2012 Harvey E. Beech Outstanding Alumni Award
Kenneth A. Ward ’84
As UNC’s first black mic man — the person at football games who starts cheers and works the band, cheerleaders and crowd into fan frenzy — Kenneth Ward ’84 learned a hard lesson: At football games, people don’t want to have to think about their biases, other than their preference for Carolina blue over any other color.
When he debuted at that first football game his senior year in whiteface with a blond wig, keeping up the ruse until halftime, then returning with a clean face and without the wig, some alumni were jolted by a mic man who was not white. His in-your-face jokes and satirical commentary, meant to engage fans with the subtext of moving forward as a diverse, integrated society, were “off-putting,” he said.
“I tried to use that forum to help people grow and move forward,” Kenneth said. But the crowd wanted to watch only the ball move forward, toward Carolina’s goal posts. Not four games into his term, Kenneth was asked to resign. “That jaded me,” he said.
Valedictorian of his high school in Enfield, Kenneth came to Carolina on a full-ride Pogue Scholarship. Up to that point, he was one of only a few black students in a nearly all-white public school that integrated grudgingly, many white families opting to move their children into private segregated schools when integration was enforced.
UNC began a healing process from his childhood school experiences. He pledged Kappa Alpha Psi, and he met other Pogue Scholars who were so warm and welcoming that he would have gone to UNC even without the scholarship.
“I found my niche,” he said. He bolstered his communications major with several courses in African and Afro-American Studies.
After graduation, life helped rinse the unpleasant tinge of the mic man episode from his memories of Chapel Hill. In the early 1990s, he joined College Bound as a teacher. The nonprofit works with at-risk youth in Washington, D.C., to expand their horizons and re-focus students on the opportunities higher education can afford. Kenneth’s wide range of experiences at UNC prepared him academically and socially to guide teenagers through the minefield of high school and set them on the path to adulthood.
Over his 15-year teaching career, Kenneth received numerous recognitions, including the Fulbright Memorial Award, the Ward 5 Teacher of the Year honor, the College Bound Hall of Fame Award and a Sallie Mae First-Year Teacher Award. He participated in a teacher exchange program in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia, and volunteered in Addis Abba, Ethiopia.
Through his world travels, he saw the importance of students of color understanding their roots. About 12 years ago, he established The Young Ambassadors, a male-mentoring program that annually takes inner-city young men to Africa. As part of the cultural exchange, the students bring educational supplies to a school in Ghana, provide HIV/AIDS education and visit slave castles that let the horrors of the slave trade sink in. The young men witness a world beyond their neighborhood and gain the confidence to dream big. From inner-city high schools where average graduation rates hover around 58 percent, every teen who has completed the trip has gone on to college.
Three years ago, Kenneth left the classroom to become College Bound’s executive director. He since has been selected to partner with Black Entertainment Television to open a workplace mentoring site at BET’s office. He made room for more students by replicating that model at the American Institutes of Research in Georgetown. Most recently, he secured a $100,000 grant from the Washington nonprofit Many Hands to support College Bound alumni through college with a Virtual Mentoring Program.
Having someone validate the importance of education helped Kenneth, a first-generation college student, stay motivated to earn his degree. He had wanted to go to summer school between his freshman and sophomore years, but lacked the $2,500 for tuition and room and board. Learning of this, his grandmother told him to go get her purse. He did, recalling the $7 in spending money she had mailed him during his freshman year. “Who do I make the check out to?” she asked him, and she wrote out a check for the entire amount.
“It spoke volumes to me about her priorities,” he said. “Now I’ve come full circle. My life has been one of trying to unite people and getting students to understand the opportunities that exist for them and to find a place for themselves in the world.”
He tells his friends he doesn’t work anymore. “I get up in the morning and do what I love.”