How wartime medic Kendra Ketchum became a tech trailblazer

At the University of Texas at San Antonio, Ketchum uses hybrid cloud power to reduce a digital divide that stretches deep into the Rio Grande Valley.

To grab a good look at Kendra Ketchum’s imprint on the world, follow these simple directions: Take the main entrance into the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), stay on Peace Circle as it gently winds to the right, then follow the road west for a few seconds until you reach a wide slab of asphalt.

Yes, it’s a parking lot. And yes, you’ll spot the standard grid of cars parked there. But behind some of those windshields, you’ll also see faces aglow and gazing into laptops—studying, writing and completing work, all accessing the free Wi-Fi that Ketchum not long ago had installed at numerous campus parking areas, courtyards and shady spaces.

Her idea was born in a pandemic, in a city where internet service hasn’t reached every neighborhood: Give UTSA students a safe place to maintain their coursework. But thinking even bigger, Ketchum sought to provide that same digital access to anyone seeking discovery amid a time of social distance.

Kendra Ketchum, vice president for information management and technology at UTSA. Photo by Gabe Hernandez.

“I looked at it this way: Who could consume online service that they currently can’t access, so that they could learn?” says Ketchum, vice president of information management and technology at UTSA.

“Who benefits from this? People like me. People who didn’t grow up going directly into higher ed, who cherish being able to get an education,” she adds. “We wanted to reach more people who didn’t have the same opportunities as others, especially people here in San Antonio.”

Those parking lots are merely one stop on Ketchum’s long, bold journey from single mom and wartime medic to a very different type of tech trailblazer. She was hired by UTSA in January 2019. From Texas to Europe and back again, she’s amassed a unique toolbox of leadership tactics that have helped UTSA not only survive the pandemic but flourish in it. Her initiatives have expanded tech services for students, researchers, faculty and staff while slowly reducing a digital divide that stretches deep into the Rio Grande Valley.

An epiphany

To help accomplish her ambitious goals, Ketchum and her team chose a hybrid cloud solution from Dell Technologies that enables customers to move workloads while saving time and money. It also includes a full-stack integration that’s easy to deploy and manage.

At UTSA, that solution helps secure the school’s scientific research, including COVID-19-related studies. It also delivers hybrid cloud resources that benefit even more students through virtual desktops for remote learning and through a single login point that offers safe, mobile access.

“It’s been a huge jump (for the university’s IT infrastructure) in the past couple years,” says Kirstin Zachary, a chemical engineering major at UTSA. “It’s been mind-boggling how much it has changed in just that amount of time, user-interface wise. Everything’s just become so beautiful, so fast, and I get answers immediately if I have any problems. It’s been amazing.”

UTSA chemical engineering major Kirstin Zachary. Photo by Gabe Gabe Hernandez.

For Ketchum, all that innovation now seems light years away from her days as a Texas teen with no plans to enter the tech world.

She graduated from a high school one hour west of Dallas, in a small town once rooted in cattle drives and chuckwagons, a history that inspired the novel Lonesome Dove. Ketchum set out “to make something of myself and not end up working the concession stand at the rodeo every summer.”

The U.S. Navy offered her that chance to grow. The military also fueled the kinds of calculated risks that would shape her career. Case in point: When Ketchum deployed to Spain as a hospital corpsman in the early 1990s, she was by then a single mom with a 2-year-old son—and the Gulf War was underway.

“I have a very different personal journey than a lot of people sitting in my seat,” she says.

Overseas, Ketchum assisted in wartime surgeries and cared for sailors in medical clinics. During many trips from Spain to Italy to help treat sailors who had arrived from ships in the Mediterranean Sea, she had her first tech-related epiphany: Could we offer the same level of care remotely? She and a surgeon investigated the possibility of providing health care visits via military phones, video cameras and IP networks—a medical practice that, in time, would become widely known as telemedicine.

Ketchum’s initiatives have expanded tech services for students, researchers, faculty and staff. Photo by Gabe Hernandez.

“It was a pivot for me,” Ketchum says. “It was pretty cool to do that and be part of that research. The Navy taught me a lot—integrity, shoot straight with people, the importance of serving others. I learned that the world doesn’t revolve around me, that it’s bigger than me.” Many of those lessons came from a strict Navy master chief, who, as Ketchum now describes with a laugh, “never made things easy for Kendra.”

“I can still hear her voice. She always told me: ‘There are two things you can’t control in your life: being born and dying. But everything in the middle? That’s all yours to control. You own that.’”

In other words: Be accountable.

A whole new world

Ten years after enlisting in the Navy, Ketchum finally landed in a world that was unavailable to her after high school: academia. There, she fully embraced a career in tech and built on the leadership tactics she’d gained while serving her country.

