Rodney K. Sisco ’84 was charismatic. Dr. Sam Shellhamer HON, retired vice president of student development, remembers Sisco yelling out “Wild times!” to him across campus when Sisco was a student and he was an administrator. President Philip Ryken ’88 recalls first encountering Sisco as a big man singing “Hava Nagila” in Glee Club. “Even if you didn’t know Rodney personally, you knew Rodney,” said Sisco’s classmate, Beverly Liefeld Hancock ’84. Sisco’s positive presence was felt across campus.
“It wasn’t until after I left Wheaton,” Hancock, president of the Alumni Association, said, “that I began to understand how difficult it must have been for Rodney as one of only a handful of black students on campus. And yet, he chose to return to Wheaton and be a leader in bringing greater diversity and creating a space for those students.”
Today, Sisco’s gentle, affirming influence can still be felt across campus. Though he passed away in December 2018 after a battle with cancer, Sisco’s service to Wheaton, first as an admissions counselor and then as director of the Office of Multicultural Development (OMD), continues to have lasting impact.
Embodying Unity Within Diversity
When Sisco was a student at Wheaton, just over three percent of undergraduates were students ofcolor. Today, they make up nearly one quarter of thestudent body. These positive changes came with challenges.
“The work of deepening diversity is a spiritual struggle,” Ryken said. Sisco played a major role in guiding the campus through the “growing pains” of becoming more diverse. “He was good at loving and affirming the mission of the College while also challenging the systems, policies, and procedures that weren’t as effective at serving a changing student body,” said Dr. Paul Chelsen ’91, vice president of student development.
While such work can be divisive, Sisco had the unique capacity to translate across various groups, bringing people to common ground. “Rodney was very encouraging on themes of unity and diversity,” Ryken said. “His instinct, rather than finding fault with what was deficient, was to find ways to affirm what was God-honoring. That’s highly motivational in the body of Christ.”
Sisco’s leadership shone through during a difficult moment in recent campus history. After some students tweeted racially insensitive remarks during a chapel focused on African American worship, Sisco helped the campus work through pain and lament. He also recognized a “cultural moment,” said Chelsen, and made the case for moving the Office of Multicultural Development to the lower Beamer Center, making the conversation around cultural diversity more central—literally and figuratively—to campus life.
In its new location, the OMD became a hub for students of all backgrounds. Sisco’s disarming and nonjudgmental presence encouraged even those new to conversations around diversity to engage. “I told people who were interested in getting involved to go and talk to Rodney,” said Thomas (TJ) Whitfield ’20. “Rodney wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, you’re not a student of color,’ but instead, ‘Oh, you’re someone who is here to learn, willing to grow. I respect that. I’m going to help nurture that in any way I can.’”
Tanya Egler worked with Sisco ever since he invited her to direct the Gospel Choir nearly 30 years ago. As program assistant for the OMD, she has been part of the welcoming space that Rodney pioneered. “People come in just to chill out and to have conversations around the table, solving problems about the world.” The OMD, Egler added, shows Rodney’s vision of a family-oriented space of ethnic expression.
Eugene Bae ’21 joined the Gospel Choir cabinet as a freshman and did not expect Sisco to know her name. But “he already knew who I was,” she said. “Every time, he asked me ‘How are you doing?’ He didn’t dismiss any of us.” Bae’s experience was typical of the way Sisco personally invested in every student. He made each person feel “heard and seen as if my issues were the most important thing he had on his mind,” said Morgan Jacob ’17, former member of the Wheaton College Alumni Association Board of Directors.
This deep love for the students at Wheaton, said longtime friend, Reggie Bass ’81, was what enabled Sisco to persist through the challenges of working to make the campus a true place of shalom.
An Expansive Vision of God’s Kingdom
Sisco did not carry out his work alone, but invited others into it. Jerry Woehr ’08, M.A. ’13 worked closely with Sisco as director of International Student Programs, an office which grew out of the MuKappa student organization within the OMD. While Sisco was often approached as the go-to person for resolving cross-cultural issues on campus, he consistently identified the giftings of others and empowered them to leverage their own experience and connections to better serve students. “I loved having him bring me onto his team and point to others, saying, ‘Here’s another voice,’” Woehr said. “He saw Jesus in everybody and was ready to invite them into the work that Jesus had called him to do.”
Sisco’s vision was not just about serving students of color, but the entire campus. “Rodney was very committed, very available to majority students. He had a significant impact on many, many Caucasian students,” Shellhamer said.
Beyond leading the OMD, Sisco served on the Faculty Diversity Committee, chaired the Diversity Council formed by President Emeritus Duane Litfin HON, and encouraged the College to hire its first Chief Intercultural Engagement Officer. He also provided national leadership on diversity issues through the Association of Christians in Student Development and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), among other groups.
Woehr regularly met with Sisco in his office. As he would sit facing Sisco’s computer screen, he would see photo screensavers pop up of Sisco’s family—his wife Hasana Pennant Sisco ’86 and their two boys—along with Wheaton students and staff. To Woehr, those photos reflected Sisco’s legacy of “inviting many beyond his nuclear family into the family of God, across what some might say are cultural barriers.” Woehr saw the kingdom of God in Sisco’s screensavers. “Rodney was a faithful servant dedicated to making that kingdom a reality,” Woehr said.
“Rodney had a deep commitment to the College, faith in the reconciling work of Jesus, grace, and patience—along with a big smile,” said Hancock.
For 34 years, Sisco shared his gifts of patience, grace, and good humor to encourage and support thousands of Wheaton College students and alumni. With a gentle, affirming presence, Rodney embodied Christ’s love for people of all backgrounds, inspiring others to join him in the work of reconciliation. For his consistency and artistry in nurturing diversity and unity among the body of Christ, the Wheaton College Alumni Association remembers and honors him as the 2019 Alumnus of the Year for Distinguished Service to Alma Mater.