Association News Member Highlights

A Tribute to Tonya: Remembering Our Colleague and Friend

As we mourn the loss of a remarkable leader and loyal friend, we also reflect on everything Dr. Tonya Oaks Smith gave to our community.

Dr. Tonya Oaks Smith, a long-time member of the Higher Education Web Professionals community, passed away April 4, 2023, following a brief illness.

Board president, Aaron Knight, recalls Tonya as a mentor, friend and absolute force—an embodiment of what we aspire to.

“It is on us to carry forward now what Tonya so seemingly effortlessly did every day—building each other up, supporting this found family community that is HighEdWeb. I’m glad for the many years we shared, which are far fewer than we should have had,” said Knight.

Welcoming, warm, brilliant.
Wicked smart…genuinely kind. 

A hell of a cheerleader.
A constant beacon of hope. 

She set an example for the kind of human you wanted to be.
She was the best of us. 

Those are just a few of the words folks from all corners of the country used to describe Tonya as they expressed condolences and crafted personal tributes to someone gone too soon.

As we mourn the loss of a remarkable leader and loyal friend, we also reflect on everything she gave to our community and beyond.

Tonya Oaks Smith smiling with conference lanyard and lots of tag swag.

Service to HighEdWeb: behind the scenes and on the stage

Tonya Oaks Smith on stage with "Don't Curse!" written on her hand.
Tonya on stage during the 2014 conference showing off her famous note to self: “Don’t Curse!”

If you’ve ever attended a HighEdWeb conference in person, you’d recognize Tonya. Even if you’ve never officially met, you would have noticed her zipping from room to room in the convention hall, conversing 1:1 with first-time attendees, or sharing a laugh with friends (old and new) during the Big Social.

Tonya attended nearly 30 HighEdWeb events, from regional conferences to online summits. But she was far more than an attendee; she played a significant role in planning, organizing and leading many of them—and when she wasn’t behind the scenes making magic happen, she was sharing her wit and wisdom from the podium as a 10-time presenter on topics like in-house video production, digital tools for crisis communications, academic websites and even what you can learn about social media from The Muppets.

Tonya Oaks Smith at a HighEdWeb presentation about social media and muppets pointing to a slide featuring Gonzo that says "Weird can work"
Tonya presenting about social media … and Muppets.

Of note, Tonya was chair of HighEdWeb’s Annual Conference in 2016. Held in Memphis, Tennessee, this event exuded southern hospitality and was filled with nods to the U.S. region she called home her entire life. Case in point: MoonPies in the swag bags, denim committee shirts and attendee tees that exclaimed, “Hey, y’all!” The little touches mattered to Tonya.

Tonya was also co-chair of the 2020 Annual Conference, an event that took an unprecedented turn and took the conference online for the first time. Over the years, Tonya also served as chair or committee member for regional events; chaired the volunteer and sponsorship committees and mentored other first-time regional chairs as they brought HighEdWeb to places around the nation. More broadly, she strengthened relationships with sponsors, which, in turn, connected our community to helpful services.

Beyond on-the-ground and online events (and all of the logistics that go with them), Tonya also served the organization itself as a member and parliamentarian of the HighEdWeb Board of Directors between 2013 and 2019. Her service to the board also included chairing the Volunteer and Educational Events Committees.

High Ed Web conference committee group photo at stadium with everyone in denim shirts
The HighEdWeb 2016 conference committee.

Communicating with purpose: career success and fulfillment

From spearheading crisis communications during hurricane season to launching a student-run university news channel, Tonya innovated, inspired and led with compassion during difficult times.

Tonya’s higher ed career trajectory began in 2006 as the public relations coordinator at University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Three years later, she accepted a position as director of communications for the UA Little Rock’s William H. Bowen School of Law. In 2014, she became executive director of marketing and communications at Henderson State University. Most recently—and back in her home state—Tonya was executive director of university communications and marketing at Louisiana Tech.

Tonya Oaks Smith with some of her LA Teach team
Tonya with some of her LA Tech team. Photo courtesy Carter Carroll.

In each role, Tonya led and assembled talented teams and continuously encouraged them to bring their own ideas to life. She was never one to boast, but under her leadership, her institution’s campaigns and materials frequently gained recognition from industry peers. For example, in 2019, Louisiana Tech won six CASE awards, including a Gold in Magazines for 1894: The Alumni Magazine. In a press release, Tonya praised her staff, stating, “Our University Advancement and Communications teams are innovators in their fields…. These awards reinforce that they are finding solutions to our marketing challenges and that they are doing it well.”

