By Brooklyn Brown
Evelyn Rucker has been named the new Intercultural Affairs director at Western Carolina University.
Rucker, a native of Mobile, Alabama, had been serving as the interim director since September 2022. She obtained her undergraduate degree in social work and her master’s degree in public administration from Jacksonville State University.
“Not Jacksonville, Florida, not Jackson State University; Jacksonville, Alabama,” Rucker said. “Jacksonville is very much like Cullowhee, where the college is the town. Just a little place in Northern Alabama.”
Rucker’s journey through higher education was not the easy path, and she wants her students to know that. “I just started sharing this part of my story, which I think it’s really important,” she said. “I’m a first-generation student, and I was accepted into Jacksonville State on conditional admission. I went to community college throughout the summer to make up for the extra time that conditional admission had pushed me back, so I was still able to graduate in four years.”
Rucker obtained her master’s in public administration in order to combine her interests in policy and social work. It was through her experience as an undergraduate residential adviser and graduate assistant in residential living that Rucker discovered her love for helping college students.
“I found this niche of if I can be someone who helps you make it to the next day, then I’ve done what I was supposed to do,” she said. “It’s simple – college is hard. You are discovering who you are, who you wanna be in this world, and who you are as an adult.”
Rucker began her career in student affairs at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Kentucky. “In Kentucky, I felt like I had conquered what I was supposed to do. When I start feeling like I can run circles around what I'm doing, I know it's time for me to move on.”
Rucker attended the The Placement Exchange career fair, submitted her resume and received an opportunity at WCU. Rucker was hired as a residential case manager, which quickly became a new challenge.
“I’ve had some very extreme cases where students didn’t want to be on earth anymore and that's a lot to take in,” she said. “I found my purpose in helping students and it's as simple as that. Creating a space where students can feel seen and heard.”
Though Rucker loved WCU and her position as case manager, she started to feel like it was time again for a new challenge.
“I was talking to one of my mentors, Alex Fields, who is the director of student community ethics, and I'm like ‘Hey I think it's time to start searching,” she said. “Fifteen minutes later, I'm driving home and I get a call that BaShaun Smith, dean of students, wants to offer me the ICA interim associate director position. I started to feel like imposter syndrome, but I also felt like this was divine and I have to take this.
“My hesitation and reluctance were, ‘What if I fail these students? This is a big space, a big position and I’m filling some big shoes.’ But then I thought ‘What if I do great and what if these students really get something out of it?”
Rucker started as interim associate director in September of 2021. She became the associate director in May and was in that position for only four months before getting a new opportunity from Smith.
“I was offered the interim director position. I just kept doing the same thing, just making sure students are served and this team is staying afloat,” Rucker said. “This office is running as though we have a full staff, and we don't, we’re not even close to it. It’s incredible watching our team fill in gaps and continue to do amazing work and create new programming that's beneficial to students.”
Recently, Rucker and her team held a “Munchie Mondays” event where community members helped students learn healthy snacking. They are also in the process of collaborating with WCU interior design students to create a new office space. Perhaps their greatest programming is Project CARE. Project CARE is a 32-year-old program which aims to provide first-year and transfer students with support through mentor-mentee relationships.
“The best memory for me is Project CARE. When I look at the impact for those students who made connections and they were like, ‘I wouldn’t be here at WCU if not for Project CARE.’ That's it, That’s the goal,” Rucker said.
Tianna Simmons, a hospitality and tourism management major from Asheville has experience firsthand the impact of ICA and Project CARE. “Being a mentee in Project CARE kept me here. I was very homesick. When I started Project CARE, I grew with these people and it was amazing to be a part of,” Simmons said. “ICA has helped me really grow as a person. I'm the advertising chair for ICA council, which I will be chief of next year and I’m very excited for that, and I’m a Project CARE mentor. It’s really just helped me be better for people.”
Rucker said the students have become a part of the ICA team as well. “The students are phenomenal. They fill in the gaps, too. When they wanna do something, they put their head down and do the work,” she said. “For example, we recently had a student-led ‘Barbershop Talk’ about black male mental health. These students are so special and so unique. I admire them so much in their resilience and how they show up daily to make an impact in their community just by being present.”
Jalen Robinson, a psychology major with a minor in philosophy from Gastonia, is on the Project CARE executive board and helped lead the “Barbershop Talk.”
“ICA became like home very quickly. I can come here, do homework, talk with friends, take naps, eat snacks, play games; It just became like a real safe space for me to come and relax,” Robinson said.
“Evelyn made it really easy for me to talk to her. She’s basically become like a life adviser for me. I can come to her about anything. She will be like the revolution for ICA. I don’t think ICA will look the same when she’s fully operating and has a full staff. She will change ICA for the better and the campus as a whole and I can’t wait to see it.
Imani Patterson, a forensic anthropology major and mentor for Project CARE who was born in Jamaica and now lives in Charlotte, agrees with Robinson that Rucker will enact positive change for ICA. “She's a definite voice for change because she’s all about doing the work and making sure things happen. She doesn’t just talk about it. She definitely is about it.”
Rucker hopes that more students will seek out the programming and support ICA offers.
“I want more students to come in here and understand that ICA is for everyone. I think students get afraid when they see ‘cultural,’” she said. “I go into first-year students' classes and I ask ‘Who in here has a culture? Raise your hand,’ and only half the room is raising their hand. Everyone has a culture. A culture can be your ethnicity, your race, your identity, but it also can be that subculture like athletics, anime, what you watch, what you do, nursing.
“My goal is not for students to get rid of those beliefs and values that they come in with, but that they leave knowing there are other beliefs and values and perspectives and experiences. That doesn't invalidate their stories, but now they have a bigger library.”