Former University of Rio Grande Dean of Students Selected as 2024 Commencement Speaker

Elaine Armstrong, a 1986 graduate of University of Rio Grande, has been named Rio’s 2024 Commencement Speaker.

Armstrong spent 19 years as a successful administrator Rio, where she was popular among both students and faculty. But her journey there wasn’t easy. As a non-traditional student, Elaine spent nearly a decade earning her associate degree, a feat that didn’t go unnoticed by the late Dr. Ivan Tribe.

“He pointed out that I’d been here long enough to have tenure as a student,” she said.

Elaine eventually finished that degree and went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in social work and a master’s degree in education – all from Rio Grande, and all thanks to the encouragement of professors like Dr. Tribe.

“My first class at Rio was a history class that met one day a week for four hours in the dead of winter,” she recalled. “After our first exam, Dr. Tribe told me I had the highest grade in the class. He told me I was good at this and should teach. It gave me the self-confidence I needed. He’s the reason I completed my education.”

Elaine started her career at Rio as the Director of the JOBS Student Retention Program for seven years, a grant-funded program that provided educational and financial support to low-income, non-traditional students in Gallia, Jackson, Meigs, and Vinton Counties who were receiving public assistance from the Department of Job and Family Services.

“I was 27 and working full time with two children when I started taking classes at Rio, so I was very familiar with the non-traditional student,” she said. “I know all of the doubts and insecurities people have when they’ve been out of school for a while.”

In 1998, Elaine became the Dean of Students, where she spent 12 years providing administrative services and assistance to students regarding campus life, residence halls, health services, fraternities and sororities, and all student social organizations. Her message to students: balance.

“I told everyone to study as hard as you party and party as hard as you study,” she said. “You can do both. The hardest class you’ll ever take is time management: knowing what’s important and when it’s important. If you can manage your time, you’ll succeed.”

Outside the University of Rio Grande, Elaine served as a board member of the Dr. Samuel L. Bossard Library, the Gallipolis Rotary International organization, the John Gee Black Historical Center, the Gallia-Meigs Community Action Agency, the Family Addiction & Community Treatment Services Board and the Gallia-Meigs Head Start Program.

Elaine is also a collector of historical artifacts related to slavery and the Civil War. Several of these historical artifacts are now permanently displayed in the Greenwood Rising Black History Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Her collection has also allowed her to speak to schools, churches, colleges, and community events to increase awareness and encourage a better understanding of the critical role of history and cultural diversity and awareness in Appalachia.

“I’ve always kept a few pieces from the collection with me in my office at Rio,” she said. “When I’d have hard days, I would look at those artifacts, and they would say to me, ‘Don’t tell me what you can’t do. Look what we went through. You can achieve this.’ It kept me motivated.”

Those artifacts also remind Elaine of her place in history as the first woman of color chosen as a commencement speaker at Rio Grande.

“I was very surprised and really shocked when President Smith called,” she said. “I’m both honored and obligated to those who went before me to give it my best shot. I didn’t get here by myself. I stand on the shoulders of those who came before me so I could do what I do.”

The 2024 University of Rio Grande and Rio Grande Community College Commencement Ceremony will be held on May 11 at 1 p.m. on the campus green.