I had my first interview related to Boy @ The Window two and a half weeks ago, with a public relations person working on behalf of the Carnegie Mellon University website, CMU.edu. But this interview will likely never be posted on Carnegie Mellon’s website. Why, pray tell? Because I was honest about my CMU experience, in that it was bitter work, a frustrating time, a place in which I felt isolated in its lily-White conservatism (with a nod toward Asian students as honorary Whites).
I didn’t say all this in my interview. Okay, here’s what they asked and what I actually said (also on my Boy @ The Window Facebook page):
Q: Why did you choose to attend CMU and pursue a Ph.D. in history?
A: Joe Trotter, in a word, was my deciding factor. I didn’t want to earn all of my degrees in history at the University of Pittsburgh, and the history department offered to accept my master’s degree and Ph.D. credits from Pitt. Plus, CMU’s history program was simply better, in that I knew I could graduate years ahead of time. But I came because I wanted to work with Joe Trotter.
Q: You mention that you’ve based your career in the areas of education reform and multiculturalism -why? Could you describe your work in these areas a bit more?
A: From the time I began reading history when I was nine years old, I’ve wondered about the horrors of this world, and how we as humans have shown a capacity for compassion and strength despite those horrors. My interest in multiculturalism was a natural extension of my quest to understand my past, those horrors, and especially the people from various backgrounds whom were my classmates in middle school and high school in Mount Vernon, New York. The irony was, though, that I didn’t consciously recognize these connections until I began working on Boy @ The Window. As for education reform, especially around college access and retention, it’s that sense that despite it all, access to higher education can and does transform lives, and provide a pathway to a more productive life. Multiculturalism was my dissertation research while at CMU – not to mention my first book, Fear of a “Black” America (2004) — while my interest in education reform began in my work in the nonprofit world. First with Presidential Classroom in 1999 and 2000, then with an initiative known as Partnerships for College Access and Success (PCAS), where I was the deputy director from 2004 to 2008.
Q: Did CMU play a role in your difficult journey to success? (Perhaps network, training, culture, etc…) Any professor/mentors to note?
A: Yes, because I earned my Ph.D. while at CMU. But in order to become the writer I am now, I actually had to unlearn much of what I learned as a writer while at CMU. By the time I began my doctoral work at CMU in the fall of 1993, my difficult journey was mostly complete. In terms of mentors, the late Barbara Lazarus was mine during my four years at CMU. She was the toughest and kindest administrator, a sharp and clear mind, a quick wit, one of the positive memories I have of CMU.
Q: You work as an author, academic, consultant and more – why such a varied path? Did your time at CMU help you to span these various fields and topics?
A: CMU helped me on my eclectic path because my dissertation committee provided no help in my search for work after I graduated in May 1997. I had to find a way to use the skills I picked up as a historian and academic writer before I could go about the task of remaking myself as a writer. Luckily my dissertation research was as much about education history – and to a lesser extent, education policy – as it was about US and African American history. This helped me find work in the nonprofit sector, as well as adjunct work in schools of education like at Duquesne and George Washington University. I think that the lesson I learned at CMU was that I needed to decide and define my own path, with or without the help of those who taught me.
Q: Have you stayed in touch with anyone, been back to campus or been involved in any CMU groups or activities I should mention? (I realize you live in Silver Spring..)
A: I’ve been back to CMU four times since I graduated in 1997, two of those times to visit with Barbara Lazarus before she passed away in 2003. I have remained in touch with a couple of folks who were in graduate school with me at CMU between 1993 and 1997, but with a wife, a near-preteen son and so much taking up my time, I don’t stay involved with CMU much at all. Mine was hardly a positive experience, and there were times that I as an African American male didn’t exactly feel welcome on campus. So by necessity, my interactions with the CMU community have been limited over the past 17 years.
Within 24 hours of my interview answers, I noticed on my blog site that traffic regarding my CMU-related posts had increased by nine-fold, and stayed that way for a day or two. I guess the public relations folks at Carnegie Mellon wanted a more positive and race-less view from me about my experiences there. Oh well.
When I followed up to find out what they planned to do with my interview, this was what they emailed in response:
Dear Dr. Collins,
Melissa forwarded your message to me. Thank you for sharing your story with us. We are currently vetting a larger number than expected potential stories for use on the homepage. We will keep your responses on file, and let you know if we move forward on a story.
Have a great day,
What they really meant to say was, “We’re experiencing technical difficulties with your answers, please stand by…”