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Meet LaVerne Harmon, the New President of Wilmington University

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Scott Kerner described his first try at college as “a little too much fun.” After flunking out, he wanted to try again, but realized it wasn’t going to be easy to do better or to find a school willing to take a chance on him. Then he sat down for an interview at Wilmington University, a small school in a small state. One conversation with the vice president of student affairs, LaVerne Harmon, changed the course of his life.

“I didn’t find a school, I found her,” Kerner says of that day 18 years ago. He told her his story, and she gave him the second chance he was looking for. “It just seemed like the right person.”

Under Harmon’s watch and care, Kerner became a model student. He studied hard, made good grades, got a job and took student leadership positions. He graduated with honors and awards.

“She turned my life around with her example of hard work and believing in yourself,” says Kerner, 37, owner of a large solar panel installation company in New York. “I followed her lead. I absolutely adore her. ”

Harmon was scheduled to take over as the school’s president on July 1. Now the whole school is able to follow her example. In her new position, she will help set the direction for a private university that expanded over the past 20 years from 2,000 students to more than 20,000 on campuses throughout Delaware, online and around the world.

“She is patient and caring and, in the whole history of the time she’s been here, she’s never turned away a student in need, financially or personally,” says immediate past president, Jack Varsalona. Kerner’s story is not unique at WilmU, he says.

Harmon, who started working as an assistant to the president at Wilmington in 1989, says it’s all about family.

“I don’t have children, but when asked this question, my response is always, ‘I have more than 20,000, and the family keeps growing,’” Harmon says.

“She is always about doing the right thing and putting students first,” says Rob Rescigno, dean of the College of Business at Wilmington. “She embodies the mission of student support.”

Harmon understands what WilmU students go through because she has been there. When she started working at the school she had no degree. She eventually earned her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate. There were many days when she never wanted to see a book again. And she couldn’t have done it without the support of her mentors and colleagues, she says. But over the past 28 years, she has served as an assistant, a director of human resources, director of student affairs and alumni relations, and vice president of student affairs.

“It validates what people can achieve in America,” Harmon says. “I’m not one who needs all the attention, but I do like the fact that others will look at me and aspire to do the same.”

“We’re all the same in God’s eyes,” says Laura Thomas, Harmon’s mother. “I guess LaVerne listened.”

During the past 28 years at Wilmington University, Harmon has served as an assistant, a director of human resources, director of student affairs and alumni relations, and vice president of student affairs.

Harmon grew up in Jersey City, N.J., the second of four children in a close blue-collar family. Her father would bring home a bag of potato chips after work each day, then he and the children would spread a blanket on the floor, share the chips and talk about the day. Harmon says her father told the same corny jokes every day. Everyone laughed.

At night her mother would need to make her quit studying and go to bed. Even in elementary school, Harmon stayed up late into the night, books open in front of her. In fourth grade, she won the spelling bee. In sixth, the school suggested she be moved to eighth grade— “I was competitive when it came to grades,” Harmon says—but her mother refused.

Her favorite activities were playing school with her friends—Harmon acted as teacher—and singing along with the songs on the radio. She knew all the words.

Through middle and high school, Harmon was the only African-American student in many of her classes. Encouraged by a teacher, she then went to college. The rural school she attended, however, wasn’t a good fit. There were cows and other farm animals on campus.

“Coming from the big city, I was devastated. I cried for two weeks,” says Harmon. At the end of her sophomore year, she left.

A job search led her to the personnel office of the Wilmington Public School System (now Red Clay Consolidated School District), where she saw a job posting on the wall. The application period had closed the day before.

“I knew I could do that job,” says Harmon. Barely out of her teens, she respectfully, yet persistently, asked the receptionist to allow her to apply. When the personnel director overheard her, he called her into his office. A few minutes later Harmon was the new secretary. In her eight years at the district, she rose to assistant to the superintendent. She felt she could do more, but her lack of a degree was holding her back.

Then her sister, Linda, died suddenly of an aneurysm. It taught Harmon to make the most of life because it is short. The day of her sister’s funeral, the president and vice president of Wilmington University, where Linda had worked, offered Harmon a job as assistant to the president and as a member of the president’s cabinet. Linda had apparently talked much about Harmon.

“It was as though she gave me a recommendation for a job without knowing,” says Harmon, who was also offered a full scholarship to get her bachelor’s degree while she worked. She’s been paying it forward ever since. Besides the dozens of student care stories, she also started the Leadership Institute at Wilmington, a program that helps to develop and prepare internal employees for the next level.

Tina Barksdale, 38, associate vice president of alumni relations and student affairs, is one of Harmon’s success stories. Like Harmon, Barksdale started working at Wilmington without a degree. For the past 20 years, Harmon mentored her, encouraged her to get her degrees and even proofread her college papers.

“She takes the time to help develop other people. She wants other people to shine,” says Barksdale. “You always feel she has your best interests at heart. She could tell you you’re fired, and in the end you’d give her a hug and thank her.”

Which, Harmon admits, has happened.

“My only agenda is to help people improve,” she says. Again, the death of her sister taught her that every interaction with people should be as if it were the last.

“A university is full of smart and opinionated people. It’s a place where ideas flow, and as president, you have to listen to all of them. She has the personality to be president,” says Varsalona. When he announced his retirement earlier this year, the board was unanimous in choosing Harmon to replace him. The faculty senate then prepared a resolution of congratulations, and the members cheered upon presenting it to her.

Harmon doesn’t expect much to change at the school. She has worked with Varsalona on the vision for years. The mission will stay the same: promote excellence in teaching, provide individual attention to students, expand online learning and continue to serve a diverse  population. WilmU’s culture will remain the same, too. The biggest change she can see coming is the color of her new office. It needs some blues and maybe a maroon, she says.

Harmon plans to stay the same as well. She will still sing songs at the top of her lungs in her car. She will still stop students to see how they are doing. She will still encourage staff to do their creative best. And she’ll still need someone to remind her to quit working and go to bed—though these days it’s her husband, not her mother.

“I can’t remember the last time I took a vacation. I love coming to work,” she says.

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