Frank Shushok was in first grade when his teachers noticed him struggling with reading. He was diagnosed with dyslexia and an auditory processing disorder. For the rest of elementary school, he was pulled out of his classrooms for remedial instruction.
“The interesting thing about that is, as I moved through the schooling process,” he said, “I began to take on an identity… that I wasn’t smart. I wasn’t good at school.”
He doesn’t recall being stigmatized by other kids in his hometown of McKinney, Texas — no stoplights, two Dairy Queens — perhaps because of his outgoing personality. Still, he saw himself as less capable than his peers.
“By my sophomore year in high school, I failed two classes, and was required to go to summer school just to catch up to make it to my junior year,” he said. “So there were times in high school that I really did begin to wonder whether I would even graduate from high school.”
At least one teacher told Shushok he wasn’t college material. But there were two others who didn’t buy his low self-image. “These are people who saw, in me, my potential before I saw it myself,” Shushok said. They convinced him his issue wasn’t intelligence, but learning style, and encouraged him to find ways to succeed. “And slowly, late in my junior year in high school, and early into my senior year in high school, I began to unravel some of my learning challenges.”
Shushok took Keith Christian’s Algebra II class his senior year at McKinney High School.
“I didn’t really know his background,” said Christian, retired after 38 years of teaching. “I just expected him to perform, like I expected all of my students to perform. And when he was underperforming, I just kind of kicked him in the seat of the pants and said, ‘Hey, you got to do better. I think you’re capable of more.’
“He played on the tennis team and was pretty good. And I can remember bargaining with him, saying, ‘OK, look, if you’ll give me this amount of time working on Algebra II stuff, then I’ll come play tennis with you. And we’ll play a set or two.'”
Another teacher who made a difference was Gail Pack, who taught Spanish. “I failed her class as a sophomore in high school, but she insisted I was smart,” Shushok said. “She insisted I work hard and do better.” He retook Spanish II as a senior. This time, he got an A.
Pack died in 2019, but her legacy is very much alive.
“Having one or two people believe in me was enough to change the course of history for me,” Shushok said.
The former special ed student, who went on to earn a B.S. in history from Baylor University, an M.A. in higher education and student affairs administration from The Ohio State University, and a Ph.D. in higher education policy, planning and analysis from the University of Maryland, becomes Roanoke College’s 12th president on July 1. He replaces Michael Maxey, who is retiring after 15 years at the helm of the private Lutheran college in Salem.
In an interview on the Roanoke campus, the first thing Shushok did, after offering a wide smile and firm handshake, was ask numerous friendly questions about the reporter’s background and interests.
“He has a deep interest in people,” said Nathan Hatch, president emeritus of Wake Forest University, where Shushok served a one-semester fellowship in 2017. “It’s not a role that he’s playing, it’s who he is. And I think that will serve him very well. Because I think, in any of these [administrative] positions, trust is so critical. You’ve got students, faculty, alumni, community, all of that. And if you can be who you are, and people trust you, that’s the most important coin of the realm.”
With his gift for interpersonal relations, Shushok might have taken any number of paths after high school. The YMCA, along with his two influential teachers, pointed him toward college.
“I spent my summers in a YMCA summer camp,” Shushok said. “And there I received just incredible mentoring and coaching from people. And I had this desire to go to college because I wanted to be able to go work for the YMCA, professionally. And I knew that I couldn’t go work for the YMCA unless I had a college degree. So all of a sudden, I realized, I got to figure out a way to go to college.
“I talked my way in to Baylor University [in Waco, Texas] and asked them to give me a chance. And I went to summer school before my first year, and I was required to pass two classes in order to matriculate into the first year class.
“Very quickly I learned for the first time in my life that I loved learning. It’s the most shocking thing that you could ever imagine, that a guy like me, who didn’t think he was going to graduate from high school, would end up loving school. And I ended up being an incredibly successful student at Baylor and deciding that I wanted to spend my career in higher education because it was so incredibly transformative for me. It literally changed the course of my life.”
