College Bound Advice from Those Who Have Been There (and Some Who Haven’t)
It happens every year.
Just when the summer heat approaches critical mass they start slipping into town, in small groups at first and then, by the end of August, it’s a full-on torrent. You can see it on Spring Garden Street, Walker Avenue and Friendly Avenue in the increased numbers of pedestrians, cyclists and cars with too many bumper stickers. You can see it in the bars, where the barely legal figure out by trial and error appropriate tavern etiquette. You can see it in the culture, the economy, politics and fashion. Greensboro’s college kids are back. And we welcome them with open arms.
There’s about 30,000 of them this year who will fill the halls at Bennett College, Greensboro College, Guilford College, NC A&T and UNCG, less than 10 percent of the city’s population yet enough of a force to be recognized by huge sectors of the marketplace.
Because Greensboro is many things’… a multicultural city, a county seat, a historical epicenter. But it is also a college town. At least for most of the year.
And the students are important to have around, not in the least because they remind some of us of our own college years, but also because sometimes Greensboro’s college students eventually become the city’s most prominent citizens.
We spoke with 12 local luminaries, some of whom attended college within the city limits, others who matriculated elsewhere, some who dropped out and others who never went at all. And each has a unique perspective for the Gate City’s college students to consider.
– Brian Clarey
Claudette Burroughs-White; Woman’s College (UNCG) Class of ’61
Claudette Burroughs-White has navigated Greensboro’s divergent worlds of black and white more fully than most, first as a probation officer who rose to head Guilford County’s juvenile court system and until December 2005, as a city councilwoman representing District 2.
As an assertive member of Greensboro’s most celebrated generation of African Americans, challenging institutional barriers, making civic contributions and providing political leadership were practically expectations. Burroughs-White and her classmates who graduated from Dudley High School in the late 1950s conscientiously set out to systematically dismantle segregation as they knew it.
They started by setting their sights on the prestigious white universities that had been exclusively or almost exclusively white until that time. Walter Johnson was one of the first three black graduates of Duke University in Durham. Richard Bowling helped desegregate NC State University in Raleigh. Another friend went to UNC-Chapel Hill. And Claudette Graves, as she was then known, entered Woman’s College in the fall of 1957 as a member of the second racially desegregated class. (Two years after her graduation, Woman’s College would become coeducational and take the name UNCG.)
“Going to Woman’s College was part of what I thought was a duty and a responsibility more than a choice,” Burroughs-White says today. “We had a NAACP youth group at Dudley. We didn’t know that UNCG was integrated already. We said we were going to send someone to all the major universities.”
For some of Burroughs-White’s peers being among the first African Americans to attend a previously all-white institution was enough, and they quietly pursued their studies and earned their diplomas, shying from unnecessary attention.
Not Claudette Burroughs-White. She recalls riding the segregated buses and sitting in the middle so she could talk to a white friend named Brenda.
“On the day they integrated the buses in Alabama she was so upset about it,” she says. “I asked her: ‘What color am I?'”
“You’re different,” Brenda replied. “I know you.”
“From that expression I took it that it was my job to get to know people,” Burroughs-White says. “I was probably a little more tolerant than some people. You could be angry, but that would only get you so far.”
There were students and teachers at Woman’s College who exhibited bald racism. A student who refused to cooperate with her in a chemistry lab. A French teacher who called Burroughs-White by her first name while referring to the white students by their last names. The class’s reader was written by a woman who was also named Claudette, and when the one African-American student would answer a question the teacher would sometimes absurdly claim she was calling on the other Claudette.
Fortunately, some of Burroughs-White’s classmates came to her defense. She transferred into a Spanish class -‘ which would later prove to be an asset in prevailing over another incident of racism -‘ and the French teacher received a reprimand.
She recalls a professor assigning her class to watch a movie at the Center Theater in downtown Greensboro. She and her friends knew the theater wasn’t integrated, but that reality hadn’t even occurred to her professor.
