In 1997, I began my college career at Illinois State University. At this point in my life I felt I had overcome adversity to beat the odds and enter college. Many African American men my age were dead or in jail. I felt I needed to take advantage of the opportunity. My grandmother Betty Jean wrote me a $500 check to start a checking account. To this day I still use the same bank. First of America, National City, oh yeah it’s PNC now. Haha!
I knew that college would not be like “Hillman,” especially since I was at a predominantly white institution. However, the cultural adjustment was relatively easy since I had lived in DeKalb, Illinois for the previous eight years. The only differences were that I had to be self-motivated and I was solely responsible for myself throughout this journey. During “Passages,” a freshman orientation program, I toured the entire campus. Just because I was a freshman didn’t mean that I wanted to look like one. After one day, I had mastered the campus and the free bus system (I think I rode the Pink D to Wal-mart).
I moved into Watterson Towers, 514 Jefferson, not knowing that “Watterson” would be my home for the next five years. I fumbled my way through my first year. I was involved in a few student organizations namely Watterson UNITY and Black Writer’s Forum. UNITY was a group dedicated to bringing diversity awareness into the residence halls; Black Writer’s Forum was a group of individuals sharing the spoken word. I also attended many Black Student Union events. I did more exploring than anything. I wanted to know how much college had to offer. I am sure that I gained the “Freshman 15” thanks to the Watterson Food Court. I am aware that there have been changes, but in my day we had Chik-fil-a, Sbarro’s, Panda Express, Pepe’s, and Ben and Jerry’s. A brother who was used to living off very little was given a meal plan. Life was good!
At the end of my first year I headed home. I did not have a summer job. My father connected me with a friend of his who was connected with Ada S. McKinley Upward Bound. The program was run through Olive Harvey Community College in Chicago. Its summer program was facilitated at Eastern Illinois University. I spent that summer working as a counselor for Upward Bound. This was one of the greatest experiences of my life–I had the opportunity to serve as a positive influence for aspiring college students.
I began my second year contemplating walking on to the football team. That opportunity fell through, I figured it was time to look for a job. I received a job working for campus dining. I was told I would clean tables and take out trash. However, on my first day I was in the kitchen cleaning pots and pans. I also cleaned some items that looked like car parts. At the end of that shift I knew I was not going back. So I quit.
It was the beginning of the year and we were having one of our many quad events where organizations and departments recruit new students. It was at this moment that my life would be steered on a course that I had not predicted. I heard the voice of Sharron Evans asking “Have you ever thought about being an R.A.?” I said, “No.” ‘What do they do and how much does it pay?” After a brief discussion I signed up for an interview. A week later I was offered the job.
For the next year I was supervised by Salvador Mena. Sal served as a great role model and mentor. I also served as his barber. Throughout the year I connected with my residents and learned more about the resources that were offered to students. I loved my job and looked forward to returning the next year. I was thinking to myself, “I could do this until I graduate.” It was also during my second year that I became a mentor for the Multicultural Center (Multi). At the time I did not know that these connections at the Multi would be necessary for my survival at Illinois State.
By this point I had connected with a bunch of fellow students throughout the university. Playing cards late at night was a frequent occurrence. While playing cards one night, I noticed a young lady staring at me right in the face. This was the day I met my wife, Tawanna Rollins. At some point I went and grabbed poems that I had written from my room. I thought she was cute and I wanted to impress her. I think she enjoyed them because she smiled the entire time that I read. A day or two later, a group of us went to an on-campus party at our Bowling and Billiards Center. Tawanna fell ill the next day. I brought her some soup and wrote her a poem entitled “Feel Better.” I am pretty sure it made her feel better. Over the next few days we spent more time talking and getting to know each other. We went on our first date at Capen Auditorium in Edwards Hall. We watched “Deep Impact.” I decided I wanted to make things official. We stayed up all night chatting and at some point I asked her if she wanted to “go with me” (If you do not know what that means look it up in the street dictionary). I told myself I would never date a woman from Chicago. But I learned to never say never. Tawanna deserves her own story; I will only touch on parts of our pre-marital relationship here. I had a beautiful girlfriend and school was largely paid for. Life was good.
I returned to life as an RA during my third year. I remained heavily involved in Black Writer’s Forum and the community organizations within my building. Another student leader, AJ Holmes approached me about another position on campus. She asked if I was interested in being President of the Association of Residence Halls (ARH). I asked her more about the details of the position. She told me the president received the same compensation as an RA. What I found most intriguing about the position was that I would lead the second largest student organization on campus, second to the Student Government Association.
