Allen-Sommerville dedicates herself to teaching, civil rights

Tim Paluch

Editor’s note: In recognition of Black History Month, this week the Daily is profiling five African Americans who are making a difference on campus, but work “behind the scenes” and out of the limelight. Today, we profile Lenola Allen-Sommerville, assistant to the dean of the College of Education.

“Isn’t it strange that princes and kings

And clowns that caper in sawdust rings

And common folk like you and me are builders of eternity

To each is given a bag of tools — a shapeless mast

And a book of rules

And each must make ere life is flown

A stumbling block or a stepping stone”Lenola Allen-Sommerville first recited this poem, written by an unknown author, standing in front of her eighth-grade graduation class during her valedictorian speech.Even now, after reciting it many times, she fights back tears as she says the verses aloud.The poem is more than words on paper to Allen-Sommerville, assistant to the dean for minority programs in the College of Education and adjunct assistant professor in curriculum and instruction. It is the inspiration in her enormously successful life, a life dedicated to teaching, mentoring, equity, multiculturalism and working with the community on civil and human rights issues.Allen-Sommerville said she always had two goals set for herself in her life — becoming a doctor and being a gospel musician.”I remember being an African American and coming from a limited family income,” she said. “But there was never a time in my life that I didn’t know that I was going to college.”Growing up in a segregated town in Texas, Allen-Sommerville experienced discrimination first hand.”I remember the signs over the water fountains, ‘white only’ and ‘colored only,’ and actually I wanted to drink out of the fountain that said ‘white only,'” she said. “I guess I thought lemonade came out of that fountain.”At a young age, Allen-Sommerville said representatives from the black colleges encouraged students to think about their future, something which she also does now.”It was because of that passion of mine and because of that motivation of someone having assisted me to find, to realize, and to act upon, that now I try to develop those same kinds of things with students,” she said.After attending Prairie-View A&M University in Texas, Allen-Sommerville began teaching.”I taught in the poorest urban neighborhoods and in the upper-class neighborhoods,” she said. “I’ve always tried to maximize the potential of all the students that I come into contact with.”Allen-Sommerville has also been the Minister of Music at Corinthian Baptist Church in Des Moines for more than 20 years and received her doctorate in education from Iowa State in 1977, fulfilling her two lifelong goals.”It was a grand feeling of accomplishment,” she said. “My life has progressed and I feel that there are unique things in which I was destined to do something.”Soon after receiving her doctorate, Allen-Sommerville became the first black woman employed by the Iowa Department of Education, allowing her to continue teaching.”I just love teaching,” she said. “So whatever class or subject I am assigned to teach, I always give it my all.”Allen-Sommerville currently teaches multicultural education, and social and cultural issues in counseling in the College of Education. She was awarded the Outstanding Teacher Award from Student Services, of which she was especially proud.”That meant a lot to me because I really do give my all to students, and it’s not always easy,” she said.Another of her grandest achievements, she said, was winning the 2000 YWCA Women of Achievement Award, which recognizes women who work to advance civil and human rights and multicultural issues.Despite the many accolades, her husband, Abraham Sommerville, education adviser at Des Moines Area Community College urban campus, said Allen-Sommerville hasn’t changed a bit.”She remains very genuine and is still the same ol’ beautiful and caring Lenola,” he said.Those who know Allen-Sommerville are amazed by her work ethic.”Dr. Allen-Sommerville invented hard work,” said Theresa McCormick, professor of curriculum and instruction. “She is tireless in her dedication to students’ education and to working for social change.”Allen-Sommerville said she intends to continue her long career and will stay active in minority affairs in the College of Education.”I remain totally committed to increasing the presence and success of ethnic minorities in the College of Education,” she said.Allen-Sommerville has come a long way since that eighth-grade graduation, but the words of the poem by the unknown author still resonate in her as loudly as ever.”I’ve been given this shapeless mask that I’ve had to bring order to, bring form to, bring some shape to, but I also know that I have to be a stepping stone,” she said. “I have to do more, accomplish and advance for myself, but I want to bring someone else along.”