Though it’s been a while since Toni Mooney Smith roamed the University of Houston hardwood as a difference-making, 1,000-point club member of the Lady Coogs, she’s still making an impact. Now, however, it’s for Rutgers University-Camden (RU-C), as the school’s new vice chancellor for marketing and communications.
Before the move to the New Jersey school, Mooney Smith, who earned her master’s degree in communication from Northwestern University to go along with her bachelor’s degree in communication from UH, most recently served as the executive director of marketing and communications for UH’s College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. In that role, she edited an award-winning alumni magazine, among numerous other initiatives.
Also on Mooney Smith’s resume are director-level communications roles in health care and academia, specializing in strategic communications, brand strategy, marketing, crisis communications and public affairs.
In her new senior leadership role at RU-C, Mooney Smith is working to heighten awareness of the Rutgers–Camden brand, increase exposure in national media outlets and accelerate momentum in the university’s rise in the national rankings.
The Defender spoke with the San Antonio native about her latest professional challenge.
DEFENDER: What excites you most about your new position?
TONI MOONEY SMITH: This role at Rutgers is a dream come true that I have prepared for my whole life. It is a logical next step in my career trajectory. As an award-winning communications professional who strongly believes in the power of academics to transform lives, it is my great honor to help Rutgers University-Camden continue its rise up the national rankings by raising brand awareness and elevating brand integrity. More importantly, the opportunity to continue working with Dr. Antonio D. Tills, Rutgers University-Camden Chancellor, who I reported to as executive director of marketing communications at the University of Houston, was key. I value his leadership and remain in awe of his vision and scholarship. My experience at UH made me want to continue working alongside someone like him.
DEFENDER: How did your years at UH, and specifically, your experiences as an elite athlete, prepare you for this moment in your professional life?
MOONEY SMITH: My time as a UH student-athlete taught me the importance of maintaining self-discipline, adopting a “coachable” attitude, and receiving criticism with open ears. My former coach, the late Dot Woodfin, taught me that one will never be successful in sports or in the classroom without applying self-discipline. My experiences as a UH student-athlete helped me learn to apply self-discipline at an earlier age than I would have otherwise.
DEFENDER: How did you transition from elite athlete to collegiate administrator?
MOONEY SMITH: I was drafted by the Houston Shamrocks of the Women’s American Basketball Association (WABA) and coached by Elvin Hayes. I consider him and his wife Erna dear friends and great mentors. The WABA struggled to pay payers and get sponsorships until the league finally folded. It did not have backing like the WNBA has from the NBA today. I then transition and focused on my career goals, landing an important internship at KMOL TV in San Antonio, TX that put me on this path. It was an easy transition because I had already earned my degree. Some players floundered after the league ended because they didn’t have a degree to fall back on. I transferred those values from my athletic pursuits into my academic life, but academics have always been a priority. My parents stressed scholarship and the arts first and foremost, instilling their intellectual ambition in me and exposing me to different genres of dance music, and writing from an early age.
DEFENDER: What did you want to be when you grew up?
MOONEY SMITH: I knew from a young age that I enjoyed media and communication. My first internship was at the sports desk of KMOL-TV in San Antonio. I knew I wanted to tell stories that raised awareness of amazing individuals who triumphed over obstacles. I was fascinated to see all the highs and lows they went through. These experiences helped me discover my direction and started me on the path to becoming an award-winning journalist. When I look back at my dreams from my school days, I realize I’m exactly where I wanted to be back then.
DEFENDER: So, basketball wasn’t you focus as a K-12 student?
MOONEY SMITH: I am proud to have had a great career for the Lady Coogs and joining the 1,000-Point Club, but sports were never my first choice. As a child, my first love was ballet, but my feet grew too fast to fit in my slippers. When it became clear that I would grow to be six feet tall, basketball was a natural fit. I remember scoring 60 points in one high school game and then scoring 40 points in another game that same week. I credit the late Harry Page, a legendary sports reporter with the San Antonio Express, for being there to cover my high school games and elevating my visibility to collegiate programs. It became apparent in that short time that I would have a viable path forward to the next level of basketball, and I was named San Antonio Player of the Year. But sports were never what my parents focused on. Even as I was excelling in basketball as a high schooler, they were most proud of my induction into the National Honor Society and my other educational accomplishments.
DEFENDER: What advice do you have for high school and collegiate student-athletes (especially Black girls and young women) regarding success in sports, school and life?
MOONEY SMITH: Whether you are an athlete, a scholar, an artist, or anything in between, always keep moving. Although my basketball career is over, I continue to push myself with new challenges (I have completed multiple triathlons and I’m currently training for a half marathon). Whatever your strengths and areas of interest, always find something to be involved in that will bring you fulfillment. My grandfather loved to say, “An empty wagon makes a lot of noise.” Fill your wagon with what challenges you and brings you happiness. Also, find a mentor who sincerely cares about your success. I am very fortunate to have had multiple mentor relationships that have lasted for decades.
DEFENDER: Do you have a mantra that guides your daily actions?
MOONEY SMITH: The mantras that guide my actions come from my spiritual side. One is “Let your light shine before men, that. they may see your good works” (Matthew 5:16). This motivates me to deliver excellence, that is, my “light,” on a daily basis in whatever I do. Another is “Don’t get weary in well-doing” (Galatians 6:9). This one reminds me of Nelson Mandela, whose work has had a profound influence on my life. My husband and I had the opportunity to journey to Africa and visit Robben Island in South Africa. We saw firsthand where he was incarcerated and changed the course of a nation during apartheid. Even though he easily could have given up in those circumstances, he pushed forward and achieved remarkable heights. The late Ada Collins Anderson, founder of Austin’s Leadership Enrichment Arts Program, my mentor of nearly two decades, always said, “No mediocrity under my watch.” Also, my friend Chris Gardner, author of “The Pursuit of Happyness,” has had a huge impression on me. His book and the film adaptation cemented in me that it’s not where you start, but where you finish, and reinforced another mantra: “I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). If you apply yourself and keep preserving, I believe all things are possible.
DEFENDER: Are there any others who have impacted your life?
MOONEY SMITH: My mentor Angie Nichols, retired associate principal (Dallas, TX.) a lifelong mentor, made a permanent impact on me by giving me the opportunity to travel and try new things. Firsthand, exposure is key to eventually succeeding in areas that you may not have known were possible or even existed. As the old cliché goes, “Once you see it, you can be it.” I credit my upbringing for my success. My parents were products of the Civil Rights Era and always made sure we had meaningful family conversations with me and my five siblings around the dinner table every evening. These talks set the expectation from an early age that we would all attend college. And we all did. They quite literally set the table for my success. I can also attribute my career and personal success to my husband, Morris Smith, director of public affairs, communications, and sustainability at Coca-Cola Southwest Beverages. He never limits me and encourages me to be the best I can be.
DEFENDER: Are there any professional moments that stand out?
MOONEY SMITH: One of my most memorable interviews was with Rev. Dr. William A. Lawson, founding pastor emeritus of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, who discussed the Civil Rights Movement and his personal relationship with Dr. King, during a UH event in 2018, pausing to recognize the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. The event was the vision of Dr. Tills, now chancellor at Rutgers University-Camden.