Associate Dean of Students Ernest Jeffries walks onto Davidson College's campus each Monday morning, after preaching at his church the day before, and burrows in on the group of students who are the most excited and most terrified, most adventurous and most vulnerable–the first-years.
Jeffries, usually spotted in bow tie and blazer, long ago zeroed in on those campus newcomers, particularly those who are the first generation in their family to attend college. He devoted graduate work and his doctoral dissertation to this group that faces the same anxieties and struggles as other freshmen but without what he calls the "intuitive orientation" of growing up with parents who attended college.
"They don't have a way to see around the corner," he said, adding that, in reverse, their parents don't understand the demands of college.
On Saturday, the National Resource Center for the First Year Experience and Students In Transition housed at the University of South Carolina, Jeffries's alma mater, will award him and nine other educators from across the nation the 2018 Outstanding First-Year Student Advocate Award for their work on behalf of those students and the impact of their efforts on those students and the culture of their college or university.
Jeffries understands these talented young people from more than his studies.
"The kid that I most see," he said, "I was that kid."
He was a first-generation college student, the child of a single mother, raised in public housing projects in a South Carolina town with two stoplights and 500 students in a school that held seventh through 12th grades.
Musical talents–tuba playing, to be specific–placed him in the all-state band five years in a row and helped him capture a scholarship to the University of South Carolina. He studied to be a band director but took an interest in student life, advising Greek units, working as a resident adviser and gaining a mentor in the director of residence life. He earned a master's degree in college student personnel but was still a certified band director and started looking for a teaching job.
"The fork in the road," Jeffries said, "was that I looked at the salaries of South Carolina teachers."
Jeffries took a residence hall director's post at the University of Tennessee, but music–and, later, faith–would remain woven through his career and daily life. He married his girlfriend, Terry, from Columbia, South Carolina, and built up UT's gospel choir before leaving for Western Carolina University to be assistant to the vice chancellor for student development and director of minority affairs. He revived another college's gospel choir, even touring North Carolina and, for the first time, stepped into the ministry at a church in Asheville.
Davidson College called in 1996, and Jeffries signed on as associate dean. He affiliated with a Charlotte church and earned his master of divinity at Hood Theological Seminary, while thriving in his day job and raising a family. In 2004, he accepted the post as pastor of Gethsemane Baptist Church, in Davidson, a role that thrust him into greater community involvement and saw him serving as a critical connection between the college and the town of Davidson.
"He will reach out and say, ‘We probably need to meet, talk to each other and figure things out,'" said Georgia Krueger, executive director of the Ada Jenkins Center, a crisis resource center for the community.
Jeffries's role in the community is hard to peg. He makes connections and commands considerable influence, but he operates offstage rather than organize or play the public face of issues or efforts.
"He's not a convener," Krueger said. "He is someone who will give voice to things and will encourage people to run with things. He's a coach, more with the one-on-one or two or three people together. But having that kind of relationship with Ernest opens the door to a bazillion other things."
Connections form a central part of how Jeffries operates on campus. First generation students can't turn to their parents to figure out which office to visit for a paperwork question or resolving a housing problem. Jeffries often serves as navigator.
"I'm that dean that will walk up and say, ‘I don't know you,'" he said. "‘Who are you? Where are you from? How did you get here? Do you have what you need?'"
Those students are accustomed to diverse environments at school and in society, times when few around them come from the same experience. But before they started college, he said, they would return home each day to a place that centered them.
Jeffries has worked to help create that sense of home at Davidson. Among other efforts, he created STRIDE, Students Together Reaching for Individual Development in Education, a peer-mentoring program for first-year students from underrepresented groups. STRIDE offers academic and social support and helps them steer through academic and social spaces and resources on campus.
STRIDE students can be found in the Student Government Association, on the Union Board, on the Patterson Court Council or among the Bonner Scholars.
"The kids I serve have worked hard to get here," Jeffries said. "I want to work just as hard to help them succeed."
Seven years ago, Jeffries found that someone who devotes much of his day to building a robust and supportive community on campus, and in town, suddenly can need that support himself. He awoke at 2 a.m. to find his neighbor's house in flames. He helped them evacuate and, then, noticed the siding on his house beginning to melt.
He woke his children.
"We've got to get out," he remembers telling them. "Get the dog."
The house turned to flames before the volunteer fire department could get there. The family lost all of their possessions, including the first two chapters of Jeffries's dissertation and autographed souvenirs from Steph Curry's student days. The campus, church and community rallied with an outpouring of help, from financial to emotional.
"I never had a doubt in my mind," he said. "But after the way this community reached out to us–this is a really special place."