Nearly 20 years ago she was a divorced mother of two struggling to care for her family. She still recalls the day she stood in a Birmingham, Ala. grocery store with $100 in her checkbook. Her sons, then ages 2 and 4, sat in the cart as she eyed the choices in the cereal aisle.
She had $50 to spend on food and $50 to put gas in her yellow Mercury Marquis that her children called “Big Bird.”
Tracy Syler-Jones holds a top position at TCU as the vice chancellor of marketing and communication, but she hit rock bottom before getting there.
To go from graduating from college, getting a job and starting a family to being an unemployed single mom was an embarrassment, Syler-Jones said.
“I grew up with all the trappings of a middle-class family: a two-story house with four bedrooms and a pool and Jacuzzi in the backyard,” Syler-Jones said in her office in Sadler Hall, a few doors down from Chancellor Victor Boschini.
“Persistence has gotten me where I am, my fight to not give up,” she said. “I often think about the quote about the measure of a man. It wasn’t whether I fell down, but whether I got back up.”
Her older sister Rene Syler, a former television reporter/anchor, said Syler-Jones had a rocky start in her adult life, but that determination and a willingness to sacrifice helped her change the course.
“Tracy knew early on that she did not want to live the way she was, paycheck-to-paycheck, worried about gassing the car and feeding her sons. So she made a plan,” Syler wrote in an email.
The sisters grew up in Fair Oaks Ca., a suburb right outside of Sacramento. They lived in a solid middle-class neighborhood with their parents.
"My sister is older, but only by 22 months," Syler-Jones said. "We grew up like twins. My mom dressed us alike when we were little so many people thought we were twins."
Syler-Jones was 17 when she decided to go to college. Her parents hadn’t gone beyond high school, so she was charting new territory. “There wasn’t a whole lot of direction in terms of going to this college or that college. I had to learn it all on my own.”
First, Syler-Jones attended a junior college in Sacramento, but after a year, she transferred to a school in Southern California. She attended a third junior college before ending up at San Diego State University where she earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism with an emphasis in radio/television news.
“I loved to write and thought that I would want to do that for the rest of my life,” she said. “I ended up looking at broadcast journalism and wanted to work in that industry right out of college.”
After graduation at age 22, Syler-Jones took a job writing television news with the CBS affiliate in San Diego. She also got married and had two children, Jeremiah and Joshua.
After a year, she realized the industry wasn’t for her.
“I had a great time working in television news, but there was so much stress in the newsroom and I determined that kind of stress wasn’t what I wanted to deal with in my life,” she said.
Syler-Jones recalled a memory in the newsroom when a woman called CBS and asked if the company would hire a private investigator to find her missing son. At that moment, she realized she couldn’t be a part of television news any longer.
“I knew CBS wouldn’t do that because that wasn’t news, that didn’t have the sizzle. I realized I couldn’t create something one day and then start all over again the next day,” she said. “I wanted something that was lasting, something that would have a positive impact on people."
After leaving the newsroom, Syler-Jones dedicated the next four years to her new job as a stay-at-home mom. She loved that role, but she wanted to find employment.
In 1992, after six months of pounding the pavement in California and not finding employment, Syler-Jones decided to look into jobs in Birmingham, Ala., where her sister was working at a local television station.
But when her marriage collapsed, her life in Alabama changed dramatically. She was an unemployed single mom.
“It was very hard," she said. "I don’t think people understand the challenges that single moms go through, especially without the support of the ex-husband. We bear the burden to take care of our children and we do the best we can.”
Despite the hardships, Syler-Jones found tremendous value in being a single mom and staying at home with her children. “It’s one of those positions that most people look at and don’t think there is much value, but if a woman can afford to be a single mom, it’s worth it,” she said.
Unfortunately, Syler-Jones couldn’t afford it. She knew she needed a job to support herself and her children.
Syler-Jones landed a job overseeing community service at the Birmingham YMCA. She earned $2.75 an hour.
Syler-Jones worked in many low-income communities and took her children with her so they could see what it was like to live in poverty.
“When I asked children questions, I learned that many had never experienced something as simple as going to the circus or the movies,” she said. “I thought, wow, how terrible that kids in those communities didn’t have that.”
Syler-Jones realized she wanted to inspire kids to set higher goals for themselves when she asked a young boy what he wanted to do in the future. “He told me he wanted to work at McDonald’s because his mom and dad worked there.”
After that, she said: “I wanted to make an impact. I may not have changed the world, but it would have been so great to think kids might have broken the cycle because of what I did.”
She loved her job, but was struggling financially and missed her family. By 1999, her mother was living in San Antonio and Rene was in Dallas. Syler-Jones took a leap of faith and moved to Texas without a job.
“I was on my own, I wasn’t making enough money to support myself and my children and I wasn’t getting any support from my ex-husband at the time,” she said.
Syler-Jones came out and immediately interviewed for a few positions, one of them at TCU. “I hoped for the best,” she said. “My fallback was to move in with my mom, which is never easy for an adult with children to do.”
Thankfully, she didn’t have to. She lived with her sister for a month and in July she was hired by TCU as the assistant director of communications.
Her job was to manage the university’s institutional advertising efforts and to provide strategic marketing and communication services to various departments on campus.
