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Social Mobility Has Been a Priority at Old Dominion University for Decades

By Harry Minium

When I was growing up in Norfolk, I dreamed of becoming a newspaper reporter. I couldn't decide whether I wanted to cover politics or sports - I was enamored with both.

But I knew I wanted to write.

Yet when I enrolled at Old Dominion University in the fall of 1973, I had little chance of living out that dream. Although I had a degree from Tidewater Community College, I was majoring in physical education.

Furthermore, I wasn't a great student at Norview High, where I spent most of my time in the gym and weight room or on the football field. And I had poor study habits.

I had no idea how to go about getting practical journalism experience or even how to apply to a newspaper.

Odds were I was going to flunk out and end up like most of my friends working at a shipyard, in construction or in the military.

But even 46 years ago, ODU excelled at social mobility, a term that had yet to be coined.

One of ODU's core missions then, as it is now, was to lift up kids from poor families or with poor academic backgrounds. These kids probably had no relatives who attended college, but ODU provided a chance to earn a degree and have a better life.

It took 4½ years, but thanks to encouragement from my parents and so many wonderful professors, I graduated with an English degree in December 1977. My advisers prepped me on how to enter the job market and inspired me with the determination to succeed.

A year later, I was working at the Richmond News Leader, a now-defunct afternoon paper. In 1979, joined The Virginian-Pilot as a sports writer. I would go on to cover Norfolk City Hall and become a sports columnist.

I spent 39 years at The Pilot before returning to ODU last August at ODU, where I write for the academic and athletic websites.

Thanks to both ODU and TCC, I was able to cover a Super Bowl, a college football national championship game and ODU winning the 1983 women's basketball national title.

At City Hall, I wrote about the no-show worker who collected a salary for a decade without going to work and a sanitation worker killed in an "accident" because someone in the city or regional trash agency turned off a safety device. I also wrote about a man hired to serve on a crime-fighting until it was discovered that he had convictions for drug dealing and manslaughter, and was accused and acquitted of murder.

I not only had a blast in sports, and was able to serve my community in the newsroom.

ODU is now a very different institution than it was in 1973 - it was a mostly white commuter school with fewer than 10,000 students.

Thanks to President John R. Broderick and former President James Koch, it now has more than 24,000 students, is a leader in STEM-H (sciences, technology, engineering, math, health care) and has more than 5,000 students living on campus with thousands more in surrounding neighborhoods.

And it is one of the most diverse schools in the nation.

Even while ODU was developing a national reputation for its high-tech and entrepreneurial efforts, Broderick made sure the University continued to fulfill its mission to lift students out of poverty.

He lobbied for $20 million from the state to build the Student Success Center, where 50 counselors, tutors and graduate students help all comers. Economically disadvantaged students are often employed on campus and have counselors to encourage and prod them.

There are so many programs for students in need, I can't name them all.

We didn't have all that 46 years ago. But we had professors who not only demanded rigorous work in the classroom, they also cared about their students.

At the end of an introduction to journalism class, Professor Margaret Hoy Daugherty asked me to come to her office. She looked me in the eye and said, "You're raw and need a lot of work, but you have what it takes to become a newspaper reporter."

She encouraged me to write for the Mace & Crown, ODU's student newspaper, and take journalism classes at Norfolk State. I did and began to grow as a writer.

ODU also introduced to the works of Milton, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Faulkner and, most importantly, Ernest Hemingway, whose novels read like his newspaper stories, with simple, short sentences and tales full of rich characters.

Professor William Seward, who knew Hemingway, taught a fascinating seminar on "Papa."

I learned how to write editorials from Alf J. Mapp Jr., the former newspaper editor and Thomas Jefferson historian who made us read our editorials aloud in class.

I couldn't have asked for a better education.

Shortly after I graduated, ODU helped lift my mom, Sadie Minium, into the workforce. She was a homemaker who spent five years nursing my father, who had suffered a stroke.

She was president of the Norfolk PTA and a school-community worker at Norview. But her dream was to teach.

After my father passed, my mom followed my path to TCC and ODU, got her degree and began teaching in the Norfolk Public Schools. At the time of her death in 2001, she was still tutoring students and was close to finishing her master's degree at ODU.

My younger brothers also attended ODU. Mike, who was a year younger than me, eventually graduated from Christopher Newport. Tim, who was six years younger, transferred to Virginia Commonwealth. My daughters, Ginny and Amy, took classes at ODU.

ODU gave my family wonderful opportunities. That's not something you forget.

Dreams can come true if you have the determination to succeed and pick the right educational institution.

I certainly made the right choice when I enrolled at ODU.

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