Randy Pierce, President Floyd College, Rome, Georgia Perimeter College
Previously Provost at Georgia Perimeter College
Speech Delivered Oct.26, 2004 at Rockdale Center
40th Anniversary Symposium.
I can’t tell you how honored I am to be a part of Rockdale’s activities celebrating the fortieth anniversary of Georgia Perimeter College -- or to the really old timers, DeKalb College.
When I first saw the program’s title, “The Two-Year College/the American Dream: 40 years of opportunity,” I was struck by how appropriate and fitting it was. First of all, my association with GPC has spanned 25 of those 40 years, first as a student, then as program director for various units and departments (including a brief stint as a teacher), and finally as a senior administrator. I have seen the college from all those perspectives and I have lived those words “dream” and “opportunity” because of this institution.
GPC helped me define and plan for my own dream, one that I consistently believed in childhood was unattainable. It provided me with the opportunity that my parents may never even have thought of. And if I hadn’t come here, I probably wouldn’t have thought of it either.
“The Two-Year College/The American Dream: 40 Years of Opportunity,” If I haven’t lived the American Dream because of this institution, nobody has. Let me tell you my story so you can understand how GPC and its many heroes changed my own life. I can only speculate how many other lives these people have reached, touched in positive ways and changed for the better.
I grew up on the south side of Atlanta and in 1967 DeKalb College was the only two-year college in the area. Sound familiar to any of you? I was a first-generation college student; my mom and dad didn’t attend college at all. Actually, my dad ‘s formal education only went through the eighth grade. He left for work every morning before six and when he arrived home after dark in the evening, he crumbled into a chair, exhausted. He felt blessed to be able to own a home and feed his family.
So it should come as no surprise to you that college was never presented to me as an option. Back then, you could get a job on the assembly line at Ford or throw bags on airplanes at Delta or Eastern. To you students, that option is not available today. Then, there were jobs available that afforded one the opportunity to make a decent living without a college education, including the ability to buy a house and raise a family.
However, after I graduated from high school, I wasn’t quite ready to go to work on the assembly line and, besides, all of my friends were going to college. So, that is what I did. I had no idea what I wanted to do or what to major. I often asked myself why I was there. I also assumed, in the back of my mind at least, that I would never finish with a degree. You may assume the same thing, but everything will fall into place in time. The fact that I realized not one but three degrees and a 30-plus-year career in higher education, in part by my having attended DeKalb College, qualifies as quite extraordinary, don’t you think?
But let’s not forget the real heroes here, the real reason this institution has meant so much to people like me. Those who have committed their lives to serve others are the faculty and staff who, despite the politics that surround us and the low salaries, are here day after day, helping others realize their dreams. I’ll start with Jim Godwin. I first got to know him when I was a student. He was the dean of students at the Clarkston campus. I learned about compassion from him. I witnessed the way he dealt with four friends of mine in a way that demonstrated his intelligence, his kindness and his fairness. You see, these guys got in trouble when it became clear that they had sold a bunch of books for classes they obviously hadn’t been in. They didn’t realize that their book sales were checked against the classes in which they were enrolled.
As Dean of Students, Dean Godwin was the disciplinarian. You understand that he could have thrown the book at them, suspending or even expelling them altogether. But instead, he used their infractions as teachable moments. He put them on probation, telling them that if they so much as made one wrong move, they were gone. But he didn’t suspend them. He didn’t cut off their opportunity at the proverbial knees – because he knew they may never return and their chance to achieve more than their own parents had done might be lost.
There were others – heroes all of them -- who quietly led and prevailed against all odds. For example, in the early eighties DeKalb College faced one of its darkest hours. Much like the university system today, it faced exploding enrollments and dwindling sources of revenue at a time when it was still part of the DeKalb Board of Education. To make a long story short, the then-President of Georgia State University, Noah Langdale, offered to take this institution as part of GSU. The problem was that only one campus – Dunwoody – had any strategic importance to GSU. Word had it that Langdale would take the institution but dismantle it as we knew it. One individual went to the board and convinced them to continue to negotiate with the University System and that was Dr. Ron Swafford. He did it quietly and without any official backing. But he did it anyway – because he stood up for the principles and values on which this institution was founded – the same principles and values highlighted in the title of this occasion today. Very soon thereafter, the System took the entire college as its 34th unit.
Let me backtrack for a minute. Ron and I were together in 1984 and we approached Gwinnett County about the possibility of establishing a teaching site at Gwinnett Tech. Our offer was rejected because Gwinnett Tech had struck its own deal with the University System. Ironically, when we came into the system, we were allowed to begin teaching classes at Gwinnett Tech. As Paul Harvey would say, “And now you know the rest of the story.” Looking back on those two events, I can now see that they didn’t just happen. They were part of the ideals instilled by this institution and by Ron Swofford. The gentleman in this picture – Marvin Cole, another of my heroes – was president when we came to Gwinnett and Rockdale. His leadership brought us to these places; however, it was this president who has closed the deals. It was Jacquee Belcher who saw the possibilities and seized the opportunity to serve through her selfless persistence and hard work. Lawrenceville will now grow and become Gwinnett State College, but it was the vision of people like Marvin and Jacquee that saw it through.
