Descendant of Slavery’s Compelling Life Journey Includes Military Service, a Musical Gift–And Now a UMGC Degree

Editor’s Note: Raymond Fisher recently was featured in WJLA-TV ABC 7’s Spotlight on Education series. Click HERE to watch.

Raymond Fisher is a father and grandfather, a technology professional, a musician, a military veteran and the descendent of an enslaved woman on George Washington’s farm. He now is adding another descriptor to his life: college graduate.

After a 25-year interruption in his education, Fisher earned a Bachelor of Science in Information Systems Management from University of Maryland Global Campus. Even more, he was selected as student speaker for the virtual commencement on May 15.

Ray Fisher will address his fellow graduates as the student speaker at the UMGC virtual commencement ceremony on May 15.

Fisher, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in the Gulf War, said the degree may not be his last engagement with UMGC. He wants to use his military benefits to enroll in a master’s program “and then look into getting a Ph.D.”  

In the late 1990s, Fisher was enrolled at Purdue University, pursing a degree in mechanical engineering, when he withdrew from his studies to raise a family.

“I was working and studying at the same time, and I made a decision that was in the best interest of my family,” he said. In the years that followed, he made a good income. The lack of a college degree wasn’t an obstacle in the fields where he worked: engineering, construction, project management and, eventually, Internet technology.

“Then, about four years ago, I was caught up in a cycle of layoffs at Freddie Mac. I looked for job opportunities and found a match with Booz Allen,” Fisher said. The IT consulting company was keen on him until it learned he had no college degree.

“That’s when I made a decision that I would never be turned away from a job because I didn’t have a degree. I enrolled at UMGC and picked up where I left off—a bachelor’s degree I had abandoned 25 years earlier,” he said.

Fisher was raised in a family where education, music and church were valued. His mother was a nurse and his father a teacher. In the District of Columbia neighborhood where he grew up in the 1970s, there was a lot of political activism; it was the stomping ground of Marion Barry and others who would become political players in the nation’s capital. Barry, who later served four terms as D.C. mayor, lived only two doors away.

“It was a very progressive time and we were exposed to a lot. I was enrolled at the first D.C. public school program for talented students,” he said. But his life was thrown off kilter when his mother died. He was 9. Two years later, his father died. 

The youngest of six children and the only boy in his family, Fisher was cared for by family members in Dallas, Texas, and spent summers in New York’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. He lived in Maryland for his sophomore, junior and senior years of high school, attending Forestville High School in Prince George’s County. There, he entered the ROTC program “and joined a Go-Go band called Players Choice, which was managed by our shop teacher.” As a member of the band, he performed at a concert with Public Enemy, which he describes as his “15 minutes of fame.”

Fisher said his lifelong love of music started in his church. Later, during eight years of military service that began when he was 19, he was exposed to both music in other countries and the global influence of American jazz and R&B. Today, he jams with his son, an aspiring hip hop musician, in a basement music studio. Percussion and rhythm are Fisher’s passion.

“I’m a helluva beat maker,” he explained with a laugh.

Like many UMGC students, Fisher juggled a job while studying. Even after a car accident left him with a concussion, he pushed through with his coursework. He attributed his drive and resilience to his roots, including enslaved ancestors and his father’s Native American background.

“I am an African descendent of slaves. An ancestor on my mother’s side was a slave of George Washington. A grandmother was a runaway slave in Texas,” he explained. “I don’t look at my family’s link to slavery as a prideful thing. It was an atrocity. But that’s who we were and we take pride in who we are.”

Fisher said getting his bachelor’s degree was made more challenging by the COVID-19 pandemic, but he credited his UMGC professors for being compassionate and working with students—including some on a class project team—who contracted the coronavirus.

“It was a long journey to get me to this point. There have been a lot of trials and tribulations,” Fisher said. “But one thing that helped is that at UMGC, I felt like we had a community.”   

UMGC ALUMNA BRIG. GEN. JANEEN L. BIRCKHEAD HAS SUCCEEDED BY “HAVING A PLAN—AND A PLAN TO CHANGE THE PLAN”

Rising to the Top Echelons of the Maryland National Guard, Birckhead Excelled at Leading National Guard Troops from Around the Country in Protecting the U.S. Capitol After the Failed Insurrection
and During the Presidential Inauguration in January

As a young girl growing up in Snow Hill, a small hamlet on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Brig. Gen. Janeen L. Birckhead wanted to be a civil rights lawyer. Public service and community involvement were hallmarks of her immediate and extended family; her mother was a judge and several aunts were teachers.

