Growing up in a single-parent household in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Kham Ward was what many would consider a good kid. He was taught to always be respectful and he excelled in school with a GPA a shade under 4.0.
As far as Ward was concerned, he lived in a perfect world. That was until an encounter he had one day while dropping a friend off in a very wealthy neighborhood opened his eyes to the real world.
“That’s when I realized I was the color of my skin,” said Ward, who is African-American. “I was pulled over by the police and I had a rough interaction with them. That made me realize who I was. Before that, I never really had any encounters. I was a great kid.”
It was that unfortunate experience that let Ward know he wanted a career in which he could help other African-Americans. And it was one that set him on the path to becoming Western Carolina University’s director of intercultural affairs in June.
While attending the University of Florida, where he graduated in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in family, youth and community science, Ward and some friends started a nonprofit after-school program called the Goonies Project for students in Gainesville who struggled making passing grades.
“It allowed students to have some homework time, and then have a leadership opportunity through playing sports,” Ward said. “We wanted to teach them how to be leaders without teaching them. We did that for two years, fully unfunded.”
It was when he earned his master’s degree in minority and urban education at the University of Maryland in 2011 that Ward realized a passion for helping all students who were underserved at universities.
“I got lit up and really passionate about underserved students,” he said. “That’s when I said, ‘Why can’t I make a career out of it?’ I had a graduate assistantship in the multi-ethnic office and I fell in love with it, and it became my true passion.”
After serving as an assistant director of campus life at Florida Atlantic University, Ward made the move to Cullowhee. His hire coincided with ICA’s move to a new location in the A.K. Hinds University Center, a space that includes a display gallery that changes to coincide with each heritage that is currently being celebrated. The gallery is created by students.
The space also features televisions and an area just to hang out. Ward is spreading the word that the ICA office is for all students, not just minority students.
“Currently, we’re doing programs and supporting all groups that are cultural groups who want our support,” Ward said. “My mission and my vision for the office is to prepare students to thrive in a diverse world.”
The office also hosts various lunch-and-learn sessions. At a recent one, MTV’s, “White People,” was shown. It is a ground-breaking documentary that aims to answer the question, “What does it mean to be white?” from the viewpoint of young white people.
“It’s about having direct conversations around topics that may cause students to be uncomfortable,” Ward said. “I totally believe in topics that make people uncomfortable because when you’re uncomfortable is when you grow. We want to let students voice how they feel, and also provide them with context to support their feeling.”
It took just a few short months for Ward to realize WCU is where he needs to be.
“I think the timing was perfect,” he said. “I think the way and the vision we’re going is perfect. It’s a perfect match.”