From Exceptionally Modest Means to ‘Year of the Women’

Rochelle Henderson '92

June 2010 Rochelle Henderson '92 receives PhD
June 2010 Rochelle Henderson '92 receives PhD

Modest means, and even poverty, are no strangers to many students who choose to attend Blackburn College. Blackburn’s alumni share stories of discovering they could attend Blackburn when they initially thought that college was beyond their financial capabilities. Added to the difficulties imposed by economic needs is the often-unfamiliar nature of higher education’s culture for those who are first-generation college students in their families.

Dr. Rochelle Henderson ’92 arrived on the Blackburn campus with very little and was the first person in her family to attend college. She and her mother struggled with the difficulties of being on welfare—including times in her young life when she found herself homeless, living in homeless shelters, and struggling to obtain food. She eventually moved in for a time with her grandmother, and then found a permanent home with her Great Aunt Betty and Great Uncle Red in Granite City, Ill.

Her Aunt Betty encouraged Rochelle to think about college, including sharing an informational brochure about Blackburn College. Rochelle especially remembers her Aunt’s sound advice following their tour of Blackburn: “It’s better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond.”

Blackburn’s size and academic programs attracted Rochelle. She initially did not consider its Work Program to be anything out of the ordinary. She started work as a papergirl at age 13 and anticipated that she would work her way through college.

1992 May - Night before Blackburn Graduation
1992 May – Night Before Blackburn Graduation

“I was excited to find out about leadership opportunities at Blackburn—not much was said about women in leadership when I was growing up. There were three people who guided me as a campus leader while I developed leadership and management skills.” These included then-president Miriam Pride, Political Science Professor Dr. Sam Meredith, and the Physical Plant Administrative Assistant Gena Ober. All of them contributed significantly to Rochelle’s growth and her growing awareness that women could be strong leaders with an impact on the community around them.

Rochelle began her studies at Blackburn thinking that she eventually wanted to work in government service. Although she liked both political science and biology, she learned that political science was a better fit for her. In fact, Dr. Meredith introduced her to applied statistics in a way that she both understood and enjoyed. That class inspired her to go on in statistical analysis in graduate school and eventually led to a career track working in research.

“The student-managed Work Program was an important ‘life teacher’ as I progressed through my years at Blackburn. I started on the campus maintenance grounds crew, was eventually chosen to be an assistant manager, and then rose to become the manager of the campus maintenance department. I was selected to be a General Manager during what we liked to call the ‘Year of the Women.’ It was the first time both General Managers were women, and the president of Blackburn was a woman.”

I love talking about Blackburn, telling the stories, and talking about our students. I donate to Blackburn for the same reasons—to give back.

Rochelle Henderson ’92

Rochelle recalls her experience in the Work Program as transformative. She challenged herself to take on leadership roles, work she never expected would be in her future when she was a young girl. “At Blackburn, I got to try things in a safe environment. I learned from my failures, and I learned to manage my peers. Blackburn brought me face-to-face with the challenges of management during the formative time in my life. What I learned from those experiences become the foundation for my leadership approach today.

“At 19, I was manager of Campus Maintenance, overseeing a department professionally staffed by mostly older males. My initial management approach was to rely on the title and an annoying arrogance. I quickly learned that working collaboratively was much more effective in getting things done.”

Newspaper clipping of two Blackburn students who traveled to Washington DC to lobby on behalf of Work Colleges
General Managers Lobbying in Washington DC

Rochelle has come to feel that giving back to Blackburn in terms of time, talent, and treasure is important. “It’s an obligation for me to give back to an institution that gave me so much. I use my professional relationships to benefit Blackburn, talking about Blackburn with folks in my industry. I plant the idea of Blackburn in the minds of potential donors.

“I love talking about Blackburn, telling the stories, and talking about our students. I donate to Blackburn for the same reasons—to give back.

“Today, I would tell students that in management—or any job for that matter—you must be ‘all in.’ Everybody working together as a community gets the job done. Academics, the Work Program, and life on campus all come together to help with personal and professional growth. Take the opportunities to do things that will make you interesting. Try new things and spread your wings. Get to know people.”

Lifelong Blackburn Friends
Lifelong Blackburn Friends

Rochelle considers Blackburn to be her family. “The relationships I have and my connections to Blackburn have enriched my life. I have friendships that span generations because of being a student, serving as a Work Program manager, my time on the Alumni Board of Directors, and now as a Blackburn Trustee.”