The president of Oregon State University talks about his experience as a first generation college student.
How does a kid who grew up in the streets of New York City come to think of such things as a “beloved community”?
That concept was Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision for a society based on justice, equal opportunity and love for one’s fellow human beings. Since arriving at Oregon State University in 2003, I have consistently talked about creating a community of inclusive excellence and social justice — an aspiration based on Dr. King’s ideal.
I was the youngest of three sons, whose father worked nights as a truck mechanic. My mom stayed at home and worked part-time to buy Christmas presents each year. Both of my parents graduated from high school and went straight into the workforce.
I was the first in my family to graduate from college. Both of my brothers returned to college and graduated after me with advanced degrees. I like to think that I inspired them in the sense that they figured out that “if that little jerk could do it, so can I.”
I was able to attend college because the people of New York City taxed themselves to create the City University of New York. I went to Queens College across the street from a public-housing project named Pomonoc. I grew up very happy, but we had little cash to spare, and I would not have graduated from college without the help of people who never met me.
When I say we had very little, I almost did not go to the Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony in my senior year in college because I did not have the $25 to pay for my membership and gold key into the nation’s oldest honor society for the arts and sciences.
A family friend, Kay Bowers, gave me the money and told me I had to go, because I had earned this recognition and I belonged there. I have since created an endowment at Oregon State in her honor so that no OSU student ever faces that predicament.
The land grant mission and promise of Oregon State to the people of Oregon — and now the nation and the world — is identical to the commitment I received from the people of New York that made it possible for me to go to college.
Today’s first-generation students are “me” 50 years later. I look at them and understand how hard it is to navigate a world that no one you relied on growing up can help you understand. Yet I cannot imagine how daunting the task must be to students of color and students from other countries and cultures to graduate from college. I feel honored — and obligated — to help them graduate and succeed in life.
The New York City I grew up in was divided into enclaves. The Catholics lived here; the Jews lived there. There was Little Italy and Chinatown; and Latino and black neighborhoods. There were gangs with territories.
Back then, everyone knew where they did and did not belong. One mother told me I could not date her daughter because I am not Jewish — it was nothing personal, though. Mary Huff, No. 10 in my high school graduating class of 1,235 from Jamaica High School and later a Wellesley graduate, was denied admission to the economics Ph.D. program at Princeton because it did not accept women even while I pursued graduate studies at Stanford University.
I saw ignorance and hate up close in perhaps the most diverse city in the world, and I understood that it was not a community. I paid attention, learned and vowed to do whatever I could to make things better for all people.
Nearly two years ago, the Oregon State University Board of Trustees asked me to accept a new five-year contract. In response, I asked myself, “Why would it matter if I retired then or five years later?
I decided that I had failed to help Oregon State achieve the kind of student success the people of Oregon need and expect, and I had failed to foster the inclusive and caring community we need.
I committed to raising OSU’s first-year retention and six-year graduation rates for all students to 90% and 70%, respectively, and to eliminate all achievement gaps by 2020. I committed to scrapping business as usual and taking another run at helping build a “beloved community” at Oregon State.
In short, I am not willing to walk away from the challenges that are so important to me and that are the right outcomes for the people of Oregon without giving it one more best effort. I have a great team of colleagues, alumni, and donors, and I tell them that in these essential ways the best is yet to come to Oregon State University and to all of Oregon.
Ed Ray is the president of Oregon State University