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McNair: From Limited Opportunities to Undreamed-of Careers

Davarian Baldwin

October 10, 2017

Despite a childhood of limited opportunity, Davarian Baldwin dreamed that he could become a politician or lawyer with predictable success. He was the son of a single mother who milled parts for ice cream machines, in Beloit, Wisconsin. He was also a driven student.

But something more began to emerge while Baldwin was in high school. He witnessed a massive exodus of white girls transferring to another high school closer to the suburbs just at that critical dating age. Baldwin noticed an overt racial divide and unequal treatment that shot through the school, city, state, and beyond. He threw himself "head-on" into addressing it on every level. Working with the school's student affairs group, he examined the curriculum, diversity of the school staff and tracked which students found their way into advanced English and math classes versus those placed in home economics and remedial courses. He joined several Beloit task forces and a statewide governor's task force as a student representative. He engaged with the federal government's Positive Youth Development program that helps community youth to build leadership strengths. President George H.W. Bush honored him, in person, with the "Daily Point of Light Award," bestowed upon people who create meaningful change in American communities.

Before he even finished high school, Baldwin had an internship in the city's community relations department as well as a job waiting for him when he finished college.

Viewing what appeared to be a wide runway for a lucrative future in public relations, he enrolled in Marquette University's School of Communications. Entry-level communications courses began and so did an agonizing moment of truth that neared crisis levels during Baldwin's sophomore year. He was bored. Although deeply involved in the student-led multiculturalism movement, his studies didn't align with his drive to engage in issues and causes including racial justice, and curriculum advocacy and diversity.

He didn't know where to turn for direction. His mother worked in a factory, he'd never known his father, and his grandmother had been a domestic worker.

His mother brought him library books to help him figure it out, but they were no help. At the same time the TRIO Ronald McNair Program started on the Marquette campus to prepare strong undergraduate students from disadvantaged backgrounds for doctoral studies. McNair program director Myra George listened to Baldwin's concern that public relations would leave him little time to develop his own ideas and she unfurled a new vision for him: professor. "I knew what a professor was but I didn't know it was a viable career. To actually become a professor was such a foreign thing to me, coming from a working class, blue-collar town. Going from the known to the unknown is hard," Baldwin said. George encouraged him to attend a McNair event with Professor Joe William Trotter, author of "Black Milwaukee," to meet a professor and find out what the role entailed. At the end of the evening Baldwin knew she was absolutely right.

McNair guided Baldwin through key decisions. Changing his major to philosophy aligned his studies with his core values and beliefs. McNair offset costs of Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) and helped him identify and navigate approaches to the best graduate schools for his future in American Studies. Moreover, it ushered him into a world of confident, aspiring, first-generation students of color who didn't have to prove that they were brilliant and capable. Drawing on that confidence, Baldwin made a case for himself in person with New York University's director of graduate studies when his application might not have otherwise stood out. That inspired visit earned him admission and scholarship money.

Baldwin has had a rich career. Researcher, professor, historian, author, cultural critic and social theorist, he combines urban studies, 20th century U.S. History and African American and American Studies to examine cities through the lens of the African Diasporic experience. As the Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, he changes how students view race relations in the United States.

He might have been a P.R. executive, but that misses the point. McNair, Baldwin points out, "is not a career program. It's a democracy program. It democratizes the workforce, our higher education teaching pool, and broadens the kinds of ideas that will produce innovation in the classroom, the laboratory, and in enterprise."