By EMILY WEST
Sitting in downtown Franklin before New Year’s, it had been while since Gerald Reed had a taste of Southern cuisine.
With his wife Yvonne, Reed enjoyed nibbling on spicy fries and fried green tomato BLT.
“We could have eaten Mexican food,” he joked.
Reed, of Brentwood, had just arrived back in the United States in the middle of December, after a 12-month appointment in Mexico with the Peace Corps.
Reed’s work focused on improving the institutional capacity of his site, the Universidad Politécnica de Santa Rosa Jáuregui (UPSRJ). The UPSRJ is a public institution of higher education established in the State of Queretaro in 2011. It belongs to a national subsystem of polytechnic and technological universities offering higher educational opportunities to students from low-income families and communities.
There, Reed was essentially the second in command at the university, helping its new college president grow and develop the school.
This time last year, Reed started to pack and ready himself for the trip. With his love for Latin American and its culture, the opportunity seemed ideal.
So when the Peace Corps presented him with the developmental job, he thought – why not?
Back in 1994, Reed moved back to Middle Tennessee from Miami, Fla., after living in Costa Rica, working in international development.
In his professional career, Reed has collected 22 years of state government experience. He also has 18 years of consulting experience in international development. Plus, he’s spent some of his time in the classroom, sharing his experiences from behind the lectern at Middle Tennessee State University in the political science department.
So when he arrived in Mexico in January 2016, Reed felt comfortable, even though he had never set food in the country prior.
“I worked and lived there in Latin America before,” Reed said. “It wasn’t a huge cultural challenge to be able to integrate myself and understand how things work. For me, it was just the place I was working in itself. I was working at a five-year-old university that had three buildings. One of the buildings had been sitting a year without anything in it.”
Stepping on the campus wasn’t like entering the confines of a university in the Tennessee system. It had a different flavor and feel, unlike MTSU or the University of Tennessee.
“If we were going to start a new college, UT or the Board of Regents would have some basic infrastructure before the first student set foot on a campus,” Reed said. “There, they get the money and build a building. So a buildout of a campus is going to take least a decade. There’s the challenge in and of itself. It’s a young university. It’s growing rapidly about 1,250 students and growing by 300 students a semester. It’s serving low-income, first-generation college students.”
Students go to school year-round, going in two different shifts throughout the day. They operate in a cohort group, meaning they stay with the same 30 classmates for all of their courses from the first day of school until they receive a diploma.
“It was sort the right place and right time,” Reed explained. “The president of the university met me and we clicked. He wanted me there to help. He brought me in immediately into the leadership team of the university. I was working with him on the budget and contingency planning. How many students can we give scholarships to? And how many faculty can we hire? Can we afford to make all of this work?”
In coordinating and structuring such a new university, Reed managed to help construct a foundation for a handful of programs. He started the beginning of an alumni program, so former students could invest in their school. He also started a maker’s space, a local for the students to go and hang out to share innovation, creativity and entrepreneurial skills.
He also introduced crowdfunding to the school through a Mexican app called HIPGive, or Hispanics in Philanthropy.
“You felt like if this school succeeds, you’re changing lives,” he said.
“So what’s it like to be back finally?”
Reed stared across the table. Sticking the straw in his water glass, he started spinning the ice cubes round and round.
“It’s emotional for me,” he said. His wife Yvonne reached over and gently patted his shoulder.
“He cries all the time,” she teased.
“You learn people are the same. There’s no us and them. I sort of fell in love with the people. They are a incredibly, warm generous people with an incredible history and culture. What’s very striking is they have so much in common with Tennesseans and the South. They are religious, focused on the family, and have a love of music. We have a lot more things in common than we do different.”
But ultimately, it gave Reed an opportunity to learn a little bit more about himself. After serving in multiple jobs throughout his career, he wasn’t sure what move he was going to make next prior to the Peace Corps.
“It made you realize you can still have a lot of gray hairs and a lot to offer if you are given the opportunity and are put in the right spot,” he said. These students are my heroes. I have developed so much admiration for them and their dedication and hard work. It’s their dreams, and I hope I helped them reach them.”
Now that he’s back, Reed said he plans to regroup and reenergize in his Brentwood home.
“So would you go again?”
“If it was a shorter time, I would consider it, but ultimately, she has complete veto authority,” he said, grinning at his wife. “But I feel grateful to have gone and to have done this. I feel grateful to have served my country in this way.”