She had been working with the Philadelphia Housing Authority for nearly 20 years, calculating rents for tenants. Her close friends were teachers, and when they gathered, she listened as they talked for hours about students, lesson plans, and the rewards and challenges of being an educator.
One evening, when Dixon tried to steer the conversation away from teaching, one friend challenged her: “If you think teaching is so easy, why don’t you try it?”
The words remained with Dixon, and she accepted the challenge. When she first stepped onto Cabrini College’s campus in 1979, she could sense an immediate personal connection … but she had no idea that it was the start of a lifelong bond.
“It just felt right,” she says. “I was raised in a family where service was treasured, where giving back was emphasized. The Missionary Sisters [of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, founders of Cabrini] really enhanced that.”
After earning her undergraduate and graduate degrees (in Education) at Cabrini, in 1990 Dixon was asked to join the College’s Board of Trustees. She was the first African American on the Board, just one of many extraordinary accomplishments in her lifetime.
Upon joining the Board, she made a small contribution to Cabrini. Each year, as her connection to the College grew stronger, little by little her gifts grew larger. Dixon stresses it’s not a matter of how much you give, but that you give.
In 30 years, she has seen the College undergo dramatic transformation. She recognizes that donors provide the foundation for transformation, and that contributions are the lifeblood of the College.
In 1992, she accepted a position as an adjunct professor in Cabrini’s education department. Dixon accepted in 1996 a full-time position as Cabrini’s coordinator of diversity initiatives, while continuing to teach. Being on campus full-time changed Dixon by unlocking new opportunities.
“Being an educator opened so many doors for me,” she says.
She participated in a roundtable at Oxford University. She taught in rural Ghana, where she saw students drinking tainted water, so she wrote a paper on the subject and petitioned the United Nations to make clean drinking water a global human right. In 2004, clean water initiatives ranked ninth on the U.N.’s top priorities; with the help of Dixon’s paper, the initiatives moved up to fourth on the list. In 2008, China opened their criminal justice system to outsiders for the first time, and Dixon was there, discussing the legal system with Chinese judges and attorneys.
Last summer, she served as principal for a girls’ school in South Africa.
“What I learned from those girls last summer changed my life,” Dixon says. “I truly understand now that it takes a village to raise a child.”
Dixon points to a pegboard spanning a wall in her Grace Hall office. From it hang nearly 500 keychains from all over the world, from as far as Bali, Italy, and Guatemala. They were gifts from colleagues, students, and people she has met in her travels. She started collecting the keychains more than a decade ago as a way to remember significant moments and people in her life, and the collection grew as people saw the souvenirs displayed.
“This collection represents my time here at Cabrini,” Dixon says, pointing to a keychain of a tribal mask. “The Missionary Sisters in Swaziland sent me this.”
She then proudly points to another keychain bearing the faces of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. “This came from the girls in South Africa.”
From the young South African girls, she learned an important lesson that she has brought back to future educators in her classroom at Cabrini.
“I try to impress upon my students that if you can touch a child’s heart, that can open your mind.”