St. Augustine's alum picked to make dollars flow to Caribbean island
Rodrick Miller had been away at college for precisely
one week when he got the telephone call all kids
dread. It was from his dad.
"Don't make me come down there."
"Don't make me come down there to that college and yank you out."
Miller had just concluded his first week at St. Augustine's University - nee College - and taken one test in a business orientation class. He'd gotten an A and was feeling quite pleased with himself.
His teacher, Executive-in-Residence Len Ward - was feeling less so.
"Despite my grade on the test," Miller recalled, "Mr. Ward had called my father and told him I wasn't performing up to my potential. That's when my dad called me."
Whatever his dad said, it helped get Miller in gear, because the 1999 St. Aug's grad has succeeded at every stop since leaving the leafy university on Oakwood Avenue. That's why Miller was earlier this year named CEO of Invest Puerto Rico.
His charge: To spur investment on the island as he has done in cities across the mainland United States. His degree in International Business from St. Aug's put him in a position to lead revitalization efforts in Detroit, New Orleans and Phoenix, among others cities.
Even though he obviously learned a lot in the classroom, Miller insisted when we talked that it was what he learned outside of class that made the greatest impression on him.
At Manning High School in South Carolina, Miller mapped out a future that entailed going to college, remaining in ROTC and joining the military.
"Col. (Gilbert ) Knowles, who was over ROTC at St. Aug's, recruited me. Unfortunately, I can't see," Miller laughed, "and the army said 'We really can't use you.' I remember my parents liking the way they interfaced with the faculty and administration, they liked that the school seemed to be the kind of place they could call up and say 'What's going on with my son?' and they'd get a straight answer."
That's precisely what happened after the first week, he said. "I'd gotten back to my dorm room and the phone in the hall rang. It was my dad. He said Mr. Ward told him I was fooling around in class."
His protests - "But dad, I got an A" - didn't placate pops.
"All I know, his father said, "is Mr. Ward said you're not doing your best work and you need to 'up' your game."
When Miller went to see his teacher the next day to protest - "But I got an A" - the instructor told him "Yes, but this is a saaaaaad A. I've looked at your assignments. at the way you write, the way you think - and you're not taking my class seriously and I don't like it."
"He said 'You have the kinds of skills that would allow you to be at any institution you want to be, and you're here at St. Aug's. I would be doing you a disservice if I didn't take you to the level where I think you ought to be.'"
As evidence of his commitment to the student, Ward set up a weekly compulsory meeting with Miller until he graduated four years later. "He and Gilbert Knowles and a few others probably wrote one hundred recommendations for me for everything," Miller said.
"That, to me, is what made St. Aug's special. You had faculty and administrators who treated you not like a student, but like a family member they were concerned about. Col. Knowles bought me a pair of glasses. I had broken mine and was walking around squinting because I was too proud to call my parents and ask for money."
Even though Knowles let him know it was just a loan, who wouldn't want their child to go to a school where a faculty member would dip into his own pocket for glasses?
Miller fondly recalled the division chair of the Political Science/International Business department. "St. Aug's had just recruited a young, hotshot Ph.D candidate from Atlanta University named Emmanuel Oritsejafor.
"He called my parents, too, and told them 'I'm the best. If you let your son be with with me... I'm going to mentor your son for the next four years, and when he leaves here he's going to be razor-sharp."
Oritsejafor is now helping turn out razor-sharp students at N.C. Central University, where he is chair of the Political Science department.
Having instructors like that who'd drive him hard no doubt helped Miller become the school's only Fulbright Fellow, while studying abroad certainly helped Miller land his current prestigious gig.
"I studied in Mexico my sophomore year and in Spain my junior year," he said. He went to Cuba and wrote his senior thesis on economic changes on the island nation: some St. Aug's board members anonymously paid for the trip.
Despite residing now in Puerto Rico, Miller spends a lot of time on the mainland traveling. "I'd say I spend 60-70 percent of my time there, and the rest on the mainland," he said. "The Puerto Rico thing is global. I'm in New York today, I was in (Philadelphia) yesterday, Flying to Atlanta this evening. It's all to bring investment to Puerto Rico."
After people see what type of students St. Aug's can produce, Miller's example should be able to spur investment in his alma mater, too.