Dr. Brandi Ray, community programs coordinator for Continuing Education at McLennan Community College, calls herself a connector. She enjoys connecting people with resources, which is a major component of her current position. She’s comfortable in the academic atmosphere — she spent seven years earning her Ph.D. in education at Baylor University — but her job also sends her out of the office, seeking ways to fill the needs of the community.
Rather than striving for a balanced life, Ray, a mother of three, works for connectedness. “There’s a connected nature in everything I do,” she said. “You don’t have to take off one hat and put on another.”
WACOAN: Have you always been drawn to the education field?
Ray: When I was in high school, I told my school counselor I wanted to be a teacher. She was surprised and told me I should go to law school instead. I went to Texas Tech [University] for communications studies and comparative literature, but I kept going back to teaching. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that was my calling, but I didn’t find that path until graduate school.
My high school counselor’s reaction stuck with me. I think it removes the professionalism from teaching. That’s something I’ve worked do to while [earning my doctorate in education at] Baylor — infuse our field with professionalism. Teachers are the utmost professionals. There’s a strong pedagogy for how to teach and do it well.
WACOAN: Did you study education after undergrad?
Ray: When I graduated from Tech, I wanted to stay in school. I got my master’s from Tarleton [State University] in education administration. I’ve always been drawn to educational leadership. I have a good friend and mentor who recruited me to get my doctorate at Baylor in curriculum and instruction. I thought getting my doctorate was just a dream. But it was fun because it was done in community. It was enriching.
WACOAN: Did you move to Waco for the doctorate program at Baylor?
Ray: No, my husband was recruited here for work. We’ve lived here nine years now. When we moved, Aiden, my oldest, was starting kindergarten. Lily was 18 months old. I thought it was bad timing for the program. But just like anything in life, if you wait for the perfect time, it’s not going to work. My husband, Lee, encouraged me, and things lined up at Baylor. Lee supported me to do the program on a part-time basis, so I could still be a mom to my kids. That was a way to seek balance.
WACOAN: Even as a part-time student I’m sure it was a challenge to raise a family and earn your Ph.D.
Ray: It was a lot of juggling. The first year I was in the program, some of the classes began at 5 p.m. I was taking car seats to Lee’s office so I could get to class on time. It was a family commitment from the beginning. I had Leighton in the middle of the program. I’m sure people thought I was insane, but it was right for our family.
WACOAN: How long were you in the program at Baylor?
Ray: It took seven years to finish. My coursework went smoothly, and my dissertation took two years. I had to research to collect data, interview, do the transcriptions and analyze data. But I was also teaching quite a few classes at Baylor. I got to teach, write and research — it was a real taste of what being a faculty member is like.
WACOAN: How did you stay motivated while you were in school?
Ray: It was just fun. I made wonderful friends and had mentors. Because of the sense of community, I felt encompassed in support. It was challenging, but I always had someone I could collaborate with. I felt that it was my place. I knew it was where I needed to be. When I was in the program, there were always students that reinvigorated me. You can live on that for a semester.
I didn’t feel like an island until I started writing. That can be a lonely process. That was the only time I had self-doubt. But I had a group of students in my cohort who would join me in writing retreats.
WACOAN: Do you have any advice for a mother, or for anyone, who wants to go back to school?
Ray: Go for it! They say it takes a village, and I think your village forms when you take on a challenge. Don’t let fear limit you.
I remember the first class I went to was a research course. I thought, ‘What am I doing?’ The moment class started, it felt right. I was there to learn. I didn’t start the program with career aspirations.
WACOAN: Did you ever see yourself in a position like this one, in community education?
Ray: I’ve always felt called to teach teachers. I saw myself in the field and in the classroom setting. This position was new and interesting because it combined everything I’ve done into one piece. I’m working with instructors who teach classes that are artistic and challenging. These classes are serving our community. My students aren’t high school or college-aged — there are all types of students. It’s casting a wider net.
WACOAN: After seven years of studying and teaching, how was your transition to full-time work?
Ray: It has been smoother than we could have imagined. I, for a long time, thought that I would continue working as a part-time instructor teaching future teachers. I was fulfilled and happy with that. But something clicked for me last year. All the sudden I felt a huge need to challenge myself, to combine my passions, expertise and experiences in a new way. I had not worked full time since Aidan was born, and I was definitely fearful about jumping in during this season of life. Lee encouraged me to do so, to be confident in my abilities, to think outside the box, to think about teaching, education, schools and our community and serving in a leadership role that could have a broad impact. Thank goodness he did. I love my new position and feel that I am in the right place for me.