A theater employee predictably told Burroughs-White she couldn’t come in. Her friend started speaking Spanish, and Burroughs-White nodded even though she didn’t understand a word of it.
“Oh, she’s not a Negro?” the theater employee asked.
“No, she’s from a different country,” the Spanish-speaking friend lied.
The movie theater suddenly opened its doors to Claudette Graves.
In February 1960, when four NC A&T University students – Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil – took it upon themselves to desegregate the Woolworth’s lunch counter on Elm Street, Burroughs-White was quick to join. She and Blair, now known as Jibreel Khazan, had both been members of the NAACP youth group; Richmond was her neighbor in the East White Oak neighborhood where she grew up.
“I knew there was some rumbling around the city,” Burroughs-White says. “I just went to see what was going on. The second day I went myself.”
On the third day, three white students from Woman’s College joined her.
“During the sit-ins I thought we were doing really good,” Burroughs-White says. “You know, what are you going to do with the blacks and whites when they’re together? I don’t think we even had enough sense to know how powerful it was, how dangerous it might have been.”
The four A&T students set the tone, and it was understood that the lunch counter protesters would resist nonviolently; they would ignore provocations verbal and physical, and comport themselves with dignity in the face of insult.
Once Claudette Graves broke form when a white man in the crowd demeaned her with a racial slur.
“I had a lot of temper then,” she says. “I had a big old pocketbook that I carried my books in. I pointed in my pocket book and said, ‘Come on, I’m ready for you!’ He stepped back a little.”
Her friends were displeased.
“We were trained to be silent and resist,” she says. “There I had violated the training. I really felt bad about. My friends were like, ‘You can’t be doing that,’ and they made me leave.”
Teaching and preaching were the honored professions in Claudette Burroughs-White’s family, so she earned a teaching certificate at Woman’s College. She spent a semester at Dudley High School as a student teacher. She also worked in a group home for people with mental illnesses – an experience she hated. Although she enjoyed teaching, she thrilled to the experience of being in a courtroom.
She found that although many blacks, even in Greensboro, knew nothing about her alma mater, in the white world it was a mark of prestige to have a diploma from Woman’s College. It opened doors.
Burroughs-White had no trouble getting hired as a probation officer in Philadelphia soon after graduating. A month later she moved back to work as probation officer in Guilford County juvenile court. Against her own expectations, she stayed on and retired 34 years later as the head of the program.
“The worst thing was when I retired I felt like I left the system in worse shape than I found it,” Burroughs-White says. “It seems like it’s worse than ever now. When I first started there were no services for children. What I feel good about is that when I was on city council I got a lot of things going for children. I think that will be my legacy.”
Cities like Greensboro need the passion of the young people now more than ever, she says.
“I would hope they would expose themselves to service projects in the city so they can begin to shape who they are,” Burroughs-White says. “As good citizens they should want to know how their city is run and want to contribute something. If they’ve managed to negotiate the world to get to college, they could give a lot. They can help tutor kids. They can work with the elderly. There’s so much they can offer and the needs are so great.”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rep. Howard Coble; Guilford College
Class of ’58
Congressman Howard Coble not only knows the value of a good education, he knows that it’s never too late to get one. He dropped out of Appalachian State in 1949 to join the Coast Guard, but after his enlistment was up he went back to school, earning a bachelors in history from Guilford College in 1958. From there he went to UNC Chapel Hill, where he earned his law degree in 1962. He was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1984, serving the 6th District of North Carolina (Guilford and Moore counties), where he remains today.
Last week he took time out of his busy schedule to pass on this advice to college freshmen:
“I would advise incoming freshman to matriculate in a focused manner. Students should engage in college activities with the determination of being good managers of time. If students learn to balance the requirements of college early, they should be pleased with the outcome.”
