With a vision to strengthen student connections and foster community, Tina Smith-Bonahue, associate professor in the School of Special Education, School Psychology and Early Childhood Studies (SESPECS), is prepared to lead EduGator Central forward as the associate dean for student affairs and graduate education.

Smith-Bonahue has been a faculty member at the College of Education for more than 25 years and assumed the role of associate dean in July 2021. She succeeds Nancy Waldron, who held the position since 2014 and has resumed her teaching and research responsibilities as a professor in SESPECS.

“Dr. Smith-Bonahue is an experienced, insightful and dedicated leader,” said College of Education Dean Glenn Good. “Tina understands our students’ academic and personal needs and has a compelling vision for how faculty and staff will support students ensuring that they realize the highest levels of personal, academic and professional success.”

Smith-Bonahue believes like most great things, she found her calling to education by “happy accident.”

While in an undergraduate developmental psychology course, she had an epiphany that has since defined her research agenda and been a guiding force in her professional career — the best way to make the world a better place is to prepare excellent educators.

Tina Smith-Bonahue

This realization was only further reinforced when she began working in a residential center for children and adolescents with disabilities after graduation and was asked to teach, although she had no prior experience or training.

“They put me in a classroom and gave me students, and I was absolutely disastrous at that because I was unprepared,” she said. “But what I learned from it was tremendous — which is the value of teacher preparation.”

From these experiences, Smith-Bonahue committed her career to transforming society by equipping early childhood educators with the knowledge and tools needed to foster the lifelong success of young children.

“Any society’s most important goal — most important job — is to help families raise healthy, happy, well-adjusted children who are prepared to be the next generation,” she said. “And the best way to do that is to start when they’re little. … Anything we can do to help support families, to help support teachers who support families and children, will help build a better tomorrow.”

With a background in both early childhood and school psychology, Smith-Bonahue’s research focuses on helping preservice and in-service teachers learn strategies to connect with diverse populations.

She shared that the majority of teachers today are white and middle class, yet the majority of students are not. Thus the key to improving education, particularly for underserved populations, is helping educators learn how to better connect with children and families.

“To help children celebrate their own heritage — their own culture and values — and to help teachers bring that into the classroom, that is something I’m very passionate about because I think it’s the most important challenge facing education right now.”

Smith-Bonahue considers the role of associate dean her dream job, and she is thrilled to have the opportunity to expand her reach and play a role in championing the success of every EduGator.

“Everything about our mission is rooted in supporting the whole student,” she said. “Making sure that all of our students — from the freshmen who enter our undergraduate majors to our doctoral graduates — have all of the skills, all of the resources, that they need to reach their academic and their professional goals, and that’s something that I’ve always tried to do with my individual students.”

In addition to building on the strong foundation set by Waldron, Smith-Bonahue intends to expand efforts around student life, focusing on cultivating students’ connections with one another as well as with the community at large.

“I think that EduGator Central is uniquely poised to be the hub that connects students from different disciplines to each other and also to connect our students to the community because people who want to be in the College of Education usually are altruistic and they’re idealistic and they want to help — they want to make a difference.”

“… So as soon as the pandemic is over and it’s safe for us to send students back into the community, one of our big goals is to help students find ways to serve in the community,” she continued.

Smith-Bonahue also emphasized that students are the heart of the College of Education, and she plans to seek out every opportunity to celebrate them.

“Our students are the reason that we’re here,” she said. “… We really can’t be effective without opportunities to engage with students and find out what they’re thinking and what they value and how we can help them reach their goals.”

Although the pandemic has and continues to challenge the field of education, Smith-Bonahue hopes to learn from its experiences to strengthen EduGator Central, the college and the field itself.

“It’s an incredibly exciting time to be in higher education, it’s a challenging time to be in higher education and it’s a challenging time for our schools,” she said, “but the University of Florida has world-class scholars, world-class instructors and practitioners who can help lead the way.”