Senior admissions director and longtime donor Cheryl Jester-George advanced with the law school
Cheryl Jester-George started her Georgia State University career in the mailroom — literally. The year was 1981, and she wasn’t sure what work would suit her best.
Today as a senior admissions director at the GSU College of Law, Jester-George has helped select and support a generation of lawyers, while attaining a Ed.D. (Doctor of Education) and gaining insight about herself.
Established only 30 years ago, the law school grew from the ground up, and Jester-George helped form its gateway: the admissions office.
“The enormous recruitment dimension of her position means that she is the first face of the law school for many people, and possibly the only face for an entire year,” said College of Law Dean Steve Kaminshine, who joined the faculty in 1984.
“Cheryl is naturally gifted at building relationships with prospective students, and we needed to have that because early on, we didn’t have the recognition of Emory, UGA, Duke or Vanderbilt. People knew us as affordable, but what were we about? Cheryl had to explain, and she is great at getting people interested in coming to Georgia State.”
Jester-George is a longtime donor through the Campus Campaign, in which GSU faculty and staff contribute more than $500,000 annually in addition to their daily professional and academic service in support of the university.
“This was an easy give, because I want resources to go to a scholarship fund at the law school,” she said. “After I admit a student, the next question is: Do you have money to pay? This is my way of showing what I tell students: All I want is for you to be successful.”
Her support goes beyond the Campus Campaign. In February, she took part in the Public Interest Law Association’s 20th annual auction at the Georgia Freight Depot, which raises money and awareness for the importance of public interest law. Administered by the GSU Foundation, the PILA funding provides multiple scholarships for students who take unpaid summer internships at public interest law firms.
“If funding takes away some of the stress so you can stay focused, that’s the least I can do,” she said. “I believe development starts at admissions, because I want to be a person who opens the floodgates of students coming here who will give back.”
Jester-George, 53, is the youngest of nine children from Barnesville, Ga. She first came to GSU with a bachelor’s degree in political science from Morris Brown College. The campus mail room taught her the university system, and that that knowledge helped her move into a front desk position in undergraduate admissions.
She advanced to handle residency appeals, before learning about opportunities at the new law school, which then occupied only the first floor of the Urban Life Building.
“My brother is an attorney and I thought that might be an avenue I wanted to pursue,” Jester-George recalled. “I watched ‘The Perry Mason Show’ frequently, and my mindset back then was that someone always admitted to the crime.
“What kept me here at Georgia State was the growing process every day, from seeing the law as simpler and easier swayed, to understanding now how everything is countered and directed, and how law permeates every part of society. I am fascinated with the people, behavior and conversation here at the law school.”
In the admissions process, Jester-George relied on critical thinking that weighed many disparate factors among applicants.
“To build an incoming class of students who are predicted to succeed, and attract a class of diverse experience and disadvantage backgrounds, she deals with a lot of different constituencies that can be at tension with one another,” Kaminshine said.
“She’s adept at blending those, and developing policies that move things forward creatively. She knows how to do a lot with a little, and finds a way to get it done.”
Jester-George described how her job required her to become wise, much like a judge.
“Not everyone who has good test numbers and grades is a great candidate for us, and not everyone with bad numbers is a bad candidate,” she said. “When I talk to applicants, I look from a global viewpoint to see what that person is bringing to us and the profession. My overall mission is to help admit someone who will successfully complete our process, who has a passion for the community and is going to add to the community.”
Jester-George’s competitiveness fed the success of the College of Law, Kaminshine said.
“She taught herself the admissions industry and quickly earned the respect of colleagues across the country,” he said. “No matter what level she reached, she always wanted to get better. She always likes a challenge.”
Over the years, she has seen the rise in the importance of rankings (GSU has been noted as the best value among all U.S. law schools by preLaw magazine, and its graduates face the least student debt). Most recently, she has seen a dip in the number of applicants – by 16 percent this year.
Jester-George pitches potential students with the downtown location a few blocks from where state laws are made at the State Capitol; the numerous opportunities for practical experience through county legal systems and law firms of a major city; the emphasis on a diverse student body, and the extensive local network of the law school’s 3,000 alumni. To help with recruitment, she organized an alumni ambassador program.
“The value of experience is the best value of the College of Law,” she said. “Our graduates always give back, too. Anytime I need them, even last minute, they will be there.”
While at GSU, she received her masters and Ed.D. in education from Clark Atlanta University. As she helped shape the future of many others, she formed a clearer view of her role.
“In impacting someone’s future with my decision, I feel good when I admit someone, but not when I deny them,” she said. “I’ve learned to flip a switch and realize that they denied themselves, because they knew what we were looking for. When I see the applicants who make it, I am excited for them because their records earned them admittance, and I want to give them some ownership. I always want to empower applicants to understand our decisions.”
As she advanced at the law school, Jester-George also raised her son Gerald Jackson, now 22.
The passage of generations hit home to her recently in an applicant’s essay. The writer revealed that he had first gone to class at the College of Law in utero: his pregnant mother was one of the law school’s first students.
That revelation did not completely surprise her, because she has learned to keep an open mind.
“I write in my journal every day that I am thankful to God for the new opportunity of this day,” said Jester-George, who is also helping nurture an upcoming class of female staff members through GSU’s new Executive Leadership Academy for Women. “I always expect to learn something new.”
—By Michelle Hiskey; Contact Kim Cretors, (404) 413-3424