Monthly Archives: June 2018

Know who you are: The SUNY system’s role in equity

Sean Kirst speaks at SUNYCUAD conference

Sean Kirst — an award-winning journalist and author who is a SUNY Fredonia graduate — was both a keynote speaker at the recent SUNYCUAD conference and one of many SUNY success stories.

The recent SUNYCUAD annual educational conference had a lot of great information, but perhaps most appropriate were some of its keynote speakers reminding us of just what SUNY is. It’s not the Ivy League. It shouldn’t be. Instead, it has a much bigger role in addressing a more equitable society.

Sean Kirst, an award-winning journalist, author of The Soul of Central New York and a SUNY Fredonia graduate, recalled his own modest upbringing and how a SUNY education was really the only way up. Kirst — a top-notch storyteller who several people said gave one of the conference’s best keynotes ever — recalled the “lightbulb moment” in college when all the authors he’d read in his English classes finally made sense in their relevance to life. For decades at The Syracuse Post-Standard and now at The Buffalo News, Kirst introduces readers to wonderful humans, many of them underdogs in some way, but his own ability to tell these stories and his own underdog tale would not have been possible — as he said repeatedly — without a SUNY education.

Famed pollster John Zogby, while not a SUNY graduate but a longtime Upstate New York resident, brought up an important point as he talked about educational trends. While he notes it’s important that SUNY schools continue to attract top-tier students — the most talented and prepared — he said SUNY can’t forget about students who don’t have the flashiest SAT scores or high-school GPAs but can benefit the most from an affordable education. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting so many of these students who colleges don’t compete for because of their high-school academic profile yet have flourished in college with the opportunities they have — and who will excel (or have already excelled) in whatever field they choose.

As a conference organizer, I’m so happy we also booked Robbye Kincaid — director of Stony Brook’s Responding to Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Project — as a keynote speaker, because she emphasized SUNY’s mission of creating opportunity and a more equitable society. We can never forget the inclusive mindset that realizes diversity’s central role in our campuses and society, a point of view that benefits us all.

Chancellor Kristina Johnson added her own affirmation that even with challenges come opportunities to grow, and that the SUNY system is a gem. I agree, and it’s the combination of shining stars and diamonds in the rough that make it so valuable.

I am blessed, as a campus-based storyteller, to see opportunity create these success stories regularly. One of my very favorite assignments from the past year was speaking to winners of our Diversity Graduate Fellowship, which is the SUNY ideal in action. One winner used to be homeless and is now poised for a counseling career helping at-risk and homeless individuals. Another is a single mother teaching at a science charter school with an eye on those who most need support. Another was raised by a single mother in the Bronx and knew a SUNY education was the only way out — and after her master’s degree will bring her important diverse viewpoint to the counseling profession.

The latter winner is Stacy Araujo, who came through the Equal Opportunity Program, which helps low-income, first-generation and other college students who might need more help in transition. (Another Oswego graduate who came through the EOP program is Al Roker, America’s favorite weatherman.) Araujo explained SUNY and the EOP program about as well as anybody I can remember:

“Without this program I would not be the hardworking, focused and determined student I am today,” she said. “And more importantly, I would not have thought myself capable of succeeding during my undergraduate years and pursuing graduate studies.”

As somebody who has an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree and master’s degree from SUNY schools — and might not have been able to get them otherwise — I know this is truth. And it’s reason that every day I get to work at a SUNY institution, I know I can be part of making a difference for the better.

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Anthony Bourdain’s end was a tragedy, but his life was a triumph

(Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons)

Like so many others, I was shocked to open my computer on Friday morning to the stunning news that Anthony Bourdain — the intelligent and irreverent, charming and charismatic chef/author/wanderer — had taken his own life. It has led to discussion of suicide and mental illness, which is always important, but I can’t help but also think of the beloved Bourdain as such an unlikely and uplifting success story.

The man that his friend and CNN co-worker Anderson Cooper aptly described as “one of this country’s greatest storytellers” was, despite his immense talent and work ethic, a very unlikely star.

He worked his way up from dishwasher to star chef in the course of two decades. While he earned his degree from the Culinary Institute of America, he did not follow a path of privilege so much as the old-fashion practice of learning the business from the inside out. He also picked up a drug habit that could have derailed his journey many times but instead deferred to one more obstacle to overcome as he rose to the coveted role of head chef of Manhattan’s beloved Brasserie Les Halles.

But who knew that behind the chef’s hat sat the mind of a tremendous storyteller? It took an impish and impulsive gambit — sending an essay on the inner workings of NYC kitchens that The New Yorker published in 1997 as “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” — to begin to unwrap his successful second act. In 2000, he became an author, and a bestselling one at that, with Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.

And then, in his mid-40s, Bourdain’s quick wit, tremendous people skills and unquenchable curiosity about food and cultures became a marriage made in TV heaven. Starting with “A Cook’s Tour” on the Food Network, Bourdain evolved his storytelling knack and ability to get anybody to open up and share their cultures further with the successful and surprisingly sublime “No Reservations” on The Travel Channel. To watch Bourdain’s effortless charisma and ability to connect, it’s easy to see why CNN decided to work with him, and change the direction of their network programming, with the launch of the series “Parts Unknown” in 2013. It won awards and yet another legion of fans for Bourdain, but for him it was never about just earning fame and fortune.

Bourdain described “Parts Unknown” as “a series of … standalone essays that generally try to focus on the subject of food and where it comes from, but not always.” It was wickedly funny serial storytelling, bound by a sense of place on any given episode … and yet much more. Appropriate given his background, Bourdain was a champion of the underdog and of marginalized people. Food was how he connected with them, but empathy was how he attained their stories.

As he mentioned in an interview with Cooper, he never ever refused a meal offered to him in his travels, no matter how gross or unappealing or not-so-fresh it might have appeared (the worst thing that could happen, he joked, could probably be cured by antibiotics). This is such an important lesson for all of us — he treated cultures, peoples and food with great respect, realizing the way to the hearts of his hosts was through his own stomach. If a person accepts your food, he accepts you on every level.

For all of Anthony’s famed gift of gab, this was the real bedrock of his shows. He may have been profane, hard-drinking and sarcastic, but he did not see humans as greater or lesser, only as fellow humans.

“I still feel I have the best job in the world,” he told CNN a few years ago, “and it’s still fun.” He seemingly had everything to live for — it’s no stretch to spin the old cliche to say men (and women) wanted to be him, and women (and some men) wanted to be with him, because he was so magnetic and magnanimous. For all the travel, logistics and occasional dangerous food, it really did look like a job any one of us would want. That he had a young daughter that gave him a sense of purpose seems like icing on the cake.

Except that seeming to have it all ultimately would mean nothing to him.

I wrap this up with lines from my favorite book of poetry, Edwin Arlington Robinson’s Spoon River Anthology. The elegy for Richard Cory, the successful and most envied man in town, ends with a twist that has become sadly recognizable in our modern society:

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,

Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,

“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything

To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

 

We’ll never truly know what went through Anthony Bourdain’s head in those last lost moments. But we’re learning what a tremendous impact he’s had on his fans, followers and the friends he made so easily. Godspeed, Tony, and thank you for feeding our bodies and our minds.

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