As a baby, Dr. Jamilah Page wanted to be included when her mom was cooking; she’d cry if her mother wasn’t holding her. Even as a toddler, Page loved looking in every pot, inhaling the aroma of spices, good food and joy—finding family connection in the kitchen of her Birmingham, Ala., home. It’s been a long journey for Page from her happy place in the kitchen on her mother’s hip to finding her happy space in the lab kitchen of Berea’s Child and Family Studies (CFS) building, engulfed in the smell of fresh-baked biscuits and the sound of student laughter.
“Making biscuits in the lab was the highlight of my month,” Page said. “I love, love, love being in the kitchen and being with students doing these things.”
Page joined Berea’s faculty as a tenure-track assistant professor in 2021, having recently completed her Ph.D. at Auburn University. She is the first in her family to earn a doctoral degree, and she led the way as the first child in her family to graduate college from Tuskegee University—she was followed by her two sisters, and between the three of them, they now hold five degrees.
“The one thing I love about my family as a whole is it didn’t matter what you wanted to do, my parents made my siblings and me feel invincible,” Page recalled. “Life shows you you’re not, but they pushed us and said, ‘Whatever you decide to do, we’ll be here to support it.’”
That unconditional support didn’t mean the path was easy. Page’s earliest dreams were to be a chef, to go straight to culinary school after high school and open a restaurant that catered to people with specific dietary needs because of diabetes, hypertension or other conditions. As she explored this more, she decided she wanted to pursue nutrition and dietetics in college. She filled out applications to multiple schools, but when she and her mom looked at all the applications, it became clear they could only afford to apply to one school. Tuskegee’s fee was the smallest, so that is where she applied. During a visit, her mother was very upfront with the institution about their need for financial support. Page’s father passed away when she was in the fifth grade, and through her high school years, her mom was unemployed. The family relied on food banks at various points. Walter Hill, now-retired Tuskegee dean of the College of Agriculture, Environment and Nutrition Sciences, promised that if Page kept up her GPA, he’d ensure the portion of her tuition not covered by other scholarships and grants was taken care of.
After graduating from Tuskegee, Page set her sights on earning a doctoral degree, but that plan seemed derailed when she didn’t get accepted into any master’s programs to which she applied.
“I tell my students to keep pushing,” Page said. “I tell them I didn’t get into any graduate programs, and I say, ‘Look, I’m still sitting here—the world didn’t end like I thought it was at the time. Just because you have roadblocks and speed bumps that sometimes look like walls and dead ends, that is not where your story ends. Don’t let anything keep you from your purpose.’”
Page kept pushing in the face of her disappointment and worked for her work-study professor, Dr. Eunice Bonsi, full time for the summer while she figured things out. She toured Auburn University’s campus because the school had a program to bring more minority students into its graduate school, and they offered her a seat in the Ph.D. program.
“So, I started my Ph.D. at 22 with no master’s degree, and everyone else in the program had already had a job before, had experience before, so I had to tailor my doctoral program to be competitive when I left there,” Page said.
She met up with another student in the doctoral program, Brittannie Chester (MS, RDN, LD, CDCES) who had just been hired as the dietetics director at Tuskegee. Page partnered with Chester to teach undergraduate classes at Tuskegee.
“That’s what made me think, ‘I like teaching; I kind of like the classroom,’” Page said. “But part of me still enjoyed food. I still wanted to cook and bake and have that experience.”
In addition to teaching, Page worked with Auburn’s Cooperative Extension program, where she was able to teach in the community, make recipes, make recipe videos and do community demonstrations.
“Through all my prayers looking for a job, I just wanted to do a little of everything I love,” Page reflected. “So, I was teaching a little bit, being in the community a little bit, but still having that part that was still true to me; and I love the kitchen—that’s how I grew up.”
Her prayers continued to be answered when she completed her Ph.D. in spring 2021 and applied for a position at Berea College. Her aunt, Min Hui Sessions ’00, had attended Berea, so Page was no stranger to the College’s mission. From the beginning of the interview process to her on-campus visit with the position offer, Page says she was enamored with the personable, whole-person welcome she received. She brought her mother with her, and at every meeting she said each person had a packet and a seat for both her and her mother.
“That is absolutely something I would do,” Page said. “For them to be excited to meet my mom and care about her, that’s the vibe I want to be in. I was not just coming here; I was bringing all that my family has taught me, and my mother is my world. So, seeing them embrace her made me think, ‘Why wouldn’t I want to be here?’ I felt that this was a place I could grow, and today I feel the growth.”
Not only does Berea allow Page to be 100 percent herself all the time, she said, her personal story also allows her to connect with her students and encourage them through their difficulties.
“Just like with this school, we take a chance on those that don’t have the opportunity to do certain things,” Page said. “A lot of these students come from situations similar to mine, so I relate,
and we were all given a chance to do something different and figure out what we wanted to do and wanted to be. Now, I get to take time to invest in students like someone invested in me.”
With her dreadlocks, nose ring and love of playing Jazz music while teaching about the digestive system, Page knows Berea has become her new home, though it’s the first time she has lived outside of Alabama. She’s found a family in her CFS colleagues and said she is learning how to expand how she teaches.
“I can dig into the sympathetic and people-person side of myself, and I don’t have to separate myself like you see in other academic settings,” Page said. “This place has given me confidence that I can come to work and be whole-heartedly me—I know what I need to do, but I’m allowed to be me in meetings and in the classroom. Now that I know I can be my full self, I will not decrease that.”