Rahsaan Gomes-McCreary

Rahsaan Gomes-McCreary has an affinity for underdogs. She’s made quite the comeback herself.

“For many years, I suffered internally, professionally, and I made some wrong choices as a young adult as a result of not following my passion,” says the onetime high-school dropout.

Today, she’s back in the Providence, R.I., school system she left in 10th grade, not as a student but as a SkillsUSA advisor. The state Department of Education recognized her in September as Career and Technical Education Cosmetology Teacher of the Year. Before becoming an educator, the salon owner worked in management for several top companies in the industry.

Back when Gomes-McCreary was a dyslexic student with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) — from an area she refers to as “the ’hood” — her passion was doing hair and makeup. Her mother discouraged that, pushing the teenager to become an attorney. She ended up leaving school and at 17 was a single parent.

When she turned 18, Gomes-McCreary had another child. She also took charge of her destiny, earning a GED and enrolling at Arthur Angelo, a cosmetology school then affiliated with Johnson and Wales University (JWU). She excelled in her career training and was allowed to transfer to the university with one year’s worth of credits. Soon, she had her associate degree in technical business management with a concentration in psychology, then a bachelor’s in technical business management. Next came a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Phoenix.

Now, while teaching at Providence Career and Technical Academy, she’s working on her doctorate in educational leadership at JWU, plus her administrator/principal certification at the Center for Leadership and Educational Equality.

“During my difficult times, my community helped me,” she says. “So I tell my students quite often, ‘We don’t always make the right decisions, but we have to learn from those decisions and move forward.’ ”

Photo: Janet Cantore-Watson

A brief conversation quickly reveals she’s studied psychology and knows what makes students tick. That’s especially true with underdogs, a label Gomes-McCreary uses to describe herself.

“I would never have thought that I would have emerged from the girl who dropped out of high school to the student who went to Johnson and Wales to now a student who has her master’s degree in psychology, who beat breast cancer.”

Yes, she taught, ran a business and continued her graduate work while fighting a serious illness. It caused her to miss SkillsUSA’s national conference, but she says her students provided the strength to move forward. So many visited her that hospital staff established limits.

A bias toward unworthiness

The career path Gomes-McCreary chose was not the most direct nor the easiest to navigate. Yet it’s made a difference in how she sees what motivates her students. She’s zeroed in on tools that will help her students have a smoother journey: the SkillsUSA Framework and the SkillsUSA Career Essentials suite.

“SkillsUSA teaches our students how to become independent learners,” she says. “We don’t want codependent learners. We want them to push, learn from mistakes and move forward. After all, it is school, and it’s hands-on school.”

For the national organization, Gomes-McCreary chairs the technical committee of its Community Service competition. She sees how both the framework and Career Essentials are put to the test through this leadership event.

And by participating in many community service activities, her own students are learning technical skills and workplace skills such as teamwork, decision making, and multicultural sensitivity and diversity.

“I want everybody to know that our cultures are OK the way they are, but we need to all meet together,” she explains, adding, “Multiculturalism is important.”

She helps students acknowledge what’s referred to as an implicit bias, or stereotyping in an unconscious manner. Good customer service in the cosmetology industry requires a good understanding of that bias, according to her.

“Because I came from the ’hood, I am the ’hood, but it’s OK to leave the ’hood and move forward,” she says. “Diversity is the key to success. And, that’s one thing I have to say about SkillsUSA … no matter where you come from, who you are, you have the skill set that brings you here and that connects you.”

Many students don’t have anyone who believes in them, Gomes-McCreary adds. “The implicit bias toward unworthiness shows up. And you know, career and technical education, we can change that as teachers.”

Exposure to partnerships that create better self-esteem is critical to her.

“I believe in letting the students meet the stakeholders. I believe in opening up our school on a Saturday. We went from not ever having a Saturday [open school] to now hosting 13 Saturdays … and when I tell you it’s a community event, it is. We have parents bringing in potluck. We have students cutting hair from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. [We have] parents not believing that their student wants to go to school on a Saturday, but they’re there.”

Coming full circle with confidence

So they can get their hours to graduate, Gomes-McCreary mentors students from another school in Providence without a cosmetology program. She wants all of her students to understand the importance of relationships in their careers.

Communications skills are also key. She tells students their elevator speeches must be perfect. Pulling from PSAT or SAT tests, she sticks words and definitions on their salon mirrors that they must use in a sentence. Then she asks their customers if the students have used the word. Their vocabulary improves, and the seed of possibly getting into college is planted.

Through these subtle actions, this former underdog is making a difference. “I go for the student that lacks confidence,” she says, “because I see myself.”