The University Record, January 28, 2002

Alumni talk about life after U-M in context of MLK

By Janet Nellis Mendler
News and Information Services

The letter telling Greg White to pack his bags and leave the University was another catalyst for change in the young man’s academic life. The first was a visitor to his east side Detroit high school.

“Not many white guys in suits came to our school,” said White, describing admissions counselor Jim Vanhecke’s recruiting visit.

The product of an abusive home, the middle of nine children, a father at 15, White delivered newspapers before and after school and worked at a shoe store on weekends. He dreamed about leaving his home and neighborhood. School was his haven, teachers and counselors his support network. “I realized that if I didn’t plan an exit, there would be no exit.” But he had no plan.

Vanhecke, now an assistant director of undergraduate admissions, showed him one. Take a test; submit the scores to U-M, wait and hope. Without benefit of prep classes, White earned an ACT score that opened the door to U-M in the summer of 1991.

Tom Goss, ’68, chairman of Goss LLC in Detroit and former U-M athletic director, shared the platform with White and Noemi Cortes ’99, during a program last week in observation of MLK Day.

Unlike White, Goss was the product of a middle-class home. His parents successfully sued to integrate the Nashville Public Schools so that their children, and others to follow, would not have to bypass an all-white neighborhood school to attend all-Black schools.

During “A Focus on Outcomes,” presented by the Ambassador Program, in association with the Office of Undergraduate Admissions and the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives (OAMI), the three shared their experiences before, during and after their time at U-M.

White arrived on campus a decade ago, admittedly lacking study skills, friends, a support system. “A lot of people looked like me, but they weren’t. Most Black students from Detroit came from the west side, were middle class and graduates of Cass Tech, Renaissance or King [Detroit magnet schools]. Everybody who looked like me wasn’t necessarily on my side, but the people I met here, all people, changed my life.”

Unprepared for both the social and academic environment, White still was shocked when the dismissal letter arrived. His refuge was evaporating. White read the letter in its entirety, pausing only when he choked back tears.

He needed help, and he got it, “from people who didn’t look like me, and from those who did.” Just as the Rev. King urged Americans to come together, White found he had a support group of all races and nationalities, and he mentioned several by name, including Eugene Nissen, former associate dean for student academic affairs in LS&A. At the same time, he sought help to develop his study skills. He asked his resident hall adviser at Alice Lloyd, and several teaching assistants to evaluate his progress and write supportive letters. They papered the University.

Describing the meeting with Nissen, “a guy who looked taller sitting down than I did standing,” White broke down again. “He turned from his computer and told me to go back to class, that I had been readmitted.” The decision set White back on his way to his U-M degree in 1996, a six-month research fellowship in South Africa and finally a master’s degree from Harvard University. He is now an account representative for Liberty Mutual Insurance Group.

In his introduction to the program, John Matlock, associate vice provost and director of OAMI, reminded attendees that observance of MLK Day was not a celebration, but a commemoration, of King “and all those who gave their lives so you could be where you are today.”

Reflect on the past, he said, but look ahead. “What type of person are you going to be in 10 or 20 years? The measure of your success is the commitment you make to yourselves and to others.”

Cortes is making that commitment after two years in the Teach for America program, where she taught third graders in Phoenix in a bi-lingual classroom. After her first year, bi-lingual classes were cut, leaving her students hurt and angry. “It was then,” said Cortes, “that I knew I belonged in educational policy.”

Goss, who was inducted into the Druids, the senior men’s honorary society, said U-M gave him a network of lifelong friends and of allies to whom he could turn. “Because of Michigan people, I had six job interviews when I graduated, and six job offers.”

At Procter & Gamble, he led his group in performance, but was the only one who wasn’t promoted—and the only Black. “I took a risk, went to my supervisor for an explanation.” When none was forthcoming, “I put the keys to my company car on his desk and quit.” Married with a child on the way, Goss knew what he was risking. Within a week, he was offered a job in another Procter & Gamble unit.

“Take risks, but create options for yourself,” Goss said. “And always join alumni clubs wherever you go. U-M alumni were a base of people of influence in every city I’ve lived in.”

Echoing Goss, White told the audience, “You will not be able to exist on your own. U-M provides you with the network you need, the tickets and tools. Become effective at working together, using one another’s resources. If you don’t learn to work with other people, you’ve limited yourselves. Invest someone else in your success. That’s diversity.”