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Ball State’s First Ladies: Rich history has impacted campus and the Muncie community

By Katherine Hill, The Daily News | Published on in The Daily News
First Lady of Ball State Jennifer Mearns poses for a photo on the main staircase of Bracken House March 14. Mearns says she sees her role as First Lady as both being an ambassador to the University and a role to support her husband and the community. Olivia Ground, DN

Behind the cardinal red front door of Bracken House, Ball State University’s President Geoffrey Mearns and First Lady Jennifer Mearns reside. Generations of family photos cover the walls and every room has an artifact, wallpaper decal, memory or story waiting to be shared.

A crackling fireplace exudes the same warmth and hospitality embodied by the pair.

While Geoffrey walks down campus paths and is easily recognized by students eager to give him a high-five, the work that Jennifer does might be lesser-known.

She had her own insight on her role and what it entails for students, staff and Ball State community members alike.

“I see it as [being] an ambassador for the university to support both my husband in his position, but to [also] do what I can to engage with the university community [and] the Muncie community,” Jennifer said.

With this ambassadorship, Jennifer follows a long lineage of first ladies before her. However, Ball State is not unfamiliar with female presidents.

Jo Ann Gora was president of the university from 2004-2014, heavily promoting Ball State’s architecture program into the well-known branch of study that it is today.

Since Gora, Jennifer pointed out that the role of the university first lady was modernized to that of a first spouse. She said this role gives the Ball State community a new outlook on the president.

“It humanizes the president to have a spouse [who can] show a different side of them. I think that’s true in any kind of visible public position,” she said. “It’s a little window into the person that’s different [from who] you see every day.”

Upon stepping into the role of first lady in May 2017, Jennifer worked closely with her husband’s team to get an impression of how she could be of most help to him and the university.

The team, which she affectionately calls “The A Team,” manages her engagements and community involvements — something she and the president take very seriously.

“When my husband was considering coming here, what I saw as one of the key opportunities was the opportunity for the university to be more involved in community engagement,” she said.

To achieve community engagement, Jennifer said open communication is vital, a lesson she learned in her first career as a communications marketer.

“I always try to be a direct communicator; kind, but direct,” she said. “I am who I am, and I don’t want to project anything other than that.”

First ladies 1.jpg

Delaware senator Joseph Biden Jr. speaks to Ball State University President John Worthen and Sandra Worthen. Biden served in Delaware’s senate at the same time Sandra served as a Delaware Congresswoman in the 1970s. Ball State Repository, Photo Provided

Direct communication allows her and the president to best understand the needs of the surrounding community. Additionally, this helps create an understanding of the university and organizations who wish to be potential Ball State partners.

“What’s really rewarding [is] being an anchor but also a spider web [that] can be involved in so many areas [of] the community and supporting other organizations,” Jennifer said.

The Muncie community holds a special place in the hearts of both Mearns,’ but she said Ball State students are the driving force behind every one of their initiatives.

“Every semester, I meet with some students one-on-one, offer to mentor them, to be accessible and available to students [who] have questions,” Jennifer said. “I want to be a welcoming, connecting presence.”

She said helping others feel welcomed and accepted by the community is the most important thing to them.

“I think we’re both very down-to-earth people and we want people to feel comfortable [and] that we’re approachable,” Jennifer said.

Geoffrey and Jennifer Mearns are the current-serving first couple of Ball State, but the university has a rich leadership history.

Digital Managing Editor Olivia Ground contributed to this piece.

Contact Katherine Hill with comments at katherine.hill@bsu.edu .