Navigating ‘the Vine’

By Thomas A. Parham ’77

In my mind, success often begins with a dream, an aspiration for something more, an expectation that future generations will take advantage of the groundwork laid by parents, extended family, elders and the ancestors who came before them. Such is certainly the case in my life.

By many measures, my arrival at the places and spaces I now occupy as vice chancellor for student affairs and an adjunct faculty member at UCI would not have been predicted. Coming from a home with parents who never went to college didn’t bode well for a legacy of academic success. And after they separated and my mother moved four children under the age of 7 from New York to Los Angeles, life in a single-parent household would be very different.

These kinds of “statistical strikes” suggest a very muted trajectory for many students of color, especially black children, and even first-generation college students. When you add to that mix the reality of growing up poor, you do not get a promising recipe for success, be it academic achievement, college eligibility, employment prospects, or even the motivation to rise above one’s circumstances. Yet that’s precisely what my sister, two brothers and I were able to do.

My parents would be proud looking down from heaven: All four children went to college; two earned doctorates; and a third received a bachelor’s and completed many hours of graduate work. That none are high school dropouts, gang members, on drugs or in jail is quite an accomplishment in itself.

Even though times were different then, we still managed to escape the ravages of the streets relatively unscathed by the predators who wore blue or red – and the ones in uniform who rode in black-and-white cars with the words “to protect and serve” emblazoned on them.

How does that happen? People come from circumstances but are not defined by them. Translation: College and university enrollment specialists must look beyond the so-called objective markers of grades and test scores in order to see a student’s true potential.

The journey begins with a strong head of household whose vision of possibilities for his or her children has never been derailed by societal stereotypes, educational alligators or economic circumstances. My mother’s vision was translated into specific behaviors that reinforced the intellectual, emotional and spiritual lessons my siblings and I were taught. Belief in God and keeping the faith was one cornerstone. Indoctrination of strong values and discipline was another. There was a clear expectation communicated in my home about the need to excel in school (even though I didn’t always meet the standard until my college and graduate school years), and that expectation was also shared with teachers. Extracurricular activities (sports, student council, social events, parties, etc.) were privileges one earned with the appropriate completion of all academic work, and if the work was not done, privileges were restricted.

But a parent’s love and vision can only take you so far. Indeed, a book should be written about things parents cannot teach first-generation college students simply because they’ve never been exposed to the higher education culture their children experience. For me, that direction came from my mentors, faculty, staff and student peers, who were a tremendous source of support and guidance. The UCI experience was special, and I had mentors such as Professor Joseph White and others too numerous to list.

“College and university enrollment specialists must look beyond the so-called objective markers of grades and test scores in order to see a student’s true potential.”

I often think about what I needed as a student to successfully navigate this place [Irvine] that we affectionately called “the Vine.” I needed an orientation to the campus and its wealth of resources. I needed a place to call home away from home that afforded me both safety and comfort in the midst of a new environment. I needed to make authentic connections with faculty and staff, who provided academic advising, support, encouragement, nurturance and an introduction to this thing called research. I needed career advice. I needed some financial assistance and a part-time job to cover my educational fees. I needed outlets for student involvement; organizations I felt I could contribute to; cultural entities, such as the Black Student Union and gospel choir, where I could see myself reflected within the fabric of the institution as they helped to engage my spirit and ignite my passions and cultural consciousness; healthcare for those few times I came down with a cold or the flu; an experiential internship to supplement my didactic classroom learning; and opportunities for fun to help balance the rigors of academic life at UCI.

I was able to access each of these here, and it’s this recognition of what I needed to succeed that drives me to ensure that current generations of UCI students have access to similar resources. Brother Malcolm X was right in declaring that education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.

For some, success is about the attainment of admission into the university. For others, it’s about performance marked by recognition, honors, position, wealth and even privilege. Still others judge success on career accomplishment and whether the investment in higher education paid off.

In my mind, success is not just an outcome but also involves a process. It is not simply the achievement one realizes but the contextual factors that one must navigate along the way that involve perseverance, commitment, determination and faith. These are the lessons, many of which are taught outside the formal classroom, that will sustain our students throughout their lives.

Parham has been vice chancellor for student affairs since 2011. He earned a bachelor’s in social ecology from UCI, a master’s in counseling psychology from the University of Washington in St. Louis and a doctorate in counseling psychology from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill.