Divided We Learn

STUDENT VOICE: From skipping class to Summa Cum Laude

One black Naval veteran’s multi-year odyssey through college

Thirty-five years ago, when I graduated from John F. Kennedy High School in Paterson, New Jersey, my parents gave me two options: go to college or get a job.

Although I was deeply unmotivated, I enrolled in Passaic County College where I excelled in English, psychology and sociology and did well in math and science.

College challenged my thinking, but ironically my sharpened critical thinking made me question why I was even in college.

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I took the armed forces qualifying exam on a whim, near the end of my freshman year.

Within a few weeks, I was in Navy basic training in Great Lakes, Illinois.

Boot Camp was a culture shock. I wasn’t military material, but I honored my commitment. Four years later, I was honorably discharged, returned to Paterson and re-enrolled in Passaic County College.

I did well, again. But once again I felt lost and unfocused. Around this time, I got a job at a local chemical factory. Promotion soon followed. I married my high school sweetheart.

This, I decided, was for me the life. I began skipping classes, showing up just to take finals. I dropped out of college once again.

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My wife and I purchased a home Plainfield shortly after our daughter was born in 1991.

Two years later we became the parents of a son. Had I really achieved the American Dream?  Any thoughts of finishing my education vanished as I singularly focused on my family.

My life was simple. I was on autopilot. Gradually, though, a subconscious boredom and dissatisfaction burst through the surface and before long all the old misery was back.

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Driving home from work one Friday night, destiny struck.  A car sped through a stop sign and crashed into my car. My head banged the door panel and my knee buckled as my car struck a tree.

Stoically, I chose not to go the hospital, gave my report to the police, called my insurer and went home to bed.  I woke up with a headache that forced tears to my eyes.

My knee was swollen to size of a basketball.  I became bedridden, taking pain medications that were toxic to my body, mind and spirit. The migraine headaches I had suffered with since I was a child became more frequent and severe. I was in despair.

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My father visited me one bright morning bringing coffee and bagels, which he knew I loved. He looked at me, lowered his head and said, “Son, why are you giving up?” I cried like I had never cried. He held me and cried with me.

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He made me see that I was dying, not from injury, but from hopelessness. I promised him I would get help.

I went to see Dr. Eric Kramer at the Cooper Medical Center in Camden. Dr. Kramer asked me if I ever thought about suicide. There it was. The dirty thought I dare not speak. I admitted I did often think about suicide.

He put down his pen, looked at me and said, “Mr. Ali you are suffering from cluster headaches.” This severe form of migraine is also called ‘suicide headaches,’ and sufferers all say the same thing: they would rather die than feel the pain.

With his treatment, I soon got well.  That’s when I realized my marriage was in shambles. It was all my fault but my wife and I just could not fix it. We separated. My ex-wife got the house and full custody of our children.

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Over the next several years, regret over abandoning my studies haunted me. I wanted to complete something for me.  I wanted to serve others. I wanted to teach. I applied to Rutgers Newark but was rejected and advised to attend a community college, raise my GPA and then reapply.

When I learned that I could attend school full time through the Veteran’s Vocational Rehabilitation program, I asked my new wife to be patient with me so I could invest all my time and energy into school. With her blessing, I enrolled in Essex County College and felt right at home as an adult learner.

At the end of my first semester, I just missed the Dean’s List.  The next semester, I aced it: four classes, four As.  On the white board in the mudroom of my house, I wrote my new goal in bold letters: Summa Cum Laude or Bust.

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I was not dismayed when I graduated Magna instead of Summa, because I was so thrilled that Rutgers had accepted me as an honors transfer student.

At Rutgers, I majored in history and minored in literature.  I took tough, demanding classes.  I learned with brilliant classmates.  I was taught by wise and caring professors. I was nurtured by a History Department that was concerned about my progress.

When I registered for graduation this Spring, I was amazed to hear that I would graduate Summa Cum Laude, Phi Alpha Theta Honors, Golden Key Honor Society.

This news sent me to the Muslim prayer room on campus where I cried a cry of joy.  A cry of belief in God, belief in myself. A cry of love for my daughter Kyla and my son Qadri, who have been my muses and motivation all along.

I cried my deep gratitude to the universe and all the people who helped me reach this place of safety, peace, joy and hope. I am finally on my way.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about race and equity.

Bashir Ali is a Summa Cum Laude graduate of Rutgers University – Newark.

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