Fordham trustee and author Valerie Rainford, FCRH ’86, shared her personal story of tragedy and triumph during a presentation and round table discussion with 15 rising high school seniors at the Rose Hill campus in the Bronx.

“My whole life, I’ve been this kid who’s gone through change and challenge, and I’ve turned that into my competitive energy,” said Rainford, managing director and head of Advancing Black Leaders strategy at JPMorgan Chase & Co.

The students from the Laboratory School of Finance and Technology in the South Bronx gathered at Faber Hall on Aug. 9 to discuss Rainford’s award-winning memoir, Until the Brighter Tomorrow: One Woman’s Courageous Climb from the Projects to the Podium, part of a summer school reading program sponsored by Areté Education, a community academic initiative.

A Bronx native herself, Rainford grew up in the projects, changing homes and schools every year (“if you name a school, I probably went to it”) while her family tried to make ends meet. She endured poverty, a drug culture, domestic violence, the death of her brother, and ultimately the devastating suicide of her mother, which led to Rainford dropping out of Fordham during her sophomore year.

“I had no intention of ever coming back,” she said.  “I lost my way.”

But support from University career advisers and the encouraging words and deeds of her late mother—the daughter of South Carolina sharecroppers with only a sixth-grade education—was seared into Rainford’s consciousness and drew her back into the fold.

“When I returned to Fordham, I wanted to make my mother proud. I feel like she’s been sitting on my shoulder, encouraging me ever since.”

Rainford commuted to Rose Hill and Lincoln Center during the day, returning to the Bronx where she was a cashier and manager at Key Food at night. On her days off from school, she worked at the bank nearby. With an aptitude for numbers and money, she majored in economics and earned her degree.

After meeting with recruiters on campus at Rose Hill, Rainford accepted an offer from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, her employer for the next 21 years, where she rose to become the first black woman to be promoted to senior vice president and the most senior black woman in the Federal Reserve system. But, she said, “I was just a good worker. I wasn’t working for the title.”

At JPMorgan Chase, Rainford continues to work with businesses as they reorganize and restructure. “My sole focus is to figure out how we hire, retain, and advance people who look like you and me,” she told the students, who were of diverse backgrounds.

Rainford says the early hardships she faced provided her with the experience, tools, and tenacity for later success.

“I was good at change. We were always struggling, but I was really good at adjusting and turning personal experience into a gift that no one else around me had,” said Rainford, who joined Fordham’s Board of Trustees in July. “I can look at a situation that everyone else has been staring at for a year and see it differently.”

Rainford signed copies of her book and led roundtable discussions facilitated by Sarah Benis Scheier-Dolberg, Ed.D.; John Garibaldi; and Anthony Baez of Areté Education. At the end of the session, the group presented Rainford with a thank-you card.

One of the students, Mariyam Sumarah, asked if there ever was a time when Rainford wanted to stop trying.

“Well, sometimes you can forget that the fight is worth it,” Rainford said. “It will take a while, but you have to keep at it. People are going to close doors on you. Just never give up.”

Publishers told Rainford that her story was not believable and advised her to restructure the narrative. Rainford refused, and instead launched her own publishing company, Elloree Press, a platform for new and aspiring writers to tell their own stories.

Following the event, the students toured campus venues including Hughes Hall, the Rose Hill home of the Gabelli School of Business; Dealy Hall; and Walsh Family Library, learning about college core classes, adjunct professors, and internships.

Student Leslie Rivas is considering Fordham’s Criminal Justice program. “I would be the first in my family to go to college,” she said. “College will be hard, and I have to be prepared to achieve.”

Another student, Pedro Nunez, reflected on Rainford’s life. “It inspired me and made me want to expand my education and keep doing good,” he said.

Rainford reflected on her own life as well. “In some way, I think God made me go through all that I went through so that I could be here today,” she said. “My purpose on the planet is to be a role model for others. I walk the streets that you walk, and if I can do those things, so can you.”

—Deborah Anders