I looked to get on the executive board of ARH. The RA Liaison position was available. I became the RA liaison for the Association of Residence Halls with two intentions. First, I wanted to learn as much about ARH as possible. Second, I wanted to run for president. In order to run for president I had to be an executive board member and I needed a running mate. I was introduced to my now lifelong friend, Linda D. Smith. We ran as president and vice-president of ARH. We would be running against the current president and her running mate. The incumbent president exuded so much arrogance that Linda and I put everything that we had into the elections. We ran on an excellent ticket with other great student leaders. We won the election–relatively easy I might add. I believe the vote tally was approximately 800 to 400.
I ended my third year successfully as an RA. I was ready to start my new position as the president of a student organization, and I spent the summer preparing for the position. I also worked at the Multi as a desk worker. I was excited for the new year.
I joined many student organizations to build partnerships with other campus leaders. I was feeling lots of power as a student leader. However, I was quickly humbled by doing the dishes at the Multi as a part of my job responsibilities (there is a nothing like a dose of reality to bring you back to earth). I also became a part of Student Support Services during this year. I applied for Homecoming court which had not been a part of ISU for while. Six students were selected and I was the only male and the only person of color.
I picked up an additional job because I needed more money. I worked as a student “busser” at the Bone Student Center. The real problem was that I did not know how to manage my money. I was receiving refund checks every semester; I was receiving free room and board from the housing department; I worked as a desk worker and mentor for the Multicultural Center; and now I was working at the Student Center. If I could, I would have changed my major to student involvement.
Tawanna and I were still going strong but I could see the strain that my involvement was putting on our relationship. I fed off of being around other people. I enjoyed helping students, learning new things, and feeling useful. I wanted to make an impact.
During this year I was advised and mentored by Michael Speros. If you have ever met Michael you know that he always speaks with intent. He is a man of few words but when he speaks his words are well crafted and always carry meaning. I have appreciated Michael’s sage advice throughout my life.
The brother and sister relationship that Linda and I currently have did not start out that way. We argued a lot and it seemed as if it would be a difficult year. Despite our disagreements we always united to do what was right for the students we represented. In retrospect, I believe those moments of conflict helped strengthen our friendship.
Our organization also received a couple of awards that year. We were voted Registered Student Organization of the year. We also received the “Large School of the Year” award from the Illinois Residence Hall Association (IRHA). We decided to run for the ARH positions again. Our entire ticket was unopposed. I personally received two awards from the Multi: Outstanding Organization Member and Male Mentor of the Year, an award I also received in my second year.
Despite all of my achievements, I could not hold my relationship with Tawanna together. By the end of my 1st senior year we were no longer together. I was engulfed in self-fulfillment and only cared about what made me happy.
I was heading into my “super senior” with thoughts of being better. My grade point average was good enough to stay off of academic probation, but was nothing to shout about. I was unsure about what I wanted to do with my life. I knew I wanted to graduate. but I loved, and still love, college too much.
My super senior year was much of the same. I was heavily involved and sputtered through classes. I was excelling in student involvement, but doing poorly in my classes. I was unsure if I would graduate. I later found out that I was under a student catalog that allowed me to have a letter grade of D in some of my classes. I walked across the stage very happy that I was finished but uncertain as to what I would do with my life.
As a student leader I met with deans, directors, and university Presidents. I continued working at the student center throughout the summer. I registered for fall classes and considered getting a second Bachelor’s degree. It was also the first time I had ever lived off campus. Life was different and I still felt uncertain about the future.
During the summer, a full-time position at the student center was posted. I applied for the position but would not know anything further until early Fall. So I ended the summer and decided to drop my fall class. I was not ready to take more classes. I decided to put everything that I had into storage. I stayed on my friend, Joe Alexander’s couch for a few days before coming up with a crazy plan. I decided I would stay with my best friend Brandon Parker (Bryan) in Nashville. I could get a job down there and live in the south. I had always wanted to move to the south. I knew that my father would have some words with me about going so I left and called him once I arrived. He did not seem enthusiastic, but he knew that I had to find my own way.
For about one month I bummed on my boy’s couch. I half heartedly looked for jobs but my heart wanted to return to Illinois State University. The only hope that I had was getting the position at the student center. Bryan and I were out at the store one day and I answered my phone not realizing that it was the search committee for my position. I ended up doing a phone interview in the store. A week later I was offered an on campus interview.
My friend Joe allowed me to stay at his home during the interview process. He also offered me his place should I be offered the job. I packed up my car in Nashville and headed back to Normal.