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From Oxford student to alumni leader: Jennifer Crabb Kyles continues family service to Emory

Credit: Yabi Demissie

In the crucial choice of where she would attend college, Jennifer Crabb Kyles got outsmarted by her mother, Donna Crabb.

Crabb was a longtime, widely respected employee who managed Emory Temporary Services until her retirement in 2017. 

To her admiring daughter, Crabb, who passed away in 2021, cast a long shadow. Kyles, who had excelled at a Magnet high school studying Japanese, was determined to move to Japan — or, she says, “at least Connecticut” — for her studies.

Crabb and Kyles were aligned on the value of education. “It was really important to me and to my mother, who raised me as a single parent, that I finish college. The way I grew up, A’s equaled success.” 

To stem her daughter’s wanderlust, Crabb planted a seed. Just tour Oxford College, she urged.

“My mother was brilliant,” Kyles reflects. “She knew I would fall in love with Oxford — and I did, appreciating its beauty, diversity and warmth. It was everything I needed.”

Widening her family 

Today, Kyles casts her own long shadow at Emory, serving as assistant vice president for alumni and constituent engagement in the division of Advancement and Alumni Engagement (AAE). Even with the passage of 23 years on staff, she remembers those first footsteps on the Oxford campus.

Prospective students did overnight stays, attending class and participating in other activities. They were encouraged to check back in with their admission counselor following the visit. 

Tammy Camfield was that counselor; today, she is senior director of alumni at Oxford. Kyles showed up to their meeting with her application in hand. And it was the only school to which she applied.

An enduring friendship grew up between Camfield and Kyles, with Kyles dedicating a room in the Oxford Student Center to Camfield.

Camfield, herself an Oxford alumna who graduated in 1989, notes, “My dear friend and colleague Jennifer is an exceptional Emory staff member as well as Oxford and Emory alumna. She is knowledgeable and cares so deeply about the university, showing at every turn that she is committed to doing whatever it takes to advance Emory.”

Still in full flower is the friendship between Crabb Kyles and Oxford alumni director Tammy Camfield. The image was taken in March 2023 while they were assisting the Sophomore Class Gift Committee with raising money in honor of Dean of Campus Life Joe Moon and Oxford librarian Kitty McNeill, both of whom recently retired.

Courtesy of Crabb Kyles

While at Oxford, though her focus on Japanese remained laser-like, Kyles gave her energies to a number of groups but formally joined only the Black Student Alliance and Delta Psi Epsilon. Laughing at that younger self, Kyles says, “Whatever was interesting on Tuesday, that is what I did.”

Kyles went on to serve on the Oxford College Alumni Board, rising to become its first African American, and second female, president. “That work was rewarding because it gave me the chance to see my alma mater through a different lens,” Kyles says. 

Though Oxford is known for attracting loyal alumni, Kyles still stands out. For her, it is what gratitude should look like. Once she handed Camfield her application, “That moment changed the trajectory of our family. It gave us access to knowledge we didn’t have before.”

“Oxford is where Emory started, and it’s where I started,” Kyles continues. “Coming from a single-family household, I was raised by a village. Perhaps that is why the spirit of Oxford moves me; it is a small, close-knit community with a common goal.”

A student worker who craved the tough projects 

Kyles worked as a student to make the financial burden on her mother lighter. Interning in a variety of Emory offices, she never hesitated to speak up when she had a better way, which led to a reputation as a problem solver.

While a sophomore, she went to work at the Annual Fund and later the Telefund, where she learned that Emory’s messaging was not hype but true: giving at any level is important. As she states, “Even little ol’ me could make a difference with my $5 gift.”

Crabb Kyles (center) in her first year at Oxford in 1997 with friends she made through the social-service club Delta Psi Epsilon. On the left is Sherita Starks Watkins, who has gone on to become an actor, acting coach and wardrobe stylist whose work includes “Pretty Little Liars.”

Courtesy of Crabb Kyles

She also met a host of interesting alumni — becoming one herself with her Oxford graduation in 1998 — and learned a great deal about health care. “Above all, the experience helped me not take for granted the many resources at my disposal as an Emory student,” Kyles says. 

In her junior year, after briefly working for AAE at Emory Law, Kyles found that her skills had attracted the notice of Jane Parker, then senior assistant dean for administration in the law school, who spirited Kyles away to the dean’s office for two years.

The staff member responsible for student payroll had to step away from her duties for a time. “It was there,” remembers Kyles, “that I learned what it meant to work in an office and be fully responsible for other people. This was the first time I wasn’t just given tasks; it was a process that I had to establish myself.”

Graduation — from college and to motherhood

Crabb Kyles celebrates the baptism of her two older daughters in 2017 at Greenforest Community Baptist Church, where she was baptized and where her grandmother, Ruth Crabb, was a minister. (l-r) Donna Crabb, Mitchell Kyles, Jada Bankston, Morgan Kyles, Ruth Crabb, Jasmine Bankston and Crabb Kyles.

Courtesy of Crabb Kyles

In Emory College of Arts and Sciences, Kyles majored in international studies with a minor in Japanese studies. At the start of fall semester of her senior year, Kyles was pregnant.

She recalls teachers being supportive, rearranging desks so she could sit in class. After Kyles gave birth between semesters, Joanne Brzinski, senior associate dean for undergraduate education in Emory College, arranged for her to take a few weeks off from class and receive all her assignments so she didn’t fall behind. 