WACOAN: How do you use this position to serve the community’s needs?
Ray: The program promotes the notion that we learn for our entire lives. That’s a beautiful thing to think about and that’s the essence of this job. We’re here to serve people in our community in the needs they have in learning. You can take a pottery class, which we’re offering in the fall at the Art Center of Waco, to create something. Or you can take a class in authentic professionalism to sharpen your skills and etiquette. You can take an investment class to learn how to make a sounder financial future.
The possibilities are endless. I’m just here to fill a need. Whatever education enrichment our community needs, I want to offer it.
WACOAN: Do you interact with students in this role?
Ray: I go to classes and see students. But mainly I work with teachers in creating the best curriculum and then let go. They’re the talent — they don’t need me to run their class.
WACOAN: Tell me about the instructors you work with.
Ray: For the fall we have close to 150 instructors, and every one of them is amazingly talented. They have a wealth of knowledge to offer. Our community has a wealth of talent, and people are willing to share that. I think our instructors see it as a way to serve the community.
WACOAN: How do you find talented instructors?
Ray: I get out and ask. If you were to ask me what my typical day looks like, I’m out talking to people. That’s an incredible thing about Waco. People want to help each other. And I enjoy connecting people and resources. That’s one of the things I feel called to do.
WACOAN: Do you think this willingness to collaborate is unique to Waco?
Ray: I think our town’s really special. I think people here are in tune with what they’re good at, and they want to share that. I’m not from here, but Waco is my forever home now. There’s a richness and love for one another here.
WACOAN: What are your goals for Continuing Education at MCC?
Ray: Not just to grow our program but to consider quality education. To meet the needs of the community and be relevant.
WACOAN: How do you stay energized throughout your workday?
Ray: I’m an espresso addict. I begged Lee for a fancy espresso machine. I have to thank that espresso machine for finishing my doctorate. And Lee.
I also try to work out and eat healthy, just so I can be the best version of myself. When you’re working with people all day, it’s easy to stay energized. People expect the best of you. Laughing and fun texts also keep me energized.
WACOAN: As a working mother, how do you stay balanced? Do you take off your work hat when you get home?
Ray: I’ve always thought it was more of a connectedness than balance. There’s a connected nature in everything I do. I hope my children see that you can be a mom, a researcher and writer. You don’t have to take off one hat and put on another.
I’m terrible at saying no. If someone asks me for something, I usually say yes because they think I can lend help. I try to say yes but also make it connected to other aspects of my life.
WACOAN: Tell me about your three children.
Ray: Aiden is 13. He’s in eighth grade at Lorena Middle School. Aiden is our easy kid. [Laughs.] He’s involved in sports, National Honor Society, [Crestview Church of Christ] youth group and [Future Farmers of America]. We raise show lambs, which is a fun family endeavor. We call it the Ray Family Show Team. It keeps us very busy, but it’s important to us.
Aiden wakes up every day at 5:30 a.m. and goes down to the barn. He feeds, waters and cares for the animals before going to football practice.
Lily is 8. She will be in third grade at Lorena [Elementary School]. She’s laid-back, goes with the flow. She is the nurturer and loves to care for others. I always say I look up to Lily. She’s gone to Joy’s School of Dance for six years.
Leighton is 4. She goes to St. Paul’s [Episcopal Day School]. She’s our fun one. She makes us laugh all the time. She just started dance. She’s our affectionate one. She gets dragged around to her older brother’s activities, so she’s social.
WACOAN: What do you hope your family learns from working with livestock?
Ray: We hope that it helps teach our children that hard work, commitment and caring for something that is dependent on you can be fun and rewarding. We also hope it reinforces how important it is that families work together. We love going to stock shows and spending time together and visiting with other families from around the state. We think it also instills in our children that good manners and getting to know people is a valuable part of growing up.
Our girls are an essential part of our show team. They feed and water each day and exercise the lambs. Lily will be showing this year and is already super excited about it. Leighton, for now, focuses on her cowgirl clothes and naming each new lamb in the barn.
WACOAN: What’s your role in the Ray Family Show Team?
Ray: I used to bring the girls, make sure we look cute and bring snacks. I always said I wouldn’t touch the animals. That has quickly shifted. Since Lily is about to start showing, I may be the one blow-drying the lambs’ legs.
WACOAN: With three active kids and stock shows on the weekends, how do you balance everyone’s activities?
