From his childhood dream of joining the circus to acting as coordinator of student leadership at the University of Louisville, Gerome Stephens has experienced a fairly diverse career path that eventually led him to the Derby City. But, it was a childhood insecurity that prepared him most for his work at UofL, empowering people to overcome their weaknesses and propel themselves forward in their education and beyond. The Voice-Tribune sat down with Gerome to find out what led him to Louisville and all he has become involved with since moving from his hometown in Morehead, Ky.
Why did you move to Louisville?
I moved here to work on my Ph.D. … in June of 2007 and did that for a year and was hired at the university in the position I am now as the coordinator for student leadership in July 2008.
What is the focus of your Ph.D.?
My Ph.D. is in higher education leadership and organizational development. My research is focused toward mission statements of organizations and how that impacts the culture of an organization. My goal was to finish last summer if I had gone full time but I’m not really that far off track from where I thought I would be but I also went from full time to part time. I’m at 105 pages now and the rest of it will be 150 or 200 more pages with about 80 or 90 articles in my references.
What do you do as a coordinator of student leadership?
I coordinate leadership programs and the signature growth program I work with is freshmen LEAD, which is a selective program where we interview freshman in their first weeks at UofL. It’s a yearlong program focused on helping (freshmen) learn to use their strengths and figure out what their leadership style is. I also take students to India in December. We do a two-week trip focused on cultural immersion. We visit the Taj Mahal and eat a lot of Indian food and this year we were able to go to the Himalayas.
Do you do anything outside of UofL?
I’m on the board for the Kids Center for Pediatric Therapies. I’ve also started an internship program there for students. I love their mission there. As I’ve gotten more into this leadership stuff it’s about recognizing what you’re able to achieve and do and kind of working from that place. I see these children and even young adults who have physical disabilities and they kind of wear their hurt or inability on the outside. The thing that’s holding them back is completely shown, but working with college students and even myself, all of us have that thing that kind of holds us back and makes us feel less than, so I think that’s why I’ve connected so much with the Kids Center and helping people see the ability in their disability and the strength in their weakness.
How do you teach people to overcome their weaknesses?
I grew up in a small town, had an amazing school experience and very supportive family but I’ve always stuttered. As a child it was something that always made me feel uncomfortable and kind of less than. There was a point probably in college where I realized no one else really cared near as much as I did. I can remember the first time I shared that with a group of college students and there was one kid in the group that said thanks for sharing that, I struggled with that growing up. I think that’s the message. Everyone has something they can give if they can get past trying to fix everything that’s broken or noticeable.
You seem pretty involved. Anything you don’t do?
Growing up, I always wanted to be in the circus and think some part of it is I could travel and act and be with animals. I actually wanted to be a clown. I was on a team that sang and danced and did balloon animals and face painting. I kind of always loved trying everything. I like to challenge myself and make myself uncomfortable and put myself in those kinds of situations.
Once you finish your Ph.D., do you think you’ll stay here in Louisville?
I feel lucky to be working at UofL. I always tell people that making the choice to come to Louisville and UofL was one of the best I ever made. It’s offered me a lot of opportunities and some I didn’t see on my way here. I feel like I’m part of a community both at the university and the whole city.