Alumni Spotlight: Zelma Ballard ’59

by Deanna Wheeler and Kate Beach

Zelma Ballard ’59 reflects upon her undergraduate student experience at UCR during the late 1950’s with a lasting recollection of caring faculty, advisors and fellow students, and attending class at The Barn. She chuckles as she explains that class sizes were roughly six students to every professor. Needless to say, they were a tightknit group where everyone knew each other.

Zelma represents an important perspective as the first African American female graduate at UCR, which she humbly admits, is a designation she was not aware of until nearly five years after graduating with her BA in Social Sciences. She and former UCR Alumni Association Board President, Kyle Hoffman, flipped through yearbooks one afternoon in the early 1960’s to confirm his “hunch” that she may have been “a majority of one” as she refers to herself.

Zelma is a woman of many firsts and a trailblazer in her own right. She was the only African American in her graduating class from Mecca Elementary School as well as in her graduating class at Coachella Valley Union High School as well as in her graduating class at Coachella Valley Union High School; and the first teacher of color at Grand Terrace Elementary School during the time of the Civil Rights Movement. She remembers being asked from a young black alumnus how she endured the lack of diversity in these educational settings; to which she responded, “I didn’t pay much attention to it. I worked two part-time jobs while in school at UCR and was too busy to be preoccupied with anything else.” Zelma said, “my siblings and I always had a goal we were working towards.” She credits her success and perseverance to staying goal oriented and the support she received from her community, mentors, and family.

Zelma Ballard, UCR’s first African American male graduate Roy Overstreet (left) at the 2011 Black Graduation with Chancellor Tim White, Ken Simmons, and students.

Zelma’s determination paid off. She remained hyper-focused to achieve her academic goals which included: completing her practicum at University of Redlands to earn a teaching credential, followed by earning a Master’s in Language Arts with an emphasis in Elementary Education from California State University San Bernardino.

As a junior at UCR, Zelma was encouraged by her late advisor, Dr. Arthur Turner, to apply for a National Defense Scholarship; of which she was awarded. This financial assistance allowed Zelma to travel to Germany on assignment with the Department of Defense as a director of recreational programs for deployed servicemen, after graduating from UCR. She expressed great appreciation for Dr. Turner’s encouragement and guidance he gave to her as a student. While Zelma thought she would join the ranks of the FBI post-graduation, it was the sage advice of Dr. Turner that steered her focus toward teaching, a profession that peeked her interests and complemented her talents.

A woman of many talents, Zelma says that many of her colleagues were impressed by her progressive applications of the sciences and worldly perspective in social sciences in the classroom. Her keen interest in geology, international affairs, and social studies captivated her students and made learning fun in Ms. Ballard’s class.

Zelma shows her appreciation for those at UCR who influenced her path to becoming an educator by supporting programs and volunteering her time at UCR. She supports UCR’s African Student Programs, she has served as a board member of the Alumni Association and has been active in community organizations such as the Community Players, the Riverside Mission Belles, an all woman’s chorus, and she served as a health educator for the Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation for several years. She has also been active in her church.

Zelma is in awe of the continual growth she sees today compared to the much smaller campus she set foot on in the 50’s. This growth is exciting to her and she is pleased to see UCR and its students continuing to thrive. She looks forward to being involved and hopes to share some of her wisdom with the next generation of teachers in the Graduate School of Education.