Remembering the Days: Small town girl, big city dreams

Remembering the Days - episode 41

Jotaka Eaddy grew up in a house on a dirt road in rural South Carolina.  But the small town girl nurtured big dreams when she came to the University of South Carolina. And the skills and self confidence she gained from realizing them have propelled her forward as a professional.


Whenever I talk with students at the University of South Carolina, I usually ask them why they chose to come here.

Often, the reason is pretty simple like "Carolina is close to home" or "Carolina is far away from home," or maybe it’s just going to a southern university with a big football program.

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re looking back some 20 years ago to a student who grew up on a dirt road in a small town in rural South Carolina and decided to become a Gamecock — mainly because of her cousin.

Jotaka Eaddy: “My first cousin, Tammy McFadden, she was someone that I looked up to growing up and everything that Tammy did, I wanted to do so. If Tammy drove a red Mustang, I wanted a red Mustang. Tammy had a side ponytail, I wanted a side ponytail.

Tammy went to the University of South Carolina, so I had to go to the University of South Carolina, and I always tell her I'm so grateful that she went to USC because it was one of the best decisions of my life was to follow her.”

Jotaka Eaddy grew up in Johnsonville, a town of about 1,400 in the Pee Dee region of South Carolina. She had been very involved in middle school and was named student body president at Johnsonville High School. But when the time came to go to college, Jotaka decided that she would follow her cousin to the university here and be perfectly content to sit back and just be a number. After being so busy and involved in high school, maybe that seemed like a good idea.

But Jotaka’s resolve to blend in with the crowd lasted about 20 minutes.

Jotaka Eaddy: “I said, 'When I go to USC, I'm just going to be a number, I'm just going to go to class. I'm not going to be active. I'm not going to do all the extracurricular stuff.' Well, I got on campus and the first thing I did, I signed up for AAAS, Student Government, the Chosen Gospel Choir. The next thing I knew, I was in all the activities.”

You can probably hear it in her voice — Jotaka has an irrepressible spirit. She’s one of those people who not only believes that the glass is at least half full — she’s also ready to gulp it down and then fill it up again. So when she followed her cousin Tammy to the University of South Carolina, there was no way she was going to sit back and chill. It was just a matter of time before she would accomplish something big.

Jotaka Eaddy: “I remember just sort of having this feeling that here I am, this kid that grew up on a dirt road from this very small town. I'm at this big university and I didn't feel like I was invisible. I felt seen. I felt heard. I felt felt.”

Jotaka got particularly involved in Student Government, and by her junior year, she started thinking about running for office. She decided to aim high and set her sights on being president of Student Government.

This was 2001, exactly 30 years after Harry Walker had become the first black man elected Student Government president at the university. You can learn more about that historic event in the episode entitled “Harry Walker, the underdog who won.”

By 2001 there had been five women elected president of Student Government, starting with Rita McKinney in 1974. Jotaka knew that if her campaign was successful, she would be the sixth woman but also the first Black woman to attain that post.

Jotaka Eaddy: “And I knew that when I decided to run that if I ran that it wouldn't be easy. And I also knew that if I ran, it would be a historic run in that I was potentially going to break what was at the time a very important barrier that needed to be broken to become the first Black woman student body president. I didn't want to be the only, but I did want it to help open the door so that others can follow.”

When Jotaka started her campaign in 2001, it was a very different university from 1971, when Harry Walker was elected student government president. In Harry’s day, there were fewer than 350 Black students on campus out of a total enrollment of 14,000.

Thirty years later, In 2001, there were more students overall on campus and more Black students in particular, about 2,800. But while the university had made progress in attracting more African American students to campus, race relations in the state of South Carolina were, as always, not completely harmonious. In particular, there was ongoing conflict over the Confederate flag, which continued to fly on the State House grounds. But Jotaka saw opportunity.

She came up with what she called a "Contract for Carolina," which promised practical things like extending the drop-add date, providing a night-time shuttle, creating a student section for basketball games and implementing a new course for students to earn credit for community service.

One other woman and two men were also vying for the Student Government presidency, and Jotaka was not considered a front-runner.

Jotakas Eaddy: “I don't think anyone really believed that I could muster the votes. And so when the first election took place, I'll never forget I had 49.8 percent of the vote.”

Jotaka had come within a fraction of 1 percent of the votes in being named Student Government president. Because it was less than a majority of the overall vote, she and Katie Taylor, the next highest vote gathering candidate, faced one another in a runoff. Jotaka and her campaign manager, Sarah Ladenheim, were not too sure about their chances.

Jotaka Eaddy: “I was like, ‘There's no way I'm going to win against Katie Taylor,’ who was just, she was a strong candidate. When the election results came in, I remember there's a photo that ran on the front page of the Gamecock newspaper. And when they announced the results, like, I get a little teary eyed thinking about it. But I remember just falling to the floor because I was just so shocked that it had happened. And I remember Sarah reached over to me and she said, ‘You just made history, you just made history.’ ”

If that were all there was to the story, it would be enough. Small-town girl comes to University of South Carolina, dreams big and makes good on the opportunities she finds there. But Jotaka Eaddy wasn’t done dreaming big. Her confidence grew after that historic election win, and she went on to work in civil rights advocacy and helped found #WinWithBlackWomen, a collective of intergenerational Black women leaders around the country.

She’s also become the founder and CEO of Full Circle Strategies, a Washington-based social impact consulting firm that specializes in strategy development, management consulting, public affairs and community engagement. Jotaka has made a name for herself and her firm by pushing for more diversity and inclusion in Silicon Valley’s big tech firms.

Jotaka Eaddy: “I'm a firm believer that talent is distributed equally, but opportunity is not. And so when I think back on the experience of being student body president at the University of South Carolina, I learned so much, and not just during my time as student body president, but just as a student at the University of South Carolina, I learned really how to be the professional that I am today.”

Jotaka recently served on the university’s Board of Governors and continues to support her alma mater through the Alumni Association. She’s a Gamecock through and through, and I expect we’ll be hearing more from her in the years ahead.

Next time on Remembering the Days, we’re going to go back nearly two centuries when this institution made history by building the nation’s first freestanding college library. The story of the South Caroliniana Library is fascinating, and there’s a new chapter being written right now — I look forward to telling you more about it.

This podcast is produced by the Office of Communications and Public Affairs at the University of South Carolina. I’m Chris Horn, thanks for listening and forever to thee.

Share this Story! Let friends in your social network know what you are reading about