By GWEN SISSON
Mississippi State University first lady Rhonda Keenum said being in the first family means MSU students are the Keenum’s children and the faculty and staff are their family.
“We have a vested interest in the success and security of every person who calls this university their home,” Keenum said. “It’s a tremendous responsibility with infinite blessings.”
For Keenum, serving as MSU’s first lady means her role is to support and work to promote the goals and objectives of the president, with a focus on moving the university forward.
“I love the President and his passion,” Keenum said. “He works every day to ensure that Mississippi State is the premier university of this state, this region and this country.”
Keenum said statistics show the percentage of MSU students from Mississippi this fall is at 73 percent, which is evidence the university is truly the “People’s University.”
“Universitywide, we continue to build with record enrollment overall this fall, record freshman enrollment, record giving this past year, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention high hopes for football season,” Keenum said.
Keenum said the staff, faculty and students have worked closely together over the past couple of years through tough economic times. She said faculty and student leaders have been at the table and involved in deciding how to move MSU forward.
“Mark’s style of leadership is one of inclusiveness which, I believe, fosters the strong spirit of communication and cooperation through all these groups,” Keenum said.
Faculty support, Keenum said, is an integral ingredient to the MSU campus moving forward. Support includes the success of the StatePride scholarship, which is at $65 million now and working toward a $100 million goal.
“Mississippi State is extremely blessed to have generous alumni and friends who never cease to amaze us with their investments of time and money to ensure that this university moves forward,” Keenum said.
But for MSU’s first lady, reaching out to MSU students is a passion.
“(I hope) to continue to impart to our students that they can be anything in this life they chose to do or be, and that Mississippi State will prepare them for that destination,” Keenum said.
As a former MSU student, Keenum knows first hand the friendships formed during college years are sustainable for a lifetime.
“That’s one of the premier benefits of attending Mississippi State — the opportunity to meet others who share common goals, objectives and dreams,” Keenum said.
President Mark Keenum said his wife is very caring and makes a special effort to reach out to students and their parents.
On their return trip from the Memphis football game, the first family had lunch at Rendezvous Restaurant in Memphis, Tenn. When they learned the owner’s daughter was a freshman at MSU this year, Mark Keenum said his wife was quick to ask about the student’s transition to college life.
“She has a very outgoing personality, and her approach to what she does is quite natural,” Mark Keenum said. “She is a wonderful ambassador for the university and the state of Mississippi.”
Mark Keenum said they take a team approach to all aspects of life, and their service to MSU is no exception.
“She is my partner in every aspect of the word,” Mark Keenum said. “We are a team, and I could not have a better partner.”
MSU’s first lady also lends her support and counsel to a variety of university programs, including the MSU art department and the communication and business schools; however there are two constituencies at MSU Keenum finds great satisfaction in working to support.
“I am an advocate of the Promise Program which is designed to help students from low-income families attend Mississippi State by providing scholarships and support,” Keenum said.
Bill Kibler, interim director for the MSU Department of Financial Aid, said the Promise Program is exactly what the name implies — a promise to make Mississippi State University affordable to those low income students who, otherwise, may not have the opportunity to attend. It is available to all admitted students from Mississippi that have a family income below $30,000 and have a B average coming out of high school. It is also available to transfer students whose family income is below $30,000 and have a 2.5 GPA at a community college.
“The promise is that MSU will assure that their tuition is paid in full while they attend MSU if they do the work to maintain good grades (a 2.5 GPA),” Kibler said.
The Promise Program has assisted hundreds of students attending MSU since its inception in 2006. The program has been funded entirely with private funds since it began.
“Upon her return to Mississippi State in January 2009, Rhonda Keenum immediately recognized the value of the Promise Program and the opportunities that it provides for hard-working, low-income students in Mississippi,” Kibler said. “Rhonda is an amazingly effective advocate for Mississippi State and our students. We are thrilled that she has made the Promise Program one of her highest priorities, in terms of advocacy and fundraising. The program could not have a more enthusiastic partner and supporter than Rhonda Keenum.”
Kibler said it is MSU’s desire to assure that the Promise Program continues change the lives of many students in the years to come and continue to be funded entirely by gift money.
“With Rhonda committed to the program, the future is very bright that these goals will be met and exceeded,” Kibler said.
Another MSU program Rhonda Keenum is passionate about is working with veterans.
“I also derive great satisfaction with my work with the G.V. ‘Sonny’ Montgomery Center for America’s Veterans,” Keenum said. “The center has become a national leader in providing a campus-based veteran resource center in support of student veterans, service members, dependents and survivors.”
Rhonda Keenum said MSU has been recognized as being in the top 10 percent of “military-veteran friendly” universities and this center has played a direct role in helping achieve this level of national recognition.
According to the MSU website, the Center for America’s Veterans honors the legacy of the 1943 Mississippi State alumnus and 15-term U.S. congressman who authored the Montgomery G.I. Bill. “Sonny” Montgomery’s leadership, statesmanship and public service enhanced the lives of generations of Americans, particularly veterans of military service. The center strives to provide comprehensive, professional services to all student veterans, service members, dependents and survivors. The center was established in 2006 by former President Robert H. “Doc” Foglesong.
Keenum also sits on numerous boards and commissions, including Entergy Mississippi and the CREATE Commission.
“I gain great personal and professional satisfaction in working with Entergy toward economic development projects in our state and in identifying recipients of corporate and foundation dollars in the areas they serve,” Rhonda Keenum said.
The CREATE Commission, she said, is a tremendous economic booster.
“The commission fosters collaboration among regional leaders to build and strengthen communities throughout a 16-county areas,” Rhonda Keenum said. “Initiatives include early childhood development and increasing college education obtainment — two areas that I have a great interest in improvement for lots of reasons.”
Keenum knows a little bit about early childhood development.
“Three first graders and a kindergartner ensure that this rolling stone gathers no moss,” Rhonda Keenum said. “Our children are growing up in this community and on this campus. When we came here, they were in diapers and preschool — now it’s play dates and shuttling from one activity to another.”
She puts a great deal of energy and passion into all areas of her life, including her career. While quite busy with MSU’s First Family, Rhonda Keenum continues to do consulting work for many of her public relations clients. Keenum left a 20-year career in Washington D.C. to serve as MSU’s first lady.
Keenum said half of her time was spent working at two international public relations agencies, and the remaining time was spent working in the political arena.
“The capstone of my career and time in D.C. was when I worked at the White House with President Bush,” Keenum said. “I was Deputy Assistant to the President and headed up his Public Liaison Office. I met President George W. Bush during the time I worked for his father, President Bush, on his re-elect campaign in 1992. That alone says volumes about what a small town Washington DC is — and that there was never a campaign that I worked on that I didn’t have a sincere fondness and respect for the candidate, including my work with President George H. W. Bush, then-Congressman Roger Wicker, then-State Senator Alan Nunnelee, then-State Senator Bill Hawks, Senator Bob Dole, Governor Haley Barbour and then-Governor George W. Bush.”
What’s next for the Keenum family? Rhonda Keenum is quick to say “next” consists of many things, including the 20,400 students enrolled this fall, the upcoming athletic calendar, the December and May commencements, the return of MSU alum to campus, fundraising goals and the retention and recruitment of MSU’s faculty and staff.
“So you see our ‘next’ is defined by what Mark and I do to move this university forward because, after all, it is ‘Our State,’” Keenum said.