From the magazine: 'A beautiful surprise'
After spending most of his life at big universities, Frank Shushok Jr. never imagined himself leading a small liberal arts college like Roanoke College. Now, just five months into his term as the school's 12th president, he can't imagine being anywhere else.
Frank Shushok Jr. was late for his first day at school.
Shortly after he was named president-elect of Roanoke College last spring, Shushok was on his way to his first meeting with faculty. He arrived on campus 30 minutes early on a gray, drizzly day, which allowed plenty of time to walk from the parking lot to the meeting inside the Cregger Center, accompanied by Roanoke Board of Trustees Chair Malon Courts and others.
They didn’t make it on time.
“We walked across campus, and every single person we came across, Frank stopped to introduce himself,” Courts said. “He asked people what they were interested in, who they were. By the time we finally got there, we were a few minutes late to the faculty meeting.”
Meet Frank Shushok, the 12th president of Roanoke College. Almost everybody else on campus already has.
“I’m a true people person,” Shushok said during an interview in his office in the Administration Building, one day before fall term began.
At Roanoke, he will be surrounded by fewer people than at any place he has worked in more than 30 years in higher education. Shushok – a 53-year-old father of three who has been married to his wife, Kelly, for 30 years – started his presidency July 1, 2022, after 13 years as an administrator at Virginia Tech, where his most recent job was vice president for Student Affairs. He was also a tenured associate professor of agricultural leadership and community education at Virginia Tech. Since 1987, Shushok has attended or worked at major research and NCAA Division I universities that also include Baylor University, The Ohio State University and the University of Maryland, College Park.
The division he led at Tech has more employees (3,000) than Roanoke has students (1,827). He said that working at Tech was like running a huge company, while being president of Roanoke College is like leading “a community.”
“At Virginia Tech, I led a $200 million enterprise,” Shushok said. “The opportunity to lead a community is a shift, but it is aligned with how I want to live my life.”
Frank and Kelly Shushok chat with students during summer orientation in August.
Meeting the people who make up that community is paramount, whether it’s asking students what’s good about their day, watching games from the stands or chatting up alumni. Shushok is also a prolific social media user, especially Twitter (@fshushok), where he frequently records his campus rounds.
He posts photos of himself hanging with the DJs on campus radio station WRKE, taking selfies with students during lunch at the Commons, racing with grade school students he believes will make future Maroons, and swinging hammers with Kelly during a Habitat for Humanity project. He has also posted pictures of students visiting Roanoke’s City Market and petting the Shushoks’ adorable 1-year-old family dog, Maple, now considered a campus mascot.
Frank Shushok is everywhere, it seems.
Judging by his Twitter feed, it looks like he’s having fun out there, but Shushok knows that the challenges facing higher education are severe, especially as Roanoke College and other institutions battle to find footing in a post-pandemic world. Change won’t always be easy, but higher ed must adapt if it is to remain viable to people’s lives, he said.
“Higher education and all organizations are mostly designed for a previous generation of people,” Shushok said. “How do we reimagine ourselves meeting the current generation and generations to come? That will be the biggest challenge, to create a culture at Roanoke that is designed to meet the needs of future generations. This will require innovation, courage, agility and flexibility.”
He added: “The old language of higher education used to be, ‘Are students ready for us?’ That is not a right question any longer. A better inquiry is, ‘Are we ready for them?’”
Shushok is ready to meet those challenges, according to friends and colleagues who have known him for years. Many point to his energy, enthusiasm, intelligence, empathy, and ability to build personal bridges among disparate people and groups.
“He’s just as comfortable speaking in front of a board of trustees or legislators as he is playing cornhole with students,” said Edward Spencer, a former Virginia Tech vice president who hired Shushok back in 2009.
Seyi Olusina, a Virginia Tech graduate who cited Shushok as a mentor during his time as a student, called him a “high-energy, passionate leader.”
“He’s one of the best humans I’ve ever met,” said Olusina, now a hospital administrator in Charlotte, North Carolina.
As Shushok’s college roommate Tim Tutt put it: “Frank was born to be a college president.”
Not bad for a kid from Texas who almost didn’t get into college in the first place.
Shushok grabs a photo with Archie Jacinto '25 after the Black Student Alliance Faculty/Staff vs. Students Basketball Tournament on Family Weekend.
