For National Principals Month, nearly 400 elementary and middle-school students pay LaTanya Sothern, SOC/BA ’92, a visit. Some file into her office one by one, handing her roses. Others gift her a handmade flower crown, one she sports proudly from behind her desk in Prince George’s County, Maryland.
“Students are my heart,” Sothern says—and it shows. A quick glance at her CV makes her deep commitment to learners plain. An educator for more than 25 years, Sothern is an expert in instructional leadership. She describes herself as an administrator who is “really a teacher at heart.” And as the new president of American University’s Alumni Association, she will leverage her experience in education to serve students and the university she loves.
The recipient of numerous awards and degrees, Sothern champions educational opportunity for students of all backgrounds. She holds a BA in communications and economics from AU, an MAT in early childhood education from Howard University, and a certification in educational administration and supervision from Bowie State University. Presently, she’s pursuing her EdD in school systems leadership from the University of Maryland, which she anticipates completing this year.
It’s clear Sothern considers learning a lifelong endeavor. “[I’m a] student [who] can’t stay out of school,” she says. And now that she knows “it’s policies that really make or break a school system,” she wonders, Is law school next? Sothern is the author of two books, lauded by the likes of the NAACP—works that fuse her identities as a communicator and advocate.
A self-described “family-oriented” person, she lives with her husband, Greg, and two sons in the same county where she teaches. She and Greg host parents of special needs children in their home for workshops and date nights, assembling local support networks. She strives “to create familial relationships in whatever spaces [she occupies]”—including in AU volunteer contexts.
Finding a second home in her own city
“I kind of ‘back ended’ into AU,” Sothern says, recalling her Tenleytown origin story. “But it really impacted and changed my life in so many...beautiful ways.” A native Washingtonian and “east-of-the-river baby,” Sothern hadn’t heard of the university—even after meeting with a journalism mentor “right down the street” at a television news station during high school—until recruiter Marquita Lightfoot from the Office of Minority Affairs visited her school.
Her sights set on a communications major, Sothern felt magnetized by Syracuse University. But her mom encouraged her to apply to AU. Sothern earned acceptances from all three places she applied to, including Dartmouth, but the valedictorian settled on AU after receiving its prestigious Frederick Douglass Scholarship. A second scholarship, funded by an alum, bolstered her decision to attend.
At school, connections clicked. Sothern joined Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., the AU Gospel Choir, and the Black Student Alliance, cultivating a friend group she fondly recalls as “a big, happy, mixy, blendy family.”
The multifaceted nature of AU’s community makes the school feel special to Sothern. “American is just so diverse and so singular at the same time,” she says. Even as someone who has enrolled in four separate universities, she says, “I’ve not experienced anything like that.” Forging connections with students from a wide range of backgrounds proved transformative for her, and it’s something she says she needed growing up in Chocolate City in the 1970s and ’80s.
Devoting time, talent, and treasure for students’ sake
After plunging her full self into her career and family, Sothern found herself wanting to give back to the AU community that had helped her grow. When her sorority’s undergraduate members organized an event commemorating its charter’s anniversary, Sothern was invited to participate. Later, she spoke at an on-campus career networking event they sponsored. There, she convened with former peers and “fell in love with being connected with students on this other level.”
Further engagement followed, advancing toward Sothern’s election to the Alumni Association’s Executive Board. Outgoing president Jonathan Mathis told her, “I really need your energy and your commitment.” Fast-forward to 2023, and her dedication would lead her to the presidency.
Sothern’s path toward reconnecting with AU brought her joy and new connections. It’s no surprise, then, that she encourages all alumni to get involved. “Think about the faces of the people who are a part of the community,” she says. “Think about when your face was a part of [it]!” She acknowledges how AU’s doors were opened to her by a supporter who “knew that [students like her] had something to offer.”
And as advancing educational opportunity is concerned, it’s “not about the ‘how much’” donations total up to, Sothern says. It all comes back to the action—to “help[ing] build” the university’s campaign. Sothern’s own giving has spanned multiple areas of the university, including the School of Education, the Frederick Douglass Program, and the AU gospel choir.
Keeping pace in the push toward change
What are Sothern’s intentions for her time as board president? She “hope[s] that this will be an opportunity...to serve” the student body, the school at large, and President Burwell—of whom she’s a big fan. Sothern wants to build off Dr. Mathis’s legacy, as well, further emphasizing the power of communal resources.
When it comes to creating change, “We are [already] doing it!” Sothern says. AU alumni are active “across the globe, impacting the populace in so many different, amazing, ...and innovative ways.” So, they deserve a leadership board that clearly articulates its vision and role in university life. She wants to ensure the board has “a compass” to help guide its path forward. “I love the university,” Sothern says—although she doesn’t need to speak it. Her devotion shines from her face.