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Meet Jennifer Ward, Associate Executive Director – Tacoma

You’ve now been with Rainier Scholars for 15 years in total. How did you first learn about the organization?

In 2003, I graduated from the University of Washington with an engineering degree, but I had no intention of pursuing that field. I wanted to work with young people in education but didn’t know what that might look like. I came across Rainier Scholars on a job board, and the UW provost I’d met in my role as an orientation leader knew founder Bob Hurlbut. He wrote a really nice recommendation letter on my behalf, which I didn’t even know until after I got the job.

How did your journey at Rainier Scholars progress after being hired as the fifth employee?

I started as an Academic Counselor, was promoted to Assistant ACSS (Academic Counseling and Support Services) Director and then ACSS Director (at the time, ACSS was our 7-9th grade phase). I also started doing work that eventually led to what we now know as our Multigenerational African American (MGAA) Initiative. As a full time employee and even after leaving Rainier Scholars I stayed in close touch, writing curriculum and facilitating leadership development (LD) retreats.

You left Rainiers Scholars in 2015. Why did you go, and what made you return?

At Rainier Scholars, we push kids to take risks and get outside their comfort zones. A colleague encouraged me to reflect on whether I was staying by default rather than by choice. She suggested I explore and see what else was out there. Leaving and gaining new experiences made me even more effective for the work I get to do now. The opportunity to come back came at a perfect time; after five and a half years away I was again thinking about a new challenge to take on professionally. When presented with the opportunity to return to Rainier Scholars and launch the Tacoma program, I said yes without hesitation.

When you were tapped to launch Rainier Scholars – Tacoma, what was most exciting and most daunting?

This is my life’s work, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. Doing something that impacts young people of color using the vehicle of education — that’s exciting. Building a Tacoma presence has been challenging, and I’ve had to develop a lot of new skills. Who knew I would become a general contractor, interior designer and brand ambassador? Even though we had a blueprint with Seattle, I came to realize very quickly that Tacoma is its own unique city, with its own unique demographics and challenges and should be designed as such.

You were recently awarded a BIPOC ED Coalition grant and recognized by RELOC. Tell us more about that.

Rainier Scholars offers a sabbatical opportunity to employees after 10 years of service. I believe wellness and self-care are super important but I’m not very good at doing that for myself. I knew Rainier Scholars’ sabbatical program would help me eliminate excuses and really force me to unplug. BIPOC ED Coalition offers various grant opportunities for nonprofit leaders of color to encourage them to take breaks from their important work. Thanks to the three-month grant I received, I’ll be able to really dig into something completely outside of my day-to-day and return refreshed and hopefully with a new outlook on life. I plan to spend about four months in Thailand soaking in a brand new culture and taking time to rest, pamper myself, reflect, and explore new adventures.

Regional Executive Leaders of Color (RELOC) provides a space for people of color to come together and talk through challenges that we all face in our different fields. As a part of their quarterly summits, RELOC highlights community organizations and leaders doing good work. Rainer Scholars and I were one of four organizations recognized for our work with young people of color. Rainier Scholars was nominated by Justina Johnson, AVID and Advanced Programs Equity Director at Tacoma Public Schools.

Is there anything else you want to share about your experience at Rainier Scholars?

In so many ways, I feel like I’ve had the Rainier Scholar experience myself, from inspiring me to get my master’s degree in education to having someone push me to leave and stretch myself to understand my worth and value. I’ve grown  so much both personally and professionally, and I attribute a lot of that growth to Rainier Scholars.