A good student, Birckhead scored a prestigious summer internship when she was in high school, working as a page in the U.S. Senate, a position sponsored by Sen. Paul Sarbanes of Maryland. She majored in political science at Hampton University in Virginia, but instead of moving on to law school, chose a career in public service and the military.

Birckhead’s decision was rooted in a lesson she learned from her mother when Birckhead was a sixth grader. She had stayed up late to finish a poster, and on her way to school the next day her mother let her know that she had done a good job. Later, though, she pointed out that the poster could have been great, if only Birckhead hadn’t procrastinated.

“I received the message loud and clear,” Birckhead vividly recalled. “I needed to take charge of my life and not let things distract me.”

Fast-forward to her senior year of high school, and Birckhead’s mother was at it again when Birckhead was applying for financial aid. She mentioned an Army ROTC scholarship, and her mother questioned whether Birckhead would be chosen in the highly selective process.

Brig. Gen. Janeen L. Birckhead

“I enjoyed competition,” said Birckhead, taking on her mother’s not-so-veiled challenge with gusto. In reality, her mother was not surprised when Birckhead earned the scholarship, which changed the trajectory of her daughter’s life.

Birckhead’s ability to switch gears and adapt, “to have a plan, but also a plan to change the plan,” she says, has served her well as she rose through the ranks, first in the Army reserves and then for the next 27 years (and counting) of her distinguished career in the Maryland Army National Guard.

She has been a chemical officer, an Aide de Camp to the Adjutant General of the Maryland Guard, commanded troops at the company, battalion and brigade levels, and served with distinction as a team leader and the Designated Military Officer for the Office of Administrative Review for the Detention of Enemy Combatants at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Birckhead has also deployed on two separate missions to Afghanistan, first supporting plans to field and grow the Afghan National Security Forces as Deputy Operations Chief, and more recently as Division Chief for Logistics at the Joint Forces Headquarters.

After commanding a regional Army training institute, Birckhead went back to Capitol Hill and directed the Legislative Liaison Office for the Maryland National Guard.

She followed her mentor, Maj. Gen. Linda Singh, adjutant general of the Maryland National Guard, in company command, battalion command and, in 2018, as assistant adjutant general for Army, when Singh promoted Birckhead to the position Singh once held.

“I admire and hold her in high esteem and seek her counsel,” said Birckhead of Singh, who retired in 2019. “She is a role model and someone who can give me another perspective on what’s going on in the world.”

Birckhead was part of a first-in-the-nation all-female state National Guard command staff, which also included April Vogel, who was promoted by Singh to assistant adjutant general for Air several months after Birckhead, and Command Sgt. Maj. Perlisa D. Wilson, the highest-ranking enlisted person. Birckhead takes extra pride in the fact that she, Singh and Vogel are also women of color.

“I didn’t even realize that it was going to line up this way,” Singh told The Washington Post in 2018. “It’s not like I engineered it for all of them to end up in these positions. It just so happened that these talented ones started rising to the top.”

It was another Birckhead mentor, Gen. James F. Frettered, who encouraged her to join the National Guard in 1993 and who emphasized the importance of education as the key to her advancing up the ranks.

His advice had an immediate effect. Birckhead enrolled at University of Maryland Global Campus (then University of Maryland University College) in fall 1993 because of its reputation as a flexible option for people like her who must juggle a full-time job and military service. Birckhead was doing both, working in legislative affairs on Capitol Hill and serving in the National Guard.

“The military teaches you to think a certain way, so it is important to attend a university outside the service to be able to think more broadly about issues,” she said.

Birckhead earned a master’s degree in management from UMGC and attributed the program with helping her to prioritize, take her critical thinking skills to another level and better articulate concepts. She added that having older students in her classes at UMGC elevated the discourse.  “Many of my fellow students had more life experience and were working in a variety of different fields, so I was learning not just from my professors.”

She also earned a master’s degree from the U.S. Army War College, preparing her to succeed in her leadership roles in the military, and ultimately leading to her assignment commanding Task Force Capitol, following the failed insurrection on Jan. 6 and continuing through the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20.

