Robert S. Godlewski 2014-05-09 04:34:25
Jerome Ratchford spent 25 years helping others succeed Twenty-five years is a long time to work at any institution of higher learning, let alone one that celebrated only its 50th year in existence. When Jerome Ratchford came to the Kennesaw State campus in the fall of 1988, he probably had no idea he would be retiring from the same institution 25 years later. The young school, composed of a few buildings, had just become known as a state college. Today, as a member of President Daniel S. Papp’s cabinet, Ratchford leads the Division for Student Success and advises Kennesaw State’s leaders on issues affecting the future and well-being of students. “He has been one of KSU’s ‘long marchers’ who has made a lasting impact at KSU,” said Nancy King, Ratchford’s predecessor and currently executive assistant for Strategic Initiatives and professor emeritus of English. “He was the founding director of the Department for Student Development, and over the years, he spearheaded the development of programs and services for students in specific populations such as adult learners, students with disabilities, minority students and international students.” A foundation of education He has been vice president for Student Success since 2008, and despite the numerous accolades that reflect his distinguished career in higher education, Ratchford remains a humble man. “I’m the son of a coal miner,” the normally quiet Ratchford explained. He was born in the heart of coal country, Harlan County, Kentucky. His father, Otis, worked in the mines to support his wife, two boys and two girls. It was the era just before desegregation, and Ratchford recalled attending an all-black high school. The year he graduated, the Southeast Center of the University of Kentucky, now known as Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, opened its doors in Cumberland, Ky., and he was accepted. The new college offered him a chance to continue his education and strive for more than what his tiny town could offer at the dawn of the tumultuous 1960s. There he would embark on the first of several degrees that would eventually lead him to a world surrounded by young people whom he could guide and motivate into future leadership positions. “My cohort was the first to go there. It was the first time any institution in Harlan and surrounding counties was desegregated,” he said. “We instantly became role models and the object of the attention of everyone.” After successfully navigating two years of college, Ratchford went to the University of Kentucky’s main campus and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in education in 1965. He later pursued a master’s degree in counseling and guidance from Indiana University and went on to receive his Ph.D. in educational leadership and supervision from Ohio’s Bowling Green State University in 1979. “The vast majority didn’t finish their degrees in two years,” he recalled of his time at Southeast. “I was one of the few to then transfer to the main campus in Lexington about six hours away. It was a large leap. When I arrived at the University of Kentucky, I was part of a small cohort of about 20 to 25 other black students out of about 8,000 to 10,000 students.” Inspired to make a difference It was an uneasy time to be a minority on an all-white college campus. Ratchford and others often had to endure racial hazing and ostracism. However, the bullying behavior that caused some to abandon their dreams only strengthened Ratchford’s desire to succeed. “There were no RSOs (registered student organizations) for black students at the University of Kentucky in the early 1960s. I learned to rely on my own sense of self-worth, and that helped me develop resiliency,” he said. Today, by contrast, Ratchford’s division at Kennesaw State oversees more than 200 RSOs. From fraternities, sororities and student government to student media, clubs and recreational activities, there is a place for every student to pursue his or her interests on campus. “I believe that one of the defining moments during his illustrious career was the creation of the African-American Student Alliance (AASA),” said King. “This RSO has produced a large number of outstanding student leaders, not simply in AASA but campus-wide.” Ratchford said he is “proud that I became a role model for children of color back in my hometown. Heretofore, black children from my hometown could not reasonably imagine attending a large historically white institution like the University of Kentucky. My journey said to others that if ‘Ronnie’ (my nickname) could do it, they could as well.” A career in higher education After posts at Talladega College, Emory University and Lincoln University, in 1988 Ratchford set his sights on a position at Kennesaw State, administering minority and international student retention. Although he wasn’t sure he could land the job, some small talk during his interview with President Betty S. Siegel may have sealed the deal. “We soon discovered that we grew up near each other in Kentucky, and that we had similar backgrounds that emphasized education and dedication to a life of service,” Siegel said. “I was impressed by Jerome’s openness, affability and extensive knowledge of his field. I sensed in Jerome a person of integrity, commitment, one who would seek excellence in all that he did. The years have proved me right – I am proud to acknowledge his long career of distinguished service to KSU and the community at large.” Ratchford said, “Betty and I agreed that the value system we grew up with there, the emphasis placed on education, the strong parenting and the positive influence of everyone around us, helped catapult us and others to future prosperity and success.” During his quarter of a century at Kennesaw State, Ratchford has helped thousands of students achieve their own levels of success and enabled the university to make great strides toward inclusiveness. “As of the fall 2013 semester, minorities account for about 31 percent of our students, and we have students representing about 130 different countries,” he said. There were only a few hundred minority and international students when Ratchford was hired. Under his watch, the university has provided support to a broader array of students. In addition, Ratchford was instrumental in the development of Volunteer Kennesaw, an organization that has given students countless ways to give back to the community. Leaving a lasting legacy Although Ratchford has set this December 31 as his retirement date, he shows few signs of slowing down. “My wife, Dr. Cynthia A. Ratchford, and I are looking forward to doing some traveling, and I’ve always liked to write so maybe I’ll write a book about what I’ve learned.” After half a century of successfully counseling and mentoring thousands of students and administrators in higher education, he knows he’ll have plenty of material. “Dr. Ratchford’s career has been about enriching all students’ lives,” King said. “He committed his time and passion, indeed, his life to that endeavor. As a result he will be long remembered as a sterling example of inclusivity, integrity and a deep commitment to students. Jerome is a superb role model for students, faculty and staff for what it means to be an ethical leader who works tirelessly on behalf of others.” Siegel added, “I personally want to thank him for all his years of friendship, wise counsel, courteous and dependable service. His is a wise and beneficial presence – one that will be missed.”
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