Livingstone president speaks to college about overcoming adversity

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 23, 2011

By Laurie D. Willis
Livingstone CollegeNews Service
The way Livingstone College President Dr. Jimmy R. Jenkins Sr. sees it, his students are at war. They’re not fighting in Afghanistan or Pakistan, to be sure. Their battle is far more pervasive than foreign countries. Their battle requires gaining the necessary tools and weapons to march to the front lines against ignorance.
So last Tuesday, Jenkins shut down college operations, declared it was Holistic College Day and assembled faculty, staff, students and maintenance workers in Varick Auditorium for a frank presentation and discussion on the role Livingstone College must play in this war.
When Jenkins appeared before the packed auditorium, he startled the crowd, having replaced his business suit and tie with military fatigues and boots. He made the case for the day and explained why it’s imperative that the entire college band together to wage a more effective fight against an enemy that wreaks so much damage to the quality of life — here at home and abroad.
To further drive home the significance of the day and to provide real-life examples of people who came from humble beginnings yet are Defying the Odds — the college’s theme for the 2011-12 academic year — Jenkins brought in four speakers who told the students they must keep fighting to educate and better themselves.
The four speakers were Dr. Sampson Davis, Dr. George Jenkins, Dr. Yolanda Meade Byrd and Adrienne Johnson.
“The purpose of Holistic College Day was to show our students they must get serious about their education and serious about their futures,” Jenkins said. “The two go hand in hand. Students who apply themselves at Livingstone and do well, and those who go on to graduate school will likely fare much better than those who don’t. It’s no secret that many people who are successful were also successful academically. I really need our students to understand that, so I decided to have a Holistic College Day on campus.”
Jenkins told the students he didn’t want to go to college initially and after graduating from high school in Selma, N.C., moved to New York City to live with his aunt. He got a job as a busboy with plans to save enough for his own place and eventually took a second job as a construction site handyman.
Jenkins said he worked so hard as a handyman he often fell asleep on the subway ride home, missing his stop. It didn’t take long for reality to sink in.
“When I looked at my paycheck and the things I had to pay, including rent to my aunt, and when I looked at how much I had left for my own place, I called my mother and told her I wanted to go to college,” Jenkins said.
He also told the students no matter their background they can “rise and do extraordinary things,” a message that was repeated throughout the day by the speakers he brought to campus and others who work at Livingstone.
Davis is a board-certified emergency medical physician at St. Michael’s Medical Center and Raritan Bay Medical Center. He’s also a consultant for the Violence Prevention Institute, focusing on gang awareness and preventive medicine in Essex County, N.J. As a teenager he made a pact with Jenkins and Rameck Hunt that all three would attend college, graduate and ultimately become doctors.
He told the students he grew up poor and without a father in Newark’s inner-city. He also spoke of the dearth of positive role models in his environment.
“You have to be careful who you take advice from,” Davis said. “Make wise decisions on who you listen to.”
It was improbable that he, Jenkins and Hunt would become doctors, but once they made their pact they were determined not to fail, Davis said. Hunt is a board-certified internist at University Medical Center at Princeton and assistant professor of medicine at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “The Three Doctors” normally travel together, but scheduling conflicts prevented Hunt from coming to Livingstone on Tuesday.
Jenkins, an assistant professor of clinical dentistry at Columbia University, told students he excelled in AP math in high school, only to get to Seton Hall and realize he wasn’t so strong in math after all. By seeking extra help and applying himself he mastered math in route to earning earn his bachelor’s degree in biology.
“We’re tired of seeing you guys not taking education as seriously as you should,” Jenkins said. “We’re on a crusade to get you guys to understand the power that you have. We had drugs in our homes. Our fathers weren’t around. Our resources weren’t the best. Excellence in education wasn’t stressed where we came from, but all it took was for us to try.”
Jenkins warned the students against skipping class, not completing homework assignments or doing shoddy work on papers. “Get up every morning, put your best foot forward and work together,” he said. “When we bonded together we created insulation around us to help block out negative things. If you hang around the right people they can bring out the positive in you.”
Byrd, a star track and field athlete for the Blue Bears, grew up in foster care and was homeless when she arrived on campus in 1991. On Tuesday she encouraged the students to recognize their weaknesses, be professional, accept help, remain determined, face challenges and be disciplined.
“Remember, if you dress the part, speak the part and act the part, you just might get the part,” she said. After graduating from Livingstone, Byrd earned her master’s degree in social work from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in less than a year. She recently earned her doctorate in human services from Capella University and works in the social work program at Winston-Salem State University. She also owns a private mental health practice.
Johnson, CEO of Affinity Global Connections, LLC., a marketing and public relations firm, travels the country giving motivational speeches and is a consultant for several HBCUs, including Livingstone.
During “Just Between Us Women,” a lunch session in Aggrey Cafeteria for all female faculty, students and staff, Johnson told students how to present themselves professionally and highlighted some “best practices” that have helped her achieve success. And she cautioned students about the information they divulge on Facebook because employers routinely scan pages of prospective employees before deciding who to bring in for interviews.
Livingstone employees also shared testimonials during the women’s luncheon, and students asked questions and interacted with them.
While they discussed issues pertinent to them, the men and male students did the same thing during “Just Between Us Men” in Old Trent Gym, led by Drs. Jenkins, Davis and Jenkins.
Jenkins considers Holistic College Day successful but said it’s only the beginning.
“We cannot let this just be a one-time occurrence,” he said. “We must follow-up and coordinate a full-scale attack.”