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Virginian-Pilot Interviews NSU Rector and Vice Rector

by Saleen Martin -

Joan Wilmer has loved Norfolk State University from the very beginning.

A first-generation college student, she and her family drove in fall 1994 from White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, to her dorm, but they arrived late and the student housing department was already closed. Her mother had no money for a hotel.

To get driving instructions, they stopped at a hair salon. The owner said her sister, Bertha Taylor Escoffery, was the head of the university's International Studies program. Escoffery and her husband took Wilmer into their home, she said.

"The next day, they took me to Walmart and got me everything my mom didn't know I needed," she said.

Now Wilmer, a human resources executive soon to work for Rolls-Royce's Civil Aerospace Division, is back at Norfolk State, this time as a rector on the Board of Visitors. It's the first time the board has had two women serving as rector and vice rector at once; the other is vice rector Deborah DiCroce, president and CEO of the Hampton Roads Community Foundation.

The board also elected Devon Henry as secretary. He's CEO and president of the contracting firm Team Henry Enterprises.

Wilmer previously served as vice rector and held other positions with the university, and said the board needed diversity.

"When I came to the board, there were no African Americans," she said. "The only women were two Caucasian females. We went from having no African American females to me, then Jean Cunningham and then Dr. Tamara Jones."

She wants to celebrate the university's legacy of being a historically black university, she said.

DiCroce spent 14 years as president of Tidewater Community College and nine years at Piedmont Virginia Community College. She has been on the board since late 2013.

She's used to firsts — she was the first woman president at both community colleges. Over the years, she said, she's learned that leadership matters most.

"The bottom line is the service that you provide, the leadership you provide and how you make a difference when all said and done," she said. "I am very much committed and all in to doing what I can to help Norfolk State soar."

One order of business is finding their next president. The 22-person search committee is led by DiCroce and Larry Griffith.

They're currently in the evaluation phase and received over 75 applications and nominations, DiCroce said. 

"We committed long ago in this process to not rushing to a decision," she said. "And ensuring that we find the absolute perfect person to be the university's seventh president."