First Generation College Experience with President Ron Schumacher

President Schumacher Addresses Staff at a Division Meeting

“I heard a quote recently that said, ‘Students can’t be what they can’t see,’” said Ron Schumacher, President of Terra State Community College. Growing up as the middle child out of six in a Catholic working-class family, Schumacher could only see two options after high school: his love for athletics, and his dad’s work in a factory.

Ron comes from a highly supportive family, bound together by love and tragedy. When he was eight years old, his older brother by two years was killed by a drunk driver a couple days before Christmas. 

“That was really hard on the family,” Ron shared. Despite the mark the loss of his older brother had on their lives, the family stuck together and supported one another. Ron’s dad worked at the same factory for 38 years, and his mom worked on and off again, staying home with her houseful of kids.

Life got in the way of his older sisters graduating high school, although they returned later to earn their high school equivalency and eventually take some college courses. As a result, even though he was the middle child, Ron was the first in his family to graduate high school as well as college. Both of his younger brothers followed in his footsteps.

Athletics in general and playing football specifically, combined with watching Cleveland sports, played a significant part of Ron’s childhood. Outside of wanting to do something related to athletics after graduation, Ron didn’t have the slightest idea what to do or where to go at the beginning of his senior year. Guidance came from other influential adults in his life. 

“I had a guidance counselor who would talk to me a lot,” Ron said. “Coaches said if I had a good year [in football] I’d get a scholarship. My plan before that was to go locally to Cleveland State University or Tri-C, get a degree and go into some field—in athletics of some kind. I thought it’d be great to get a job with the Browns.”

The grit of growing up in a working-class family (combined with the resilience required to stay a Cleveland sports fan through all the tough losses and bad breaks) formed the foundation for Ron’s future.

“My dad told me, if you’re going to college, I’d love for you to play ball,” Ron said. Ron met a 70-year-old recruiter at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton who had come to town to recruit Ohio football players to play at University of Wisconsin Superior. He brought a bunch of guys from Ohio to UW-Superior, including Ron, who made a commitment to go to UW-Superior after he graduated.

“It was neat to have a bunch of Ohio kids to connect with that far away from home,” said Ron. And it was really far away for Ron—22 hours away, to be exact. Part of the college experience is about becoming independent and having the opportunity to grow, but being that far away from his parents was just too much.

“Select your school for the right reason,” advised Ron. “I do not recommend being 22 hours away from your parents.” Ron transferred after two and a half years at UW-Superior and started playing football for Allegheny College, in Meadville, PA, just two hours away from home. 

Not too long before he was supposed to graduate, Ron got some terrible news: his dad was diagnosed with bladder cancer. In the aftermath of that phone call, Ron left school to help his family out. 

“When either life throws you a curve ball or a situation gets in your way, it’s a lot easier to put up a roadblock and get out,” Ron shared. “For about a year and a half I worked various jobs at home to help the family. My wife (Lillian) kept nagging me—Ron, you’re two classes short from graduating.”

It took a call from Ron’s advisor at Allegheny to draw him back and finish up his final two classes. He and his wife were living in Michigan at the time, so going back to school meant traveling back and forth from Michigan to Pennsylvania until Ron graduated.

“It took me less time to get my doctorate than it did my undergrad degree,” he joked. 

The Road to Higher Education

After graduation, Ron and Lillian took jobs in Cleveland—she was a sales rep for an after-market automotive company and he had a job with the Cleveland Cavs selling magazine ads in their Hoop Magazine. Both of them were making good money, but it wasn’t enough. The two sat down one night, looked at each other and said, there’s gotta be more to life than this.

But, remember, students can’t be what they can’t see, right?

Ron got a call from his former high school football coach who was now working at Tiffin University and invited them out to visit.

“​​I told him I want to get my master’s and I want to get it paid for. We both wanted to move back to Cleveland, get jobs in high school education, and do coaching on the side.” 

Ron’s coach helped them make it happen. The two traded their combined annual income of $75-80K to make $21,500 a year. Coach Bob Wolfe suited them up with an Resident Director gig so they’d have housing and a Graduate Assistant position coaching for Ron, and Lillian found a temp job working with a placement company.

Neither Ron or Lillian knew how significant that move was to their future. Entering graduate school “opened up this whole world of higher education for us,” Ron said. “I thought my career path would be in coaching. We didn't realize there was this whole life in higher education that we could latch onto and take us to the points it has taken us.”

Being What You Couldn’t See

Throughout grad school and beyond, life continued to throw Ron and Lillian curve balls, just like it does for many students at Terra State who are just trying to make their way. It felt like a huge gamble, leaving well-paying jobs to make pennies, but they made their way.

“We bet on ourselves at that point in time,” Ron said. 

