When Dr. LaVerne Harmon was sworn in as the 4th President of Wilmington University on March 8th, the ceremony marked not only a historic moment for the school but for Delaware.
On International Women’s Day 2018, Harmon became the first African-American woman to lead any college or university in the state. And Harmon is the first graduate of Wilmington College (now University) to become its president.
When Harmon first arrived at Wilmington College in 1989, she had only a high school diploma when she landed a job as the assistant to the president. She became a student, earning both her bachelor’s degree and master’s degree at Wilmington University, while she continued to work at the school. She later served as a faculty member, joined the administration, and then took on top level executive positions at the University. Dr. Harmon maintained a full-time position at Wilmington University while earning her Doctorate in Higher Education Administration from the University of Pennsylvania.
Harmon attended classes for 10 consecutive years as she earned her degrees. “It wasn’t easy, but you have to be determined” she remarked last week.
“Success is never earned alone. There are special people who have inspired me, mentored me, pushed in me and believed in me,” said Dr. LaVerne Harmon addressing the crowd.
And the administration took note of her determination and accomplishments.
“Dr. Harmon is the embodiment of this university’s mission,” said Joseph J. Farnan, Jr., Chairman, Wilmington University Board of Trustees. Farnan said his fellow Board members have described Harmon using these wrods: “She’s caring, inspirational, decisive, fair-minded, energetic, ethical, and she’s approachable.”
But Farnan had only one word to describe how the Board of Trustees and the community of Wilmington University feel about Dr. Harmon assuming the leadership of their school: fortunate.
Harmon’s first employer at the school was its president: Dr. Audrey Doberstein. In 1989, while enrolled as a student at Wilmington University, Harmon stepped into the role as the president’s assistant, when Doberstein’s previous assistant died suddenly of a brain aneurysm.
That assistant was Linda Thomas, Harmon’s sister. Doberstein also offered Harmon a full scholarship to complete her undergraduate studies.
“I think Dr. Doberstein for the many opportunities she gave me, and I will be forever grateful.”
While many school administrators addressed their pleasure at Harmon’s appointment as president, the constituency perhaps most excited about her taking the reins are the students themselves.
“When I first met her, I said to myself, ‘I have never met someone with so much class, style and compassion,’” remarked Key Reynolds, Wilmington University Student Government Association President.
Reynolds told the crowd of several hundred well-wishers that Dr. Harmon is highly admired and appreciated but always seems to shy away from the spotlight, always turning her attention to the students.
Reynolds shared her personal connection to Harmon, whom she credits with changing her life. “When I first transferred to Wilmington University I felt lost – like I had dropped out of the race. I lacked motivation due to several life-changing events. But one day I was introduced to Dr. Harmon, and I was able to tell her my story. Thanks to her, I not only jumped back into the race, but I am officially going to cross the finish line in May.”
Students appreciate that Dr. Harmon can relate to them. Most of the students hold part-time or full-time jobs. “I understand the needs of our students because I was one of them. I know the hurdles they have to jump to balance work, school and family.”
Many of Delaware’s nurses, teachers, school superintendents and police officers hold degrees from Wilmington University. But the school offers a growing list of undergraduate and graduate degrees including cyber security. During her nearly 30 years at the school, enrollment has expanded from 2,000 to 20,000 students, and Harmon is poised to assume her newest and most important role.
“Our students are our top priority, and I am committed to their continued success. I look forward to leading the University into the next chapter of its history.”