The secret of Dr. Ron Malcolm’s success is simple: work hard, be positive, make a difference
By Meagan Hancock
Dr. Ron Malcolm (’82, ’83) is larger than life. Speaking by video call from his office in Kansas, where he served as Assistant Director for Special Education in the Lansing Public School system for 12 years prior to his retirement in August, his dynamic personality fills the screen. Proficient in Braille and using American Sign Language (ASL) to accompany the spoken word, his hands move rapidly and precisely, allowing him to communicate with me as effectively as he does with children and youth with disabilities in schools across the United States. Dr. Malcolm holds post-graduate degrees from four other universities and serves as a Director on the Board of the Acadia Alumni Association, but to understand how he got there from here, we need to go back to the early ’80s at Acadia University – and a story that begins with hot dogs. Born and raised in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, Dr. Malcolm hopped in a car in his senior year of high school with his best friend Susan Robertson (’83) and headed to Wolfville. Susan’s dad was driving her down to see the Acadia campus. Dr. Malcolm had applied, too, so they carpooled. “The one thing that attracted me…?” He pauses as he reflects. “This is going to make quite the story.” He lifts his hands and signs: “hot dogs.” Even though he had looked at other universities, he couldn’t get past the fact that Acadia had his favourite food in the cafeteria. He hadn’t heard of Acadia before he applied, and who could imagine that hot dogs (and a solid academic curriculum to boot) would prove to clinch his post-secondary school choice. The second youngest of eight siblings, Dr. Malcolm admits that growing up was tough and there were challenges. He is the only one in his family to graduate high school. He also has a number of physical limitations, including deafness and diabetes, symptomatic of minimal access to proper health care and family financial constraints. He also faced homelessness as a result of his situation at home, living in a boarding house during his last years of high school. However, he was driven. His motivation to succeed? He wanted a better life for himself and his future children. In fact, with the mentorship of teachers, he travelled Nova Scotia meeting people as part of his high school debate team, and band. He saw how other families lived and interacted, the privileges they had through education, and how that translated into economic opportunities for them.
Life at Acadia
While Acadia wasn’t originally on his radar, Dr. Malcolm’s visit to campus left a lasting impression. Ironically, Wheelock Dining Hall would eventually provide long-term employment, allowing him to pay for his years of study. He also made some unlikely friends on the football team, giving them extra food sandwiched between steaks, allowing a self-proclaimed ‘nerd’ to connect with the ‘jocks’, many of whom became lifelong friends. He would pick up their shifts as university security on the weekends when they wanted to go out and socialize – a luxury he couldn’t afford. The days were hard, but “I was so grateful to be employed,” he says. At the time at Acadia, you simply paid the university per term, which was great for Dr. Malcolm because he couldn’t afford to take time off during the summer. He had to work and pay for additional terms. This intense academic focus allowed him to complete his first degree (a BA in English Language and Literature/Letters) in record time; he was just 19 years old when he graduated. In fact, he earned his second degree (BEd in Special Education) in the time that it took his initial cohort to complete their first, following the traditional four-year curriculum for undergraduate education at Acadia. Mentorship and his own innate curiosity resolved to produce transformative moments in his preliminary academic career at Acadia. During first year, Dr. Malcolm learned about a group of deaf students at Wolfville School. He began volunteering there and soon discovered a love of teaching and children. Small wonder he and his wife Sherrie would go on to eventually foster 56 children, 95 per cent of whom also have disabilities, in addition to raising three children of their own. While pursuing his BEd, he shared his personal history with Acadia University Education professor Dr. Jack Wendt, and was encouraged to do likewise in front of his class. It was then that Dr. Malcolm realized he had something to offer once everyone started peppering him with questions, eager to learn more about his experiences and how he overcame them. He began to see that his experiences provided him with the humanity, empathy and relatability to be a mentor for people whose life mirrored his own growing up. He sensed a way to transform a weakness into a strength, and was emboldened by the realization and the power that came with it. “The path is never going to be easy and with all the obstacles that come, a mentor can show you some things that have worked for them and may work for you. The people who did so for me at the time when I needed it the most forced me to look at myself, and I was able to recognize that there are other people in need, and it made me want to give back.” Dr. Malcolm adds, “never underestimate your own mentoring ability and how it may impact someone years later.”
“The path is never going to be easy and with all the obstacles that come, a mentor can show you some things that have worked for them and may work for you. The people who did so for me at the time when I needed it the most forced me to look at myself, and I was able to recognize that there are other people in need, and it made me want to give back.”
Foundational and transformative
Dr. Malcolm’s time at Acadia was foundational and transformative, establishing his passion for pedagogy, people and a personal commitment to ensure that each of us achieve our greatest potential. “I had to adjust my way of learning when I started university because it was a new way of thinking for me,” he says. However, some of the greatest insights he ever had were obtained by making mistakes and moving forward. “You have to be willing to learn. You’re either going to have a chip on your shoulder for the rest of your life, or you can have a fun time with it and move forward." Dr. Malcolm is, indeed, larger than life. His commitment to meet challenges head-on have allowed him to overcome difficult circumstances that by his own admission should never define who we are and what we’re capable of. His ability to transcend a situation and accentuate the positive is an important and shining example to which we can all aspire, and consistent with the values he and Acadia hold dear. He recently relocated to a remote fishing village in Alaska to work with children with significant disabilities. For more on his remarkable personal and academic achievements, please click HERE and scroll the page.