Selena O’Shaughnessy turns obstacles into opportunities

Selena Cozart O’Shaughnessy thought she’d be an educator for life, but had to learn to
forge a new path midcareer—which includes working as a resident services coordinator, and making and selling soap. Photo: Elli Williams Selena Cozart O’Shaughnessy thought she’d be an educator for life, but had to learn to forge a new path midcareer—which includes working as a resident services coordinator, and making and selling soap. Photo: Elli Williams

Selena Cozart O’Shaughnessy, Ph.D., is a career learner. But even her extensive education couldn’t save her from losing her job as a public school administrator when the economy tanked in 2008.

Now, the Philadelphia native and UVA alumna puts her experience and love of community to work from 9 to 5 as the resident services coordinator for the Piedmont Housing Alliance, and satisfies her creative and entrepreneurial itch with her own soapmaking company.

“I have reinvented myself in several ways,” O’Shaughnessy said. “But I have always been in the helping fields. I am a catalyst of sorts, not the person to tell people what to do but to help them discover what they need to do.”

Still, it’s all a sharp turn for someone who has been grooming herself to be a fixture in the public education system for as long as she can remember. As a teenager, O’Shaughnessy attended the Philadelphia High School for Girls, an exclusive, multi-cultural prep school, then enrolled at UVA, where she earned a bachelor’s degree, master’s in teaching, and a Ph.D. in education.

“The doctorate was not my goal,” O’Shaughnessy said. “It was the skill set I was after.”

She joined the Charlottesville City School Division, serving as an educational evaluation consultant before going back to UVA as an assistant professor in the Curry School of Education from 2003-2007. During her four years teaching at her alma mater, O’Shaughnessy founded SEEDS for Change, a student organization still in operation today that brings together people from different cultures and communities within Curry and around Charlottesville.

“I don’t even know if she is aware of all the good it has done,” said Curry School Associate Professor Stanley Trent. “Every year, the students pass the baton. It’s wonderful, and it was her brainchild.”

When the grant O’Shaughnessy was working on at UVA expired, she went back to the public school system, this time finding what seemed to be her ideal niche—equity and diversity coordinator for Albemarle County Public Schools. But about a year later, the housing bubble burst. The economy took a nosedive. People in all sorts of industries, with all sorts of high-profile qualifications, began losing their jobs.

“I was kind of the last one hired, first one fired,” O’Shaughnessy said. “The market for diversity experts was dwindling. Resources dried up, and people weren’t hiring.”

Which brought her to PHA. In addition to being program and service coordinator for Friendship Court, O’Shaughnessy is PHA’s fair housing program manager. She also acts as lead diversity consultant for the University Community Action for Racial Equity (UCARE), an organization devoted to changing systemic racism and discrimination at UVA and beyond.

But the thing that most excites O’Shaughnessy these days is “making stuff with her hands” after she goes home to her husband, dog—and kitchen. It’s there that she becomes two parts scientist and one part artist, mixing lye and fatty acids together with fragrances and botanicals to produce the soaps she sells on her website and in markets.

The impetus behind her soapmaking company, Salome’s Creations, was a desire to use only natural products on her body, a habit she says she picked up from her mother.

“I started making my own shampoo, and in researching recipes and techniques, I was always returning to soapmaking websites,” O’Shaughnessy said. “I fell in love with the process.”

Indeed, through all her training in education, one of the people O’Shaughnessy most likes to teach is herself. But five years after being laid off from the job she was all but destined to do, and five years into establishing her boutique business, she is at another crossroads. Salome’s Creations is currently only covering costs. O’Shaughnessy believes she could make the business profitable; the question is how to find the time to push it over the hump.

“I have a lot of balls in the air, so what has to come off the table?” she said. “I kind of do this all or nothing thing. If I can’t do it all now, then forget it.”

That’s something she is learning to correct. In part owing to her recent education in the Community Investment Collaborative, a program for minority entrepreneurs, O’Shaughnessy is trying to grow her business a step at a time. She’s looking to move into new farmers’ markets and is launching a series of soapmaking classes to share her love of craft and teaching.

Of course, there is still the issue of all those balls in the air.

“I’m also training to be a personal coach, which hearkens back to my days as a teacher at Curry, when I did some undergraduate advising,” O’Shaughnessy said. “It’s something I want to weave back into my life.”

It’s a complex pattern she’s weaving, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. O’Shaughnessy recalls that when she was teaching high school, on the first day of school, she would ask the kids to share their names and one defining trait. When she participated in the exercise, she would always say, “I like to try new things.”

“I remember saying in the third grade, ‘I know I am going to college,’ even though I didn’t grow up in a neighborhood where that was the expectation,” she said. “I think the thing that has always been present for me is that love of learning.”

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