Taking Students Where “They Never Thought They Could Be”

In the quest to recruit and retain minority students, Dr. Beverly Richardson has surpassed most expectations.

In the years following her arrival as provost of Mercer County Community College’s James Kerney campus located in downtown Trenton, N.J., officials have noted a marked increase in student enrollment and increased participation in specialized programs, including culinary arts, which is currently under expansion.

And the fact that many of these students hail from the Trenton public school system–one of the most troubled school districts in the state–is even more impressive. For almost two decades, she has been the driving force behind the success of the Kerney campus, an urban location in the heart of a commercial district not too far from blight and despair.

Since she took the helm of the Kerney campus, Richardson has been on a personal crusade, to ensure that minority youth in Trenton as young as 12 have the same opportunity to pursue a college education as their White suburban counterparts. 

Richardson has implemented new academic programs and reinvigorated existing ones that groom about 1,000 Trenton youngsters for academic success through science, math and technology courses. In order for these students to be successful in the long run, Richardson knows that she has to reach them early, long before they even enroll in high school.

“It’s an opportunity to serve people who wouldn’t otherwise be served,” Richardson said as she recounted the reasons for why she came to Kerney. “It’s about taking people from where they are and taking them to where they want to go or where they never thought they could be.”

Total enrollment at Kerney has jumped from 1,000 students to 3,500 under Richardson’s leadership. She has mentored dozens of students who matriculate into four-year colleges and universities. During her tenure, several students, like Joann Mia, have even gone on to graduate school. Mia pursued a master’s degree in community education after earning her GED and associate’s degree at Kerney. She returned to her old stomping grounds and is now a coordinator for the campus’s Learning Center.

“I wanted to be a part of the education process in this community…for me, education was the out,” Mia said. “It’s always been in the plan for me to come back here.”

MCCC graduate Adrienne Dixon enjoyed her educational experience so much that she returned to Kerney and now serves as an education specialist. Dixon, who is currently finishing up graduate work in professional studies and online teaching at Thomas Edison State College in Trenton, credits Richardson for helping to instill in her a drive for success.

“She is such a role model. She shows us the true quality of a leader, which is serving others. And I live by that philosophy,” Dixon said.

While gazing out of her office windows overlooking downtown Trenton, Richardson points to several dilapidated buildings with dreams of what could be.

“I could see that as student housing or that building there, being a coffee shop,” said Richardson, who’s mission is to ensure that the students who arrive on campus with deficient skills, leave prepared for a rigorous academic challenge at a four-year institution. “I’d like to see us become so integrated into the community that we become more of a part of the life of the city. I think we could be more omnipresent in responding to government issues and community needs.”

Richardson first arrived at MCCC as the college’s Dean of Students in 1981 before becoming provost of the Kerney campus nine years later. Her first steps into academia began in 1969 after the Boston native graduated from Norfolk State University with a degree in sociology. She went on to serve as an admissions and financial aid counselor at the Massachusetts College of Art. She later received a phone call from Harvard University and became a financial aid officer for graduate school education at the Ivy League institution.

Her journey continued onto Bentley College where she served as the Associate Dean of Students from 1976 to 1980. But Richardson’s career goals would soon change.

“I realized that these young people were going to make it with or without me,” said Richardson, who has a doctorate degree in higher education administration from Boston College. “I realized that I needed to go somewhere where I was really needed.”

Richardson became an instructor of urban education at the University of the District of Columbia in Washington, D.C. And in 1981, Richardson was welcomed with open arms to MCCC.

At the Kerney campus, she has spearheaded the construction of a computer learning hub and one-stop academic and financial aid counseling center, making the campus a vital tool in educating inner-city youth and adults. In recent months, Kerney students have shown vast improvement in overall basic skill levels by utilizing the computer hub developed by Richardson.

The Kerney campus maintains an open admissions policy and officials are brainstorming new ways to assess students’ individual academic progress, Richardson added. The campus also serves 35 different ethnic groups as part of its ESL or English as a Second Language class.

All of the programs and services offered at Kerney are used as stepping stones to greater educational advancement, said Richardson, adding that many of the students enrolled at Kerney also learn invaluable lessons of community service.

According to Richardson, a significant number of her institution’s graduates matriculate into four-year colleges, though college officials could not provide specific numbers.

 But Richardson does not take credit for the success at the Kerney campus. She praises the unwavering dedication of faculty members and staff, many of whom live in the Trenton area.

“Through our staff ambassador program each staff member is connected to an agency in the area…so it’s that continual contact with community folk and keeping people informed about the college,” Richardson said. “The faculty is made up of people who believe in what they are doing and who want to make a difference every day.”

–Dana Forde

 

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