These individuals are but a few of heroes. They demonstrate a model I have tried to follow through the years. I think you’ll see that when I begin to tell you about my own experiences while working here.
When Lee McKinley kindly invited me to speak, I asked her to give me some idea of the subject matter that might pique your interest … and she gave me some great ideas. And as I considered them, two in particular struck a deep and personal chord. Lee suggested I might want to talk about events and milestones – anything that had a significant effect on my life – that I could attribute directly or indirectly to GPC. She also asked me to talk about my perspective on the institution’s history from my various experiences as a student, a faculty member and an administrator.
I thought to myself, “That’s pretty easy. There’s probably not much after I began attending here in 1967 that can’t be attributed to GPC.” You see, I am one of those individuals who believes we are all a product of our environment – not only our physical surroundings, but also our social milieu. GPC has helped shape me through many encounters that were new and different for me: exposure to informed and reasoned discourse, an introduction to the vistas that education can open, and a very diverse society of people who nevertheless manage to come together for their own good and the good of others.
Here’s how GPC and my role models here have influenced me.
I was working as the business manager in one of my first positions when Dean Godwin’s example of compassion inspired me. My job was to count the money and reconcile the amount owed for classes in various programs with the amount brought into campus. Joint enrollment was one of those programs. The program coordinator would go out to area high schools, gather enrollment forms and bring them back with the enrollments fees attached to them with paper clips.
We began to notice that every day or two we were coming up short on monies being brought back. Usually, the amount was $20-$40. These amounts had obviously been lost or stolen from the original registration forms. Of course we investigated and the more we delved into the matter, it became clear that the facts pointed to one young man, a student assistant, who worked for the program coordinator. We obviously had to decide how to deal with this student. The program coordinator wanted to expel him. She wanted his head on a pole. But I instantly recalled that incident with Dean Godwin. So even against the program coordinator’s judgment, we didn’t expel the student. Instead, we told him he could no longer work at that job and that he must repay the amount taken (which he had admitted to), but he stayed in school. I refused to take away his opportunity for a better future. That attitude has stayed with me throughout the years.
But it’s not the only value that I’ve gained through my association with GPC. When I came to Gwinnett to direct our program there I was told I had to teach a business math class. It was the only class I’ve ever taught, but that one class packed an instructional wallop.
I didn’t really understand the responsibility faculty members shoulder until I stood in front of those 14 students and realized what they expected of me. Of course I had been aware that most people, when asked who most impacted their lives, name a parent or teacher. Nevertheless, seeing those expectant eyes looking at me for guidance and instruction made me frighteningly aware of my responsibility toward them. What incredible power a teacher can exert on his or her students!
Thank God I was married to a math teacher. She helped me through this class and in the end, I felt good about what my students had learned. It wasn’t until some years later that I really came to appreciate what it meant to teach, though. In that class was a non-traditional student who was scared to death she wouldn’t make it – just like I had been. I kept saying to her, “You can do this,” just like the DeKalb faculty had said to me in1967. She walked up to me one day five or six years later and said, “You probably don’t remember me, but I was in your math class. That class inspired me to go on and now I have my bachelor’s degree from Brenau University. It wasn’t math she learned in that class: it was confidence and persistence. She conquered a fear. Those little words “You can do this” from faculty at DeKalb got me where I stand today, and it worked for her. That’s what I took away from my teaching experience at GPC. I think it’s easy during the day-to-day grind to lose sight of that role as motivator.
Fortunately, someone had the good sense not to let me into the classroom again. Yet being there only one term taught me that the real heroes live in that classroom every day – and now I understand why.
The level of education I attained here and the time I’ve spent in higher education have also influenced the way I approach and solve problems, analyze situations and look at the world around me. So I’m not understating the profound influence GPC has had on my life. As a matter of fact, everything good that has happened to me can probably be attributed to GPC.
I’m not about to suggest that my experiences were all smooth sailing, without negative events or difficult challenges. But taken as a whole, GPC has played an enormous role in molding the person I have become and the accomplishments I can call my own. It has helped me, through its own example, find ways to lift people to a higher plane and make them see possibilities where before there was only fear and uncertainty. What higher calling can there be?
Institutions develop cultures, personalities if you will. Those institutions develop values and traditions. There are heroes and heroines that live in the histories and deeds of those institutions. GPC has existed for forty years because of its strong values and traditions and the many individuals who believed in its purpose.
DeKalb College and GPC gave me the opportunity to be the individual standing before you today. Yes, I believe I stand as a testament to the American Dream. And so, students, can all of you. Thank you.