By Branden Hampton
When Felix Mitchell started his first semester at Kennedy-King College in 2014, he suddenly lost his job as a sales representative at Comcast. He received some financial aid, but was concerned about how he was going to survive without a job to pay for school. It was his second try at college.
Mitchell dropped out of Grambling State University, in Grambling, La, in the early 1990s due to his mother’s illness and the birth of his son. But today is a different story. Mitchell, at 44 years old, graduated last week with a bachelor’s degree in communications from Chicago State University on Chicago’s far South Side.
He started working this week as an account executive with Echo Global Logistics in Chicago and plans to pursue grad school part-time in the fall at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
He graduated with virtually a straight-A average while carrying 21 credit hours this past semester plus juggling multiple job interviews and an internship with U.S. Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin’s office. But one of his biggest challenges during his senior year was the Illinois budget standoff, which made it difficult for colleges and students to function.
Mitchell said he just keeps going – one step at a time. “I’m using the calendar on my phone. I just approach each thing at its own time. I thought I knew everything before I came back to college, but I’m learning something about myself. I don’t crack under pressure.”
Chicago State University operated in a media frenzy the last few months after the state’s budget crisis caused the school to cancel spring break, move graduation up by two weeks and threatened to close down the school.
Recently, Illinois lawmakers put their differences aside to release $20.1 million in emergency funding to Chicago State after nearly 10 months of receiving no funding from the state. With the commitment of funds, CSU mitigated plans to layoff 900 employees but 300 will still be asked to leave due to the budget impasse.
As far as repayment to him, Mitchell said that he hasn’t received any of the newly released funds, but would like to see his Monetary Award Grant, or MAP, go to other current students at this point.
Mitchell said that due to the budget crisis, an additional scholarship was cut from $1,000 to $400 in January. Although his tuition was covered, he had to take out a loan for additional costs. But with only half of his rent and bills being paid through his scholarship and loan, he had to move in with his mother’s cousin to successfully finish school.
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“I don’t really want any sympathy or charity for [this], but what I do want is the government and state legislature to pass a budget. I don’t want anybody else to have to go through this,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell said resilience is something that he has learned over these challenging few months and that motivated him to complete his bachelor’s degree that he had started earlier in his life.
“I was tired of people telling me that they didn’t want to promote me. They said, ‘Yeah, you’re qualified, but we’re looking for somebody with a degree.’ I was tired of that and it was something that I knew I should’ve done, but I had a son and my mom got ill back in college and that made me leave,” Mitchell said.
He didn’t think he needed a degree at first, but realized he actually did. Mitchell received an Army ROTC scholarship at Grambling State in the early 1990s, but gave up the scholarship and decided to pursue his passion for radio instead.
“I got an internship and I became a commercial radio personality at like 19 years old. I loved [radio] and it was like my passion, but I didn’t need a degree to make money at it,” Mitchell said. “So with my son being born and my mother being ill, I might have used that as an excuse to stop going to school.”
Despite being a nontraditional student, Mitchell said that his age has not caused any conflict with other younger students enrolled at CSU.
“I may not be as engaged with all of the young people like that, but I know them and I respect them. I try to help them and they help me. I have kids their age so I’m not so distanced from it,” Mitchell said. Mitchell’s 22-year old son Trevarious Moore and his 20-year-old daughter Tacherra Reedy are both in school.
Although Mitchell was a non-traditional student, he participates in a host of traditional college organizations including CSU’s Honor College, the campus radio station, pre-law society and he is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.
“Can’t cheat the process”
“One of my main mantras since I came back to school is that you can’t cheat the process,” Mitchell declared. “The process is what it is. I feel like my first trip through college, I tried to cheat the process. There’s a place I’m supposed to be, but in order to get to where I’m supposed to be, the powers that be in the universe make me not cheat the process so here I am.”
Mitchell said that this time he pushed through school and “came out on top of the process” despite the obstacles with the state budget and his personal world. If he can do it, then anybody can do it, he said. But he didn’t make it this far through school by himself. His support system includes his girlfriend, family members, friends, classmates and the faculty at CSU’s Department of Communication, Media Arts and Theatre.
“I’m not saying I’m special, but I had a unique situation. I’m older, I have a good support system around me and I’ve been able to push through it. What about the student that’s the first in their family to go away from college and they don’t have that support system? They may not make it through this,” Mitchell said.
According to recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau and blackdemographics.com, only 17 percent of African-American men have a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to 30 percent of all men. Also, 48 percent of African-American men attended college compared to 58 percent of all men.
What does this mean? It means that there is a major disparity of black men completing their bachelor’s degree compared to black men who attended college, but didn’t finish. Mitchell is beating statistics while overcoming obstacles to finish his bachelor’s degree.
“I think it’s important for us to get our education because the perception out there is that we’re not qualified for all these jobs or we’re not qualified for different positions,” said Kadeen Wheeler, a recent graduate of CSU with a bachelor’s degree in communications, who emphasized how important a degree is for African-Americans.
Wheeler graduated from CSU in April and will be pursuing a master’s degree in communications at Purdue University. He also plans to work for WVON radio and wants to gain valuable experience in other areas of media as well.
“I want a good living. That’s what drives me every day. I want to have a career not a job. It’s a difference between a job and a career. A job is manual labor, you’re clocking hours. A career you’re not clocking hours, that’s something you love to do. That’s your passion,” Wheeler said.
Marian Perkins, chairperson of CSU’s Department of Criminal Justice, Philosophy and Political Science, stressed the difference education can make for black men.
“I’m a former Cook County prosecutor where I saw so many black men in the courtroom. When I come to the classroom and I teach, I don’t see as many African- American men and that hurts my heart,” Perkins said.
“I think it’s extremely important for African-American men to matriculate from college. The discipline that they learn…they can use it in their own business or if they’re going to work in the workplace. I think it’s needed,” Perkins added.
Perkins also helped Mitchell receive his internship with Durbin’s office and is also one of Mitchell’s mentors. Mitchell worked as a student assistant in the political science department with Perkins and the department’s relationship with many government elected officials inspired Mitchell to apply for an internship.
“Because Felix was working here he said, ‘Well I’m going to apply for the U.S. Senator Dick Durbin internship.’ I told him that I think you would be good. He’s a CMAT major and a good writer. They just don’t select criminal justice and political science students. He got selected and I was so happy,” Perkins said.
Perkins said that Mitchell’s passion for wanting to help the community drives his leadership. Mitchell helped with several projects in the political science department and also worked with students on the “Save CSU Campaign,” she said.
“Felix went down to the state legislature with many of the other student leaders. He was a very good spokesperson. He’s articulate, passionate and he’s authentic so that’s why people like him. I like him too.”
Mitchell said that in the future he hopes to run for an elected official position. “I know I can run the state better than Governor Rauner. I may need to seriously entertain running for political office,” Mitchell said. “I know how it works. I think that I would be an excellent elected official.”
Career and Moving Forward
Mitchell said that he has been interviewing for nearly a dozen jobs and has several job offers from both corporate and non-profit organizations. He credits CSU for focusing and sharpening his skill sets.
“People look at my grade point average, the fact that I’m a non-traditional student and worked before. They seem very intrigued by my experience,” Mitchell said. “I think a lot of employers here in the state know what’s happening. They’re not happy with it because we have good universities.”
What is his dream job? “My dream job would be the University of Chicago Law School greeting me at the bottom of the [graduation] stage with a full three-year paid scholarship to law school. After that, my dream job would be to own my own sports and entertainment agency full house,” he said.