‘Frank showed up’
Shushok has filled big roles in his life, but he started small.
After spending part of his childhood in Dallas, the Shushoks moved north to McKinney, Texas, a small town — in the mid-1980s, anyway — of about 12,000 people.
In those days, Shushok said, McKinney was a no-stoplight town that was home to a single high school and, as he put it, “two well-regarded restaurants: Dairy Queen East and Dairy Queen West.”
Being the youngest of a family of five girls and three boys afforded Shushok hours of independence, as his parents had long shrugged off trying to keep up with their brood. He and his pals splashed and fished in creeks and played baseball in open fields until it was too dark to see the ball. He loved baseball, especially the Texas Rangers, who were lovable losers during most of his childhood.
“I was incredibly independent. When you’re the eighth kid, no one is micromanaging you,” he said. “You have to fend for yourself quite a bit. But everyone was looking out for everyone else, too. That’s where I got my first sense of community.”
He was a popular kid in school, according to Kelly, who met Shushok when they were both 15. The teenagers soon started dating, and they’ve been a couple ever since.
“When I look at him now, I think he’s lived a whole life in one single direction,” Kelly said. “He has always been a natural leader and a people magnet, but not in a hog-the-limelight way. He has also always been focused on everyone else. And I think he just came that way because it’s been true of him for as long as I can remember. We were both nominated for class favorite, and he also won best dressed, which I tease him happened only because he was dating me.”
What he didn’t win was student of the year. Shushok had trouble reading and was diagnosed as a first-grader with a series of learning disabilities, and he accepted a belief that he wasn’t smart. Shushok muddled through until high school, when a few teachers recognized his potential before he recognized it himself.
“I needed a couple of people to really kick me in the tail and say, ‘You can do this,’” he said. “It wasn’t overnight, but a new sense of confidence allowed me to believe in myself and to begin unraveling the things that kept me from learning effectively. I was dyslexic. I had to take different approaches to learn and tackle problems. I had to unravel the puzzle, and eventually I hit learning momentum.”
He improved his grades too late in high school and barely got into college. In fact, Baylor initially rejected him. But when a family friend contacted the university and advocated on his behalf, a deal was struck: If Shushok passed two summer classes — physics and public speaking — he could enroll that fall.
“To my surprise, I got two As,” Shushok said. “It was a shocker.”
He hit his stride as a college student, even earning Baylor’s top honors as both outstanding sophomore and outstanding senior. In this moment of personal success, a life dedicated to learning and championing the success of others had begun.
“My life has been a surprise,” he said. “A beautiful surprise.”
He also spent summers working at YMCA Camp Grady Spruce as a camp counselor during high school, and by his 20s, he understood that he could meld academics and mentoring into what would become his life’s work.
“The college environment had qualities of summer camp, where I coached, mentored and supported people,” he said. “It was the same on a college campus, with intellectual life included. I realized, ‘Wow, I love learning.’ It was easy for me to see that I could dedicate my life to that kind of environment.”
One of his earliest mentees was Jennifer Meyer Schrage, a student at Northern Arizona University, where Shushok worked with student leaders. She had learned the hard way that leading people and ordering necessary changes can be met with fierce resistance. When her sorority peers bucked important policy changes, Shushok backed her.
Meyer Schrage became a lawyer, educator and writer who founded RESOLV ED LLC, a think tank that advocates for diversity and innovation to resolve campus issues and enact social changes. She credits Shushok for giving her confidence that she could make a difference in the world.
“Very simply, he stood up for me,” Meyer Schrage said. “He heard through the grapevine what I had done and how my peers had responded. He looked up my class schedule and met me after class and said, ‘Kelly and I are having you over for dinner tonight.’ That night, they talked about their own experience as student leaders. They were there for me during that time. Frank showed up. He literally showed up.”
The Shushok family (left to right): Kelly, Christian, Frank, Brayden and Ivy Anne
“That will be the biggest challenge, to create a culture at Roanoke that is designed to meet the needs of future generations. This will require innovation, courage, agility and flexibility.”
~ President Frank Shushok Jr.
Shushok has a slight sense of self-deprecation that distinguishes him from other scholars.
