Faculty: Susannah Berry
One bragged to her about having new pink shoes. Another presented her with a tin full of muffins — muffins made of leaves picked up from the playground, but when you’re the interim co-director of East Carolina University’s Nancy W. Darden Child Development Center, it is one precious gift.
Susannah Berry wears many titles in the College of Health and Human Performance. Along with her role at the center, Berry is also the college’s assistant dean of undergraduate studies and assessment, as well as the program and distance education coordinator for the birth through kindergarten teacher education program. With so much going on, she relies heavily on her day planner and Outlook calendar to stay organized.
“I’m able to put stuff in neat little piles, and with my own maturity over my career, I’ve realized I don’t have to get everything done in five minutes. I do have time to get things done. That’s how I’m able to balance these three roles currently,” she said.
She jokes that she just stumbled into her career, but with family roots on a farm in Old Ford in neighboring Beaufort County, Berry followed a path that her grandmother, Mavis Woolard, fostered in her at a young age.
“My paternal grandmother was just a kind soul and was really good with children,” Berry said. “I catch myself a lot when I talk to children that I sound like her. I think that came from how she would stop what she was doing and color with us and talk to us. She always took time to talk to us and was respectful to us, and that’s something I always like to carry forth to the children.”
She also points to her parents, Steve and Almeta Woolard, for teaching her to work hard, show compassion and grace, and help others.
“I knew I liked helping people, and I knew I wanted to help people,” Berry said. “I’ve always been able to naturally help children. I grew up in my church where I helped in the nursery and with vacation Bible school. I always wanted to play with the children.”
That’s evident on the playground at the Darden Center, the college’s early childhood model training facility that serves children from ages 12 weeks to 5 years. ECU students apply classroom theory and developmental guidance strategies to learn how to effectively teach children. Still, pushing a giggly 4-year-old on a swing or helping energetic 3-year-old boys take turns going down a slide can be just plain fun.
“When I’m there, I could do that all the time, but I wouldn’t do anything else,” Berry said. “… It’s fun. It helps put things in perspective.”
While it may be fun, it’s also important business. Berry said early childhood care can be a difficult field, with low wages, stress and the pandemic compounding an already dwindling workforce. Still, she said the rewards are bountiful.
“There are benefits. There’s the emotional benefit of it. There’s the knowledge that you made a difference in a person’s life,” Berry said. “Most people remember their early-years teachers and their kindergarten teacher with fondness because they have made a difference. You might be the person who sparks an interest in art or music or building or things like that.
“Early childhood professionals are providing the foundation for later education. It’s critical. You don’t learn how to read magically in the second grade. There was someone teaching you the letters since you were 3 or 4, and that’s what an early childhood education professional does is lay that foundation for later learning and for a love of learning.”
Berry said ECU’s program offers many options for those wishing to enter early childhood education.
“We have really opened pathways for anybody who wants to come into this field,” she said. “Even if you have an undergraduate degree in a totally different major and you realize you have a love for working with children, we have pathways for you. You can come on campus, but the convenience of online learning — we were one of the first programs to have an online program — there’s always an opportunity. And it’s never too late. We have a lot of people who are changing their careers later in life. They have families, and we can help them come in and be successful.”
Berry came to ECU in 2001 as a student, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in family and community services as well as a master’s in child development and family relations. She never left, having worked at ECU for 14 years now. As someone who still lives on the family farm with her husband and daughter — “I can see my parents’ house from mine, and my brother lives right across the road with his wife and his son” — Berry said ECU is a natural fit for her.
“Family is important to me, a sense of community is important to me, helping others is important to me, and these are all tenants of ECU,” she said.
“Once you’re a Pirate, you’re always a Pirate. It doesn’t matter where you are, that sense of family is there; that sense of community is there. And we want to help the world and are actively working to make the world a better place. With any of our majors, they are going out to do things to serve others and help others, and I think that’s why I’m here. I get to help others.”
Name: Susannah Berry
Titles: Assistant dean of undergraduate studies and assessment, College of Health and Human Performance; program and distance education coordinator for birth through kindergarten teacher education program; interim co-director of the Nancy W. Darden Child Development Center
Hometown: Washington, North Carolina (Old Ford)
Colleges attended and degrees: East Carolina University, Bachelor of Science in family and community services; Master of Science in child development and family relations
Years working at ECU: 14
What I do at ECU: I am a faculty member in ECU’s Department of Human Development and Family Science (HDFS). I am the program coordinator and advisor for our distance education students for our birth through kindergarten teacher education program. I have a split appointment and half my time is spent as assistant dean for undergraduate studies and assessment for the College of Health and Human Performance.
What I love about ECU: I love that ECU is student focused, and my colleagues are like family to me. I have some amazing colleagues in HDFS that I get to collaborate with.
Research interests: University child care, access to child care for student parents and student-parent success.
What advice do you give to students? That it’s OK to stop and it’s OK to start over. Sometimes it’s for small things, like an assignment, and sometimes it’s for larger things, like being in the right major.
What do you like to do when not working? I like to spend time with my family at home. We have built on the old family farm. My favorite type of day is a sunny afternoon, windows open, Sam Cooke radio on Pandora, a nice candle and nothing on our agendas.
First job: Administrative assistant at a physical therapy office when I was a senior in high school.
Favorite meal: Thanksgiving — Nothing beats the turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy combo