Kinnawa Kaitibi and Nicole Brown both remember when they first met during his sophomore year.
Kaitibi was a communication major looking for more experience in the field when he walked into a meeting at The Perch, UTC’s student-run, web-only radio station. “I was like, ‘Y’all got a show available?’ Professor Brown was like, ‘Who is this kid?’ he recalls.
Brown, academic advisor and adjunct faculty for the UTC Department of Communication and advisor for The Perch, still has a photo from that day pinned to a bulletin board in her office. Kaitibi is posed in the middle with several other students. “I rejected him,” Brown remembers. “But his friend, Ron, who was station manager at the time, kept telling me I had to talk to him.”
What started as a rocky first encounter has grown into a years-long mentorship and friendship that has lasted beyond Kaitibi’s college years. It’s been more than a year since he walked across the stage at McKenzie Arena to receive his undergraduate diploma, but he and Brown have remained in touch. So much so, they consider each other family now.
“I call her Auntie Professor Brown. She was more like a second mom or the cool auntie who is going to let me know what I’m doing wrong but, at the same time, still push me to do what’s best,” Kaitibi says.
For Brown, Kaitibi “is like the son I would like to have if I had children. We would butt heads though. We had a lot of challenges. The way I got on him was different than I would with other students because I had so many high expectations of him.”
Kaitibi remembers the head-butting, but does so with a smile. “She definitely threatened to call my mom a few times,” he says.
What cemented the bond between Brown and Kaitibi was the death of Ron Farrell Jr., the student who helped introduce them. Hoping to follow in Farrell’s footsteps, Kaitibi was trying out for station manager of The Perch in spring 2014 when he received what would be his last phone call from his friend.
“Ron called me the night before. I was having second thoughts about going out for station manager, and he was like, ‘You got it. Get out there and get it done,’” Kaitibi remembers. “When I was finished my interview, I tried to call him to tell him I got it. He didn’t pick up. I didn’t he know he had passed.
“Professor Brown talked to me. She let me know how proud she was, and then she told me what happened to Ron,” he continues. “I still remember what she said next, ‘Instead of taking this moment to sulk and be sad, you need to be happy that the last words you had with him were words of encouragement.’ It felt like that’s one of the last things that he did before he left.”
Brown remembers another important conversation she had with Kaitibi after Farrell’s passing.
“I was at home one night and something in my spirit said go check on the studio, somebody’s there,” she said. “I walked in and there he was. He had lost his best friend, maybe two days before that. I just looked at him and said, ‘OK, it’s me and you.’ And there we were, engulfed in this massive outpouring of grief and love.
“I had to train him on how to be a leader and talk to the public in the midst of his loss, train him on how to maintain a level of professionalism. As the new station manager, the other students are looking to him for leadership. It was hard for him. When he showed me he could do that, I knew I could really work with this talented, young man,” Brown says.
For Kaitibi, the advice and mentorship from Brown prepared him to join the workforce.
“A lot of things are easy for me now because she was so hard on me. She gave me that professional experience I needed before I graduated, and that sense of responsibility and liability,” he said.
Kaitibi is now the public relations coordinator for the city of Chattanooga’s Department of Youth and Family Development. He’s in charge of all marketing for the department, which includes six unique divisions.
“We focus on building smarter students, stronger families,” he explains. “We provide services that help with the betterment of the Chattanooga community, such as leadership and career development, recreation opportunities and early learning and education. We have programs for everyone, from infants to seniors.”
Kaitibi also works as an on-air personality at local station WJTT-FM/Power 94 and owns a media production company, African Thunder Productions.
“Professor Brown always gave me constructive criticism. Always. She will tell you what you probably don’t want to hear but, at the same time, put it in a way that you understand,” he explains. “She makes sure you know what you need to know and if you mess up, she gets that smile on her face and I’m like, ‘I know I’m in trouble!’”
Brown, who has been a UTC employee for more than 20 years, moved into her current role as an academic advisor in 2015. To the more than 160 students she advises every semester, she’s known for her “tough love” approach.
“My job is to prepare my students for the real world. I approach everything like a (human resources) supervisor looking to hire. The communication medium very competitive; it’s so global now. To succeed, you have to go out there and grind,” she says.
“I hold them accountable, making sure they’re engaged in their classes, preparing for internships and things of that nature. I want them to have a really great experience at UTC, so they can go out there and be great residents and employees in the industry here in Chattanooga.”
The unofficial slogan for her office? “You tell the truth in here,” Brown says, firmly.
“And not just with the curriculum. I need to know what’s really going on with you so I can understand why you’re not going to class, why you’re not turning in those assignments. The university has resources to help you bounce back,” she explains, “but if you don’t tell the truth, I can’t help you.”
As a first-generation college graduate, Brown says one of her favorite parts of her job is seeing students grow and succeed.
“A lot happens in my office. A lot of conversations. They’re not always happy conversations. One minute we’re laughing, and the next it’s like, ‘Need some Kleenex?’ Sometimes when they come in here, they’re full of tears. But I make sure the tears are gone before they leave,” she said.
Kaitibi isn’t the only student who has benefitted from Brown’s mentorship and dedication to her job.
“One day, a student asked, ‘Can you meet my mom?’ I said, ‘OK, I’ll meet your mom.’ He said, ‘Um, she’s in the parking lot.’ I was like, ‘What?!’
“I go out to meet her and she said, ‘From what he told me about how you treat him, he needs it. Get on him. Treat him like he yours.’ Then she asked, ‘Do you mind if I pray for you?’ It was the best gift I could ever receive.”
Kaitibi is also grateful for the impact Brown has had on his life.
“We always joke about how I owe her an all-expense paid trip to wherever she wants when I get famous with the skills she’s taught me,” he said. “And I can honestly say I definitely would send her on a trip. And not necessarily because I feel that I owe her, but more so as an opportunity to show my thanks to her. One day soon I’ll call her and say, ‘Pick a guest. Go wherever you want to go.’”
Watch the video below to see Kaitibi and Brown talk more about their shared history and bond.