Getting to Director of Veteran Services

Ken McRae, Vice Chair, Co-Chair Elect

October 23, 2017

On July 31, 2017, I left Mississippi State University. It was time. I had finally hit that all-important age: 65, retirement age. My 11 years in higher education were satisfying and have been a fulfilling capstone on a life that has taken unexpected twists and turns. Much like the students we serve, my time working in two of Mississippi’s premier colleges and universities were years of growth and learning.

Growing up in rural Alabama, education was never a top priority. My mother died in childbirth and my father’s identity was unknown to me. Therefore, I was raised by very loving, deeply religious grandparents and an extended family who spoiled me (in as much as a poor rural family can). My grandfather was a farmworker who worked six days a week, resting only on the Sabbath because the Lord commanded it. Daddy had a sixth-grade education and an income that, on a good week, netted him – and us - $27.91. Life was hard. And it only became more difficult after his death. Although I was only fifteen at the time, my grandfather had proven to me that any hardship could be overcome with the right attitude and worth ethic.

These values were tested in the fall of 1970 when I joined the freshman cohort at Auburn University (on a full-tuition scholarship, no less!). But I was a first-generation college student at a time before universities had implemented programs designed to help disadvantaged students like myself. As one would probably expect, I did not do well. I lost my scholarship and could not afford to return. That same semester, I lost my grandmother. As a result, I informed my uncle that I was going to join the Army. Being in the latter years of the Vietnam War, he advised me to serve my country as a member of the Alabama Army National Guard. This advice changed my life.

The Guard was the catalyst for a better life. I used the lessons from my family about hard work and my frustrations regarding my experience at Auburn and channeled them into becoming the best soldier I could be. I knew immediately after enlisting that I wanted to be a leader and the best avenue for that was to become an officer. So, I attended Officer Candidate School at the Alabama Military Academy at Fort McClellan and received a commission in 1975. A year later, I married my beautiful wife, Rosemary and within a decade, we added two sons, David and Michael, to our ranks. My life, complete with wife, family, and career, was the most stable it had ever been.

During the 1980s, the Army required that all officers have or obtain a bachelor’s degree for advancement. I was a captain, a company commander, and a man driven to advance his career. But to do so, the Army forced me to face my greatest nemesis: higher education. This time I was not only a first-generation student, I was also a non-traditional, adult student. I had a full-time job. I was a husband with obligations to his wife and father with two kids who desired his attention. But I persisted. I worked hard and kept my eyes on the prize and earned my bachelor’s degree at the age of 34. What had seemed like a daunting task the Army had forced upon me became an opportunity I now cherish. I later earned my Master’s Degree at the age of 53 and, today, at retirement age, am completing the last bit of coursework in pursuit of a PhD. Additionally, the Guard gave me the training and experience I needed to move forward with a second career in, ironically enough, higher education.

My higher education career began in January 2006, six months after I retired from the Army. At that time, Dr. Francis Lucas, then-President of Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi offered me a job to develop a strategic “parent recruitment plan” for the Admissions and Scholarship Office. My eldest son had graduated from Millsaps only twenty months prior and I, having been an active (though not over-active as some may be) parent, had formed relationships with many of the administrators at the small liberal arts college. In my five years at Millsaps, I learned much about the complicated workings of a college and about the special mission of student affairs in particular. But despite the sometimes foreign territory I found myself working in, the organizational and strategic planning skills that made me successful in the Guard were transferrable to my work in higher education.

These skills were invaluable when I joined the staff of Mississippi State University in 2011 as the Director of the G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery Center for America’s Veterans. To combine my experience in higher education with my passion for the military seemed like providence. And perhaps it was. Regardless, my six years at the Center were some of the most rewarding of my life and I cherish them. There have been hardships at every stage, but I have always managed to overcome them with hard work, a calm demeanor, and clearly defined goals. Success is relative. But no matter how you define it, success is also attainable. Ask for help in achieving your goals, but do not expect it. Work with others. Listen to them; learn from them and be a team player, even if you are in a position of leadership. And never be scared to compromise, for nothing is accomplished without it. Yet don’t take your eyes off the prize and remain true to your core principles. If you stay true to them, you can achieve anything.  

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