From First-Gen Student to Presidential Staff Award- Robert Decatur’s path at Ohio State

Drawing inspiration from colleagues and students, Robert Decatur provides a comforting welcome to new undergraduates, telling them Ohio State is full of talented people with their hearts in the right place and an abundance of resources.

“As Morrill Scholars join Ohio State, I tell them that the Morrill Scholarship Program is their immediate family while the Office of Diversity and Inclusion is their extended family — and even beyond that, Ohio State is part of that extended family,” says Robert, the director of the program. “Through the services we offer, we make the university smaller for students, so it becomes an intimate experience for them.”

The scholars have come to Ohio State for scholarships and educational enrichment opportunities that will help them pursue diversity-based leadership, service and social justice activities. Robert’s goal is to inspire them to connect to the people around them for support — just as he does in his staff role.

“It’s all about understanding that the campus community is my extended family and taking advantage of that — sitting on committees, going to programs, hearing professors lecture,” he says. “There are so many things Ohio State has to offer, and all I have to do is just pull my chair to the table and partake. I try to keep that in mind and take advantage of all the opportunities extended to me here.”

As a first-generation student himself, Robert uses his personal experience to continually be a strong advocate for students, identify and eradicate disparities in access to higher education and work to create a more inclusive and exceptional place to learn and work.

Robert’s passion for this work earned him the 2023 Presidential Staff Award – a special distinction as part of Ohio State’s Distinguished Staff Awards. Each year, the award is given to one staff member who demonstrates university values and exceptional commitment to diversity, community engagement, affordable education and access for all students.

Many peers and students admire Robert as a collaborative leader who has developed impactful, award-winning programs – but Robert’s love for working at Ohio State comes from the remarkable students he works with.

“It has been an honor to work with the students in the program,” Robert says. “They’re so inspiring.”

Read on to see why Robert initially chose to work at Ohio State and what continues to inspire him.

What first attracted you to working at Ohio State?

I had a great experience in graduate school in the Department of African American and African Studies. I met some brilliant people, and I was very impressed by the things the university was doing in terms of underrepresented students and making higher education accessible to all students.

How do you rely on your own experiences to make a difference in students’ lives?

I was a first-generation student, so the Young Scholars Program for first-generation students will always be near to my heart, because oftentimes, those students contend with disadvantages upon their arrival.

Programs like this create a path for those students to enter Ohio State and thrive once they get here. Without that program, I really feel like many would fall through the cracks, because it would just be overwhelming for them to try to navigate the university and also seek services on their own.

How did the Campus Change Program you created help first-generation students find their niche here?

Students making a transition to the Columbus campus from regional campuses were primarily first-generation students and students of color, and they struggled with lack of community once they arrived on campus. They also needed help navigating the Columbus campus, because it’s much larger than the one they came from.

My main goal was to provide success coaching for them and to put them in contact with colleagues from student support service offices across the campus. Instead of having them find their way on campus, I would navigate the campus for them.

What kind of impact do you have on students’ lives as director of the Morrill Scholarship Program?

The students come into the program with various skills, and my goal is to hone those skills and develop the student so that they’ll be productive citizens and want to go out and change the world once they graduate.

You can’t imagine some of those things they’re doing on a high-school level. They have their own podcasts; they establish nonprofit organizations; they may be doing food drives and supplying clothing to a community over in Ethiopia; or they’re national advocates for the LGBTQ+ community. It’s just amazing the things that they’re doing.

The goal is to nurture students to become self-aware and self-assured by the time they graduate and to encourage them to move beyond rhetoric to action.

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