gospel tracks. I’m just trying to see if there’s a market.
As far as dance goes, I’ve been working with the Workshop on Wheels program. I get to plan and run my own dance camps and workshops where I can create curricula and get experience in youth development.
When you have questions about what to do next as it relates to career moves, who do you normally reach out to? Is there someone who you can always rely on to help?
Shahnee Haire, she was a health educator at a department in Robeson County. We first met my senior year when she implemented I Heart Me, a program that encouraged teens to embrace their flaws. As an intern, I was able to develop a program, which I later used as a platform when competing in the Miss UNCP pageant.
When I was initially considering a career in health education, Shahnee Haire was working in pregnancy prevention, self-esteem and growth in teens. She allowed me to volunteer with her, and she eventually started her own business, Workshop on Wheels. I still get opportunities to create workshops and plan physical activities, like college and job readiness programs at local middle schools.
But she’s the one who suggests local meetings that I should attend, how I can build my LinkedIn presence. She encourages me to show my face more in the community, pointing me in the right direction, and she’s really been helpful in allowing me to build leadership experience. The programs that she's allowed me to plan and run have been good for building my portfolio.
Your situation now doesn’t determine your future.
Is there one piece of advice that Shahnee Haire, or any other person, gave you that continues to resonate with you?
One piece of advice that Shahnee shared with me was: “Your situation now doesn’t determine your future.” I remember after I got my undergrad degree from Pembroke, I struggled to find a job in my field. I felt like I didn’t have enough experience. I wanted to get out of Pembroke and be in Durham, Raleigh or Charlotte. I didn’t want to go to grad school at Pembroke, but I decided to go anyway. Being in Robeson County for a long time kind of gets me down, but Shahnee encouraged me to use my current experiences to get to where I want to go. She actually had a similar experience during her job search, too, but she also took jobs in Robeson County. Eventually, she made it to Raleigh. So using where you’re at now and getting the most out of where you’re at, because it could be setting you up for a future position.
Are there any cultural or professional memberships, or unique experiences — I know you were Miss UNCP 2015 — that have made navigating your life and career a bit easier?
Yes. Being crowned Miss UNCP gave me the opportunity to speak to more youth, encouraging them to love themselves and inspiring them. I get to uplift youth and tell my story. Even though I’m no longer Miss UNCP, I still get offers to speak to youth.
I kept in close contact with Dr. Steele through it all, and in 2016, the night I passed down the title, she came on stage and surprised me, honoring me with the ‘Bessie Barnes Overcoming the Odds’ Scholarship for having an overcoming spirit.
Can you tell me a little bit more about being crowned Miss UNCP and about how getting a scholarship in your name came about?
In 1991, Dr. Fredericka Renee Steele was crowned the first black Miss UNCP. At the time, UNCP was Pembroke State University. Ironically, it was the same year that I was born. I met Dr. Steele when I worked in the same office that she was in, and we bonded immediately. When I decided to compete in undergrad in 2014, the obstacles ranged from wardrobe issues to financial issues, but I decided to stay in the competition.
The day we had to sign our contracts to compete we were about two months in with practices, and I found out that I wasn’t eligible to compete. There was a clause in the contract that stated no one with a child, or no one who had ever been pregnant, could compete. Miss UNCP used to be in the Miss America system and had been out the year prior, but the contract was never changed to allow mothers to compete.
I reached out to Dr. Steele, and she advised me to reach out to others with greater influence on campus and do research. After attending several meetings with the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and board members, it was decided that it wouldn’t be fair to the other contestants to change the contract for me in the middle of the cycle. So, I couldn’t compete.
The next year, I was informed that the contract had been changed, so mothers could now compete. By then, I was a grad student. I competed and won. That was big, because in Pembroke, there are a lot of Native Americans and African Americans, but not many have been crowned. So winning gave hope to African American youth. But it was also difficult. I still caught a lot of flack as a mother. Robeson County is very conservative. I got a lot of side-eyes.
The year of my reign was very eye-opening to say the least. I experienced racism, but I also got a lot of love and appreciation, not only because I was the second black woman to win in 24 years, but also because I was a mother. Someone told me that he was worried that I, an unwed mother wearing the crown, wouldn’t serve as a good role model. But I was motivated even more to rise above those who doubted me to show my daughter and everyone else that shortcomings don’t define who you are. So I dedicated my reign to empowering other women to love themselves for who they are and to be the role model for others to look up to.
I kept in close contact with Dr. Steele through it all, and in 2016, the night I passed down the title, she surprised me on stage, honoring me with the ‘Bessie Barnes Overcoming the Odds’ Scholarship for having an overcoming spirit. She shared with the crowd a bit of my struggle with racism and prejudice while being a mother, working two jobs, attending grad school, and being Miss UNCP. As Miss UNCP, I attended various events, speaking engagements and made numerous appearances. This was exactly how I wanted to leave my mark at UNC-Pembroke.
This past February, I awarded $500 to my first scholarship recipient. I am excited to see the scholarship continue to grow over the years and inspire more women to overcome the obstacles they may face.
