After nearly 20 years, two advanced degrees and a heart set on service, Dr. George Richards ’02 decided that not receiving his degree from Berea was a mistake he would not soon get over.
“Not getting a degree from Berea was one of my biggest regrets,” Dr. Richards said. “Sometimes, we don’t really appreciate the opportunities we have when we have them—not until much later.”
Richards, a Kentuckian from Mount Washington, was raised in a rural farm community between Louisville and Bardstown, Ky. Both of his parents worked full time, his mom a receptionist and his dad a farmer, but their finances still qualified Richards for admission to Berea.
“All of my classmates were going to the University of Louisville at the time, and I just didn’t want to go with the crowd on that one,” he said.
He and his friend planned a trip to check out the campus in October 1982. Upon arrival, Richards knew he was in the right place. “The day was absolutely perfect,” he recalled. “It was an autumn day, and leaves were falling on the Quad, and we went on a tour from the admissions office. I was hooked.”
In the subsequent fall of 1983, Richards enrolled in Berea College as a first-year student with an undeclared major. He recalls taking a class with a professor who left an impression and inspired his own career aspirations.
“I sat in my very first college classroom in Western Civilization with Dr. Warren Lambert,” he reflected. “As I listened to him, I knew right then and there that I wanted to be a history professor. I’ve had few moments of distinct clarity like that in my entire life.”
Richards worked in woodcraft as his labor assignment for his first year, and as a resident assistant for the remainder of his time at Berea. During his third year of school, life happened. Richards had personal problems arise that were not conducive to finishing Berea, so he left.
After taking some time off, he transferred to the University of Louisville to finish up his bachelor’s degree and graduated in 1992. He went on to earn his master’s degree while completing a teaching assistantship in Criminal Justice Administration. “They (U of L) offered me the assistantship, and at the beginning, all I had was a piece of chalk and no idea what I was doing. Luckily, it got better from there.”
While Richards was working on his doctoral degree at the University of Akron, he connected with a previous professor from Berea, Dr. Mike Berheide. They kept in touch and caught up from time to time, and Dr. Berheide did some digging around to see what it would take for Richards to complete his undergraduate degree from Berea.
“It turns out, all I had left was the physical education requirement!” Richards said. “So, I took golf and that was it.”
Nineteen years from his first college class, Richards received his degree from Berea College in February 2002. His son, Michael, was 3 at the time, and he wanted to be an example for Michael to always finish what he started.
“The reputation of Berea precedes you,” Richards said. “People know what a great place it is, and a Berea College degree means something. That’s part of why I went back; I wanted to have that degree.”
While reflecting on his time at the College, Richards shared that he credits so much of his interest in service to Berea’s dedication to community. “It was always made clear what was expected of us as Berea students, both how to conduct ourselves while there and what was expected of us afterwards. But it was always: service, service, service.”
After finishing his doctoral program, Richards took a teaching position with Edinboro University (Pennsylvania) in the Department of Criminal Justice and Political Science. He has worked there for the past 18 years but is committed to service work beyond the university.
“Berea instilled in me the desire to give back, and I think I’ve particularly been better about executing it in the past 10 years,” he said. Richards sits on the board of directors for three different orphanages in Africa, two in Sierra Leone and one in Uganda. In tandem with his work with Professors Without Borders, he has also been providing literacy courses and academic support for people in Nepal, Myanmar and Romania.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Dream Again Orphanage in Sierra Leone was faced with the need to conduct business virtually. The organization, dedicated to providing homes for children of Ebola virus victims, was one of Richards’ most recent endeavors as he helped them move their processes online.
“I’m going to teach as long as I can teach,” he said, “but I know my service work will continue for the rest of my life.”