He also offered some advice to recent or soon-to-be graduates, to wit:
“New graduates entering the workforce should be aware of the significant importance of being able to get along with their fellow men and women. When disagreeing, do so agreeably. If you try to climb too quickly over people, it could come back to bite you. Recognize that you will have to learn how to get along with many different types of people to be successful in any career.”
– Ogi Overman
Milton Kern; ECU/ UNC-Charlotte dropout
“I don’t know if you want to talk to me about this,” begins Milton Kern, college dropout and one of Greensboro’s most successful citizens.
“I went to three different schools,” he says, “ECU for one year, I went to Mitchell Junior College for two years and I went to UNC-Charlotte for a year. It’s hard for me to give people advice about college when I never finished. Life got in my way. I don’t regret it.”
The builder, businessman and property owner got married while at school in Charlotte and started having a family.
“We had a baby; I didn’t go back [to school]. I moved to Greensboro and started working construction.”
It’s worked out pretty good for him – Kern and his wife Debby have been investing both time and money into the maturation of downtown Greensboro for the last six years.
He advises area college students to get involved in politics at any level.
“Whether campus politics or state politics, If I’m involved then I have some influence on what’s going on. If I wasn’t, then I don’t know nothing about it.
“You have a responsibility to be involved in civic affairs,” he continues, “to use your time for the betterment of the community. You will have a richer life.”
Another piece of advice: “Always try to associate with people you’d like to have your photograph made with. My grandmother used to say, “If you stand around manure long enough, you’re gonna start to smell like it.”
– Brian Clarey
Bruce Piephoff; UNCG Class of ’89
It is altogether likely that Bruce Piephoff studied Robert Frost while pursuing his masters in creative writing at UNCG. But whether he did or didn’t, he certainly took the road less traveled.
Rather than take the path of least resistance, Bruce opted for a career with a low success rate, a high degree of burnout and no guarantees of financial reward. He chose to be a songwriter, folksinger and poet. And based on the fact that he is arguably Greensboro’s most respected and certainly most prolific tunesmith, for him at least, that has turned out to be the right decision. Yet even after a splendid track record of 15 albums and counting, he stops short of endorsing his career path as the universally correct one for everybody.
“I don’t know that you can encourage somebody to take that big a gamble,” he muses. “If you’re going to cut the cord like that, you’ve got to take responsibility for how hard it’s going to be. You can’t be whining about not having enough money if you’ve turned down opportunities.”
Bruce speaks with some authority on the subject. “I had a chance to take a job teaching English at a college,” he remarks, “but it wasn’t in a town where I wanted to live and it wasn’t really what I wanted to do.”
He has taught on the college level, but as an artist-in-residence at community colleges all across North Carolina as well as Virginia and Florida. From 1986-2001, as a member of the Visiting Artist Program sponsored by the NC Arts Council and Community College System, he taught, did workshops and gave free concerts in the various communities.
“That’s the closest thing to a day job I had,” he says. “Before the government cut off funding for the program in 2001, I had some pretty good years, both creatively and financially.”
The Greensboro native graduated from Grimsley in 1967 and enrolled at UNC, dropping out after two years to pursue the life of a traveling minstrel. After traversing the country several times, a la Woody Guthrie, he was working in Durham at a children’s hospital when he decided to move back home and transfer to UNCG. After earning a BA in English he entered the MFA program at the school, primarily to study under poet laureate Fred Chappell and Robert Watson, getting his Masters in 1984.
“There was a big gap in there,” he says with a faint grin. “I don’t know if that’s the preferred path, either, but I do feel like I got a good liberal arts education. The most valuable thing I got was the time spent reading so many different books and hanging with people so much smarter than me and learning from them. When you jump straight into a career, you don’t have time to get that kind of education.
“At least when somebody mentions Jude the Obscure I know what the hell they’re talking about.”
As for the youth of today, Bruce offers a few words of wisdom.
“Whatever field you want to go into, learn as many skills as you can,” he states. “Learn as much about the craft itself as possible. In my case, I felt that by studying literature and the great writers that I could employ that in my music like all the great songwriters that I admire did.
