When I asked Dr.Craig Follins how he overcame his challenges and became a college president after a GED, he answered “You have to have an unwavering faith in yourself. You have to be able to see yourself as a person who can achieve monumental things. Many people think that the world externally controls them. My locus of control has always been internal. I have always believed that I can control my life by how I respond to various situations.”
It was the 60s and African Americans suffered severe discrimination in jobs, housing and education opportunities. Dr.Follins’ parents never got married and his mother raised three children by herself, at times working two jobs. The family was often on public assistance and sometimes the children had to be sent to a temporary foster family. Despite this, his mother tried to provide the children with a good education and instill a good value system.
Young Craig spent several of his early school years at a farm with loving foster parents before returning home in the city. Attending public schools in Brooklyn was a traumatic experience for him, so his mother signed him up for a desegregation Junior High School program. The program, aimed at integrating kids from various communities, bused him to a school in a white, middle class community. Unlike Craig’s own neighborhood, the streets near the school were clean and safe. Also unlike his own community, most of his classmates came from two parent homes and their weekends were filled with fun activities. He learned that every one of his new classmates was aiming to attend college. Thus, he began to value education in the same way as his classmates. The new environment had a profound impact on him as his view of the world and what was possible changed forever.
However, getting through the teenage years was tough on him as well. When he was 12, his mother sent him to a summer camp where he stayed with a successful and wealthy older couple. His mother’s intention was to keep him busy and out of trouble during the summer and to meet successful role models. Upon arrival, he was struck by the size of the house and the huge amount of land it was on it. The home was a classic 2-story, Victorian style home, the kind you see on holiday luxury car commercials. The couple was genuinely nice and Craig bonded with them quickly. Coming back home to face reality was painful. He became angry about their economic disadvantage and became increasingly defiant and rebellious. So, he decided to meet his father for the first time to see if he can live with him instead. He got the address from his mom and went to his father’s house by himself. His father was living with his wife and their children, again in a much better home than his mother’s. After the initial visit, he visited his father as often as he could to rebuild their relationship. However, the more he visited his father, the more rebellious he became towards his mother.
By the time Craig was in 9th grade, his grades were falling and his relationship with his mother deteriorated to the extent that they could not coexist in the same household. He moved school twice trying to finish the 9th grade and lived in a group home and two foster homes. But things did not improve. His desire to escape from the endless drama and take control of his life made him decide to join the Army. It was 1974 and the Vietnam War was still in progress. At that time, you could join the Army at 17 without a high school diploma. He joined the Army Infantry and promptly completed his GED during training.
After getting discharged, he worked low paying jobs at various factories for a while. His girlfriend, who was pregnant with their first child, was living with him as well. Eventually, he landed a position in the federal government with a great pay and benefits. At the same time, he joined New York City Community College (NYCCC) and started taking a full time load using his VA education benefits.
College classes were hard, especially math, but he did not take advantage of tutoring or other free student support services that were readily available. The $450 per month VA education benefit paid all his educational expenses and he was allowed to keep what was left, tempting him to keep going even though he was failing classes. He began to receive letters from the NYCCC dean’s office indicating that his grades were falling below the 2.0 required in order to maintain good academic standing. Stubbornly, he refused to concede that he needed help and registered again for full time for the following semester. A few weeks later, he was academically dismissed from college. “I was in a state of shock and had way too much pride to tell anyone about this unfortunate situation. Instead, I just kept looking at the report of my grades and the dismissal letter. This all seemed so surreal. I saw my life imploding before me. I needed to wipe away my tears of self-pity, refocus, reconnect, reinvent, and plan my return” recalls Dr.Follins. He eventually got reinstated and returned to NYCCC and spent 4 years at the community college until he transferred to Brooklyn College (BC).
Raising a young family and focusing on his career put a hold on his education again. It took him 16 years to eventually receive his Bachelor’s degree in Sociology. He credits his success to the counselors at BC who helped him through transferring from NYCCC and again helped him finish his degree in absentia from Texas. Both were significant challenges that prevent many students from graduating. “Students do not know what they do not know. They need experts and professionals to be patient with them and walk through the various options in the higher education landscape. These counselors made a difference in my life” he said.
Around his graduation, he had a great job with the city of Houston, managing a staff of 50 people at a zoo. However, now with a Bachelor’s degree, Craig felt he had more options and could compete in a field where his passion lay – helping other people. He started graduate degree study in clinical sociology at the Texas Southern University, a Historically Black Colleges and Universities. “The benefit of being at an HBCU is that you are reminded daily about the significant contributions of African-Americans everywhere you walk on campus. Whether it is a jazz concert on campus or a walk through the Barbara Jordan archives in the University library, your day is replete with messages and images of success. Moreover, you are primarily taught by people who look like you, and most of these academicians hold terminal degrees and are widely published.”
During graduate school, Craig found a new job as a business analyst/job placement specialist at Houston Community College. At his new job, he mentored high school students and ensured that students were exposed to the school-to-career pipeline. After working at another job at the Harris County Family Court, he came back to the community college helping welfare recipients find a job. He also started teaching evening classes as an adjunct. Working in a field he was passionate about made him an unstoppable force. In the next 15 years, he was promoted several times to manage programs that placed thousands of people in productive employment situations while teaching hundreds of college courses and completing his Ph.D. Eventually he became the president of Olive-Harvey College in Chicago at 54.
Dr.Follins advises readers to consciously work on Emotional Intelligence daily. “Emotional intelligence is crucial to success because there are many situations that you will be confronted with that will test your resolve. Persisting through the most trying experiences will provide you unique opportunities to become a person who is able to handle even the most difficult situations. Taking personal responsibility for all your actions is a key part of building good character. To the best of your ability, try to control your emotions, particularly anger, which is a very corrosive emotion. Like it or not, it is extremely important to compose yourself according to expected behaviors, using self-control. Self-regulation goes a long way in helping you navigate situations that you will need to persist through” he explains.
Currently, Dr.Craig Follins is the president of Northeast Lakeview College in San Antonio, Texas. He is the also the author of “Persistence and Perseverance: A Leader’s Authentic Journey from GED to PHD to Two College Presidencies”.