Tutt, his college roommate at Baylor more than 30 years ago, remembered when Shushok was a student leader who had to address a huge throng of incoming students during welcome week. Shushok took the stage with a guitar in hand and sang … not too well, according to Tutt.
“Frank is smart, athletic, funny and a terrible musician,” Tutt said. “For some reason that I’ll never know, he played guitar and sang to the incoming freshmen at Baylor. It was earnestly presented and pretty bad. But you could see that this guy had no fear of being authentic and goofy and was not afraid to make fun of himself. He put all of those nervous freshmen at ease. He set a good example for not being afraid to fail, even in front of a large group of people.”
To the delight of students, Shushok took a turn on the mechanical bull at the Shushok Shindig on Oct. 7.
Olusina had a similar experience at Virginia Tech, when he met the then-associate vice president near the end of his freshman year while participating in a fundraising talent contest for the Honors Program. After Olusina performed a hip-hop dance for the judges, he invited Shushok onstage and taught him how to do the dance, which was inspired by the popular 2010 club hit “Teach Me How to Dougie” by Cali Swag District.
Did Shushok nail it?
“Oh no, he wasn’t great at all!” Olusina said. “He tried his best with a smile on his face. He didn’t care. He had fun with it.”
Then, after the competition was over and the laughter ended, Shushok buttonholed Olusina offstage.
“So, what are you here for?” the associate VP asked the young student.
That was the real reason Shushok had jumped onstage — to make a personal connection with a student to find out how he could help him achieve his goals.
“Frank has this talent to make a one-on-one connection in a roomful of people and make it feel like it’s just the two of you,” Olusina said. “He’s in-depth, really trying to figure out what you’re passionate about. He wanted to know what I wanted to do with my life.”
Over the next three years, Olusina joined the Student Life Council, helped edit Shushok’s work for an academic journal and served as a student representative to Virginia Tech’s Board of Visitors. Today, he is director of business operations for Atrium Health in Charlotte.
“There are so many like me who say, ‘Frank changed my life,’” Olusina said.
‘Places of healing’
The college experiences of the Shushoks’ two older children prompted Shushok to consider a shift that led him to Roanoke College. When their oldest, Brayden, graduated from Virginia Tech, Shushok realized that Brayden had been a very small part in that gigantic “enterprise.” Their middle child, Christian, is a student at Sewanee: The University of the South in Tennessee, which has an enrollment around 1,800.
“Both had great experiences, but watching Christian have all those mentoring and coaching relationships, and that investment in all parts of life, really opened my mind,” Shushok said.
Shushok didn’t initially apply for the Roanoke College position, but then his daughter, Ivy Anne, a senior at Blacksburg High School, took a campus tour. She was so impressed that she encouraged her father to apply for the job.
The Shushoks talked about the opportunity as a family, then Frank scrambled to submit his materials, joining a pool of more than 100 applicants. Kelly said that the decision to apply was “a 180-degree turn” from the life they had planned, which included spending more time on their 42-acre farm in Blacksburg.
“Frank was the last person to apply for the position,” Kelly said, “but that, I think, also tells you something about how much we saw in this position, how far we came after learning how unbelievably golden it is. Really though, it was par for our life course. Another beautiful surprise.”
Shushok poses with a group of students at Friday on the Quad.
Shushok’s enthusiasm is tempered by his concern for the mental health of students, who have endured much in recent years, including political polarization, violence, technological upheaval and a once-in-a-century pandemic. Roanoke College, and higher ed in general, must address the needs of its students, which are enormous, he said.
“Many of our young people are discouraged. They are discouraged by political polarization. They’ve seen positive attributes of technologies but have seen the deleterious effects of them, which has influenced the increased polarization and affected their overall mental health and well-being. Their sense of their inadequacies is on overdrive because of curated but mesmerizing images, and they are comparing themselves constantly. They’ve seen a political climate where it doesn’t look like people are working together. They had to persevere through really challenging moments related to racial reconciliation,” he said.
“This is a generation that has struggled a lot, and they want a different world. It’s been hard. In some ways, I dream of Roanoke College being a place of healing. My innate belief is that the people here can make the world better. If we can do that together, then the possibilities are endless. Since joining Roanoke College, Kelly and I have come to believe that this decision will be more than a beautiful surprise — it’s absolutely shaping up to be beautiful on purpose.”
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