People asked, “Why her?” Birckhead’s response: “Why not me? I worked on the Hill, I know it very well. I’m a leader. I’ve led at every level. I can do this.

“Not to say it wasn’t a very big challenge,” she added, “working in an environment that was volatile and uncertain. It was important that I was able to build a strong team [at the Maryland National Guard] and bring them with me.”

Brig. Gen. Janeen L. Birckhead was named by Maryland Governor Larry Hogan to lead the state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Equity Task Force.

Birckhead commanded more than 16,000 National Guard troops from across the country and was impressed with their dedication. “Having soldiers from every state on the ground, as professionals coming together and perform, was extraordinary,” she said.

Reflecting on a remarkable moment, Birckhead, who had been looking out from the Task Force operations center on the day of the inauguration and observing the peaceful transfer of power, said, “it was very moving for me and for all of the soldiers who were guarding our democracy that day.”

Following her role at the Capitol, Birckhead was selected by Maryland Governor Larry Hogan to head the COVID-19 Vaccine Equity Task Force. She currently juggles that responsibility with her position as deputy commanding general for reserve affairs at the U.S. Army War College.

Her accomplishments stand out, underscored by the fact that she has also held full-time civilian positions during her entire National Guard career. Among those roles, Birckhead, who is currently a senior advisor in the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau Trust Funds Administration, has also served as a special agent in charge of Defense Security Service and has worked in the Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights field at the Office of Personnel Management.

As a distinguished UMGC alumna, Birckhead will present the keynote address at the university’s stateside virtual commencement ceremony on May 15. What will she tell graduates? “Be proud of the degree and let it be known you are a UMGC graduate—and go back and tell your story.”

Curiosity and UMCG Courses Open Doors for Former Servicemember

In 2018, when a University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) professor mentioned in class that Student Anthropologist magazine had issued a call for papers, Ashley Mize took note.

A career with the U.S. Air Force had brought Mize to Europe from the Texas town where she grew up. It also unleashed her curiosity about different countries and cultures, encouraged her natural talent for foreign languages and led her to enroll at UMGC.    

Her experiences converged recently when she published an academic paper in Student Anthropologist magazine, looking at the Italian town of Solferino, a bloody 1859 battle and the tradition that brings a wave of International Red Cross and International Red Crescent volunteers to the community of 1,100 residents every June.

Mize was among 10,000 Red Cross volunteers from 76 countries who took part in the 2018 gathering in Solferino.

“Solferino was an amazing experience,” said Mize, who has a Bachelor of Science in social science from UMGC. “Everything was breathtaking—so much political history and unity and cultural diversity. I was exposed to cultures from all over the world, from the Middle East to Asia to different parts of Africa and South America and Europe.”

Her paper, which she drafted later, was entitled “Anthropology and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies: A 2018 Interdisciplinary Observance in Solferino, Italy,” and appeared in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of Student Anthropologist magazine.   

Solferino was the site of the last military engagement in the Second Italian War of Independence. The armies of Austria, Sardinia, Hungary and the Second French Empire came together in a battle that left 6,000 dead and 40,000 wounded. The bloodshed inspired Jean-Henri Dunant of Switzerland to found the Red Cross as an independent organization to help victims’ families and bring nations together in both war and peace.

For the past 29 years, Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers have traveled to Solferino each year to reaffirm their commitment to unity and neutrality. Mize’s social science degree focused on anthropology, and she brought that perspective to her observations of the event.

Mize served six years in the U.S. Air Force, most of it stationed in Germany as a personnel journeyman. When her husband, also an Air Force member, was assigned to Italy, she moved along with him. It was there, in 2015, that she enrolled at UMGC.

“Her passion for languages brought her to UMGC as she pursued certificates in German and Italian Studies,” said Ricky Lucas, who was Mize’s academic adviser at the Aviano Air Base in northeastern Italy. “Her enjoyment of learning about culture and languages while taking UMGC Europe classes was not confined to Aviano Air Base only. Ashley traveled to Naples, Italy, to take the Italian Life and Culture course, to Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany for the German Society and Culture course, and U.S. Army Garrison in Vicenza, Italy, to take an Intermediate Italian course.”

Mize said she booked low-cost flights on Ryanair to attend those UMGC classes at other military bases so she could finish her degree early. These were typically eight-week hybrid courses that met primarily online and for three weekends in person. She also traveled to Spain to attend an academic conference.