I want to circle back around to your daughter. It seems like you make it a point for her to be actively involved in your journey towards achieving your goals. For other women who are young mothers, can you talk a little bit more about pursuing your career goals while being a mother?
I had Londyn when I was a sophomore. I got pregnant at 19, and I had her at 20.
I always try to live by example. I never wanted to be one of those parents who says: “Do as I say, not as I do.” I want for my daughter to be able to look directly to me versus celebrities. Kids are always watching, and I want to make Londyn proud. So, I would say embrace motherhood. It’s pretty cool, but hard. It is tough when you want to study, and they want to play. But having a support system is a big thing, and having family. Try to have them do homework with you.
You’ve shared how Shahnee Haire and Dr. Steele were instrumental in your professional growth. In the spirit of community and giving back, I noticed from your Instagram account that you support #buyblack. What is your motivation for doing so? Why do you think it’s important?
Because of all of the social injustices, like police brutality, occurring all over the world, many people in our community began to stress the importance of us supporting ourselves and truly making our voices heard when it comes to the power of the dollar.
I was on Instagram one day, and the owner of True Products started a live video advertising their campaign to solicit funds for expanding their product line. He was also discussing the same topics about supporting our own community. He referenced times when Black Wall Streets were everywhere, and black people depended solely on the support of their own communities. It struck a nerve in me, and I started reflecting on how great it would be to be a part of a movement that’s much bigger than me. I was moved to go on Snapchat and share my thoughts about their live video, challenging others to support, as well. I also donated $100 toward their campaign.
I’m currently doing an #AllBlackEverything2017 challenge, where I try to support black-owned businesses in every form and fashion. I think it’s important and very necessary for black people to support their own, and I thoroughly enjoy doing it. We need to rebuild our communities and find our moral compass. Historically, we’ve achieved so much by sticking together. I would love to see all the Black Wall Streets rebuilt. It’s necessary for our youth to see positivity in their communities, and I think it will change the way they see their own futures. I wish I had more money, so that I could support more often, but I do what I can.
Are there any products that you enjoy and would recommend to others?
I’m in the process of opening up a bank account at First Legacy bank in Charlotte. So far, I’ve bought McBride Sisters wine, True Products laundry detergent, Karmalades cleaning products, Freedom Paper toilet tissue and paper towels, Coral Oral toothbrushes, TuShea whipped shea butter, August Sky skin scrub, and Believe, Create, Become (BCB) workout attire. I switched primary care doctors to a black woman. My dentist is now black, and I want to find insurance companies, luggage, restaurants, sheets sets... literally everything owned by someone black!
There’s also this Google Chrome extension that I use, where you can type in a website and the results will give you alternatives relevant to black culture. One day I looked up the owners of some of my favorite clothing companies and their net worth. I realized my money would make a larger impact in my own community. This made me want to support black-owned businesses, especially small ones. Ninety-five percent of the black-owned businesses I have purchased products from have sent me an extra product, sample, an upgrade, and/or a handwritten note expressing their gratitude for me soliciting their business.
Can you tell me a little more about what #blackgirlmagic means to you?
Being able to come from anywhere and any situation and flourish. Owning and embracing your imperfections and showing the world how magical you truly are just by being yourself. Being able to change the world in whatever way you see it. Supporting and uplifting other black women on their journeys toward success. Black girl magic is truly a superpower that makes me feel invincible in the sense that I can do anything! It’s empowerment, it’s beautiful, it’s regal and infinite!
Take advantage of every opportunity that is available to you. If opportunities aren’t available, create them.
Given all of your experiences and considering the advice you were given, what advice would you give to an undergraduate college student pursuing their career goals?
Take advantage of every opportunity that is available to you. If opportunities aren’t available, create them. If you get discouraged, don’t let that deter you from doing what you want. Even though applying for jobs after getting my undergraduate degree didn’t work out the way that I wanted, I wouldn’t have ever become Miss UNCP if I hadn’t decided to continue on to grad school.
Finally, are there any resources that you would recommend to students pursuing a career in health and fitness?
Definitely social media. It’s a tool that can be used for almost any profession, and you can tailor it to fit your individual style, which helps you to stand out even more. Utilize your network. Don’t limit yourself to just professors, but also include church members, family friends, co-workers, children’s teachers, etc. You never know who can help you get to where you want to be in your career. Internships helped me to gain a lot of experience and broaden my network. They’re a great resource to use for killing two birds with one stone.
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About this insight*
Our communities are rich with knowledge and insights, but we don’t always know how to leverage them along our journey to success. Even along my own journey, it didn’t occur to me until much later that my family, my peers, and my professors were instrumental in helping me to build the ideal lifestyle that I envision.
To highlight some of the ways in which we can use our communities’ knowledge for our good (and ultimately, theirs, too), I spoke with several students and professionals about the role that people, organizations and experiences within their communities play in helping them to navigate life and career.
* Insights are edited for brevity and clarity.