From Student to Trustee
Alumna Comes Full Circle
Nola Jo Starling-Ratliff ’74 has very fond memories of her time in La Crosse as a Viterbo University student, although her collegiate career did get off to an inauspicious beginning.
“When I first got to Viterbo from Mississippi, my suitcases hadn’t arrived with me,” she remembered with a smile. “I happened to be wearing pants, and I went to the cafeteria to eat. In the early 70s, slacks weren’t allowed in the cafeteria and everyone was looking at me. I thought they were staring because I was the only black person there. When they found out I had nothing else to wear, it was OK.”
Now, over 30 years since she graduated with a degree in music, she has come full circle, serving on the Board of Trustees of her alma mater.
“I truly believe in giving back to those who have given to you,” said Starling-Ratliff, who has been a proponent of bringing increased diversity to the Viterbo community. “I’m giving back to this institution because I don’t think I’d be where I am today if it weren’t for the Franciscan Sisters here. They really helped me become what I am, and I want to return that by helping someone else become what he or she truly wants to be.”
Starling-Ratliff’s unique contributions have made her a very valuable member of the board, said Viterbo President Rick Artman.
“Nola Jo brings several perspectives to the Board of Trustees—as an alumna when Viterbo was an all women’s college, a gifted vocalist who is deeply committed to Viterbo’s excellence in the fine arts, and as principal of an ethnically diverse high school,” Artman said. “She is deeply committed to our Catholic and Franciscan heritage, and she is very enthusiastic and confident about our future.”
Today Starling-Ratliff, is the highly regarded principal of William Horlick High School in Racine, one of the largest and most racially diverse high schools in the state. Horlick has undergone an impressive transformation since she arrived on the scene as principal.
“When I first arrived at Horlick, students were not engaged academically or socially,” she said. “Far too many students were truant, being suspended, or expelled. Parents did not feel a part of the school their children attended. It was my responsibility, along with the staff, to establish a school that is respected by the community it serves. With a committed staff, we are gradually reaching our goal. We are trying to create a community of learners, where all stakeholders are active participants. This is not my school, it’s our school.” Her first order of business was to change the culture.
She recalled an instance in which she was surprised when a teacher mildly took her to task for hugging a particular student.
“Don’t you know he’s a gang member?” the teacher asked.
“I responded by asking the teacher, ‘Don’t you think it would be good to get that student on our side? We have to show him that we care about him.’”
Often an achievement gap is the result of a community gap, she said. Now, she makes sure each ethnic group is represented at each school function. Parents are also engaged with activities ranging from a student award dinner to a distinguished alumni recognition ceremony.
Above all else, Starling-Ratliff has brought a caring attitude to her career in education, an attitude she attributes to her time as a student at Viterbo.
“The Franciscan Sisters really taught us the need to care,” she said. “By caring, you’re not only helping that person, but you’re also helping yourself. That is so important. You have to give a little.”
Starling-Ratliff grew up in Canton, Miss. (the hometown of the famous Thea Bowman, FSPA, who is now a candidate for sainthood), where she attended the FSPA’s Holy Child Jesus School. The school was staffed with Franciscan Sisters, who spoke often of La Crosse and their connection with Sr. Bowman.
“La Crosse was in essence my second home, I heard so much about it,” she said. “That’s how I ended up at Viterbo.”
While it was very difficult for her to leave her family and travel outside of Mississippi by herself for the first time, she found a warm and welcoming community at Viterbo, she said.
Growing up with the Franciscan Sisters, her transition to Viterbo was a smooth one, she said. She quickly became a part of the community, making close friends and getting to know her fellow music students very well.
“I remember a close friend telling me, ‘Nola Jo, I used to think to myself, I’m going to meet my new black friend. Then I realized, I’m going to meet my friend,’” Ratliff said.
“Viterbo wasn’t just a college for me, it was my home away from home,” she said. “The sisters would check on us when we were sick and make sure we had somewhere to go on Thanksgiving.”
“I think the Franciscan Sisters were one of the first women’s rights groups,” she said. “They really instilled in us the power to be whatever we wanted to be.”
Upon graduation, Starling-Ratliff embarked on a career as an elementary school music teacher. She was eventually assigned with building a middle school music program. She then decided to change careers, becoming a principal in 1983.
“I asked myself how I could stay in education while advancing myself professionally at the same time,” she said. “I thought I had this knack of reaching out to children. They liked me and I really liked them. I wanted to be more of an effective leader and to help all children. Being a principal, I can help children, not just my students, but all the children in the school.”
Her first assignment as a new principal was an at-risk school to which “no one wanted to go,” she said. Ninety percent of the students were eligible for free or reduced lunch.
“I loved it,” she said. “It was the best experience of my life. I stayed there five years.”
She then served at a predominately white school in Sussex, but decided to move back to the city so her daughters could grow up in a more culturally diverse environment. Her decision was affirmed when one of her daughters told her, “Mother, it’s not where they come from, it’s what’s within them that makes them a good person.”
Whether it was as a teacher or a principal, Starling-Ratliff has been known as a “cheerleader for students” throughout her career in education. She also encourages her teachers to take 15 of their most at-risk students and become mentors for them.
“The most rewarding part of my job is when a student tells me, ‘Ms. Ratliff you care,’” she said. “I make sure it’s not about me, it’s about the academic excellence of our children.”
Her good work over the years has not gone unnoticed by the Viterbo community. Two scholarships in her honor are now in the planning stages by Viterbo benefactors. “That is the best gift someone could ever give me,” she said. “The scholarship recipients will receive the same gift I did, the gift of an outstanding Viterbo education.”