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W&M grad student employs the power of story from the military to the classroom

  • Toni Gay
    Toni Gay  is a doctoral student in the W&M School of Education, following a career in the Coast Guard.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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William & Mary has produced scores of amazing, influential women who profoundly impacted this campus during their college careers. Any of them would make for fascinating reading. During this celebration of 100 years of coeducation, we’re offering an occasional profile of a few who presently make this university one of the nation's most respected. - Ed.

For Toni Gay, doctoral student at William & Mary in the Higher Education Program, it’s always been about the story.

With a career marked by storytelling for others, Gay also brings her own unique story to the university, having recently retired from 25 years of military service, 22 of which were spent in active-duty for the U.S. Coast Guard. During her time in the military, she learned the tools for engaging audiences – whether as a public affairs specialist or educator at the Coast Guard Academy. Those 25 years, she described, equipped her with the essential appreciation for difference, aptitude for storytelling and repeated resilience that she brings to her work at William & Mary.

An unexpected career

Asked whether a career in the military was a fixed goal in her youth, Gay responded with rapid certainty. 

“Oh no, no, no,” she said. “When I first got involved with the military, I think the majority of people who would have heard that news would have gone ‘What?!’”

An arts-loving young woman from Birmingham, Alabama, Gay described her choice to join the military as the product of meaningful relationships and mentors she developed at crucial periods in her life. During her time working with a group of nurses who had served in a variety of military branches, Gay was informed that the military had its own journalism school.  

“It sounded like a lot of fun, and these women seemed to have had amazing experiences,” she said.

toni-gay-content.jpgThe accounts shared by that group of women motivated her to pursue a path within the military, beginning as a student at the military’s journalism school. As a student of journalism, she described developing a propensity for storytelling and an interest in the Coast Guard, specifically, because of its ripe potential for stories.

Recounting the history of the Coast Guard’s establishment, she explained her motivations for choosing the branch. She detailed how the branch was born out of Alexander Hamilton’s Department of the Treasury to prevent smugglers from taking essential post-revolution revenue. Once a part of the Department of Transportation, the Coast Guard took on a distinct law enforcement mission, she said. Now, the Coast Guard has found its current home in the Department of Homeland Security. This multifaceted history of the Coast Guard’s role was exactly what excited Gay.

“There is that humanitarian aspect, that law enforcement aspect and that search and rescue aspect,” she said. “As a public affairs person, I was especially interested in being involved in these types of activities because there would always be something interesting to write about and to share with others. I wanted to tell that story.”

And tell that story she did.

In her early days in the Coast Guard, Gay expressed how she used her tools as a public affairs specialist to convey information to the public.

“I was telling the story daily,” she said. “Local, international news: I found every format.”

Whether disseminating information to Congress to obtain funding, or to the public to gain widespread support, Gay was at the heart of information sharing between the Coast Guard and outside entities. She described believing in her branch’s missions and feeling responsible to the public – and how her work served both groups at once.

As Gay’s time at the Coast Guard developed, she never lost sight of her desire to share information with others. She inspected ships to keep the public aware and safe. She even provided threat information to senior policy decision makers, which launched her pursuit of a master’s degree in strategic intelligence. Her specialized knowledge in intelligence and security rendered her the ideal candidate for a program at the Coast Guard Academy for security studies, where she was later asked to teach.

Finalizing her Coast Guard career as a teacher, she reinvigorated her love for storytelling and discovered her desired post-retirement path: higher education.

“I had a great time there,” she said, describing her experience teaching at the academy. “I loved teaching. I loved the community and the cadets I interacted with. I thought, ‘Well, let’s explore this higher education thing at the university level.’”

Bringing her story to W&M

After retiring from the military in 2014, Gay was accepted to pursue her Ed.D. at the William & Mary School of Education. Her choice of the Ed.D. program sparked from her desire to be what she termed “a doctor of practice.”

“With my interest in experiential education, study abroad and international education, I could really see myself doing more boots-on-the-ground experiences with students,” she said.

During her time at the university, she’s already put her boots on the ground, employing her experience and drive to tell creative stories. In summer of 2018, she traveled to Ireland with the School of Education’s Global Studies class where she was able to marry her interests in global education and digital storytelling techniques.

“On my study abroad trip last summer, my advisor allowed me to do a creative final project,” she said. “I did a transmedia digital story using different visual aspects, whether it be videos, photos, interviews or audio. It unlocked for me this reflective process. It made me make connections and have a transformative learning experience that I wouldn’t have had writing in a journal.”

Gay is now focused on employing digital storytelling to unlock this reflection for more students and to create an avenue where the stories of a more neurodiverse student population can be disseminated.

Paving the way

Reflecting on her development to her position today, Gay remarked on how her 25 years in the Coast Guard equipped her with the tools to tell the right stories.

“Leadership is a huge component of my previous work in the military that can be applied throughout the course of a lifetime,” she said. “I now have the skill of being able to engage with my students or anyone I’m talking to. I’ve had to.”

Even more, Gay explains that her success has been far from linear, and that her time in the Coast Guard has given her the resilience to pave her own path forward.

“Things don’t happen overnight. Having had my experiences, I know that when things don’t go exactly as planned, you’ve just got to hang in there and persevere,” she said.

Throughout her career, she described moments where she had faced challenges that appeared insurmountable. Despite those challenges, Gay explained that ‘forward’ is the direction prior generations of women have signaled for her.

“I was the first woman in my family to serve on active duty in the military,” she said. “That was a big deal for a lot of people. During my time, I encountered levels of gender bias and sexual harassment. But my great aunt was one of the Rosie the Riveters during World War II, an aircraft mechanic. She was a trailblazer, like a lot of other women who came before me.”

These women, she said, are those who created the path for her to walk on.

“In many ways, I am reaping the benefits of being able to do what I did,” she said. “It was the generation or two that came before me who really laid the groundwork, blazing the trails for me to be able to do what I do.”

To fellow and future William & Mary women, she encourages them to pay the same homage to those who came before them.

“To future generations, I would say that things will not always be easy – we will have hard days. But we need to remember to thank those who came before us because they did smooth the way,” she said. “Our path as women has been a little easier because of those before us who truly did the heavy lifting.”