“You can be better than your circumstances”

I am sitting in the Reservations office in the UWF Commons building. Across from me is Kennyattah O’Connell, nee Cox, who is the student services and administration coordinator in the University Commons. Kennyattah oversees the Service Desk and most of the student employees in the UCSI department. She almost always seems to have a smile on her face, is a great cook, and is one of the kindest people I have ever had the privilege of meeting.

K: All right, shoot

I am going to dive right in: What was your favorite subject growing up?

K: hmm… how far back are we talking?

Elementary or middle school, whatever you can remember.

K: Okay, because it kind of changed over time. So, when I was in elementary school, I would’ve said my favorite subject was probably science. I always tended to gravitate towards how things worked and how smaller things link to bigger things. I think when I got into middle school civics and social studies were probably more in my wheelhouse. Which is probably why I’m an admin now. Then when I was in college, I really liked history. I just think I’ve liked all subjects at some point except for math.


How would you say your favorite subjects have influenced your choices?

K: I think when I was younger I think [pause] because I spent a lot of my time outside and I used to make food out of dirt a lot and I used to peel bark off of trees and just look at it for hours. I was a really weird kid and I was an only child, so don’t judge me.

I was, too. I understand. [Both laugh]

K: I always liked to figure out like the little ins and outs of things. I liked getting my hands dirty and understanding. I just really gravitated towards being outside. Then when I got older, I gravitated towards the way systems functioned, economics, social studies, and civics. I was interested in like government for a long time. I really loved to know about our judicial processes. Maybe it was watching all that School House Rock, and the bills and things like that, I just wanted to know everything about government. I think I’ve always been interested in the way that things function, whether that’s with science, civics, or not math so much, but everything else. I think that has really made me understand why it’s important to know the way that things function and why it’s important for other people to know the way things function. And you know that whole thing like “knowledge is power” really, I think I gravitate towards that. I don’t always think super big picture, I always think kind of short term and about how to make big impacts right now, rather than how to make everything better in the long term.

How did you figure out this was what you wanted to do? This job in administration?

K: I’ve been here for ten years and my original degree was psychology, but I changed my major to social work. Then I realized social work was too sad and I couldn’t do it [laughs]. So then I switched to communications with a specialization in public relations because I knew I needed to pick something that I can use everywhere. I didn’t want to be one of those college students that graduated and had this degree that I could do nothing with. Like, I appreciate the people who study interesting things, but for me I’m so rational that I didn’t want to do something that would leave me without a job. I actually started off in this department as a work-study student… After I was here for a year and the student who managed the desk was graduating, Jackie asked if I wanted to take his position. I moved down there and looked at our three-page training manual and I was confused by it. I basically rewrote my job description and I went to Jackie’s office and said, “I feel really passionate about being a manager here, I really feel like I can take it somewhere else. I really feel like I can take ownership of it and I feel like I should be compensated more for doing that.”


K: I basically asked for a new job description and a raise and I got both. And I’ve just kind of worked my way up since. I even wrote my own GA description to run the desk, pitched it to Jackie and then it happened. I’ve always just kind of put in the work and been ambitious about where I am, and finding joy and passion in what I’m doing, I just really had a knack for managing people, and it just really fell in place for me. I never really said “I’m gonna grow up and be an admin!” [Both laugh] but I think it makes sense with the way I’ve lived my life. I’ve always taken care of my family and I’ve always taken care of people and I always like to tell people what to do, I’ve been doing that since I was a little kid. I’ve always been mature beyond my years and it all just fell into place.

Who has had the greatest impact on you? An individual or a collective.

K: Probably my grandmother, other than Julia Childs… um [laughs]

I am not surprised [laughs]

K: Outside of my food love, in my life-life, probably my grandmother. I grew up in a house with just my grandmother and my mom. My grandma was like the fun parent, and so I always gravitated towards her. She was always very patient with me. I was a very shy and quiet child and I didn’t engage with a lot of people, but she made me feel okay about that and always made me feel like I was always in the right spot in my life. She never places any judgement on me except for not having any children, but that’s just because she had six of them. But she’s always been supportive and helped me to help other people. Like when I talk to students, I don’t want them to evert feel like they have to be anyone other than themselves, or that they have to fit into some box or mold that someone else has made for them. I like to give students the resources and the tools to be the best version of themselves. I never want anybody to not be themselves. I feel like that’s what makes people so great and what makes teams so great. It’s like this big collective of people that all come together with these different thoughts and ideas.

