Niara Sudarkasa is an impressive scholar. "First" seems to be an adjective permanently attached to many of her achievements.
She is the first woman to serve as president of Lincoln University of Pennsylvania, which was chartered as the nation's first college for black men in 1854 but is now coeducational and is the alma mater of the country's first black Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall. She is the first African-American woman to receive tenure at the University of Michigan, where she was also the first black woman to become a full professor in the arts and sciences and the first to serve as associate vice president of academic affairs.A renowned anthropologist and authority on the role of African women and the African-American family structure, Sudarkasa was graduated from college at 18 and later received a Ph.D. from prestigious Columbia University. She was a Fulbright scholar and a recipient of several other academic fellowships.
Sudarkasa recently gave the keynote speech marking the University of Utah's Martin Luther King observance. She argued persuasively that colleges and universities must throw open the curriculum to the works of minority scholars.
Her speech - thought-provoking as it was - wasn't what touched me the most. It was her response to a U. student, who rose during the question-and-answer period to ask what Sudarkasa's parents had done to produce a college graduate at the time when most students are just freshmen.
Sudarkasa gave glimpses of a life that today would fit any "at-risk" label. Born Gloria Marshall to an unwed teenage mother in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Sudarkasa grew up in the home of her maternal grandparents. Her grandfather had achieved the family's highest educational level; he had finished the sixth grade.
She said she learned in the first grade that there wasn't the right kind of academic help at home. Her grandmother wasn't educated well enough to assist the beginning reader. At her school there was no fancy equipment, only second-hand books.
So how did she start on the path to academic stardom? "We had teachers who believed fervently in us and did whatever was necessary to gain knowledge and impart it to us," she told her U. audience. "We owe our early education to our teachers."
Her teachers pointed to education as "the way out" of poverty, she said.
From her experience Sudarkasa said she doesn't buy into what she calls the myth that underprivileged children from minority or poor homes can't succeed in school.
I related Sudarkasa's life story to an editor. Ah, he said, she is obviously the exception. Perhaps. Maybe not.
My own grandfather was pulled out of elementary school in the sixth grade by his father, a Swedish immigrant, who needed him to work on the family farm. My grandparents never had much money, but three sons reached academic heights. One is a Ph.D. and was a Ford fellow; the other two are M.D.s, including one who graduated from the University of Utah at 18 and received his M.D. at 21.
My husband, as a child, lived in three rooms attached to the back of my father-in-law's gas station in a little Midwestern town. His father finished the eighth grade. My husband graduated with an engineering degree from the University of Missouri after having been inducted into Tau Beta Phi, the engineering honorary.
So why did they succeed? Like Sudarkasa, their families saw education as a way up. But they also had teachers who looked past the "underprivileged" background and pushed them.
Teachers can - and do - make a difference in a child's life, regardless of that child's home situation. Daily, because of my job, I meet marvelous teachers who care about and encourage their students.
Lately, however, I've wondered if labels or "allowances" tied to socioeconomic and family disadvantages give the wrong message. Utah has thousands of black, white and brown Niara Sudarkasas who need someone to fervently believe in them - and tell them so.