Atlantic Cape’s Natalie Devonish Overcomes Odds as Worthington Campus Dean

By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media

ATLANTIC CITY – Last October, Natalie Devonish was hired as dean of Atlantic Cape Community College’s Worthington campus, but the Atlantic City native is still getting comfortable with the lofty title.

“This morning, someone said, ‘Hey, Nat, I was looking for you, where are you now?’ I said, ‘Oh, I’m at Atlantic Cape.’ They said, ‘What are you doing there? Oh, I work right across the street,'” Devonish said. “So I avoided [saying the title] because I don’t want them to see me as different. I still want them to see me as the helpful resourceful person that I am.

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“So I realized I tried not to put that barrier up, but it’s still something I haven’t obviously gotten used to. I am very proud to have this opportunity more so proud that it’s here in Atlantic City. I don’t think it would have felt the same if I took this job on the main campus. But I think the sense of pride comes from my family,” she added.

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Devonish’s family migrated to the United States from the Caribbean island nation of Barbados. Her grandfather recently just passed recently in Barbados. She was the second person in her immediately family to graduate high school.

A Turnaround

By her own description, Devonish said she constantly got in fights at Atlantic City High School and attending college, must less earning a bachelor’s degree, wasn’t even on the radar until a school counselor took interest in her as a senior.

“[Fighting] was survival in a sense, that’s what we had to do and we fought a lot,” Devonish said of her and her sister in a time where her family was homeless. “I had, and still do, unfortunately, have a short temper for people who are disrespectful. And I remember getting in trouble and getting suspended in my senior year in November.”

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That’s when the counselor, Darlene Lathan, sat her down and said, “What’s going on? You can do anything. Why are you getting in trouble again?”

Atlantic Cape Community College Dean Natalie Devonish after defending her dissertation at Stockton University. Photo courtesy of Natalie Devonish

Instead of hounding her, Lathan put her on a tour of New Jersey colleges with other students to see a world she had not seen or thought of before. From that moment, everything changed.

“I will always remember that day,” Devonish said. “She took me on this tour of New Jersey colleges. And I came back so motivated. I applied for every scholarship opportunity that I could receive, graduated that year with 16 local scholarships.”

A Life Changed

Fast forward to 2020, not only is Devonish leading her own college campus, but in May she earned her doctorate degree from Stockton University. She earned her undergraduate degree in business management from Rutgers and her master’s degree in administrative science/leadership from Farleigh Dickinson University.

Devonish said, though, she doesn’t volunteer that personal story to other students because she wants students she sees and mentors to decide their own goals and dreams. She said that what her counselor did for her – showed her a new world and let her decide what she wanted to do with it.

“Our young people don’t need to be told what we’ve been through,” Devonish said. “They need to know that we care. I told my story of me getting in trouble, being arrested before, one time in a public forum and it was at the juvenile justice detention alternative initiative. It was to a group of young people and judges.

“It was a very unique combination of young people who are at-risk of re-entering the juvenile justice system and a whole bunch of juvenile judges. Now, as the opportunity to tell them my story, that no matter what is in your way, you have the power to make the change. And that was the only time I told my truth because I thought at that time, this particular group needed to hear it,” she said.

Atlantic Cape Community College Dean Natalie Devonish with Victor Moreno, Atlantic Cape’s outreach manager at the Atlantic City Black Lives Matter street mural Sept. 4. Photo courtesy of Natalie Devonish

Devonish said she would rather have young people tell her what they need and what they want to do.

“I’m a guest and I refuse to tell them what’s best for them because that’s a hard place to be,” Devonish said. “That’s why Ms. Lathan was so dear to me. She never told me what I needed to do, or what she thought I should do. And she showed me the way.”

Youth Exposure

The mentoring nonprofit Denvonish started for middle school students, Youth Exposure, is celebrating its 10th year in the Atlantic City area.

“I’ve said to myself, there’s no way this has been 10 years, but it has,” Devonish said. “The goal is to provide and expose young people with opportunities that they cannot get while they’re in school because we should be a supplement and a complement to the board of education. So, what we did was we exposed them to leadership opportunities.

“Whether we taught them how to manage money and then gave them fake money, whether we taught them how to do public speaking and what we did with public speaking because we’re talking about our inner-city population. We talk about healthy debating. How not to argue because you’re mad, but to argue because you have content behind it,” she said.

Devonish said she was proud that 11 sixth graders who were part of her first group of students in Youth Exposure all graduated from high school and earned $500,000 in scholarships. She based her dissertation on that experience.

“This was huge because they were truly the test,” Devonish said. “I made sure that my evaluations were not based on just, ‘Oh, this kid is smart. Their background is this.’ We took a group of kids who didn’t even know they were going to be assessed.

“I’m so proud of them, I really am. I get to speak to them often. They know that I’m there if they need me, but we still have a lot more young people to mentor,” she added.

College and COVID-19

Right now, Devonish is going about the business of operating the Worthington campus in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. She said her experience at the operations director at the Boys & Girls Club of Atlantic City prepared her for the task at hand.

“When you’re dealing with children, it’s different because your mindset is safety,” Devonish said. “Safety before anything. Safety and communication. Do the kids understand what you’re trying to say? Do the parents understand what you’re trying to say? I felt comfortable because it’s like, hey if you can manage the Boys & Girls Club with 300 kids in a day, you can make it through this.”

This is not her first stint with Atlantic Cape. She served as acting director of counseling and assistant director of student support services from 2013 to 2017. With her current job, she also executive director of workforce development for the college.

Her Role Models

Along with Lathan, she counts current Atlantic City High School principal La’Quetta Small as a friend and one of the people she looks up to the most.

Atlantic City High School Principal La’Quetta Small, who is also the city’s first lady. Photo courtesy of La’Quetta Small

“[Small] is truly my role model because being a black woman in an environment where people lack respect, and she’s always so calm, cool, and collected,” Devonish said. “I don’t feel like I’ve come to her level yet.”

Denovish has been honored by numerous organizations. Last year, she was recognized at the 5th Annual Black Girls Rock Jersey Style Awards. Other awards include the Vocational Service Award from the Rotary Club of New Jersey, Atlantic City Hometown Hero Award, Community Service Award from the Atlantic NAACP, A.C. Weekly and JayCees Top 40 Under 40 Award among other state and local honors. She is also a member of the Atlantic City chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority.

While Devonish said she doesn’t quite see herself as a role model yet, her life story, love for young people and determination to make their future brighter has other looking at the Worthington campus dean makes her one to many.

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