A career in education seemed like the remotest possibility for Rowlanda Cawthon as she graduated from the University of Puget Sound with a communications degree. Indeed, Cawthon went to work as an assignment editor for a Tacoma, Washington, television news team after college.
But through a series of circumstances, the Waco, Texas, native soon launched into an 11-year career with the Washington State Department of Corrections. She started as a data entry operator and meteorically rose to a series of positions at headquarters, including business analyst and communications consultant. She worked as a correctional unit supervisor, managing a 104-bed living unit at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women at Belfair and served as a classification counselor at the Washington Corrections Center for Women at Gig Harbor.
Along the way, she earned her Master of Arts in Organization Leadership degree at Chapman University at an extension campus at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Although she had no teaching experience, Cawthon wanted to be a college instructor. Earning a master’s degree opened a door for her to begin teaching in higher education.
Cawthon took a leave of absence to pursue her doctorate in organizational leadership at Brandman University, now known as University of Massachusetts Global. She underwent training at Brandman to hone her leadership skills and create a pathway for becoming a full-time professor.
After completing her Ed.D., three friends suggested she apply to teach at Northwest University, the Assemblies of God school in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland. Cawthon sent her curriculum vitae, statement of faith, and teaching philosophy to Teresa Gillespie, then Northwest University business dean. Cawthon hoped to secure an adjunct teaching position.
After an August 2015 interview at Northwest, Cawthon emerged with a full-time visiting professor position. Three months later, she became a tenured assistant professor.
Christianity hadn’t been a consideration for Cawthon until a friend invited her to church during high school. After attending services, she accepted Christ as her Savior and was baptized in the Holy Spirit. Later, her parents, Rufus and Debbie Kennedy, committed their lives to Jesus at Roosevelt Heights Church of God in Christ. Rowlanda spent 15 years at the Tacoma church, working in women’s ministry and youth ministry, along with preaching on occasion.
Meanwhile at Northwest, Cawthon continued to find favor. In June 2021, she received a promotion to dean of the school’s College of Business. She oversees academic programs, supervises faculty, and continues to teach, primarily doctoral leadership classes.
Cawthon wants to see Northwest untap the potential to mesh with some of the world’s largest employers that have corporate headquarters nearby.
“Seattle is a vibrant business place,” says Cawthon, 44. “We’re in a prime location to cultivate students to get into workplaces such as Microsoft, Google, and Expedia and make an impact. Our intention is to develop Christian business leaders with character, competency, and skills who can be integrated into secular workplaces.”
Cawthon says business faculty demonstrate such real-world practical experience, including Jeremy Chambers, who owns four Ace Hardware stores; Todd Nelson, who operates his own law firm; and Tony Pizelo, who operated a financial management company before retiring.
David Troupe, a College of Business faculty member, says it is a joy to work with Cawthon.
“She’s a bold truth teller,” says Troupe, who spent 35 years working at the Boeing Company with a variety of leadership responsibilities. “The fact that she is transparent in what she is thinking is a refreshing notion when it comes to leadership. Her motivations and intentions are all very clear.”
Troupe, 69, says Cawthon is fervent about making the College of Business into a school with a reputation for stellar education.
“It’s one thing to develop business leaders who have the necessary acumen for the elements of accounting, finance, economics, and operations,” says Troupe, who also is a lecturer at the University of Washington-Bothell. “It’s another thing to develop managers who have a heart for people and for God and want to make a positive impact that is transformational. Dr. Cawthon wants to see people changed and relationships enhanced.”
Cawthon is the first full-time academic Black female professor at the AG school, but she isn’t uncomfortable in that role.
“Wherever I’ve worked, I’ve often been the only woman of color in the room,” Cawthon says.
That is changing, as Cawthon these days has more opportunities to impact young Black professional women. That includes Salisha Allard-Blaisdell, who is obtaining her doctorate in organizational leadership from Northwest University. After listening to Cawthon deliver a keynote address in 2018, Allard-Blaisdell asked Cawthon to mentor her. Allard-Blaisdell says Cawthon has been a powerful encourager.
“I told her I wanted to be just like her, and she told me I would be better,” remembers Allard-Blaisdell, a single mother to daughter, Kaelyn, 8. “Dr. Cawthon’s mission is for me to be the best version of myself. She really provides good guidance for what my career steps should be.” Allard-Blaisdell, a 32-year-old international student from Grenada, is volunteer development director for GK Folks Foundation.
Cawthon is in the process of pursuing her ministerial credentials with the AG. Beth Backes recently asked her to be part of the launch team for The Table Church, an AG congregation set to open in Federal Way in April.