Ray: That’s the great thing about working at a college. I’ve always had students who could help us with the kids.
I’ve also been blessed by friends in my children’s groups. I’ve never seen a group of women come together and help one another. When you raise your children with other families, it makes it feel like an extended family.
WACOAN: Is there any part of being a mom that has surprised you?
Ray: Being a mother terrified me because I felt like so much was at stake. One thing that’s surprised me is how forgiving your children are. You don’t have to be this perfect mom. Your children still think you’re amazing. The grace they show you has surprised me.
WACOAN: What do you try to teach your children?
Ray: I try to instill that we’re always learning in every environment. If you’re curious, then go find out. There’s value in continuing to learn for your whole life. When I was in the doctorate program, I’m sure my children wondered what I was doing. But I hope they saw that sometimes you seek knowledge just because it’s a beautiful thing.
For a long time I woke up at 5:30 a.m., made some espresso and studied for a solid hour before the kids woke up. I realized very quickly that it made it look easy, and I wanted them to see I was being challenged. I started saying, ‘Mom needs to write.’
WACOAN: When it comes to motherhood, are you someone who reads every parenting book?
Ray: We read every baby book under the sun. But I’ve had great examples of loving mothers. When things arise, I don’t seek a book. I pray for my children and our parenting. That doesn’t sound academic, but it’s true. When things come up, I ask other people what they’d do. I try to be transparent and learn from others.
WACOAN: Do you have any advice for new moms?
Ray: Follow your intuition. I can think back to mistakes I’ve made, and it’s times when I didn’t follow that voice. You can call it the Holy Spirit. The Lord intervenes and gives you wisdom.
WACOAN: Tell me more about Lee. What does he do?
Ray: He’s the chief resource officer for an oil and construction company, Brazos Rock Inc. They’re headquartered in Weatherford and have offices across Texas.
WACOAN: How did you two meet?
Ray: We’re both Red Raiders. We met after spring break during my senior year. We were set up on a blind date by a mutual friend. We talked on the phone and connected. We went on a lunch date, and we’ve seen each other every day since, except for when he’s traveling for work. We just celebrated our 16th wedding anniversary.
WACOAN: How do you and Lee make time for each other?
Ray: We always have our Sunday night date night. After we get the kids ready for the week, we sit on the couch and talk, laugh, watch a movie. We try to make time for date nights during the week. We go to typical places, like DiamondBack’s and 135 Prime.
WACOAN: How do you and Lee manage your busy schedules?
Ray: Lee travels quite a bit with his work now. We sit down and discuss what we have going on each week. We try to communicate with one another. We dated for three years before we got married, and then we waited three and a half years before having Aiden. We’ve gotten good at working together.
WACOAN: How do your personalities complement each other?
Ray: I used to think I was funny until I started dating Lee. He’s the funny guy. He’s a great storyteller. He keeps me lighthearted. Lee has taught me how to be a friend because he nurtures relationships.
WACOAN: How has motherhood changed your relationship with Lee?
Ray: It makes us utilize our time wisely. It’s brought a sense of perspective. Kids have a way of offering clarity.
WACOAN: Is Lee a hands-on dad?
Ray: Even when I wasn’t working full time, we’ve always been a team. He’s always read books and given baths. He cooks us breakfast. The girls love to brush his hair. He’s a big kid in some ways, but that’s amazing for our kids to see.
WACOAN: With your academic and professional ambitions, how has Lee supported you?
Ray: It was never a discussion. It was always ‘you should do this.’ He also kept it real. When I got stressed, he offered a balance. He’s always been empowering to live out your dreams. When he decided to work for Brazos Rock, I supported him because he’s always supported every crazy idea I’ve had. But when I walked across the stage last August, I think he was glad to have that part of our lives complete.
WACOAN: How do you support your husband?
Ray: I try to make sure I take care of things when he travels. We just support each other emotionally. I’ll say, ‘I’m praying about your meeting today.’ Marriage isn’t a race. You’re just trying to be consistent.
WACOAN: What does a typical Saturday morning look like at your house?
Ray: We always cook big breakfasts with bacon and eggs. We love to snuggle in our pajamas. When we have to run to activities, we try to make it fun. You think your kids will remember big trips to Disney World, but they really remember day-to-day things.
WACOAN: With your busy schedule, how do you make time for yourself?
Ray: I can honestly say there are days I don’t take much time to myself. I always get up, drink my espresso and take that time. I see spending time with my family as a way to renew myself. It’s more connected that way.