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Rhonda Buckley, executive director, Community Music School (Photo by William Resh)

Rhonda Buckley

She started playing the piano at 8, the flute at age 9. But it wasn’t until she was 16 that she found her true love.

“We had too many flutes in our high school marching band, and our very attractive drum major asked some of us to switch to saxophone,” says Rhonda Buckley, associate dean for outreach and engagement in MSU’s College of Music. “The saxophonists I had heard in junior high sounded awful, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity and said yes right away. It became the love of my life.”

But the love of Buckley’s life now—indeed, what motivates her to make a 90-mile drive to downtown Detroit three days a week as part of her work with the college’s community music schools—is her deep commitment to providing access to arts education for all.

“It’s just part of a healthy community and healthy people,” she says. “I can’t imagine my life without music, and I can’t imagine any person, young or old, denied the opportunity to pursue that if they so desire.”

Buckley, who worked for Disney as a performer after graduating from MSU in 1986 with a master’s degree in saxophone performance, found her calling after joining Central Florida Community College as director of instrumental music. There she encountered students whose family problems significantly affected their ability to complete their degrees.

“That’s when I realized I needed to deepen my education,” Buckley says. She decided to spend a year in Washington, D.C., contributing her time and talent through a program called Quest and working for Patricia Sitar, who had founded an after-school tutoring program for inner city youths. After a year, Buckley asked if she could stay on for another. After the second year, Sitar suggested Buckley continue and start teaching students to play music.

One year turned into 15. Buckley’s first saxophone student grew up, graduated from Bryn Mawr and now sits on the board of the arts center Buckley would go on to found. More and more students began taking lessons. Buckley and Sitar were fulfilling a need and satisfying a pent-up, passionate desire for music and the arts among these inner city youths.

“Before you know it, I had founded the Patricia M. Sitar Center for the Arts, a separately incorporated multidisciplinary arts center,” says Buckley. She grew the organization, now called the Sitar Arts Center, from 50 students who met after school in a basement to a newly purchased facility designed specifically to meet the arts education needs of more than 300 students studying everything from dance to photography to theatre to music performance.

What could possibly woo Buckley away from such success?

“Jim Forger is very persuasive,” Buckley says, of the dean of MSU’s College of Music and her former saxophone teacher.

“When the School of Music was becoming a college in 2006, Jim had a vision for making outreach a central priority of the college,” Buckley explains. “He wanted an associate dean who would also run the community music school and who would increase our activities in the city of Detroit. It was going back to the city where I was born and contributing to making arts accessible, working for my alma mater, all those things coming together into a really great opportunity.”

But fundamentally, for Buckley, the attraction of doing what she does comes down to structure. Her work as an associate dean and director of MSU’s community music schools in both East Lansing and Detroit allows her to be an architect.

“I get excited about creating the structures that allow arts education to take place,” Buckley says. “I don’t have to be the teacher. There are so many good teachers. But there isn’t always good structure. That’s where I’ve made an impact and where I can do my part for equity and justice in arts education.”