From the age of 11, Carmen Garner ’01 was on his own. Born in Springfield, he lost his mother to illness when he was young, and his father abandoned the family. Garner’s brother was sentenced to life in prison. Rapidly moving among foster homes—17 in total—Garner graduated from high school, unsure of his future. “I thought there were two options; hustle to get money, or work in a factory,” he says.
Garner’s principal gave him a business card for Kamal Ali, Ed.D., from Westfield State’s Urban Education program, to encourage Garner to consider college. Garner viewed that card as a sort of golden ticket. “It was a means of escape from my situation,” he says.
Urban Education was established to support students who are underrepresented, are first-generation college students, or demonstrate a financial need. It celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018.
Garner says, for him, the program provided a second family. Dr. Ali helped Garner navigate a financial aid packet. Dr. Ali also helped Garner complete his SATs in time for the summer bridge program—which offers a seamless transition from high school to college. When Garner was accepted to Westfield State and arrived for his first day of a new life, he carried a pillow and a pillowcase full of clothes—his only belongings.
Garner says he had a difficult time shaking some old habits and was less focused on college than he should have been. “Then, one day, Joan Fuller, the director of Urban Education at that time, sat me down in a room and said, ‘Wake up, you have an opportunity. Take advantage of it,’” Garner says. “And that’s when I woke up.”
Garner says the program provided him with many mentors, including Dr. Ali and Yolanda Johnson, Ph.D., Carlton Pickron, and Andy Johnson. He says these role models saved his life. Now living in Washington, D.C., Garner is an author, educator, and mentor himself. His first book, That to This: A Strategy Guide, offers a look at his personal journey, and Choosing to Be Better, Not Bitter, is a self-help book for children. He says, “Urban Education gave me life. I’m trying to give that to the students I mentor.”