Shushok has 30 years of work experience in higher education, the past 13 at Virginia Tech in posts that included associate vice president, senior associate vice president and vice president for Student Affairs.
Having taken a different path through the school system than most high achievers, Shushok has more empathy for students who don’t fit the mold. “Our elementary and high school system is very much designed as if everyone was on a single developmental track,” he said. “And the reality is, we’re more like a kettle of popcorn, we pop at different times.
“Empathy is about putting oneself in other people’s shoes. My life experiences have helped me do that — and I work on that every single day. Empathy is malleable — we can make ourselves more empathetic with intentional effort.
“One of the things that I think that places like Roanoke College are doing, and can continue to do, is to teach and facilitate an environment where young people, all of us, build our empathy skills, and the research is pretty clear, we can grow our capacity to be empathetic.”
Emily Norton, class of ’23, was part of the committee that interviewed Shushok. “He definitely had a strong presence in the room, but not in a way that was overpowering at all,” she said. “It was definitely in a way that kind of encouraged conversation, and was quite engaging. I just I’m excited because I think he’s very kind and genuine.”
Shushok’s background has also given him a special interest in how people respond to setbacks.
“It’s how you respond to those failures, and makes all the difference in the world, and how you frame how you think about a failure,” he said. “So if you think about a failure as innate to your character, and who you are, then that can be quite debilitating.
“Another way is to think about, ‘Well, I just learned something really important. That helps me think about my life and the way that I interact and what kind of resources I need, that allows me to take another run at it.’
“A place like Roanoke College is fundamentally about helping people be in this experimental learning laboratory, and to learn to take risks, to make mistakes, to be reflective about that, and then to go at it again. So then when they go out in the world, they’re resilient and they’re not afraid of problems, because this is a very unpredictable life we live.”
As a college president in the post-COVID era Shushok will have no shortage of problems to address. At Roanoke College, these include “growing enrollment, raising funds for the [planned] Science Center and ensuring the next generation of students, those who missed important steps in their development due to the pandemic, are well-cared for and able to succeed,” said Malon Courts, chair of the college Board of Trustees. “During the presidential selection process President-elect Shushok conveyed to us the need to be bold and move at a deliberate pace in order to address the challenges and embrace opportunities at Roanoke.”
At Virginia Tech, Shushok was a member of the president’s cabinet. Tech president Tim Sands was asked to speculate on how he might impact Roanoke College.
“Frank is a proponent of the strengths-based approach to the development of individuals,” Sands said. “I expect he will do the same at the institutional level at Roanoke College. That is, he will work with stakeholders – faculty, staff, students, alumni and partners – to identify the strengths of the College, and he will look for opportunities to double down on those strengths.
“He will also look for new growth opportunities for Roanoke College to build on their foundation. Based on my observations, partnerships across sectors and other local institutions will be an emphasis with President Shushok. Expect Roanoke College to engage with the local community at a high level.”
Shushok said Roanoke has done a good job of changing with the times since its founding in 1842. “But you can’t ever rest on your laurels.
“All institutions, at any given moment, are mostly designed for a previous generation of students. So I hope my mark is to continue to inspire and support all of us in continuing to innovate and remake ourselves in a way that is in service of the current generation of students and those who will come. Any organization, any institution, entity, that is not constantly interrogating itself, and its relevance to the current environment, is going to fall behind.”
Shushok did not want to predict whether he’d retire from Roanoke.
“I just have no idea. One year ago, I could not have ever imagined that I wouldn’t be at Virginia Tech this next year. But life poses some questions and opportunities that landed me here. And I’m thrilled about that. And what I’m not doing is trying to plan out the rest of my career. What I’m trying to do is to wake up every day, and to apply my life in pursuit of loving people well, and helping them become their best self. And right now that’s at Roanoke.”