“You learn the nuts and bolts about the craft, but then there’s that other ingredient about who you are and what your spirit is that comes into your work. It’s those intangibles that define you. You can know all about songwriting but that doesn’t mean you can write a Merle Haggard song.”
Matt Russ; UNCG Class of ’87
It’s unsurprising that Matt Russ, owner of the popular caffeine dispensary Tate Street Coffee, would urge students to soak up the atmosphere on the short stretch that lends its name to his business.
“For a lot of people, college is their first time away from home,” he said. “Tate Street is a place close by where they can kind of get away from school for a while.”
He doesn’t, however, advise that students stray too far from the heart of campus. Or that they forget why they came there.
“Get engaged early,” he advised. “Sit in the front row.”
Russ graduated from UNCG in 1987 with dual degrees in psychology and sociology. He discovered the importance of concentrating on academics after a short break from higher education.
He opened Tate Street Coffee in 1993 and shares the neighborhood with a couple of other student hot spots. These include the Weatherspoon Art Gallery down the block and the Space, an all-purpose arts venue just a few doors down. Students with a little extra time on their hands should take advantage of these cultural resources, he said. But the most important thing is to stay on top of your schoolwork.
“Don’t get behind early,” he said. “Go to class. Ninety percent of it is just being there. If you go to class, you’ll get at least a C. If you show some effort, maybe you’ll get a B. And if you’re really interested in the material, you’ll probably get an A.”
– Amy Kingsley
Ray Loughran; UNCG dropout
Ray Loughran, better known around these parts as the Walrus, has been entertaining college students and others on the local boogie circuit since he dropped out of UNCG more than a decade ago.
“I quit school the night after my first Walrus gig,” he says. “After that gig my mom came home with me and I said, ‘I’m quitting school; I’m never going back,’ And I never did.”
Ray, who pitched for the UNCG Spartans baseball team, says he was about 15 credits shy of graduating.
“I switched my major five times and after that it was pretty much seven years of college down the drain.”
And though he was not exactly a model student, he does have some advice for Greensboro’s college kids.
“Get a bike, because the parking sucks. It did when I was there anyway. And brownnose your teachers. I think it helps. I didn’t do it and I think it was detrimental. I didn’t care and I think a lot of my teachers could tell. If you show that you want to pass the class, you will pass the class.”
Greensboro’s pre-eminent party rocker also advises moving off campus as soon as possible. And, of course, going out to see live music as often as you can.
– Brian Clarey
Mayor Keith Holliday; Guilford College Class of ’75
Greensboro’s mayor, Keith Holliday, is hometown born and bred. He grew up here, graduated from Grimsley High and then went on to study at Guilford College in the northwest part of town.
He wanted to be in the FBI back then, in 1971, and he secured a grant from the North Carolina Law Enforcement Education program on the condition he work in law enforcement for four years.
“During the course of my four years at Guilford – and yes, I did get out in four years – I did an internship with the Greensboro Police Department, with a detective,” he says.
“We would lock them up and I’d go back to the jail cells and basically say, ‘Why the hell did you do that?’
“The detective told me, ‘Maybe you want to consider [the department of] corrections. You seem to want to correct people’s behavior.'”
That piece of advice led to a stretch as a probation officer and, eventually, his current gig as mayor.
But before he earned his gravitas he says that Guilford College gave him his first glimpse of the world outside the county.
“I lived on campus and it was another world,” he says, “even though it was technically just down the street from where I grew up. I’m this Southern boy, grew up in Greensboro, and I walk into the world at Guilford College. When I was there there were eighteen or nineteen countries represented. All of a sudden I was making friends with people I’d never be friends with in high school.”
The country boy often found himself outside his comfort zone while a student in the tumultuous years between 1971 and 1975.
