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Stepping Outside the Ivy Walls

Stepping Outside the Ivy Walls
Post-Academe brings New Opportunities, New Benefits
By Phaedra Brotherton


Drs. Johnnie and Leroy Miles have a special partnership. Married for 35 years, they have supported each other in their educational pursuits and even taught at the same university for 22 years. And when Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) offered the two then-associate professors the opportunity to take early retirement, they took it, and transitioned out of academia together.

“I said, ‘well, there’s my chance.’ I was the first one on the list,” says Leroy Miles. “I took the buyout, and Johnnie was already doing her thing. She was already on leave so she decided to take it, too.”

Today, Leroy is a senior financial adviser, and Johnnie owns her own management consulting firm. And they couldn’t be happier.

Being a university professor was a pleasant experience, Leroy says, but he also says he never was really into an academic career of teaching theory and concepts and doing original research. In addition, he found it challenging to work in an environment that had so few minority students, staff and faculty.

“I wanted to be out working with people directly, helping people with the real problems of the world,” he says.

Leroy started out as an assistant professor in adult education. Eventually he would become an administrator, overseeing Virginia Tech’s graduate school in Falls Church, Va.

While he was at Virginia Tech, he became interested in a subject that would lead him to his current career. One of his wife’s colleagues pulled the two of them aside and gave them some advice that Leroy says he will never forget: Start putting money in your 403(b). Prior to that, Leroy says he really didn’t know much about investing and managing money. He and Johnnie started putting money into the account, and Leroy started reading up on money management and investing and became fascinated. He started informally advising other Black faculty of the importance of investing and putting money aside for their 403(b)s.

“I discovered that most people — Black faculty in particular — were just not investing the way they should have,” he says.

After he took early retirement, Leroy looked into financial advising as a new career. Today, Leroy is a senior financial adviser for Waddell & Reed, a 65-year-old financial services firm. He was able to get training in the field through the company. He sees around 300 clients, many of whom come to him via word of mouth.

“I intend to do this for the rest of my natural life … I never found anything that I enjoy as much as I do this. I enjoy helping young people make sound decisions about financial matters,” he says.

The Early Years

Johnnie, a native of Mississippi, and Leroy a native of Alabama, met in 1966 while he was working for a government poverty program on the campus of Tuskegee University, where he received his bachelor’s in secondary education. Johnnie was a graduate student at Tuskegee pursuing her master’s in counseling. They married a year later, and by 1974, they both had completed their doctorates in education — Leroy’s in adult and continuing education from Indiana University, Bloomington, and Johnnie’s in counselor education from Auburn University in Alabama. Along the way, they had two sons.

In 1974, they were recruited by Virginia Tech, a predominantly White university in Blacksburg, Va., where they would spend the next 22 years building their academic careers and raising their sons, who are graduates of Harvard and Morehouse. They spent the last 10 years working at the Falls Church campus in northern Virginia, retiring officially in 1996.

A continuance of a career

Johnnie’s career change to management consultant was more of a continuation of what she was doing as an educator — helping people empower themselves and change their environments — but in a different setting, she says.

“I think I’ve been lucky in that I’ve enjoyed everything that I’ve ever done … The reason is that there is a thread that is focused on growth development and change,” Johnnie says.

She started out as an assistant professor in counselor education at Virginia Tech. During her time as a faculty member, she enjoyed the opportunities to be involved in the community and do consulting work with government agencies and community groups. Through this experience, Johnnie says she was able to see that when she finished at the university, “there was something else out there for me to do. It would be a way for me to use knowledge and skills that I have and transfer them to another environment in a meaningful way.”

Johnnie had been on sabbatical when she and her husband were offered early retirement. And the timing was right. After 20 years of teaching, Johnnie was ready for something new. For some time she had been consulting with organizations on a part-time basis. Now she could let her clients know she was available full time.

Since 1995, as the owner of JH Miles and Associates, Johnnie has worked as a consultant and trainer with many public, private and government agencies, including the FDA, IRS, USDA and others. Her focus is on leadership and executive development, working with front-line supervisors through the executive level.

Both Johnnie and Leroy agree life outside of academia can be good. But you need to be prepared.

Leroy says they were able to take the early retirement because they had been steadily saving and putting away money while they were at Virginia Tech. If they hadn’t done that, Leroy says, he would still be at the university.

He advises anyone thinking of a career change to start putting money aside now; that will give you the freedom to pursue other interests, he says, adding that it’s important for people to find something they enjoy, otherwise stress can really take a toll on you.

If you’re contemplating a career change, Johnnie says, it’s important to take advantage of the opportunities you now have in the university to explore other interests. She says faculty often have the opportunity to do consulting and get training. Use the time available, and “do some research and find out what’s out there,” as well as volunteering and consulting if you have the opportunity. Because “there really is life outside the ivy walls,” Johnnie says.

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