James Ramsey ’18 dons safety glasses, a hairnet, and ear plugs to go out onto the production floor at the Artisan Packaging plant, known for many years as Graham Packaging, in Harrisonburg. Brightly-painted machines, pipes and conveyor belts tower overhead – whirring, chugging, and puffing: molding and screen printing more than 700 different plastic bottles that the factory ships all over the world for customers like Downy and Johnson & Johnson.
Now the operations manager, Ramsey first started out as an entry-level technician 12 years ago, and worked his way through every production position en route to management. Along the way, he decided to hone his leadership skills through Eastern Mennonite University’s Accelerated Degree Program.
Ramsey enrolled in the program in 2016, and earned his bachelor’s degree in leadership and organizational management two years later. As the featured speaker on that commencement stage, Ramsey commended his peers for demonstrating “proof that the biggest challenges have the greatest rewards.”
He’s now working towards his Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership at EMU.
“It’s just a place where you want to be,” Ramsey said, of his educational experience at EMU. “It makes you feel like you belong.”
Ramsey took a long and winding educational road to that first college diploma. After graduating from high school, he enrolled at Virginia Tech, then at Blue Ridge Community College, before deciding to travel around the U.S., working the vacation resort circuit. He then spent a few years in Malaysia, and when he came home, his brother was working at Graham, and helped him get hired on.
After his body started to show the wear and tear of heavy lifting, Ramsey decided he needed to further advance his career. He finished his associate’s degree at Blue Ridge, and started shopping around for bachelor’s programs that fit the schedule of an adult working full time.
EMU “opened a lot of doors, professionally, for me. It gave me a lot of confidence to be a strong, effective leader.”James Ramsey ’18
Recently, the factory celebrated one year free of safety incidents – before that, they went three years until a worker twisted her ankle, Ramsey said.
Ramsey leads safety meetings once a week, which he said would have intimidated him before his EMU coursework helped him improve at public speaking.
“I take a lot of pride in that. I’m always preaching safety,” Ramsey said. “Everybody takes pride in the work.”
Ramsey said that the camaraderie within his cohort was another boon of the program.
“All the professors were wonderful, too,” he added, “they are just so intelligent, and emotionally intelligent.”
That emotional intelligence, in addition to the nuts-and-bolts theory of leadership, has helped the introverted Ramsey become confident in his managerial role.
“We always make sure we take care of the people” at the plant, Ramsey said. “It has a family feel.”
Another employee, Cindy Berry, confirmed this.
“That’s why we’ve all been here so long,” Berry said. She’s been at the plant for 33 years, and now works in the quality lab, ensuring that bottles come out in accordance with diagram specifications. She also praised Ramsey for having hands-on knowledge of every part of production.
“He’s been everywhere … that makes a good leader,” Berry said.