He remembers a “social function” held one night in the dormitory suite he shared with three other male residents when he accidentally walked in on a young lady in the bathroom.
“A very attractive redhead,” he recalls. “I was just so embarrassed. And like an idiot I’m saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,’ with the door wide open.”
“She comes walking out, I’ll never forget it, and I’m apologizing and she was flabbergasted that I was so embarrassed. She said, ‘Why didn’t you just use the next stall?’ We had a philosophical conversation right there.”
He also saw with his own eyes a mixed-race couple for the first time while a student at Guilford College.
“My chin hit the ground,” he said. “There were not sensations of anger’… it was shock because of my upbringing. I just hadn’t seen it.”
“That was the beginning of my education.”
And for those about to embark on their own adventures in learning, Mayor Holliday has some sound advice.
1. “That first year you really have to take a hiatus away from fun,” he says. “Get into good habits. Playing catchup in college is no fun. You hit the ground running freshman year; focus all your partying on Friday and Saturday nights and know that Sunday through Thursday nights are for work.”
2. “Consider going to summer school. To quit going to class from May to September, most people have a hard time getting back into those good habits. It’s cheaper, and you can usually knock out a pretty good grade.”
3. Get involved with the community. “Take some of what you’re learning,” he says, “reach out and apply some of that knowledge you’re learning in the books.”
4. Get an internship. “I strongly recommend you try to do an internship. It’s one of the best things you can do to prepare for when that cord is finally cut.”
5. Have an exit strategy. “Start thinking junior year as to what you’re gonna do when you get out.”
6. Meet people. “Make a personal goal each year to get to know really well five people. By the end of four or five years you’ll have twenty-five new friends from different backgrounds.”
Also, it should be said, knock on the door before you go into a bathroom stall.
Joe Bostic; Clemson University Class of ’78
By most any standard, Joe Bostic is a success: Clemson All-American, NFL offensive lineman with the Phoenix and St. Louis Cardinals for 11 years, affluent businessman, loving husband and father of three, former member of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners. But like most folks – at least those with the capacity to be brutally honest with themselves – he does have regrets.
“The biggest regret of my whole life,” he comments, “is that I had an entire full-blown education – meals, rooming, books, tuition, the whole nine yards – paid for and I didn’t put much effort into it at all. There was no passion in education for me. It was, ‘Get a C, get out and move on to the next course.’ I graduated but I never really worked in college.
“And now I love school, reading, learning, finding out about things. I wish I were going to school now; I’d be a great student.”
So, with the benefit of hindsight, the Smith High School product has a bit of sage advice for those just now embarking on their college career: “Work hard at it because there will come a day in your life when you will value your education, when you like learning. Learning will be a lot more valuable to you later on than it might seem now.”
And with two daughters at the University of Kansas (Jennifer is a senior, Kathryn a sophomore), his words do carry some weight.
“I’d tell any kid the same thing I tell my own. Very simply: Find your higher power and find your passion. If you do those two things the rest of it will take care of itself.”
– Ogi Overman
Rev. Kevin Matthews; University of Maryland- Baltimore County
Father Kevin Matthews is, like thousands of incoming freshman across the city, a newcomer to Greensboro.
The head of St. Mary’s House, a small church and Episcopal chaplaincy adjacent to UNCG, he took over for Rev. Charlie Hawes, who retired at the end of July. He earned his own undergraduate degree at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and later studied at the Virginia Theological Seminary.
But even though Matthews is new to Greensboro he’s had plenty of experience working with students. He most recently left a faculty post at Duke University and has worked in colleges and universities since the 1980s.
“One of the biggest challenges students face is this feeling that they’ve got to focus on getting a job right after they graduate,” Matthews said. “It’s kind of this consumer approach.”
He advises students to explore their options before settling on a major. Those who take a variety of different classes will eventually focus on the subjects that appeal to them most, he said.
“College is about finding out who you are,” he said. “It’s about exploring questions.”