“Given that this happened in 2000, I view it as a very progressive response,” Kyles says. 

And she did not fall behind — graduating on time with her classmates. Though Kyles had wanted to attend law school, “having a child changed my plans,” she says. “Instead, I intended to get a job locally, make sure that my child and I were secure, and then go back to law school.”

From alumna to staffer in record time 

Allison Dykes, current university secretary but then head of the alumni association’s regional programs, hired Kyles the day after her Emory graduation in 2000.

“It took only a few moments with Jennifer to know that we needed her at Emory,” Dykes notes. “Hiring Jennifer is at the top of my career accomplishments because, since that moment, she has worked tirelessly for Emory.”

Dykes calls Kyles “a champion of change” because of her determination to do things differently and better. Case in point: after a frustrating first month trying to register people manually for regional programs events, Kyles told Dykes, “This is a broken process. Hear me out.” 

In that instance, Kyles developed an online registration system. In another case, she taught herself Dreamweaver to build the first website for the alumni association.

“The crux of my career is based on, ‘What if we do it differently?’ Every role I have had, I ask that question. Give me the goal and I will figure it out,” Kyles says.

She brought the affinity groups within the alumni association to ensure their longevity and access to the resources they need. Kyles also helped found the chapters, now termed networks — such as Washington, San Francisco, New York and others — where Emory has a significant presence. “At one time on the West Coast, no one knew Emory, but we provided the boots on the ground to spread the word,” says Kyles.

Kyles has worked both in the schools and centrally. Prior to her current role, she worked as interim alumni director in the law and business schools, where she built a bridge between alumni engagement and giving.

According to Kyles, “There was a freedom, because I was in smaller shops, to test ideas. It was a petri dish for what I am now able to implement being back in the alumni group.” 

Kicked upstairs — and still kicking up dust 

Describing her current role as “my dream job because it brings all the pieces of my career together,” Kyles oversees three teams: campus and community engagement, leadership engagement and regional engagement.

Josh Newton, AAE senior vice president, notes: “It was a joy to honor decades of hard work in selecting Jennifer to serve as Emory’s assistant vice president for alumni and constituent engagement, a role in which she oversees the Emory Alumni Association. She is committed to meet the needs of our alumni around the globe. We are fortunate to have her serve Emory in this capacity.” As part of his video “Walk and Talk” series, Newton introduces his newest assistant vice president. 

No small thing: making mom proud

Having the confidence to test old ways of doing things is a quality Kyles recognized in her mother. “I consider my mom an entrepreneur who worked in an institutional setting,” she says.

Starting as an administrative assistant in Emory Human Resources (HR), Crabb proved to be the department’s most skilled employee when it came to technology. In 28 years of service, she distinguished herself in nearly every category of the department’s work. She also had the game-changing idea of bringing temporary services, which had been in the hands of outside vendors, inside the university as a cost saver and way to exert greater quality control.

Del King, HR vice president, who had deep respect for Crabb and now has watched Kyles with equal admiration, says: “Jennifer has always had the drive to be the best at whatever she strives to achieve. She has managed a successful career and, despite its demands, is wholly present for her family and children.”

Kyles, always crediting her teams, has won numerous Council for the Advancement and Support of Education awards as well as the Spirit of Emory award in 2006, given to an exceptional employee in what was then the division of Development and Alumni Relations.

In 2019, Kyles won the Award of Distinction, the university’s highest staff honor — an award her mother won in 2006 for creating Emory Temporary Services. This honor, says Kyles, “means the most to me because it made me feel that I made my mother proud.” 

The lover of Japanese language and literature demonstrates her yen for Emory's people

Kyles is known as a generous mentor, personally developing hundreds of alumni leaders and supporting colleagues across campus.

“There are so many people who had a profound effect on who I am today,” Kyles says. “It is important to take the best of everyone, make it part of my character and share that with the world.”

For Venus Austin, AAE director of marketing strategy, “I have benefited greatly from having Jen as a friend, colleague and mentor. Working with her, I realized quickly that the answer is rarely no; it’s almost always ‘we can figure it out.’ Jen lights up any room she enters, infusing it with her unique positivity, enthusiasm and a genuine sense of connection.” 

Kyles’ willingness to mentor in turn ties to how she views leadership. “There is a leader in all of us,” she insists. “We continue to sharpen each other by sharing ideas. I believe in servant leadership, in brokering ideas and connections.”


To Kyles, “home” and “Emory” are interchangeable terms. Before her mother worked here, her grandmother was an office manager at the School of Medicine; her aunt worked at the Rollins School of Public Health.

All four of Kyles’ children were born at Emory University Hospital. Family means everything to this self-professed soccer mom, whose youngest daughter has set her sights on playing Olympic soccer.

As Kyles contemplates the future, she will go hard as ever toward making Emory a better place. She is grateful for the many alumni and colleagues with similar drive, noting, “We are all super heroes in carrying out Emory’s mission.”

The retirement party in 2017, held at the Carlos Museum, of Donna Crabb. (l-r) Jasmine Bankston, Crabb Kyles’ aunt Melanie Murphy, HR vice president Del King, Donna Crabb, Crabb Kyles, Mitchell Kyles, Morgan Kyles, Jada Bankston, Crabb Kyles’ husband Mark Kyles and Donna Crabb’s colleague Jason Johnson.

Tom Broadnax 65Ox 68C


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