Alumni Spotlight: Ginevra Ralph

The chair of the UO Board of Trustees followed a different path toward her degrees, which include being a history major at Clark Honors College.

Ginerva Ralph seated on a spot-lit stage.

Name: Ginevra Ralph

Major: History (1983); master’s in Special Education (1985)

Hometown: Lake Forest, Illinois and Taos, New Mexico

Current role: Chair of the UO Board of Trustees; director of Education and Development at the John G. Shedd Institute for the Arts

Song on repeat: Whatever was last performed at the Shedd Institute

Coffee or tea: Tea

Guilty pleasure: Cleaning out horse stalls

Favorite UO memory: a project in Mike Dyer’s Game Theory class

CHC thesis: French literary censorship in the 18th century

Every time Ginevra Ralph steps into a UO Board of Trustees meeting, students are at the forefront of her mind. For each person studying at the University of Oregon, success looks a little different, she says. Her mission is to ensure that all individuals get the support they need.

“What I want for me and my grandchildren, I want for every student on campus,” says Ralph, who is a 1983 graduate of Clark Honors College with a degree in history.

Ralph has spent 10 years on the board and currently serves as the chair. While she’s resided in Eugene, she’s been an active supporter of local art and non-profit organizations. Alongside her work at UO, she acts as the director of education and development at the John G. Shedd Institute for the Arts.

The impact she has had at UO and across Eugene isn’t something she planned out. But she’s not one to pass up a chance to make a difference. Her vision, for herself and the community, has guided her through life. “I don’t know the why of my life. I turn left and there’s an opportunity and I take it,” she says.

It’s a pattern that has followed her in both her education and her career. When Ralph first attended college in 1966, she went to the University of Colorado. At the time, she didn’t have advisors to guide her. The large school was unlike anything she’d encountered before and the classes she was placed in didn’t challenge her. Bored and unable to get the support she needed, she decided to leave school.

She had every intent of going back to school eventually, but she started a family and chose to make that her priority. She moved to Eugene with her first husband, where they raised their children. It wasn’t until her kids were teenagers that she revisited the idea of pursuing her education.

They were in a good place, Ralph says, so she decided to pursue her degree at UO. She came to campus eager to learn, but most of the students were just out of high school and she felt intimidated. “I figured that all (the) kids would be so much smarter,” she said.

It was 1979, a time when students registered for courses in person. Punch cards in hand, they would rush around MacArthur Court, trying to get into the classes they needed. Ralph was among them when she found herself directed toward a small brown table. There, she met the director of the Clark Honors College, who offered her a spot in the cohort.

The Honors College gave Ralph what she considered a safe haven at UO. She lived far from campus, out in the woods with her family, so it was a relief to have an intimate place to study and meet other students. But it wasn’t just the small-school environment that appealed to her. “You were working with professors that were doing on-the-ground research,” she recalls.

Ralph spent her undergraduate career studying circadian rhythms in sea slugs and pitcher plants on the Oregon Coast. Over the years, she accumulated so many credits that the university had to urge her to graduate. She hadn’t even declared a major at the time.

She wasn’t sure what she’d do next after graduation. So, she went to her bookshelf – the physical archive of her interests. Tucked between craft and recipe books was a section on children with disabilities.

She’d had classmates with disabilities and a mother-in-law left paralyzed by polio. They’d all been smart, capable people. From that moment, Ralph dedicated herself to working on behalf of students with disabilities. She continued at UO after graduation and pursued a master's degree in special education.

For nine years, Ralph worked with UO’s College of Education to teach students with severe cognitive and physical disabilities. At a time when many schools marginalized disabled students, she was dedicated to adapting curricula to fit their needs. Meanwhile, Ralph was also working with her husband to create the Shedd Institute. As a lifelong lover of the arts, she wanted to create a place for Eugene residents to dig into music. It started as a weekend music festival and quickly grew into the Shedd Institute that exists today – a nonprofit organization that offers music classes and puts on a range of performances.

Ralph’s experiences as a student, a mother and a teacher all play a role in how she approaches her work on the Board of Trustees.

It wasn’t a position she sought out. As she prepared to finish her time at the UO Foundation, she was approached about having her name being submitted to Oregon’s governor for a role on the board. She agreed, and once appointed set about helping shape the university into an improved place where all students could thrive.

Today, Ralph thinks back to the time when she first attended college. Not having the necessary resources to succeed was a big problem, and it's not a problem she wants current students at UO to face. She criticizes the “cookie cutter” approach to college, where students must graduate in four years and get perfect marks to be considered successful.

“It doesn’t make a very good cookie for a lot of students,” she says. “We need to have flexibility within the institution.”

As Ralph’s time on the board sunsets in June, arguably one of the most important decisions facing UO is the search for the next permanent president. It’s the second time she has participated in a presidential search.

The first time, she and her fellow trustees wanted someone who could put the school on stable ground. Ralph feels that was accomplished. In the current search, she hopes to see candidates with a vision for how to make UO better not just on paper, but for the student experience as well.

Now, UO needs a change agent who can help guide the institution over the hurdles facing large public universities. “We are in a position to say: ‘We did this, now how do we get to the next level of excellence?’” Ralph says.

—Story by Elizabeth Yost, Clark Honors College Communications

—Photo by Ilka Sankari, Clark Honors College Communications