Charles Clark is a testament to the notion, “anything is possible.” Coming of age on the streets of Brooklyn, N.Y. where poverty and crime were the norm, Clark “could sell drugs while reading an economics textbook.” His choices were a product of his despair. Had fate not graced him with a strong grandmother, they might have kept him there.
But such would not be the lot of this affable dreamer of big dreams, who says it’s not about mistakes but life’s total experience.
“You’ve got to have something to walk toward if you’re going to walk away,” Clark said. This Saturday, he will walk to the podium at 1st Mariner Arena to give the student Commencement Address to the Baltimore City Community College Class of 2009 — the class he’s graduating from — having traversed the long road of life’s experience to this unlikely milestone.
Clark first heard about BCCC from his friend and mentor, Dan Meisner, CEO of Regeneration Technology, a nonprofit outreach group. In January 2008, he enrolled in college for the first time. Two and a half years earlier, he had begun a prison sentence in Alabama.
Clark knew if this thing was going to work he needed something really big to challenge him. So what did he do? He signed up for something extra, over and above his commitment to standard college study: a new academic mentoring and motivational program at BCCC called The Quest. The program enables participants to earn an associate degree in one year by taking extra course credits, often around work, and at night.
Introduced by BCCC professor of English Jà Hon Vance, The Quest is based on an earlier effort he brought successfully to three states including Michigan, where through the help of state funding thousands of laid off workers were able to regain morale and workplace skills in the wake of plant shut-downs.
The Quest is an accelerated academic program for African American men designed to foster, motivate and stimulate their academic growth. The Quest program prepares them for an associate degree in General Studies which is fully transferable to many four-year institutions. The Quest helps African American men whatever their circumstance, to get up and make new plans.
Clark is one of the first Quest graduates. Professor Vance and Ms. Kathleen Styles, BCCC’s registrar and co-founder of WEDS (Women with Extraordinary Determination for Success, a Quest program) and professor of English Melvin Brooks, are his primary mentors. Last year, professor Vance taught nearly 30 credit hours each semester because of his passion for the Quest and educating those who, for one reason or another, have been left out.
For Clark, this most unlikely of journeys did not stop with his enrollment or Quest participation. He is a member of Phi Theta Kappa (International Honor Society for Two-Year Colleges) and has been awarded the William Donald Schaefer Honors Scholarship as well as substantial financial assistance from BCCC.
“He basically reinvented himself,” said Styles. “Charles shows he has the dedication and commitment to persist over time. Early on we were trying to get students to believe this could be done. It can be done.”
In addition to his other honors, Clark has been awarded a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Scholarship which he plans to use to study Engineering at Morgan State University.
And the road to success keeps unfolding.
“The Quest saved my life because, while I was studying, it gave me a realistic way to dream. I was getting my degree in one year,” Clark said. “The program provided me a structure to work within. More importantly, it introduced me to some absolutely great role models like professor Vance who care very deeply about my success. I might have given up if it weren’t for The Quest.”
“We’re graduating with our scholars,” Vance said. “From my own perspective, and that of Ms. Styles and Professor Brooks [Quest program co-coordinator], we’re making real BCCC’s unique role as a community college to change lives.”