Later in life, making time for such inquiry can be difficult. Matthews encourages students to make time for themselves and indulge their spiritual and intellectual curiosity.
– Amy Kingsley
Jenny Stokes; Salem College Class of ’96
A couple of Saturdays from now, when you’re carousing downtown and celebrating the start of the new school year with several thousand of your closest friends, you might want to thank Jenny Stokes for making it happen. She would be the first to deflect credit away from herself and toward the many sponsors and volunteers who breathe life into Get Down!Town, but as young professionals coordinator for Action Greensboro, she is certainly the prime mover behind the event. The fifth annual back-to-college music fest and party will be held Sept. 9.
As someone not too far removed from her own college days (Salem College Class of ’96, sociology major and business minor; and Master of Public Affairs Program from UNCG in 2002), she is obviously in touch with students from all five of the area’s colleges.
“For the incoming freshmen, we want to get them involved in the community,” she notes. “We’re glad they’re here and want them to not only get to know their campus and their school but get to know Greensboro as a city, as a place they may want to stay after graduation. We want to let them know they’re welcome here, and that’s why we do the big event Get Down!Town.”
As for those on the verge of entering the workforce, she adds, “There’s a tremendous amount of opportunity in Greensboro, both in the workplace and the ability to impact the community and get involved and see change happen right in front of your eyes. I don’t think you can do that every place. Greensboro is unique that way and it’s a very exciting time to be here.”
– Ogi Overman
Alex Amoroso; no college experience
When Judy Morton, secretary at Action Greensboro, gives someone directions to their South Elm Street office, it usually goes something like this: “You know where Cheesecakes by Alex is, right? Well, we’re right beside it.”
When Alex Amoroso opened his fledgling enterprise some four years ago, the downtown Greensboro renaissance was more theory than fact. And today many would argue that not only was he ahead of the curve but in no small measure responsible for much of what has now become a burgeoning center city. Alex’s success paved the way by sending the message that small businesses could indeed thrive downtown.
It also sent another message – that college is not necessarily a prerequisite for success. Alex, Greensboro born and bred, went straight into the restaurant business after graduating from Western Guilford High School.
“My dad ran the Dunderbox,” he recalls, “and I was mopping floors there when I was fifteen. I guess [the restaurant business] just gets in your blood.”
The affable restaurateur also has some advice that applies across the board.
“Don’t lose your focus,” he says firmly. “But at the same time, don’t take life so seriously. Coming into college you’ve got a lot to learn; you still don’t know what direction you’re going to take in life. I happened to know what I wanted to do, but it doesn’t work that way for everybody. Just take it a day at a time, don’t rush it.”
– Ogi Overman
Diarra (Cricket) Leggett; UNCG dropout
If you’re into rock music and at least 21 years old, chances are you’ll purchase an adult beverage from Diarra (Cricket) Leggett some time this semester.
The 34-year-old former UNCG student has been slinging drinks at College Hill for almost three years, and last spring he took a second position behind the Flying Anvil’s 75-foot bar. The Hill’s proximity to UNCG and Greensboro College means that Leggett has seen his fair share of college-aged drinkers.
“At College Hill there’s pretty much a regular crowd, so when I see a new face it’s often someone who just turned 21,” he said.
As something of a veteran, he’s got some advice for students who want to make nice with their bartender (which, if you’re a drinker, is a pretty good idea).
His first tip may seem obvious. To wit: If you need a refill, wait patiently at the bar and do not shake your cup to get the bartender’s attention.
“I told someone just the other day, ‘You know, you have no idea how easy it is to ignore that,'” Leggett said.
Announcing that you’re not going to tip is unlikely to earn you any brownie points, he said. And although it’s nice to get the bartender’s name, you don’t have to use it during every transaction.
Sorry kids, he doesn’t really have any advice on how to avoid making drunken fools of yourselves. Unlike British Lit, that kind of learning is purely experiential.
– Amy Kingsley