Lavada Burse Is Redefining Student Leadership

For more than 60 years, Glamour has honored exceptional college women across the U.S. This year, we turned our focus to students enrolled in community college. Meet Lavada Burse, who overcame severe depression partly thanks to a strong, inclusive campus community and her leadership role within the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society.

When Lavada Burse approached the podium this past May to deliver the commencement speech for all of Grayson College’s graduating classes of 2021, she was a clear embodiment of Grayson’s mission and vision: “A premier learning college that transforms individuals, builds communities, and inspires excellence by having students connect, commit, and complete.”

At 42, she never imagined she’d be up there delivering an address to her fellow students, as this isn’t her first go at community college. Burse took her first dip 20 years ago, in 2001. But at the time, moving to Texas from Stuttgart, Arkansas, without any family or financial support created an uphill battle. Burse was paying out-of-state tuition and coping with food insecurity while trying to prove she met the legal requirements to be an independent student and receive federal financial aid. “I didn’t have the money to pay per month. And so I used my bill money,” she says. “One month it would be the electricity, and then the next month it would be my car note. I was juggling beyond my means.”

Although a love of education always stayed top of mind, Burse decided that focusing on her career in retail would be a more viable option. “It caused so much chaos just trying to go to school. I knew it had to be easier than this.” And with her dream of becoming a certified public accountant on pause, Burse made do by working while still taking online classes here and there. But, as is often the case with driven people who genuinely have a love for academia, that wasn’t enough to fulfill her.

Following the birth of her youngest son, Roland, now six years old, Burse moved her family to Denison, where she later enrolled at Grayson College in 2017 to give herself a second chance. “I figured it would be so much easier​—I’ve been a Texas resident for 18 years now. I have children. It should be a walk in the park.”

But apprehension set in as Burse navigated through her early days at Grayson. Having been out of the academic game for many years, she was hit with imposter syndrome and questioned her worthiness and ability to succeed in college. It was then, she says, depression set in. To be clear, Burse says she’s always suffered from anxiety and depression but didn’t always have the tools to work on herself. 

But despite having a tough time getting out of bed, she did manage to get an invitation, via email, to join Phi Theta Kappa, the international honor society for two-year colleges. Burse, with the support of her advisor, set aside any reservations and took the plunge.

“I made every excuse in the book to avoid even making it to the initial induction ceremony,” says Burse. “But I knew I had to get out of the funk, even if it meant finding the longest dress possible since I didn’t shave or paint my toenails.”

Ultimately, Phi Theta Kappa was Burse’s bright light. By staying involved and staying active, she found a reason to get out of bed and started to display a level of leadership and excellence that couldn’t be ignored.

“My community kept asking me, ‘What do you want to be?’ And my heart was telling me, ‘president of Phi Theta Kappa,’” says Burse. “But I had to battle the ‘You’re not good enough, just run for vice president’ thoughts.” And before she knew it, with the unwavering support she received from her counselor and advisor, Burse began the #Lavada2020 campaign that eventually earned her the titles of Texas regional president for Phi Theta Kappa and Phi Theta Kappa’s 2020–2021 international president, the highest leadership position available to students in the organization.

Additionally, Burse—a self-described introvert—served on the board of trustees at Grayson College as the student liaison to share her perspective as an over-40 student, a single mom working full time, a woman overcoming depression and anxiety, a student studying to become an accountant. She credits the community at Grayson for encouraging her to succeed and stay engaged.

“Just being around a like-minded and diverse group of people has helped me to grow as a mother, a student, a coworker, and as a leader. And I don’t want to stop,” says Burse. “For me, I’m like, What can I get into next? I’m looking into my future choice in college. I want to attend the University of North Texas. And so, I’m looking into what can I do now, what can I do more of?”

Ru Wolle is an associate editor at Glamour.

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