It turned out to be a winning bet. Ron and Lillian both completed their master’s degrees in the mid-90s—Lillian at Bowling Green and Ron at Tiffin. Ron shifted over from coaching to admissions, and just six months later, he was approached by the President and the VP of Enrollment to take on the role of Director of Admissions at Tiffin. In 1995, they found out they were having their first child.

The road swerved again in 2001 when Lillian left Heidelberg to pursue her doctorate and a second master’s degree, and Ron took a job working as a business manager for a family-owned business in Tiffin.

“I learned two things pretty quickly: #1, this isn’t higher education. And #2, I’m not family.” Ron had fallen in love with the joy of higher education, where everyday, you get to change someone’s life. He began applying for other VP of Enrollment positions and had three opportunities in three different states: Illinois, Indiana, and Pennsylvania.

“Here we are, two young kids trying to figure out where our next move is going to be,” said Ron. “I got two offers out of the three, and we ended up moving to Fort Wayne, Indiana.” The family had to divide and conquer for a period of time, which was hard for everyone, but eventually they all made the move to Fort Wayne, where they stayed for eight years.

In 2010, someone from Tiffin reached out to invite Ron to make a lateral move, back to Tiffin University, where they would be within easy driving distance of family again. The President of Tiffin offered Lillian a faculty position, which made it easy to move back. Shortly after that, she moved into the role of Dean of the Business School.

“For a few years, we served the President as a married couple on his cabinet,” laughed Ron. In 2015, the President announced his retirement, and a new president came aboard. “Thirty-five days later, I was asked to leave the college.”

Taking Swings at the Curve Balls

“The decisions you make and decisions made by others can change your trajectory,” Ron said. “My initial reaction was disbelief,” but “when you have relationships in a community like Tiffin, some good things happen.” Shortly after being let go, Ron was hired by Mercy Tiffin Hospital. He worked at Mercy Tiffin for three years. 

While he was on staff at Mercy Tiffin, Ron was approached to serve on the Terra State board. The college was struggling financially with declining enrollments and budget cuts. Ron brought his years of experience in admissions and enrollment to the board. It seemed that Terra State’s administration lacked vision and weren’t able to generate growth; instead of investing in promising programs, they were cutting positions and programs to try to balance the budget.  

Shortly after joining the board, the president of Terra State at the time saw that Ron was asking a lot of questions. He invited Ron to leave the board and join his team at Terra State; however, Lillian had just taken a job offer from a school in Pennsylvania.

Ron and Lillian were getting ready to move when Lillian got a call from Tiffin University’s board, asking her to reconsider and step into the interim president position. Shortly after, Ron joined Terra State as the Executive Director of Foundation.

“My initial reaction was you can’t afford me. I know what the budget is. How are you going to be able to afford me and get this by the board to hire me? He said not to worry about it. I was grateful, but I have no idea how it happened,” Ron shared. 

Four months later, Ron was approached by the board at Terra State and asked if he would serve as the interim president. “The board made me interview for the job against other candidates, and in November 2018, I got the full-time appointment.”

One Town, Two President Schumachers

Life presents so many opportunities to just give up. Ron could have given up when his brother died, or when his dad was diagnosed with cancer. He could have settled for a job that paid well but didn’t give him joy. “There are so many decisions you make when the roadblocks come up to just leave,” Ron said. “But don’t leave.”  

“I want people to know there’s a pathway. Just talk to us about your dreams and your goals. If you don’t know them, then you can plod through them like I did,” said Ron. Start with what you know, what you can see in front of you. “I wanted to coach. My first day on the job at Tiffin as a GA, we painted buses by hand, so that one was green and one was gold. I’ll never forget the two of us GA coaches who thought we’d hit the big time. I remember thinking, ‘Really? We’re not going over plays. We’re painting a bus in the middle of July.’” 

“I’ll never forget Coach Wolfe saying, ‘You’ll appreciate this when you’re at the next level.’ Sometimes earning your stripes is a good thing. The other guy I was a GA with is now a President. The AD we served under is also a President.” 

And Lillian is also a President, President of Tiffin University.

“It just blows us away,” Ron said. “Being presidents of two different schools, especially during a pandemic, leads to interesting dinner conversations. Having that outside perspective was really important.” 

Ron’s journey has been one of persistence, and he hopes that it inspires others like him, students who can’t see the world of possibilities. “Hang in there and give yourself an opportunity. Don’t let the roadblocks get in your way. Continue down a path once you identify it,” Ron said. “Once I was at the hospital, I probably could have stayed there forever. But there was always something in my gut leading me back to higher education. When that passion hits, and you realize your job doesn’t quite feel like a job, you’re in the right place.”

“My dad worked 38 years in one job. Students today will have on average 17 different jobs and five different careers in their lifetimes,” Ron said. With that in mind, agility and resilience are key attributes to success. “There are many different avenues for how students could achieve exactly what they want to do. If you want to get there, just ask, and we’ll figure out how.”