LAWRENCE — Florence Boldridge, director of the Diversity and Women’s Programs at the University of Kansas School of Engineering, is stepping down at the end of June after serving in the role since 1983. A reception to honor her career and achievements is planned for 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday, April 13, in the LEEP2 McClendon Atrium.
Boldridge has performed many functions during more than three decades as director of diversity and women’s programs at KU’s School of Engineering: She’s been a recruiter, counselor, networker and motivator.
Talk to some of the students she guided over the decades, though, and they use one word to describe how she wrapped all those functions into one package: Boldridge, they say, is a mom.
“She was more like a mother to all of us 'little rascals,' as she would call us,” Jamie Hines, a 2008 graduate, recently said. “She'd take care of anybody who came into her office.”
"She was that parent away from home,” added Doug Blue, a 1986 graduate. “She was looking out for you, and she wanted you to be successful.”
It’s a characterization Boldridge is hard-pressed to dispute. Even as she prepared this spring to retire from the position, her office in LEEP2 was filled with pictures and trinkets given to her by grateful students who had relied on her over the years.
“I do a lot of hand-holding and talking through how to get from here to there,” she said.
Her efforts have been crucial, said Michael Branicky, dean of KU Engineering.
“Florence has played a vital role in mentoring, supporting and advising thousands of minority and female engineering students,” Branicky said. “Her guidance over the years has been critical in improving student success and strengthening the School of Engineering as a whole.”
Boldridge arrived on campus in 1983 with an unusual background for the job: She had no experience or education in engineering. But she did have a master’s degree in music education and a determination — as a newly single mom of two young children — to work hard to support, raise and educate her own kids.
“She has a high standard. Not having an engineering background, there was some skepticism about whether she could relate,” said Blue, a student during her early years at KU. “But the fact was, she could give you real-life lessons about how to prepare and react in certain situations. Those are life lessons everyone needs.”
She took over a program — then known as the Student Council for Recruiting, Motivating and Educating Black Engineers (SCoRMEBE) — that started in 1971 in the aftermath of racial unrest and war protests on the KU campus. During Boldridge’s term, the office’s portfolio expanded to include and recruit Hispanic, American Indian and female engineering students.
“In anything, not just the School of Engineering, but in anything, (diversity) brings another perspective, and that's what that's all about,” Boldridge said. “If we all were the same, you wouldn't have any variety there, and we wanted to have that diverse population in there.”
She added of students: “They are involved with one another. They do projects together. Now, this is not just minorities, but all students. They're expected to do that because that's the way the world is.”
Over the next few decades, Boldridge became known for her efforts to recruit and assist students in the School of Engineering. Behind the scenes, she worked to ensure that new faculty hires included minority and female faces.
“We didn't have any African-American professors, and that's a key if you're going to recruit,” she said. “It's like anything else: You see people that look like yourself, naturally you're going to gravitate toward it. So this was a very big step.”
Over time, she developed a reputation: She worked aggressively to bring minority and women students to KU. The students who came, she encouraged and cajoled. The students who completed the program, she worked to link them with employers or encouraged them to get a post-graduate degree. And she did all the above with efforts small — one-on-one contact — and large, like the annual Weekend of Engineering she organized for high school girls considering KU.
Andrew Williams got his undergrad degree from KU in 1988 and returned to complete his doctorate in 1999. He credits Boldridge with encouraging him to get his graduate degree and with helping him forge career-making connections. He’ll return to the School of Engineering this fall to succeed Boldridge as associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion, in charge of a newly expanded program.
"She was always instrumental with linking students with potential employers,” Williams said of Boldridge. "She's done that for a lot of students, and I hope to build on her successes."
For her efforts, the National Society of Black Engineers in 2011 named Boldridge a Golden Torch Award winner as the Minority Engineering Program Director of the Year, saying she exemplified the organization’s mission “to increase the number of culturally responsible black engineers who excel academically, succeed professionally and positively impact the community.” In 2014, she received KU’s 2014 Women’s Recognition Award — the Kathleen McCluskey-Fawcett Woman Mentoring Women Award.
Carl Locke, KU engineering dean from 1986 to 2002, said he was particularly impressed by how Boldridge counseled students as they surmounted new and difficult academic challenges.
“They came to her with all sorts of problems, and she, with her warmth and counseling services, helped keep a lot of students in school who might have left,” Locke said. “There's a lot of warmth there between those students and Florence. I always admired her for that. To me it was quite a marvelous thing."
Boldridge wasn’t always sunshine and light, however. She also practiced tough love with students.
“Making them see how important it is that you just can't sit on one's duff and do nothing, you do have to prove yourself — that's a big challenge as far as the students are concerned,” she said.
Hines recalled receiving a scolding from Boldridge when she was late replying to a contact from a potential employer. "As much as she'd scold you, you always knew it came from a place of love,” Hines said. “It didn't hurt too bad."
Boldridge recalled a time where one student curled up on her floor during a moment of anxiety about studies.
“Well, the dean went by and saw this child lying on the floor,” Boldridge said. “He came back by later on; he said, ‘Florence, is everything okay?’ I said, ‘Everything is fine. It's just one of our little meltdown times. We have those from time to time.’ He said, ‘Is this all a part of getting one through?’ I said, ‘That's correct. That is correct.’"
No wonder, then, that many former students give her credit for their ongoing success.
Boldridge “opened all kinds of doors for my career," Williams said. Coming to KU to continue her work, he said, “is really standing on the shoulders of giants."
"I know students will be sad to see her go,” Hines said. “She loves her students, loves the program, truly believes in what we're doing."
That’s unquestionably true. But at age 72, Boldridge also is ready to move on.
“If there's one thing I could say, it would be that I've worked very hard over these 34 years,” Boldridge said. “I feel like I've contributed. I do.”