PROFILE: Losses Take Toll, But Grad Never Gives Up

In the early 1970s, a university administrator told Renee Richardson she would never graduate from college.

“Needless to say, I was traumatized. I had culture shock. I came from Avondale, a Reform Jewish and black neighborhood. I didn’t know racism to see it until I was confronted with it here,” she says today. Not surprisingly, she dropped out of UC within the year.

But Richardson would return. Leaving a successful job in health care, she took a pay cut to come to work at UC as a temp in 1983 and moved to full time in 1985. “I did it for my sons. I wanted them to have a chance to go to college.”

In 1990, she took that chance herself, using her tuition remission benefits at UC to pursue a degree of her own. Last year, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social science. This June 14, she will march in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences graduation ceremony for her second bachelor’s – this one a BS in religious studies.

“I went into the social sciences to understand why people think the way they think. Does religion play a big role in how people react to each other?” says Richardson, who staffs the Department of Judaic Studies and has just won the department’s Daniel Ransohoff Award. Coincidentally Richardson met Ransohoff when she was a Hughes High School student, and he was making an educational film. The prize now named after him will allow her to travel to Israel sometime next year to learn more about religion.

The subject of spirituality has been a long-time puzzle for Richardson. She has often wondered why people who espouse religion can in some cases be tolerant and kind, while others, who also believe, can be filled with cruelty and intolerance.

“My time here at UC has placed me in a world of diversity, a microcosm of the world that has allowed me to appreciate the different cultures of the world. I have learned to appreciate the differences as opposed to rejecting the differences,” says Richardson, who has worked in Parking Services, Public Safety, the College of Engineering and the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences' Department of English, in addition to Judaic Studies.

Richardson also has been intrigued by what she sees as flaws in religion and piety. “I have recognized a lot of flaws in organized religions. Sometimes I see more toxic behavior than healthy behavior in the religious sector.”

Her next goal is to get a master’s degree in education and a master’s in Judaic Studies, if UC ever offers one. In the meantime, getting her bachelor’s degrees is something she wanted to do for herself.

With a full-time job, plus five sons (two of them adopted), finding time for her personal goal could sometimes be a struggle. On top of her academic and professional demands, she has faced one loss after another. Her grandmother died, her mother died and, last spring, her middle son was shot to death on a visit to Indianapolis. “It was a case of mistaken identity,” she says. “I had a good support mechanism in place here at the university and at home. The people who knew him treated me as if it was their child who was killed, especially Professor Lowanne Jones.”

She explains the impact on her studies by saying, “If you look at my transcript, it goes like this.” She waves her hand up and down in a series of invisible peaks and valleys.

Her academic dedication sparks the admiration of her professors. They say they find her a challenging student. “She has exceptional clarity of purpose and phenomenal drive,” says John Brolley, program director of religious studies in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences. One story the adjunct instructor likes to tell about Renee is when she brought three blue books to a final exam one night. She wrote three different drafts and turned them all in. “The first was excellent, let alone all three,” Brolley laughs.

Adds Steven Fine, Judaic Studies department head: “She doesn’t let anything get past her that she doesn’t understand.”

“Some people like ducks. I like students. Some people like tennis. I like academics,” Renee explains.

She must, because she plans to pursue further studies. Her dream is to open an urban boarding school, named Rose of Sharon for the flower that grows in the plains of Israel. She also wants to open three residential programs - one for former convicts, one for people who have contracted HIV-AIDS and a third for young mothers, where she wants to offer training in parenting skills.

“I at least want to make the attempt. On my tombstone, I want it to say, ‘I tried.’ My parents used to say nothing beats an effort but a try. It’s not to say I succeeded, but I did my best.”

When it comes to college, she has done more than try. It may have taken years, but she finally has proven wrong the administrator who doomed her to failure.

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