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College of Education

Persevering Through Hardship: Meet Cherrelle Lawrence, Ed.D. ’24

Cherrelle in graduation regalia standing at a lecturn

As far as non-traditional student demographics go, Cherrelle Lawrence is fairly… traditional.

Lawrence was a first-generation college student with a passion for education. She was serving as Dean for Corporate Learning and Professional Development at Vance-Granville Community College when she decided to pursue her dream of completing a doctoral degree. 

Deeply engaged with the diverse community college student population, she felt particularly drawn to working with first-generation college students like herself. 

So, at the urging of her mentor, former Assistant Teaching Professor Carrol Warren, Lawrence enrolled in the NC State College of Education Community College Leadership Program, through which she completed her Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) this semester. 

Like other graduate programs supporting non-traditional learners, this one has a hybrid structure blending virtual and in-person learning opportunities, and can be completed in three years. 

Lawrence was particularly impressed by the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research at NC State, whose faculty are committed to advancing equitable college access and student success through impactful research and collaborative practice. 

“No other graduate education program in the state struck a chord with me as much as the Community College Leadership program at NC State,” Lawrence said. “Every person I’ve interacted with in the College of Education has been incredibly supportive and knowledgeable.”

While Lawrence might seem like a typical non-traditional student, however, her path to degree completion was anything but typical. 

Blazing Trails for Women of Color 

Lawrence is an alumna of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NC A&T), a historically Black college and university (HBCU), and proud member of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, a Black service and leadership organization for women who want to effect positive change in society. 

From her early years, she has prioritized diversity, equity, belonging and inclusion in her personal and professional pursuits. 

“I knew in high school that I would attend an HBCU,” Lawrence said. 

A scholarship to study in the business school helped defray the out-of-state tuition costs and her dad, who lived in the area, helped assuage the first year transition for his 17-year-old daughter. A talented cosmetologist, her dad also made sure Lawrence looked fabulous: “I always had the best hair in my class after visiting him,” she said. 

Lawrence with her husband Martin in London.

After later earning an MBA at East Carolina University, Lawrence worked in higher education leadership roles for many years. During that time, she observed substantial disparities in educational opportunity and access among various demographics, particularly for women of color and other marginalized groups.

An advanced degree would offer her “an avenue to enact meaningful change by advocating for positive, fair and inclusive reforms in educational methodologies,” she explained. It was time to go back to school. 

Easier said than done, however. 

Her decision to pursue a doctorate coincided with the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when so many things were uncertain. Lawrence’s father had recently passed away, her mother was battling breast cancer and her husband Martin, whom she met as an undergrad at A&T, was trying to get a food truck business off the ground. 

And there was the endometriosis. 

Since the age of 15, Lawrence has struggled with severe pain and the accompanying complications of endometriosis, a relatively common but frequently misunderstood chronic disease of the uterus. Her official diagnosis took years of doctor visits and self-advocacy, inspiring her to create a nonprofit organization, #HerYellowRibbon, that educates women of color about endometriosis and promotes health awareness.

Two small dogs sitting on a bench and posing for the camera.
Lawrence credits her fur babies Blaze the Goldendoodle, left, and Roc the Boston Terrier, with helping her persevere through tough times during her graduate studies.

With her advanced understanding of endometriosis, she had a strong desire to serve as a “success story” to encourage others with the same condition. This would entail recovering from the disease and carrying a pregnancy to term. Right before she planned to start her program at NC State, her hopes were dashed when she needed an emergency hysterectomy, due to complications that nearly ended her life.

Needless to say, it was a rough time. She didn’t enroll at NC State after all and wasn’t sure she ever would. That is, until an unusual intervention rekindled her interest. Her friends, her family and her mentor Carrol Warren surrounded her with support and helped her to find the strength to move forward.

“After so much struggle, so much sacrifice,” Lawrence said, “it was time for me to fuel the fire of my passion for education.”

Cultivating Equity-minded Leadership Skills

Finally enrolling at NC State in May 2021, Lawrence hit the ground running. 

