Years ago, Leslie Ekpe sat in university hallways enduring interview after interview trying to get into a Ph.D. program. She kept getting rejected. She kept leaving disappointed.
Ekpe, 30, applied to nine schools in 2018. She got nine rejections. She had to take out a credit card to pay for all the entrance exam fees she kept failing.
Then, Texas Christian University called her in. Sitting nervously at the table, she told administrators why she would be an asset to their program.
She applied for a master’s in education program — she already had two graduate degrees, she figured she could get another one — and during her interview with Don Mills, former vice chancellor for student affairs and founder of the higher education leadership program, she cried.
He asked what she was doing applying for the program; she told him she’d tried to get into Ph.D. programs but kept getting rejected. She knew she could get into graduate school again, though.
Mills delivered another blow. He told her he wasn’t going to accept her in the program she applied for.
“At that point, I don’t think I had any feelings because I had been denied by nine other schools,” she said. “But then he told me he was going to transfer my application to the Ph.D. program.”
Mills said he was “immediately impressed.”
She is now pursuing a doctorate in higher educational leadership at Texas Christian University. On the day he rejected her, Mills set the stage for a historic moment at the university.
Now, Ekpe is the first Black president of the Graduate Student Senate at Texas Christian University, and Mills said she’s made it even more of a force on the campus.
Chancellor Victor Boschini said Ekpe has several strengths and is a great asset to the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion office — where she is completing her graduate assistantship — but one of the biggest strengths is her ability to bridge gaps between people who disagree.
He said she makes people feel heard.
“She’ll be a college president someday, for sure,” Boschini said.
A path to higher education
It was an injury that set her many degrees in motion. Growing up in Lewisville, Ekpe enjoyed playing basketball and had supportive teachers and coaches around her, she said.
She also had a large family. Ekpe has three brothers who she describes as her best friends and her parents — who immigrated to the U.S. from Nigeria — are respiratory therapists.
“I’ve always known them to work hard, work diligently, work for their children and just work to create and establish a really strong foundation for us to be successful,” Ekpe said about her parents. “And I have never seen them outside of that. I can’t see them outside of that. That’s just what they do. They always have provided for us. I’ve never gone without, not to say we didn’t struggle, but I just know that they might have but they made sure to their best ability that we didn’t.”
In middle school, Ekpe tried volleyball instead of basketball because her friends played. She discovered she both enjoyed and was good at the sport. She played on club teams, an expensive endeavor, but her parents worked to help provide for some time.
Ekpe wanted to help with the expenses. She started working as a waitress and other side jobs to help pay to play volleyball. It took a lot of hard work and money, but she went on to play at Alabama A&M University on a full-ride scholarship.
In her first year, the team won the conference championship. Then came her injury. She realized she needed a plan for what she wanted to do with her life after sports, because she couldn’t play volleyball forever.
“I’m big in my faith and so I believe that God had taken me there but then, you know, everything happens for a reason,” Ekpe said. “You can bet on something for a long time and then you could get there and it could change.”
At 19, she started considering what to do next. She decided she wanted to be an attorney. Ekpe said she’s always been interested in social justice, especially for Black and brown people.
“I definitely think the system is skewed and it doesn’t benefit us at all,” she said. “Once you’re in this system. It’s definitely like the circular effect of, you’re never going to get out of it.”
She finished at Alabama A&M with a bachelor’s degree in business management and then went to the University of Alabama at Birmingham and played indoor and beach volleyball while she pursued a master’s degree in communications management.
Next in Ekpe’s plan was to get a master’s in business and her juris doctor degree. But getting those degrees requires high test scores on entrance exams, and she could not get the scores she needed.
“I’m not going to say I’m not a good test-taker because I believe that some of the tests are made for you not to succeed,” Ekpe said.
She was able to get into a master’s in business administration program at Sam Houston State University. While in that program, she studied for the LSAT, but did not get the score she needed and started working at Sally Beauty in the legal department at the corporate office in Denton.
It was a former professor reaching out that caused her to change course.
From student to teacher
Ekpe was a pro at being a student — she completed multiple degrees and programs. But she still felt like she didn’t know what she was doing with her life.
One of her former professors, Helen Gabre, reached out and said she was proud of her and thought she was doing great. Ekpe said she wasn’t so sure.
“I can’t get into law school. I’m trying to take these stupid tests,” she told her. “I don’t know what’s going on.”
