Monday, March 31, 2014

How Syracuse University Changed My Life

People have a lot of different reasons to love their alma mater. Some of their memories are tied up in sporting events they watched and teams they continue to follow. Others remember the professors who reached out and helped them understand their world.
For me, it's much more crucial. Syracuse University changed my life in a way that was total. I entered there with an uncertain academic future and emerged with a PhD and an assistant professorship. Along the way, one man in particular helped me grow and provided support, above and beyond what I ever should have expected.
Because my father died when I was seven, my mother and her three sons lived on social security. When I was 15 I left the snows of Syracuse and hitchhiked to Florida. I knew I had to come back in order to become something so I returned to my upper middle class high school and they promptly transferred me to the downtown high school, which luckily had African American students who were friendly and where I wasn't the poorest kid in the school. In the process of my runaway, my grades were terrible, so Senior year I got in the 90s on my Regents Exams and 99% on my SATs, which let Syracuse take a chance on me.
The man who so influenced me had been an undergraduate at the University of Oklahoma at the time the school was forced to admit one African American student. For four years he would pick up that brave student's meal in the cafeteria and sit with him while he ate in a separate room. This was his work study job and it was one no other student wanted. After he became Vice Chancellor of Syracuse he would always have time for me and I felt his caring every time we talked. He later became Vice President of Northwestern. His name was Jim G. Carleton and he was the finest man I ever met. Every time I had to stand for something in life, I couldn't back down because he had shown me how a good person is supposed to behave.
Although I eventually received my PhD from Syracuse's Maxwell School, I took time out after my masters to cover presidential candidates for a wire service. When I returned Jim Carleton made me the Advisor to Student Publications. I finished my doctorate having only paid $800 in tuition to Syracuse for all those years.
If I hadn't grown up there, I would have stayed at Syracuse forever. I love everything about that University. It's the only true refuge I've ever found and its lessons  fill me with pride and determination on the darkest days.

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