“I had to find a house and enroll my children in school very quickly. That time is still a blur to me,” she said.
While she worked as the assistant director, former Vice Chancellor of Marketing and Communication Larry Lauer started spending more time advancing TCU’s national presence and less at his desk in Fort Worth.
A new position was created for Lauer, the vice chancellor of government affairs, and the position for marketing and communication opened up. When it came to recommending someone to take his spot, Syler-Jones was his first choice.
Lauer said he recommended her for the position based on her work ethic and dedication as assistant director of communication.
“She deserved the promotion,” he said. “Tracy has been a very effective member of our staff and has become well-known as a representative of the program to all segments of the university.”
Chancellor Boschini said promoting Syler-Jones was one of the easiest decisions he’s ever made.
He said he values her ability to just ‘get it’ when it comes to communication skills.
“She has great instincts and knows intuitively what would be the best way to react to any situation,” Boschini said. “She is a very hard worker and deserves everything she has achieved.”
In 2006, Syler-Jones was named vice chancellor of marketing and communication and became one of the three female faculty members at the Cabinet level.
As an African American woman, representing gender and racial diversity at the top level is an honor for Syler-Jones.
“It is so nice to have women represented at the top of the university,” she said. “When I first got here, there wasn’t much diversity on campus, but now there is so much diversity among the staff, faculty and the student body.”
Since her promotion, Syler-Jones has been working on new media initiatives, refining the university’s marketing and communication plans and overseeing the planning and implementation of institutional advertising.
A new digital viewbook was the most recent media initiative Syler-Jones and her department completed.
When Syler-Jones noticed that competing universities in the area had been putting their viewbooks online, she knew TCU had to do the same.
“In the past, the viewbook was a printed brochure sent to prospective students and featured information about academics, athletics, student organizations, things like that,” she said. “We realized that we needed something more dynamic, something that didn’t limit on pages or options.”
After four months of work, the new digital viewbook was launched in July with social media like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
“The new digital viewbook is dynamic, visual and we aren’t stuck with a certain number of pages. We can expand and attract more students," she said. "Now we can include pictures, video, embedded links and social media elements."
If she doesn’t have enough on her plate already, she is also in the process of earning her Executive MBA at the university.
“Thinking back on my life history, my plan out of college was to get a graduate degree. Then I fell in love, decided not to go to graduate school and settled down and had kids,” she said.
Becoming a single mom soon after wasn’t great for her timing, either.
“The job [of being a single mom] demanded so much of my time, and trying to take care of my kids, maintain a full-time job and go to school wasn’t in the cards for me,” she said.
Once her children, both students at TCU, turned 19 and 22, she decided to go ahead and fulfill her dream to have a graduate degree.
“Considering where I am at TCU, I chose the Executive MBA program. Getting a solid footing in business would be good for my position at TCU,” she said.
The program lasts 16 months and Syler-Jones will graduate in December 2013. She will also study abroad in Brazil, Argentina and Chile.
“A few weeks ago, as I was in the middle of Board of Trustees meetings, I had a statistics quiz, a take-home final in my Transformational Leadership class and a 300-page book to read,” she said.
Syler-Jones said she works all day, drives home and studies until late at night.
“I give myself an hour break and then I just dive into the books. Sometimes I can’t stay awake anymore, so I’ll go to bed at 9:30 p.m. and then wake up at 4 a.m.,” she said.
The Executive MBA program will sharpen my skill set, bring new skills to the table and hopefully make the vice chancellor of marketing and communications position and division in general even better, Syler-Jones said.
The opportunity to work and study at the university is a blessing because she can work at a place that matches her own internal passions, Syler-Jones said.
“I love TCU. I have the opportunity to impact people, to see young people as well as my fellow graduate students build their lives, look at their career in front of them and make a difference,” she said.
Syler-Jones said she is still growing and learning how to make a difference.
“I’ve experienced the lowest and the highest and it’s shaped me and made me who I am today,” she said. “That’s why I have this sense of wanting to strive and make an impact, because I haven’t arrived.”
Despite her success, Syler-Jones isn’t finished leaving a legacy at TCU.
“I am a part of the cog that makes this whole thing work. I’m looking to be a great leader at this time, to make an impact and to leave a legacy that other people can come and take and run with,” she said.
She hopes the most important people in her life, her children, have been impacted by her story.
“My kids were a part of everything, and I would like to think they understand what kind of sacrifices we went through to get where we are today. We never gave up,” she said.
Her youngest son Josh Doctson attended the University in Wyoming to play football, but transferred to TCU this year to play wide receiver for the Horned Frogs and to be closer to his family.
“I wanted to be closer to my mom,” Doctson said. “She has helped me form and develop great characteristics by just observation. She has the strongest work ethic I've seen by anyone and that was a huge influence on my life and becoming the man I am today.”
Her older son Jeremiah Doctson is a junior majoring in astronomy and physics at TCU.
Syler-Jones said she sees the spirit of fight in both of her children and hopes that she has encouraged them to look back on the past and use that to drive them.
“I feel like, looking back in terms of where I come from, it has been a long, hard road,” Syler-Jones said. “It’s just putting one foot in front of the other and having the attitude that you will survive, that you will get through it, that you will keep going forward.”