Ammarra Berry looks to organizational leadership for career advancement

by | Oct 19, 2020

Berry's motivation comes from a desire to provide her daughter with the same opportunities and wonderful childhood she had growing up in St. Louis.
Ammarra Berry

Ammarra Berry started the organizational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis this semester with an eye toward career advancement. The newly launched program is intended to provide individuals with associates degrees or previously earned college credits with a rapid pathway to a bachelor’s degree. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Few things were more important than family to Ammarra Berry while growing up in St. Louis.

Part of that was the tight bond with her twin sister, Amber, who Berry lives with to this day. Another was her parents and brothers. Then there’s her extended family, such as her maternal grandfather, the late Rev. James E. Little Sr., an educator for District 189 in East Saint Louis and her grandmother, “MajaT,” who continues to support her growth to this day.

Then there were her paternal grandparents, who they’d visit every Sunday.

“Even in his older age, my grandfather kept a sense of humor,” she said. “I remember sitting in the kitchen with them, and he started to nod off, take a nap. My grandmother said, ‘You’re falling asleep.’ He said, ‘You’re falling asleep.’ She’d say, ‘Do you want to lay down?’ and he said, ‘No, I gotta watch this rug.’

“We thought that was so funny. But he was enjoying our company. He wanted us to stay. Amber and I, he called us his girls, and we had a special relationship.”

That loving grandfather – he was legendary rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Chuck Berry and he was just one part of what Berry calls her wonderful childhood.

Out of a desire to provide her daughter with the same opportunities she had, Berry enrolled this semester in the newly launched organizational leadership program at the University of Missouri­­–St. Louis.

“I don’t ever want her to feel that she’s limited by something because of my education background,” said Berry, a nontraditional student who has work experience in educational administration at the culinary school L’école Culinaire and Vatterott College but only an associate degree earned in 2019. “That that seems to be the roadblock right now, and I might not be getting the jobs that I know I’m qualified for but on paper it doesn’t look like I am.”

In many ways, Berry is an ideal fit for the organizational leadership program, which is intended to serve students who have an associate degree or some education with a rapid pathway to graduating with a bachelor’s degree.

There’s no such thing as a typical student. They range in age from 18 to mid-40s.

“One of our key demographics is seasoned employees,” said Assistant Teaching Professor Robert Cote, coordinator of the organizational leadership program. “Our students are trying to expand their knowledge, education and learn more about leadership to help them apply it in their careers. Maybe half are in some sort of management role. The other students are on the frontline. The degree is intended to help both groups gain advancement.”

Students take courses from across colleges and schools at UMSL for the interdisciplinary degree, which leads to career opportunities including managerial roles in operations, project management, communications, human resources and more.

Berry, who’s interested in pursuing human resources, fits the ideal student mold in another way – this isn’t her first round with a four-year degree.

Out of high school, she’d enrolled at Saint Louis University to study biology with the thought of one day becoming a doctor. After three years, she decided college wasn’t for her.

“When we first started our college experience, my twin sister wanted to go to Saint Louis University,” Berry said. “That was her dream school. I decided to travel. I went to Hawaii five times and went to California a bunch and got all that traveling out of my system. Then, by the time I was ready to go back, I was 25 and learned I was expecting my first child. That just wasn’t the right time for me.”

Instead, Berry started working at Vatterott, making her way to registrar of the culinary campus. She enjoyed working with the students, learning recipes from them and helping motivate them.

When the program closed in 2018, Berry had a difficult time finding work that she felt as compelled by. She worked at a physical therapist’s office, then for the Ladue school district, which prompted her to return to school for her associate degree.

“The whole experience of taking classes at St. Louis Community College helped push me to want to do better,” she said. “What triggered me to apply for the organizational leadership program was not getting paid what I feel that I deserve to get paid. I felt like organizational leadership spoke to me because I felt if I took leadership classes that maybe it would help me be respected a little bit more, taken seriously, because I’m African American, and I work in a predominantly white environment.

“There are opportunities within the school district in diversity teams, and things like that, that I want to get involved in. I feel like this will help me get to where I would like to ultimately be.”

Her first semester at UMSL, Berry is taking courses in English, public relations and leadership, which she finds herself relating to past experiences utilizing emotional intelligence and understanding different personality types.

Though she’s only in her first semester, she already knows what she hopes to get out of the program.

“I would like to gain a position in my working life that I can be respected by others and be able to help change something in a positive way for other people,” Berry said. “I want to show my daughter that, even though life may throw you challenges, you can still get through them, and I want to see her cheering for me at the finish line. She’s my ultimate motivation.”

Until then, she’ll be gaining the experience she needs to accomplish her goals at UMSL ­– where she’s not the only Berry enrolled. Amber is studying in the College of Nursing.

Though they can’t study together, having diverged in subject matter, the two make time to sit together while completing schoolwork or while running their business, AmmBer Candles, which they started during the pandemic with their extra time.

“Sis and I run on the same path together,” Berry said. “If she’s doing something, nine times out of 10 I’m probably going to do it too, or the other way around. We try to keep up with each other and motivate each other, even at our age.”

Jessica Rogen

Jessica Rogen