“I was taking 12 credits per semester—more than full time—and I had a rigorous system for studying.” She joked that more coffee and less sleep were part of the formula that enabled her to graduate from UMGC in December 2018.

Mize said the Italian language courses enabled the Solferino trip. Lucas said they also entrenched her in the local community.

“Her experiences with UMGC Europe gave her the confidence to join the Italian Red Cross—the Croce Rossa—as the only American member in the local organization,” Lucas said. “Ashley was able to use her language and cultural knowledge learned from UMGC in the most positive way possible.”

When Mize’s husband was subsequently transferred to Texas, she enrolled in a graduate program at Texas State University where she expects to complete a master’s degree in elementary education with ESL certification next year.

Her education plans don’t end there. She also intends to pursue a Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (CELTA) through a dual-accreditation program between the University of Texas and Cambridge University. And she wants to get an online teaching certificate. “UMGC definitely has a place in my heart,” said Mize, who served for more than a year and a half on the UMGC Student Advisory Council. “The travel and studying abroad that I did, including to other UMGC campuses for classes, really opened my understanding and experiences.”

UMGC Arts Program Shifts Gears During the Pandemic

In a darkened room, a white-haired man in a sleeveless, striped sweater sits on a wooden swivel chair before a door. The title of Sharon Wolpoff’s 1988 oil painting, “Waiting for the Electrician,” explains the scene. Yet the work is much more. It is a symphony of abstract forms where, in this instance, the shadow cast by the chair alternatively evokes fossilized dinosaur bones, a stringed instrument such as a harp, and a gridded Piet Mondrian painting.

With a year of social distancing, pandemic, and relative isolation behind us, the work of Wolpoff—a Washington, D.C.-born artist—feels like it is channeling the quarantine. A unseen electrician is evidently en route, but anything, say even a global pandemic grinding the world to a near standstill, could happen. Perhaps the man in the sweater awaits Godot, to evoke Samuel Beckett’s famous play about pining in vain for an arrival.

The painting is a gift by the artist to the University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) Maryland Artist Collection. It is also one of 10 artworks that UMGC has printed and mailed to supporters of its Arts Program as part of the Stay Connected initiative during the COVID-19 shutdown. According to printed materials, the Arts Program “will renew its exhibition program upon the reopening of site operations” and all previously slated exhibitions, including a survey of Wolpoff’s art, will be mounted when it is safe to do so.

In the Stay Connected mailings, each printed work from the UMGC collection is sized for framing, said Eric Key, director of the Arts Program, and accompanied by information about the artist and the art. In the case of Wolpoff’s painting, “it is at the moment when the light appears that artistic creativity strikes. She sees more than just a well-lit space; she sees how the space is transformed.”

Wolpoff also explores the ways light affects color. “For example, what at first appears to be a navy blue might become a lighter blue or sky blue with a ray of light on the surface,” according to the notes about the painting. “This play of light on color inspires her to discover how different shades of one color can change the tenor of a work. It is this union of color and shapes, this fusion, that she demonstrates in her work.”

Nine other printed works from UMGC’s collection scheduled to be mailed over the next few months are: a circa 206 B.C.E. to 220 C.E. cauldron—perhaps part of funerary set—by an unknown Chinese artist; Selma Oppenheimer’s 1960 painting “Girl in Yellow Hat;” an untitled Alma Thomas 1969 watercolor painting; Paul Reed’s 1971 acrylic painting on paper, “Gilport One,” from a series called Gilport; a silver gelatin print of William Anderson’s 1978 photo “Woman with Pipe;” McArthur Binion’s circa 1978-79 crayon-on-aluminum work “152 W. 25th Street;” Nelson Stevens’ 1983 mixed media work “Stevie Wonder;” Andy Warhol’s 1983 screen print “African Elephant” from his Endangered Species series; and Curlee Raven Holton’s 2017 oil painting titled “Dream Bait.”

The notes accompanying the images are rich with detail. Among other things, recipients are informed that Warhol was born Andrew Warhola and that a movement called AfriCOBRA stands for “the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists.” Photographer Anderson, who was born in Selma, Alabama, in 1932, said of his artistic approach, “I believe there is beauty in all life … I look for people whose faces tell a story.” Anderson died in 2019.