Among other honors, Lawrence was selected as a Belk Center Fellow, representing her program in 2022 at the League for Innovation in the Community College national conference and as Lead Fellow for the Belk Center Fellowship Program at the 2023 Achieving the Dream conference in Chicago. 

Lawrence thrived in this program that used the flipped classroom approach because it challenged her to demonstrate her understanding of concepts by teaching and learning from her peers. She found the concepts of educational theory, instructional design and adult learning principles particularly interesting.

She also appreciated the depth of experience and diversity of voices that guest lecturers added to the learning experience. “From start to finish, I found myself consistently engaged and stimulated in this program,” she said. 

Navigating the transition from remote to in-person after the pandemic proved challenging but ultimately beneficial: “We managed to establish a balance that allowed for meaningful in-person interactions,” Lawrence said, “fostering stronger bonds among our cohort.”

“Working and learning alongside my cohort for the past three years has been an honor,” she continued. “They are truly passionate about their work and bring so much value to higher education.”

A woman smiling between two NC State mascots outdoors with the NC State belltower in the background.

Lawrence’s focus was on dismantling systemic barriers to racial and economic equity in education. She conducted her dissertation research on forming partnerships between HBCUs and external corporate partners. But when her then-committee chair left NC State in the summer of 2023, Lawrence thought she might have to start over. 

Then Carrol Warren — whose research interests closely parallel Lawrence’s — stepped in to serve as Lawrence’s dissertation chair. 

Dr. Warren saved me a second time,” Lawrence said. “It was a reminder of how our actions as educators, however big or small, can have a profound effect on the lives of students.”

Two women in graduation regalia pose outdoors
Lawrence, left, with her mentor, advocate and friend Carrol Warren at the NC State College of Education commencement ceremony May 3, 2024. Lawrence was the graduate student speaker at the ceremony.

Centering Community

Lawrence credits her many successes to the support of her communities: her student cohort and faculty mentors, her husband and family, work colleagues, her faith community, and friends — especially her best friend, fellow NC State Ed.D. ‘24 graduate Tiffani Polk.

“Having a strong support system is key for maintaining balance with the demands of work, personal life and your educational pursuits,” she said. “There will be moments of challenge along the journey, and the support of your people will help you thrive.”

Although she enjoys her current job leading learning and development at a prominent consulting firm, Lawrence hopes to transition back into higher education, ideally in a teaching role: “I love education because it fosters opportunities for creativity, personal growth and the cultivation of meaningful relationships,” she said. “I feel like education is my life’s calling.”

Given the many challenges life has given her, it’s no surprise that Lawrence is a big believer in celebrating accomplishments. During the Ed.D. program, she and Polk took trips together at the end of almost every semester: Florida, Georgia, Washington D.C. and Texas are among their favorite shared destinations. 

Lawrence, left, and Tiffani Polk celebrate at the NC State College of Education commencement ceremony on May 3, 2024.

This spring, Lawrence will be traveling to Hawaii. Ostensibly for work, the trip will also commemorate the accomplishment of finishing her degree. 

“Obtaining a doctorate at 35 was an ambitious goal I set for myself,” she said. “This doctorate serves as evidence that I can achieve anything I set my mind to.”

As well as taking trips, Lawrence loves to reward herself with shoes. She nonetheless holds herself to a strict spending limit on them. Knowing this, her husband Martin — whose small business, by the way, is thriving and considered the best food at the NC State Fair — began celebrating Lawrence’s accomplishments with gifts of shoes. 

Among her favorites are a pair of Air Jordans and a pair of red, white and black Nikes that she calls her “NC State shoes.” She’s worn them to various NC State events — most recently, after she delivered remarks to 2024 graduates in the College of Education at the department commencement ceremony. 

“Cherrelle’s story is unique,” said Warren, who was one of Lawrence’s nominators for the honor of graduation speaker, “and one that truly captures the essence of a successful non-traditional graduate student in education.”

Overcoming so much hardship while navigating the many barriers to her success made Lawrence’s educational journey that much more meaningful. 

“I loved my experience in this program,” she said. “It was truly rewarding.”

Want to serve your communities in the highest capacity? NC State can help! Learn more about the nationally recognized Ed.D. program in Community College Leadership.