Tonya was incredibly involved in the industry beyond the time and talent she generously gave to HighEdWeb; she also volunteered or presented at events led by CASE District IV, WPCampus, Penn State and other education- or communications-related organizations.

The marketing and communications field—and higher education—has evolved considerably in the past decade. Tonya continued to expand her knowledge, hone her skills, try innovative things (in a highly calculated way, of course) and share with others everything she learned along the way.

Louisiana roots: growing a family, building a legacy

Tonya Oaks Smith leaning against brick wall looking stylish, including her booths - she's known for her shoes.
Always stylish, Tonya was especially known for always having just the right shoes.

Born in West Monroe, Louisiana, Tonya always had an affection for her home state—and it’s no surprise that after years in neighboring Arkansas she returned to Ruston.

After graduating high school in West Monroe, she headed south to Baton Rouge, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Louisiana State University. There, she met her husband Keith and started a family. (The @MarleysMom username so many HighEdWebbers are familiar with is a loving reference to Tonya’s daughter Bekah.) The young family moved to Ruston, where Tonya wrote and edited for the Daily Leader. They later relocated to Little Rock, which was where Tonya’s career in (and passion for) higher education began.

In 2017, Tonya returned to the Bayou State, where she started a new professional challenge at Louisiana Tech. It was also here in Ruston where Tonya was able to see “Marley” discover and develop her own passion for learning and leading: she was bursting with pride when her daughter graduated with her elementary education degree and accepted a resource math and English teacher position in Jacksonville, Arkansas.

“So proud of My Girl. She’ll be the change!” Tonya shared in a congratulatory post, which was accompanied by a photo of Bekah holding a felt letter board with the message: Let the adventure begin.

Lifelong-learning: a continuous quest for knowledge

Tonya Oaks Smith having fun on a photo shoot at UA Law, holding law book upside down with smiling eyes looking over.
Tonya having a little fun during a 2010 photo shoot inside the UA Law Library. Photo courtesy Meaghan Milliorn Fikes.

Tonya devoted her professional life to higher education, but higher education was also a personal endeavor. She earned a master’s degree in communication studies from UA Little Rock in 2010 and a graduate certificate in higher education administration in 2022.

Tonya achieved her goal of earning her doctorate: in early 2023 she officially received her Doctorate of Education at Louisiana Tech University.

Dr. Tonya Oaks Smith, this community is so proud of you. You will be deeply missed.

A decade(+) of HighEdWeb

Below are some of the official roles Tonya played throughout her years in the organization, but as we in higher ed know all too well, “other duties as assigned” is real. And that’s certainly the case for Dr. Oaks Smith.


Regional Conference Arkansas – committee member
Regional Conference Rochester – committee member

Regional Conference Arkansas – co-chair

Regional Conference Arkansas – co-chair

Board of Directors – member
Annual Conference – program track chair
Regional Conference Arkansas – committee member

Board of Directors – member and parliamentarian 
Annual Conference – program track chair

Board of Directors – member and parliamentarian 
Annual Conference – committee member

Board of Directors – member and parliamentarian 
Annual Conference – chair

Board of Directors – member and parliamentarian 
Annual Conference – committee member

Board of Directors – member and parliamentarian 
Annual Conference – committee member

Board of Directors – member and parliamentarian 
Annual Conference – committee member

Sponsorship Committee – chair
Annual Conference – co-chair

Search Committee – member

Tonya Oaks Smith conference badge from HighEdWeb Regional Arkansas

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By Donna Talarico

Donna Talarico, a Red-Stapler-winning HighEdWeb presenter and volunteer editor for Link, is an independent writer and content strategist. She is the marketing columnist for Wiley's Recruiting and Retaining Adult Learners, and her work has also been published in CASE Currents, The Guardian Higher Education Network, and elsewhere. From 2010 to 2015, she told the Elizabethtown College story as part of an award-winning marketing and communications team. Always a storyteller, before higher ed she worked in print and broadcast media, and for a leading eCommerce company. She is the founder and publisher of Hippocampus Magazine, a bimonthly creative nonfiction journal and small press. She loves road trips, board games, greasy spoon diners, and words.