Biographical information offered through the Stay Connected initiative points out that Thomas’ career was marked by several historic firsts. She had her first solo exhibition at age 68 and was the first African American woman with a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. She was also the first African American woman whose work was acquired by the permanent collection of the White House Historical Association and displayed at the White House.

When Key closed UMGC’s art galleries on March 15, 2020, he thought it would be a short-term measure. As it became clear that the pandemic would necessitate longer closures, he had to take measures to reschedule exhibitions.

“We were curating our own shows, so it was easier for us to communicate with artists and owners and let them know what was going on,” he said. “As much as we would have liked to stay on schedule, of course they all understood.

”We were very clear that we were not canceling. We were postponing,” he said.

After polling community members, Key decided that printed materials, rather than virtual artist talks, were the best way to stay connected for now.

“Our arts patrons were really getting burned out with those meetings, and they didn’t really feel a connection to the artwork. We decided not to do Zoom meetings,” he explained. “We decided to do print media instead.”

Stay Connected is the reminder to the UMGC community that the Arts Program is not closed for good. In showcasing many past exhibitions, artists’ talks and works from the UMGC collection, it also shows the breadth of the 35-year-old program.

“We also wanted the public to stay tuned—kind of like a teaser—to see the works up front and close when the program reopens,” Key explained.

The Arts Program had just completed the 4th Biennial Maryland Regional Juried Art Exhibition on March 1, 2020, when COVID-19 restrictions began. The facilities department and the security team ensured the safety of the juried artworks, displayed in the program’s rotating gallery, until they could be returned to the artists. Key said he was able to go in for a day or two to take the works down. Artists came to the building’s loading dock and retrieved their pieces,

“If the building is on lockdown, it’s on lockdown. You can’t get in nor out,” Key said.

The permanent collection remains hanging on the gallery walls. Conservators are not present in person but the collection has been safeguarded by 24-hour security during the pandemic.

Exhibitions are not the only thing disrupted by COVID-19. The pandemic also affected plans for a return art trip to Cuba for the Cuban Biennale. A 2019 trip generated enough interest that the 2020 trip was on track to sell out before the pandemic hit.

Key said he looks forward to when he can resume planning arts education trips.

With the pandemic, Key and the Arts Program directors had to pivot their focus. They have been hard at work on the longer-term project of digitizing the university’s nearly 3,000 works of art. That has meant planning photo shoots of some works and finding existing professional shots of others then uploading images into collection software while ensuring that the text describing each work is accurate.

With help from IT technicians, Key and his colleagues have been learning new computer software programs. When the building reopens, they will confirm the sizes, media, and key characteristics they must know in order to virtually present the works—and their artists—to the general public.

Until then, Key recommended that people who are exploring art online pay attention to the virtual events produced by the Smithsonian Institution, local Maryland galleries, and David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora at University of Maryland. He said Driscoll’s legacy, in particular, stands out for him.

He also encouraged art lovers to hang onto emails about exhibitions. “Keep them as a reference. Then go to the institutions to see the actual works when those organizations reopen,” he said. “Seeing the emails will only pique your interest in seeing the work in person.”   

Key said virtual exhibitions where viewers click on arrows that help them “walk” through galleries have not provided him with the closeness to art he seeks. He tried a virtual walk-through with Hauser & Wirth gallery’s Amy Sherald exhibit. Sherald famously painted former first lady Michelle Obama for the National Portrait Gallery.

“I was more interested to get to the pieces so I could see them, but even looking at a piece, I felt a distance from it. I didn’t feel a closeness to it,” Key said. “As much as I respect the intent of the gallery to show the work, I couldn’t see the brushstrokes. I couldn’t see the details that I would look at in person.”

It is impossible for Key to predict when the UMGC galleries will reopen. Once the university deems it safe to do so, the Arts Program will begin planning its postponed exhibition as well as future shows and programs.

“Personally, and as the director of the program, I was obviously very disappointed that people didn’t have access to the art,” Key said. People who frequent art galleries, including members of the UMGC arts community, have told Key they missed that access.

Even people who are not regular gallery visitors said they missed having contact with art.

“On a larger scale, we take art for granted, but it really does serve a higher meaning and a higher calling in the community,” Key said. “We’ve always known that art had its place. This just validates that it does.”