At the University of Northwestern Ohio, in Lima, she headed the IT department in 2001. Over the next two decades, across five colleges in Ohio and Texas, Ketchum evolved into what she now describes as “a servant leader.” She oversaw the tech, but didn’t keep a single technology book on her office shelves. She considered herself more of a “chief team officer” who sought to build “a large center of thinkers.”

But there was much work to do. She encountered ineffective IT managers who lacked empathy and vision. She inherited teams that weren’t communicating with one another—the network group didn’t talk to the server group, which didn’t talk to the app group; they all reported to different directors who mirrored those same behaviors. That dysfunction was not helping the students. “I started tearing down the borders,” Ketchum says.

Among her strategies to boost harmony was a simple, recurring lunch. She requested a $60,000 budget infusion for training, although she called it “eating money.” She had her IT teams order lunch together in the office or hit a restaurant together to work or just talk. “I literally made them break bread for lunch three days a week,” she recalls. “They started getting inspired.”

Ketchum, with colleagues Ashlee Vasquez and Ben Garcia, describes herself as “a servant leader.” Photo by Gabe Hernandez.

Ketchum also coaxed them to learn how their tech was impacting students. They began listening to the stories of undergrads. One young man explained that his father was in prison, forcing that student to work overnight warehouse shifts to pay his family’s rent. But when the IT team fixed software on his tablet, the student no longer needed to come to the school’s computer lab on Saturdays to complete his assignments, freeing up precious time.

“They had no idea what they’d been able to influence,” Ketchum says. “If you love what you do and you’ve got passion for what you do, it’s nice to know what you do makes a difference. That team turned a corner, and it was fast.”

When she arrived at UTSA, she initially saw that her IT team needed to feel more ownership, to feel part of a shared vision, Ketchum recalls. She showed her team she believed in them and helped them see their value. She gave them a voice and empowered them to better serve their customers—the students, researchers, faculty and staff. “Why would you not have relationships with the people you serve and be a human being first, not merely a technologist?” she poses.

Ketchum asked them to adopt design thinking, a problem-solving process that relies heavily on empathy. She also re-branded the group, from Office of Information Technology to University Technology Solutions. Emphasis on “solutions.” And she gave them a pressing question to ponder: How are you going to shape students’ lives?

Bridging the digital divide

IT improvements came quickly.

Using Dell Technologies solutions, Ketchum’s team modernized the course-registration portal, which had routinely crashed during previous cycles. Within that platform, they gave students the ability to access academic services. They repaired or replaced once-shaky school websites and infrastructure. And they added new safeguards to secure students’ personal information on campus webpages.

At the same time, her team provided students with easier access to IT help and support, launching a tech café where students could have their computer systems fixed while grabbing a coffee.

During the pandemic—and as the university emerged from COVID-19 restrictions—Ketchum’s team enabled students to attend remote classes and complete their coursework without coming to campus.

UTSA business administration grad student Danielle Schram. Photo by Gabe Hernandez.

“They made everything virtual so that I can take the classroom home with me,” says Danielle Schram, who’s working toward a master’s degree in business administration. “I can do everything that I would be able to do here at my house or at my apartment or anywhere that I go.”

For the university’s scientists, the IT team adopted VMware Cloud Foundation on Dell VxRail to support a high-performance computing environment, allowing researchers to move large datasets and quickly run simulations, “reducing the time to science,” Ketchum says.

The hybrid cloud solution from Dell Technologies also underpins some of UTSA’s business functions, including transactional systems that handle millions of records, ensuring both business continuity and protection from ransomware. All these initiatives are aided, Ketchum says, by her drive to assemble an IT team with more diversity, including diversity when it comes to dreaming up creative solutions. “If you’ve got all of the same kind of people in the same room, you’re going to generate the same ideas,” she says. “The more diverse the room, the more diverse the ideas.”

Ketchum’s team launched a tech café where students could have their computer systems fixed while grabbing a coffee. Photo by Gabe Hernandez.

Within her IT organization, there are 15 top-level administrators, from associate vice presidents to directors. Ten are women. In a large way, this diversity mirrors the novel path Ketchum took into tech. She can see her own journey in the roads many of the students followed to reach UTSA—and in the highways some people literally drive to access the Wi-Fi she had installed in the campus garages.

“We can reach more people who don’t have the same opportunities,” she says. “If I am a student and I drive up from the Rio Grande Valley, I can sit over here and do what I need to do. The pandemic made the digital divide much more noticeable. The digital divide here is real.”

It all boils down to one simple question for Ketchum: “What can we do as a society to ensure more people are able to learn?”

Lead photo of Kendra Ketchum by Gabe Hernandez