At the dawn of her professional career, Jacquelyn Belcher did not have her sights set on being a pioneer. She just wanted to follow in the footsteps of a favorite aunt and work as a nurse.
But a trailblazer — and an excellent one — she turned out to be, serving from 1995 to 2005 as president of DeKalb College/Georgia Perimeter College, becoming the first black woman in the Georgia Board of Regents School System to lead a non-historically black institution of higher learning.
In March, Belcher was inducted into the Black Heritage of Rockdale County Hall of Fame, joining journalist and educator E.R. Shipp and educator and longtime Conyers City Councilmember Cleveland Stroud as the first recipients of the organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
“I was shocked and in awe and also very moved,” said Belcher in a recent telephone interview from her home in Arizona. “When you are with your people, your family — and community is family — it’s more than just a great honor.
“And with it being an inaugural (award), there’s meaning to that. It’s an honor, and anyone who gets it after us should feel honored, but that we would be the first is just a wonderful thing. And it’s wonderful for this organization that volunteers can come together and continue to help enrich our community.”
A native of Missouri who lived in Rockdale County for some two decades, Belcher recalled the atmosphere of unease upon her appointment at DeKalb College, which was established in the late 1950s, was rebranded as Georgia Perimeter College in 1997 and since 2016 has been known as Perimeter College at Georgia State University.
“It was a wonderful time,” she said. “It was not without challenges because people had to get used to someone who was not from that neck of the woods and (they) were very curious about me.
“I came to understand there were (historically black) colleges in the system, but I didn’t know any of that when I first went; (people had to) just get used to me to me being responsible for a college that was not diverse. That was an interesting experience from their point of view and certainly from my point of view. I just had to get to know the community and the college and once we settled in, it was great.”
Belcher pointed to former University System of Georgia Chancellor Stephen R. Portch, who served in that position from 1994 to 2001, as being the critical link that brought her to DeKalb College.
“Steve made the sell,” she quipped. “I’d never been to the South and didn’t know anything about it but … I was always willing to check things out and see if was a fit for me.
“I knew the vision he had for that college and he knew it could be more than it was and he wanted to take it national. All of the things I helped do was toward his dream, too, for that college.”
Belcher, who earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Marymount College in Kansas, a master’s degree in psychosocial nursing from the University of Washington and a juris doctorate from the law school at Seattle University, has served as the chair of the American Association of Community Colleges, co-chair of the Advisory Council for School-to-Work Opportunities and the National Commission on the High School Senior Year and chair of the international organization Renewal and Change of Urban Colleges in the 21st Century.
Even in retirement from college administration, Belcher — whose husband Lewis Belcher Jr., a career Air Force veteran, died in 2015 — continues to impact lives as the president and CEO of Options Unlimited, which trains and advises black women interested in higher-education leadership positions.
“It was my dream to help people who wanted to know how I did what I did, and many were women of color,” said Belcher, who established Options Unlimited (www.kaleidoscopeleadership.biz) some 25 years ago and operates the business with her daughter Toni Belcher Newell (her other daughter, Terry Belcher, is a longtime math teacher in Rockdale County).
“These women were interested in leadership in higher education and I decided there was a need for these women, so Options Unlimited was focused on helping women of color grow their leadership skills and leverage their strengths and talents, and it has worked out very, very well. Many of those women became college presidents. I’m very pleased.”