Wilma Patterson

Dr. Wilma Patterson is Professor Emerita of Biology at South Mountain Community College.

Dr. Wilma Patterson in SMCC Science Lab with students, ca. 1983
Image provided by South Mountain Community College

Dr. Wilma Patterson was born and raised in Mason Tennessee, a very small, rural town with about 400 people. Born second in a family of five children, her father was an elementary school principle and teacher, her mother a housewife. Living in the segregated South, Dr. Patterson attended an all-black school, and did not experience integration until she attended college in Virginia.

While attending Hampton University, Dr. Patterson was the only African American student in most of her classes, sometimes the only female student, and most of the students in her classes were white males. She learned how to develop relationships with her classmates in order to build a community and work together in groups.

Dr. Patterson met her husband, Cecil Patterson, who was in the Air Force at the time. Together they moved to Iowa then Arizona in November 1967 after her husband returned from overseas. Dr. Patterson started working in the chemistry department of Arizona State University (ASU) in the 1960s as a chemist technician and later attended the same university (ASU) to earn her Master’s in Zoology. She started her teaching career as an adjunct biology professor at Mesa Community College in 1978.

Video Clip: Dr. Wilma Patterson describes working at South Mountain Community College.

Dr. Patterson remembers that, at the time, South Phoenix had a reputation being a ghetto. Lawmakers and district administrators doubted that students in South Phoenix would even want a college education. Dr. Paterson didn’t agree with these stereotypes. She wanted to contribute to the education of the South Phoenix community, and was passionate about serving the community. She remembers always feeling safe on campus.

Video Clip: Dr. Wilma Patterson describes the origins of South Mountain Community College, and her connections to the campus.

However, it was true that some of her students faced an uphill battle. Many in South Phoenix were under-educated, and some students struggled to read and write at an academic level. Thus, the campus developed curriculum to meet the students where and challenge them to achieve. For example, in order to make her students more successful, Dr. Patterson team-taught her class with a Reading teacher who helped prepare the students for her biology class.

Dr. Wilma Patterson describes the early days of SMCC

Some of her former students went on to great achievements. Some earned paid internships at the Kennedy Space Center, the Atomic Energy Department in Washington State, NASA, and many other places, which Patterson considers her proudest achievement.

Dr. Wilma Patterson celebrates the achievements of former SMCC students.

Dr. Patterson retired from South Mountain Community College in 2007, and she was awarded the Faculty Emeritus distinction. She stays active in her community, and she likes to spend time with her family in Atlanta.

Her vision and advice for the younger generation is: work hard, make plans, move forward, and keep going.

NarratorWilma Patterson
Place of OriginMason, Tennessee
Place of ResidenceSouth Phoenix, Arizona; Atlanta, Georgia
OccupationProfessor Emerita of Biology at South Mountain Community College
Years Active in South Phoenix1978 –
Recording Duration55:58
DateMarch 7, 2019
Location South Mountain Community Library
Interviewed ByStudent Researchers: Jean Marc Kamanda & Emanuel Parada
Story Written ByStudent Researchers: Jean Marc Kamanda & Emanuel Parada