For the first 10 years of my life, my family lived in the Red Hook Projects in Brooklyn, New York. Projects often suffer from neglect and concentrated poverty that is usually accompanied by a higher than normal crime rate. While many public housing projects have seen improvement in recent years, when I grew up in Red Hook there were major community problems including gang violence and drug use. Many families were on public assistance or welfare, but many also worked hard to try to better their condition. The public schools I attended did not have a good record of sending many of their graduates to college.
When it came time to consider college, my parents said, “We don’t know exactly how you go about applying or finding the money but we know that you can figure it out.” They provided encouragement and support and the little bit of money that they had. I applied to one school and luckily was admitted. I had to take out loans and I worked throughout college, graduate school and law school.
I majored in biology, and was very active on campus. I was involved in student government and the drama club, and I was editor of the student newspaper. I traveled throughout West Africa one summer, met many notable figures who came to our campus and even dined with a U.S. president, when he visited the college. I went on to earn a Master’s Degree in Educational Administration and a Juris Doctor degree. I share this because when I was in high school, no one, not even I, would have predicted the academic success I would have. I am not special, but I can work hard and study late. Students, if you can do that, you too can surprise your family and yourself with your successes.
I also benefited from having good friends in high school who knew they were college bound. One friend in particular was wiser than his teenage years. He encouraged me to leave New York and to go away to a small college that would give me the attention I might want and need. He also turned me on to the R&B group Earth Wind & Fire. One of our favorite EWF songs was “Keep Your Head to the Sky.” I hope that you will do as the song suggests and look up and out towards a hopeful future. Know that your family circumstances and your past need not determine or limit your future accomplishments.
While my parents, brother and sister were all born in New York, I was born in Durham, North Carolina. (The only true southerner in the family.) As the youngest of three children, I often felt as if I were living in the shadow of my siblings. In fact, in elementary and high school, I was often called little Affleck or little Arthur by teachers and my older brother’s friends, even though I constantly reminded people my name was Calvin. I had a great childhood, full of love, appreciation, and fun. I lived in a nice home on a quiet cul-de-sac in Durham—the Bull City. I enjoyed sports and was a pretty good soccer player. I also ran track and played football in high school. For some reason, I rarely felt entirely comfortable in school. The idea of what we were learning, why we were learning it, and how it was being taught never resonated with me.
I grew up in a home where both parents were present and active in my life. For a number of years my mother ran a program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill called MSEN—Math Science Engineering Network. Through this program, middle and high school students were exposed to science, robotics, and engineering concepts. Of course, I was required to attend many Saturday events at UNC. We also went on field trips and participated in robotics competitions. I liked learning by doing and I enjoyed most of the things we did at MSEN.
In high school, I only genuinely enjoyed a few classes. One was a math class, because I love math and numbers. Another was my creative writing class. The class was taught by my football coach, who was also my brother’s old football coach, so as you could imagine, I was “Arthur” (my brother’s name) more often than I was “Calvin.” But his class was always fun, interesting, and the learning never ceased. My favorite part of high school, hands down, was raising a lamb on a farm for one of my class projects. My friend and I bought the lamb and participated in the “Lamb Project” at my school, which involved being at the farm at 6 am on some very cold mornings. We had to clean out the barn, feed, and train our lamb for the upcoming show. The show is where we’d showcase our lamb and eventually sell it to a local farmer, as we did not have the means to keep her.
I knew my life was pretty good, and I knew I was expected to go to college, but I was not really sure this was the path for me. Nevertheless, I followed the plan, mostly laid out by my parents, and I enrolled at North Carolina A&T State University. I decided to major in mechanical engineering because of MSEN. While A&T is a fine university, with good programs and faculty, it was not where I wanted or needed to be at that time in my life. If I had it to do over again, I would have taken a “Gap Year.” It is an experience we cover in Part 2 of this book, and it would’ve made a world of difference for me. I learned from my experience that not every high school graduate is ready for college or is even right for college. I was not! I could do the work, but I was not motivated.
My reason for writing this book is to help students like me. I know it can seem like college is the only option, and if you think it’s not a great fit for you, you can feel lost and confused. Well I’m here to tell you, if no one else has, college is not the only option. You must find out who you are, so you can make better decisions to set yourself up for the future. Last thing, YOU HAVE TIME! Don’t feel like you need to rush anything. While you should not waste time, you can take the time you need to determine the best path for your life.