Sometimes, what you think you want isn't what you want at all, but what you didn't even know you wanted, is. That's the lesson Dr. Christine Rasche learned 25 years ago after she accepted a job offer from a nonexistent university in a place she'd never been.
"What I didn't know about myself when I interviewed is that I like getting projects off the ground, creating things that haven't been there before," Rasche explained, adding that some former colleagues from UNF's earliest days preferred a more settled atmosphere. "They aren't here anymore. You had to be able to live with a mixture of chaos and constant change, and some of us thrived on that."
Rasche earned bachelor's degrees in sociology and English from Elmhurst College, Elmhurst, Ill. and both a master's and doctorate in sociology from Washington University in St. Louis. She currently serves as associate professor of criminal justice in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice and built UNF's undergraduate and graduate criminal justice programs. From 1989 to 1996, she directed the women's studies program as well. Now, in addition to serving as president of the UNF Faculty Association, she is also chair of the American Society of Criminology Division on Women and Crime. She is the recipient of numerous community and educational awards.
When her dissertation professor urged her to consider UNF, Rasche had just earned her Ph.D. in sociology and was mulling over offers from several prestigious sociology departments, including that of the University of Wisconsin. Rasche saw that she would have greater teaching challenges at the future UNF. "If I had gone to Wisconsin I would have felt suffocated. It was old, established, prestigious, eminent-laden... but I might well have been stifled in that setting. As a new face, I would have only taught endless 'Introduction to Sociology' courses," Rasche noted. "The clincher at UNF was they wanted somebody who could teach a variety of sociology courses but also criminology."
Rasche accepted the job without ever seeing the actual UNF campus, since the 4-wheel-drive vehicle needed to access it was not available the weekend she interviewed. Later, when St. Johns Bluff Road was completed and she was moving to Jacksonville, Rasche wanted a look.
"The day I drove down to Florida with all my worldly goods, I had my mom with me to help me move," she said. "We drove onto the campus and at first we saw nothing but trees, no buildings. The first sign of humanity was a hand-painted sign nailed to a tree by the lake that said, 'No Fishing! No Swimming! Alligators!' My mother looked at me in abject horror. She thought she was sending her daughter to the Amazon."
The day before classes began, wild bears tore the knobs off the hot foods vending machine, the only food service on campus then. Deer and alligators were common sights, she added. Then there was the time Rasche returned to campus late at night (before the days of on-campus housing) to retrieve something from her office. "As I pulled into the parking lot, all these cars zoomed in behind me," she recalled. "People dressed in dark clothes poured out and surrounded me. It was a police stake-out for poachers! Thank the lord, campus police recognized me."
She also did not anticipate her preference for the types of students attending UNF in the early days. "At Washington University, I taught freshmen and sophomores, typical middle-class college kids who were very bright, but a lot of them didn't know why they were in college," she explained. "By contrast, here at UNF, most of the students were older than I was at the time. Many were working professionals, middle-aged folks who were making a career change. They were eager to learn and full of their own life experiences. It was exhilarating."
The main quality which drew Rasche to UNF is the same one that keeps her here after 25 years. "I was struck with the commitment to teaching and to building something really excellent from scratch," she noted. "Here was this school, which had no faculty, no students, no campus and no recognized name but it had key administrators who, to a man -- and they were all men back then -- talked about a commitment to good teaching."
As a sociologist, Rasche acknowledges that institutions change as they mature but hopes UNF will retain elements of its origins. "I see the University facing really interesting challenges and I want us to be creative in meeting them. Things like reduced funding, an increased push toward electronic or distance-based education, more use of part-time faculty, trying to serve a bigger population of students -- all these must be confronted creatively," she said. "It requires effort and commitment at the very top, and we have that right now in our president and provost. In the same way we used to be creative about how to get the phones to work, how to keep the deer out of the road, I hope we never lose that kind of upstart creativity."