Steady focus, positive people brought Ponder home to Liberal
When Will Ponder graduated Liberal High School in 2003, he knew he was bound for college. What he didn’t know, he recalls, is all the ways he wasn’t ready. A high-achieving student with ambitions to make a success of his life, Ponder had pushed himself to achieve academic excellence for 12 years. He enrolled at Seward County Community College, “but I quickly realized I was burned out on school.”
Ponder’s story of how he entered the work force, then returned to academia to complete degrees at SCCC and K-State inform his work as the JAG coordinator at LHS. They also provide plenty of material for his next speaking engagement. Ponder will give the commencement address at SCCC graduation May 6.
“We talk about college in my classroom on a daily basis,” Ponder said, “so it’s something that I think about all the time. Even now, I ask myself ‘how did I get here?’ and the answer connects to the people I surrounded myself with. SCCC was a big part of that.”
As JAG coordinator at LHS, Ponder aims to offer resources and encouragement to the high school juniors and seniors who make their way to his classroom in cohorts of up to 45 students per level.
“This is a place where I challenge them. I tell the kids, ‘You have been spoon-fed ideas, strategies, methods for succeeding, but it comes down to you taking action, being responsible for the life you want to have,’” he said. “I’m not here to direct them. I’m here to empower them to know what they want, and pursue it.”
Ponder knows how confusing that process can be.
“When I started college, I didn’t know what I was doing. I knew I wanted something different for my life than a lot of what I had seen around me growing up in Liberal, but I wasn’t using my time or money in a way that made sense,” he said.
As a college freshman, Ponder decided to take time off, a choice that raised eyebrows.
“People said, ‘it’s harder to go back,’ and I knew that, but I also knew I needed to get out there, start working, making money, and that when the time was right, I would go back and finish college,”
Instead of enrolling for another semester, Ponder took a job at National Beef Packing.
“That break did me good,” he said. “I talk to my kids about it all the time. There’s nothing wrong with working at National or any other job you can do to support yourself, but sometimes you forget that if you want something else, you’re going to have to stay focused.”
For Ponder, the job served as motivation. He knew he didn’t intend to make it his life’s work, but it served a purpose in teaching him to do what he describes as “everyday life things.”
“Getting up for work, showing up, buying a car, paying your bills, putting in the applications when you decide to do something different, asking questions,” he said. “Those are the things I had to learn, and this is the goal of JAG, too: personal development, life skills, character, attitude. I want my students to know what they want to do next, and to be ready to actually do it.”
That’s not to say Ponder promotes a rigid approach to success. He values his students’ individuality, their unique life circumstances, and his relationships with them more than a checklist mentality.
“They are all different, and I tell them ‘You are your own brand,’” he said. “What I mean is that they can’t force themselves into someone else’s idea of what their life should be. They have to figure that out and take ownership.”
When Ponder returned to SCCC a few years later, he had done that internal work. He renewed his focus on academics, and completed a degree in 2007.
During those years at Seward, he said, the TRiO program and then-advisor Rhonda Kinser played a critical role. TRiO, a federally-funded entity designed to support students who are the first in their family to complete a college degree, or balance other unusual circumstances with college life, could be described as a first cousin to the privately-founded JAG program.
“I wouldn’t have gone on to finish a bachelor’s degree if it wasn’t for Rhonda — and her husband, Delvin, who became part of my life — and TRiO,” Ponder said. “I wouldn’t have even gone on a college visit to K-State, and the idea would never have become a reality to me.”
As it was, Ponder did visit Manhattan, and transferred to K-State.
“When I got to K-State, I was still sorting out what I wanted to do, and I thought I wanted to be an athletic trainer,” Ponder said. “I figured out that it wasn’t something I was really passionate about.”
When he discovered the family studies program, “I really fell in love with the idea of helping people. There weren’t a lot of guys in that field, but that didn’t bother me. I see the need for more males, and especially more black males doing this work.”
Ponder earned a bachelor’s degree from K-State in family studies and human services in 2011. A few weeks later, during a visit back to Liberal, he debated taking a job offer in the Kansas City area. Then his older brother, Angelo, showed him a classified ad in the local newspaper.
“I applied to work for Ivanhoe Love at Adolescent Support Services, and got the job,” he said. “I started the next week and I had to make a separate trip to go back to Manhattan to get my stuff.”
Giving back to the community where he grew up, Ponder said, “is very important to me. I think it’s really cool that my roommate from college, Kerri Miles, is also back here in Liberal, teaching and coaching.”
Ponder also relishes the opportunity to spend time with his father, Everett Ponder; his mother, Jessie, died in 2008. His five siblings, Angelo, Blanca, Devon, Brandon, and Austin, live in locations all across the country. In 2015, Ponder married his wife, Andrea, and the couple have a one-year-old son, Hudson.
Among the audience at commencement will be his dad, who opted out of retirement to work full-time as a security officer at SCCC. Everett embodies a robust work ethic, but “the thing I love most about my pops is his faith, and his love for our family,” Ponder said. “We weren’t raised showing a lot of emotion. I don’t take our relationship lightly. It’s a blessing to have the opportunity to raise my son with him nearby.”
Like his father, Ponder has placed faith at the center of his life.
“My relationship with Christ is everything,” he said. “Everything I do, any good that I do, is by the grace of God. It’s why I am able to see people for who they are, to love past the things they do.”
As a public education employee, Ponder takes care to focus on his responsibilities and authentic relationships; his personal convictions, he says, quietly fuel his commitment to the students.
“I have students from all backgrounds and situations, some who have different sexual preferences, and different beliefs, and they have to feel acceptance and support from me,” he said. “Do I condone certain things? Do I condemn the students? That’s not my job. It’s a privilege to get to be part of their lives and their development as people.”
In doing so, Ponder occasionally gets a glimpse of how his students’ lives are unfolding. The JAG program requires one year of follow-up work with students who have graduated from the program and LHS.
“This is a resource for them, and it often continues beyond the required time period,” said Ponder. “Just last week, one of my kids who had graduated a few years ago called and asked me to take a look at her resume. It was great to hear from her.”
Students and community members will get a chance to hear more from Ponder himself at the 2017 commencement, at 10 a.m. May 6, in the SCCC Greenhouse.