The winters in Syracuse, New York can be very harsh. Snow comes not to visit, but often to sit, have a drink, and converse for a while. This forces many people to remain in their homes for recreation. It was during one of those snowy weekend days that I found myself in my apartment surfing the Internet—with no particular goal in mind, just wanting to check on Chicago news as I often do—when I stumbled upon something that has placed a burden on my spirit since my eyes first danced upon its words: CSU Broke! School May Have to Close Its Doors! Just writing those words feels like a gut punch.
My initial reaction was of disbelief; I honestly thought it was a misprint until I read the article and discovered the ugly truth behind the headline. Because of the seemingly never- ending budget stalemate in Springfield, CSU’s funds are nearly exhausted, and if no change occurs, it may have to close its doors reportedly as early as March. How could this be? I thought to myself as I read the sordid details. Being a native Chicagoan, I am no stranger to the ugliness of politics… real Chicagoans know they don’t call us the “windy city” solely because of the temperamental breeze blowing from the mouth of madam Lake Michigan. But now the far-too-often turmoil that plagues Springfield threatens the lifeline of the one positive mainstay that has been on the far South Side of the city for more than a century.
Why does someone who lives all the way in New York care about what happens to CSU? Well, if it were not for that above-mentioned lifeline, I would not be sitting at my desk at one of the top academic institutions in the country, where I am now employed, composing this letter. For me CSU is not a headline… it is truly family. Everything I am and have, both professionally and personally, I owe to CSU. I entered the campus of CSU in spring semester 2003; I was a truly a lost soul… a floundering student with experiences at many schools from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to the red dirt of Alabama under my belt. After my years of unsuccessful academic travels, I found myself back home in Chicago looking for a fresh start (and a way to keep my mother off my back), so I decided to enroll at CSU.
I had no plans of success, all I knew was I liked writing, so I figured I would try something that would allow me to do that. I heard the reputation of the school from other people, that it was not a high quality institution and a place I could essentially cruise by… boy were they wrong. I entered into the semester unfocused and with little or no study habits to speak of. I was back home, and kicking it with my guys was priority number one. School was just something I could say I was doing to keep people from criticizing me. Having such low expectations of the school, I didn’t worry about grades or the consequences of not having good grades because I knew the school would keep me around because after all… it was CSU.
It did not take long for the reality to outduel the perception. I was placed on academic probation after one semester and told if I did not get my grades up by next term I would be expelled. WOW! I was now staring at the reality of failing at yet another school. After some soul searching, I decided to enter the next semester with more focus. It was during this semester that I took a class with Dr. Brenda Aghahowa… the woman who would help change the course of my life forever. The first day in her class we were told we would have a quiz the next session on the syllabus. I knew from that day play time was over for me. That semester I decided to not run off campus after my classes as I did before to hang out with my friends, but rather I would truly become a student at CSU and soak up all of its resources.
I found so many resources that I was blind to before. I made new friends, formed study groups, and was even offered a work study job… which I could not get at that time because of my GPA. A whole new world opened up to me. I saw myself changing and becoming someone I never thought I could… a successful college student. I forged a strong relationship with Dr. Aghahowa and other faculty members in the English department, and my GPA rose to new heights. I later was able to get a work study job and began writing articles for the school newspaper. Two-years later I went from staff writer to Editor-in-Chief of the paper with a staff and a budget that I managed. During my time as an undergrad I received the national Dean’s List award twice and was one of ten students on campus awarded the Thurgood Marshall Leadership award, which resulted in us receiving an all-expenses paid trip to New York City to participate in a week-long leadership conference with other public Black institutions across the country. I also was selected to intern for WGN’s 9 p.m. sports broadcasting crew as a video editor (another skill I picked up at CSU working for the campus film team).
I received my BA in Professional and Technical Writing from CSU in 2006 and went on to work for After School Matters shortly after. Personal pitfalls set me back years later and I found myself at a crossroads again regarding where to go next professionally and personally, so I reached out to Dr. Aghahowa and asked her what I should do. She did not hesitate as she told me, “Come on home.” Following her advice, I entered into the graduate program in English at CSU in the summer of 2010. I was working at the time as a grant writer for a small not-for-profit organization, but it was not providing me with the substance I needed to feel whole. I decided to commit myself full time to the program and I left that job and took a Graduate Assistant (GA) position in the academic library on campus in the Reference Department.
During my graduate program, I was blessed to achieve some groundbreaking milestones along with my peers. I, along with two other graduate students, were selected as the first African-American panel to participate in a graduate literary conference on Irish literature at Notre Dame University—an accomplishment I still hold near and dear to my heart to this day. I received an award for high academic achievement from CSU, and after completing my Master’s Thesis (a process I still have nightmares about), I received my MA degree in English in 2012, but my story doesn’t stop there. During my GA position in the library, I was able to be mentored by several of the librarians at CSU and I found that I had a natural talent for teaching students research. After a year of employment I was advised to pursue a second master’s degree in Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which has the top program in that field in the country.
I took the advice, applied, and received a full academic scholarship to attend the program, which I started in the summer of 2012 while still completing my first graduate program at CSU. From 2010-2013, I completed two Master’s degrees in both English and Library and Information Science. I have worked both as an academic professor of English Composition and as an academic librarian since. I have worked for three academic institutions, including CSU, and I now work at Syracuse University—not bad for a young man who found himself on academic probation after the first semester at CSU.
All of these accomplishments are solely due to the faculty, staff, and culture at CSU. It is stories like mine that the people in Springfield need to know about while they leave my alma mater dangling in the wind of uncertainty. CSU provides hope for people who see no hope in themselves and provides structure to people who come from a structure-less existence. Closing the doors to CSU is closing the doors to hope and potentially closing the door on the next lost soul who needs just a little nudge in the right direction to be transformed into a productive citizen. It worked for me… we can’t deny the next young man and woman on the South Side of Chicago the opportunity of writing their own rags to riches success story. Keep CSU Open!