When she suggested Ekpe teach, it was unexpected, but she just wanted to be happy.
“I don’t think degrees make you happy,” Ekpe said. “I think knowing that you’re fulfilling your purpose where you’re supposed to be brings happiness.”
Though it was never part of her plan, she quickly realized she liked teaching. She started at Dallas College teaching business courses.
“Education is one of the realms where you can truly continue to grow as a person, and you have to, in order to disseminate knowledge to your students,” she said. “You have to be able to learn from your mistakes. You have to be able to take information in from other individuals, and not just people that are up above you, like, your own students.”
She spent one year teaching at the community college before she taught ninth grade professional communication at Uplift Summit International Preparatory School in Arlington. Teaching just felt right to her, even though it wasn’t easy.
She decided she wanted to take it to the next level and get a Ph.D. Ekpe attended a conference called The Ph.D. Project, which aims to help people from marginalized communities get higher degrees.
That’s when she started hitting roadblocks, and that’s when Mills came in determined to get her in the program at TCU.
Even after she was accepted, Mills said he interacted with her in class and her research efforts. He encouraged her to get as involved as she could.
“I wanted to be certain that we had students with different kinds of experiences coming into the program,” he said. “Leslie was a collegiate athlete, she was a student of color, she worked at a community college, she brought a unique perspective to our program. I thought it would make our program better.”
She still remembers the phone call she made to her mom walking out of class to tell her she got into the program. They were both excited and her mom was thrilled she’d be closer to home at the Fort Worth university.
“TCU was like the best thing that has ever happened,” Ekpe said. “Because I knew I could do it. But then because I had been denied for so long, I forgot that I knew I could do it.”
She was determined to show them what she could do.
Teacher, student, leader
Fast forward, and now Ekpe is starting her third year at Texas Christian University, where she was selected by her peers to lead the Graduate Student Senate again.
The senate is a representative body of students working for financial, professional and other forms of support for all graduate students at the university. The senate works with administration to try and achieve the best educational experience for the students.
The 2022-23 school year will be Ekpe’s second year to lead the senate. Her first year she was nominated and last year she decided to run and won.
The needs of graduate students are different from undergraduates, which means the Graduate Student Senate is tasked with looking at distinct problems and finding solutions for them. A lot of graduate students work full time jobs, have children, are conducting research projects and are not on campus for as long as undergraduates, Ekpe said. This creates a unique college experience that needs support from the university.
In fall 2021, the campus had 1,716 graduate students compared to 10,222 undergraduates.
Floyd Worlmey, associate vice provost for research and dean of graduate studies, said he works closely with Ekpe and sees her passion for her peers.
“She’s been the best that I’ve seen at any institution. She’s the best at what she does,” he said. “She’s not afraid to ask questions, she’s not afraid to ask for more support. She doesn’t take no for an answer. She’s not afraid to be honest with me and let me know what I could do better.”
As president, Ekpe has to make sure the needs of her peers are met. That means fighting for good health care benefits, teaching benefits and resources for successful research.
“Regardless of the financial assistance, all of us are longing and wanting more for ourselves because that’s why you come to graduate school — you are investing into your success for the future,” Ekpe said. “I wanted TCU to understand that if these graduate students are investing into TCU, TCU has to invest in them.”
The Graduate Student Senate started about 20 years ago, and Ekpe considers herself honored and privileged to serve in her leadership role.
“But I also think I was not the first Black woman that wanted to serve in this position,” she said. “I do give credit to those who have done the work before me who just didn’t have the title, and I truly believe you can still be a leader without the leadership title.”
The university is about to be 130 years old, and Ekpe said if she’s the first Black woman to serve in this position, there still is work to do on the diversity of the institution. She believes it is her responsibility to grow opportunities for all people on campus.
She wants the campus to be a leader in diversity efforts, not catching up to others.
“I want TCU to stand and say we did this because it was the right thing to do..” Ekpe said. “It’s been time for us to make change and if we truly value the future of higher education and the people within it, that change starts now.”
When Ekpe reflects on her educational journey, she sees it as full circle. She will graduate in May, and her dissertation is on a topic close to her heart: racial disparities within standardized testing.
“The test itself has been used as a system to keep people out of higher education for so long, and we still rely on this test as part of our admissions processes, which denies people like you and me access to education,” she said. “Sometimes I’m like, ‘Cry, and then get back to writing.’ But I’m almost there, and a couple of years ago the same opportunity was denied for me.”
Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.