K: I think the other person is definitely Jackie. We’ve known each other for a decade. She’s just been such a good mentor and has always given me the opportunities to excel and she’s always let me be autonomous in my thoughts and actions, you know like guiding but letting me make try new things and not really questioning it. She let me live in the process and live in my mistakes.

What is the greatest obstacle that you have had? 


K: I would say something that I’ve always had to work on is how I grew up. I had a pretty rough childhood. I didn’t grow up in the best circumstances, and I grew up in an abusive household with my mom’s boyfriend for 15 years. I wasn’t the victim of the abuse, but the verbal abuse that I saw my mom endure put a rift in the way that I view people’s engagements. I’ve always had to push past that. I think it’s hard for someone who grows up in weary circumstances to see the light at the end of the tunnel. That along with growing up in not great family circumstances: growing up in a single-family home, in a low-income area, not having anyone around who’s been through college to relate to in your life. Even now, being married to someone who’s grown up with both educated parents, private schools, and summer camps. Jason and I have lived opposite lives but we’ve come together.

What was school like for you?

K: Which part? [Laughs]

Elementary was okay. I didn’t really latch on to any part. Middle school was harder, and my confidence with education was lacking. When you don’t grow up with academic success being a priority and you get to higher education, you realize that other people are a lot smarter than you and you’re not picking up on things as quickly as them. High school was kind of rough. I feel like I didn’t learn a lot that was beneficial for me. I feel like because I grew up in a low-income area, the expectation wasn’t high and I didn’t push myself. I even graduated with honors and it didn’t feel like I had grasped a whole lot. And I definitely didn’t feel prepared for college. They didn’t make us read a lot of books in high school. We focused mostly on vocabulary. But I remember I had one teacher that made us read Charles Dickens and Jane Eyre. I didn’t get a lot of other choices, which is why I think when I got to college reading was so hard for me. I wouldn’t say one major thing in school was really hard, but I didn’t really have teachers that helped me through those times when I was struggling.

How did you overcome your struggles? Did you have to get through it on your own?

K: Yeah. My mom wasn’t really involved in my academic life and my grandmother was getting older so she wasn’t worried about my grades. I never really failed and I’ve always been an okay student, but I think given someone who would have pushed me I would have done a lot better. But I always thought about the end and being in college and that’s what really pushed me forward. My mom watched a lot of lifetime movies and some just made me never want to drink. But things like coming from bad circumstances and getting passed that is important. I’ve always tried to live in that. That you can be better than your circumstances and move past difficulties.

What about in college?

K: College was good for me. I did struggle with finding my place, but I think all college students go through that. But I think being in this department helped me. Working here let me latch onto something rational. I had two jobs in high school and three when I was a freshman. Working has always been like, “I have to work, I have to pay fort school because no one else can do it for me.” Working in this department has shown me that you don’t have to be in a sorority or a club to be part of the university.

What are your hobbies?

K: Oh, cooking. I actually like to walk around World Market and grocery stores to clear my head. I really love to watch Chopped and Iron Chef. I feel like my only hobbies are thinking about food, cooking food, or walking around grocery stores. Which seems a bit unhealthy when I say it out loud, but that’s what I like to do in my spare time.

How did you get interested in cooking?

K: Growing up, I didn’t have cable and PBS had a lot of cooking shows. I spent a lot of my time watching those and I spent a lot of my time alone, so I had to learn to feed myself. I think that’s where I started. And my family has always had huge dinners. My grandmother would pick collard greens and make pies. And I was always very fascinated by her. She can peel a potato with a butter knife!

Wow! That is amazing!

K: It’s the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen anyone do. I get frustrated when my potato peeler doesn’t work effectively. But I just watched her and I was so fascinated, and I loved how food just seemed to make me and everyone around me happy.

How do you want to be remembered at UWF?

K: Oh my goodness. I don’t know. Not badly.

don’t think anyone could remember you in a negative way.

K: um. I just. I’ve been asked that before, and I don’t really have a concrete answer. I just hope that if I ever leave or something suddenly happens to me, the people just think that I was very passionate about what I did and that I tried to always get better and improve. But I don’t know what people would say about me.

I bet it would be something along those lines.

K: [Laughs] I mean, I just hope people remember good things and that all my mistakes don’t linger.


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