April 3, 2014
Maaskelah K. Thomas, PhD

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Good afternoon, and thank you all so much for this honor. Let me tell you just a little about myself, my journey, and how Upward Bound made it possible.

You all remember The Jeffersons? The television series in the 70s? Some of you may be too young to know anything about that. George Jefferson was the patriarch of the family, and I always think of him when I begin to recount my own roots. He would begin by saying: "I was born the son of a poor sharecropper..." and then go on to try to tell the WHOLE story of his life up until that point. Well, that IS also how my story begins….but I won’t bore you with all the details.

Suffice it to say, my grandparents --- my father’s parents ---- left Mississippi late one night on the back of a pickup truck, with their five children in tow, to get away from Mr. Gilmore’s plantation, where they were sharecroppers, which, at the time, was just another name for debt slavery. They wanted more for their children! They made it to Memphis, which was some better, but still a hard life. My father’s “escape” was via the military, which landed him in Milwaukee, where he met my mother. Ultimately, they married and ended up in Wichita, KS, where they had five children of their own. My mother died when I was eight years old, leaving my father to raise the five of us on his own. The only education he’d received up to that point was the education he’d received prior to going to the military at 16 and the education he was able to give himself. My father worked with his hands. He was a master carpenter, he was sought out for his skills at home remodeling, he was a master landscaper. He land a job with the Wichita school district, first as a custodian, and ultimately as a small engine repairman, where he advanced until his retirement 30 years later, and which allowed him to feed and clothe his five growing children. He spent his time in the schools, repairing typewriters and other office machines. Y’all remember typewriters? Remember when we had to take typing classes at

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school? Well, he was that guy who made sure they always worked --- when he started they were manual --- when he left, we’d advanced to electric. But for all the time he spent in schools, he was 70 years old when he walked across the stage to receive his HIGH SCHOOL DIPLOMA. And we were all so proud. His children and his grandchildren. Because the one thing he’d always taught us was the importance of education.

He wanted his children to go as far in life as we could. He told us we were intelligent. That we were genius. That we had talent. That we had gifts worth sharing. He always said that his goal was for us to do so much better than he’d ever dreamed. And he did all that he could to prepare us for that. School was more than what we did for those several hours a day, nine months out of the year. The community was also our school. You see, I grew up in a time and in a place, when and where the community was our extended family. And giving to and getting from – the reciprocity of it all, was what we learned and all we knew. Some of y’all know about that, too! I had extra mothers and grandmothers, big brothers and big sisters who I knew would all have something to say if I got too big for myself. And who were also always there to encourage me and celebrate when I accomplished something good.

I knew early that I wanted to go to college. To learn as much as I could. To be the best that I could. But the one thing I didn’t have was a plan for how to get there. In my sophomore year of high school, in that tradition of sharing, I learned about the Upward Bound program from the brother of my best friend. She and I both signed up, and the following summer, I found myself on the campus of Wichita State University. It was a whole new world. And this was my very first time being away from home and from the close supervision of my father. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t scared. We were fortunate, though, that our family had extended out even further, and we had caring adults there to watch over us and shepard us through this newest journey. The director of

Upward Bound at that time, was Mr. Smith.  The assistant director was Deltha

Colvin --- who, by the way, is still there at WSU, sheparding each new class

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through, in her current role as the Assistant Vice President for Campus Life responsible for Upward Bound and monitoring of eight other TRIO programs on the campus. At any rate, I later heard rumors that Mr. Smith and Ms. Colvin said we were the most “challenging” class they’d had up until that time. It didn’t take long, though, for them to get us in line and help us focus on the reasons we were there. Anybody that knows Ms. Colvin, knows: She didn’t play! Between the two of them and the rest of the Upward staff and counselors, I was privy to a life changing experience that set me on course to fulfilling not only my dreams, but the dreams of my ancestors.

The course wasn’t always smooth --- in fact, I think it never was. I got pregnant at 17, and even though I graduated early from high school, my dreams of college became a bit more circuitous. Although I did start college a year out of high school, I also married, had two more children, divorced, went through all the regular challenges that go with that, and some irregular ones too. My father and I opened a black bookstore in our city. Closed it ten years later. Ultimately re-married the most fabulous and supportive man in the world.

Raised my children --- all the while, with that one goal firmly established. The fact of the matter is that, although I took at least one college class every semester, it took me twenty more years to actually complete my undergraduate degree. But that was just a milestone on my journey.

I think one of the most important experiences I gained from Upward Bound was how to access and utilize knowledge resources. My favorite place on campus was the Ulrich Library. For a reader such as me, it was like paradise! But the whole campus experience simply fed my overall love for learning. Even the pursuit of my first degree was more about learning as much as I could about the things I cared about. I took all the writing classes I could, I fell in love with women’s studies and black studies and spent so much of my time in those departments.

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And on the way to earning my undergraduate degree, I was blessed to be working in and with the community that I love so much. One of the issues that concerned me was the difficulty adult and non-traditional students faced in trying to complete college. From the start, I was a nontraditional student, and I understood that struggle. Thus, a few years later after completing my undergraduate degree, I completed my Masters in Education, with an emphasis on Adult/Nontraditional Education. I was and am particularly interested in distance and alternative education options. I later completed yet another Masters degree and ultimately, earned my PhD.

In the final analysis, to paraphrase friend and scholar Ádìsá Ájámú, those of us from our community who were sent off to get degrees were not sent off to become brilliant or intelligent --- we were already that before we stepped on any campus. We were sent to gain skills and knowledge, expertly learnt and skillfully applied to the problems that confronted our people.

The degrees were simply signals to our folks that we had disciplined ourselves and made the necessary sacrifices to return to our communities, to collectively work to share skills expertly learnt, skillfully applied and married with mud and root wisdom and spiritual potency that help others see the world in bolder ways, that free our imaginations to envision newer, fuller freedoms.

I see my degrees, not as passports to material enrichment, nor an escape from the community I know and love, but rather, as an ancestral permission slip written in tears, laughter and blood. I do it to earn the approval of my ancestors and to feel them saying to me: “We are proud you came from us. You have done the necessary beginning work to prepare yourself to serve, and in so doing, you have added meaning to our sacrifices. Ubuntu! I am because we are and because we are, I am. Now – go and pay it forward!” For me, Upward Bound was a launching pad. My life’s goal and mission is to always be about learning, growing, giving, receiving and paying it forward! And my prayer is

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that the ancestors --- and YOU --- find my service worthy. I thank you, again, for this honor!