Shaun Illingworth: This begins an interview with Harry Knabe on March 19, 2015, in Washington, D.C. with Shaun Illingworth. Thank you very much for having me in today.
Harry Knabe: Yes, absolutely.
SI: We're going to talk about your time at Livingston College, but first I want to get some background on your life before you came to Livingston College. Can you tell me when and where you were born?
HK: Yes, [I was] born and raised at Exit 8A in New Jersey; born actually in New Brunswick. It was Middlesex General Hospital when I was born, Robert Wood Johnson now. Grew up, basically, from the age of three until I went to Rutgers in South Brunswick, so right all in that same area.
SI: Can you tell me your parents' names?
HK: Harry and Ethel.
SI: Can you tell me a little bit about them?
HK: Yes. Both of my parents were actually older compared to my friends' parents. They both grew up kind of Depression Era, you know, World War II, post-World War II, so they were a good, about ten, fifteen years older than most of my friends and such, which definitely defined their parenting in my experience of being parented by them. My extended family is all kind of from central New Jersey. My mother actually grew up mostly in New Brunswick and Franklin, and my father grew up in Piscataway, literally, probably less than a mile from Livingston's campus. So, you know, that area is very much home even though I'm kind of one of the few people in my family that has since kind of moved away.
SI: I was interested to see that your mother was an entertainer at Camp Kilmer.
HK: Yes, my mother and her two other sisters were all connected with the USO [United Service Organization] around and after World War II, and performed at Camp Kilmer as one of the main disembarking camps for all the troops going out to Europe during World War II. Actually, after World War II ended, my mom lived in Europe for about ten or so years connected with the USO and in different capacities. I don't totally know, but yes, so.
SI: What did she do as an entertainer?
HK: I don't know, honestly. It was a part of her life that she didn't talk a lot about, you know. I think, you know, growing up in that area at that time Camp Kilmer and was, you know, a big, you know, defining piece of that region and so, there lots of our family I think had different connections and her's was, you know, through the entertainment. I remember as a young child my mom had tons and tons of scrapbooks and photo albums of big band era kind of events and dances and things like that that I always remember being very interesting photographs, because they were black and white, but then water colored to kind of, you know, add to the color of the actual true image--these just moments, just very still in that point of time. You know, both my parents were not really kind of forthcoming in sharing kind of a lot of their, you know, histories, but I kind of got glimmer and glimpses of who they were as young adults through a lot of those photos and scrapbooks.
SI: Your father had a number of careers, starting with the Army.
SI: What was he doing at the time you were born?
HK: When I was born he, actually, was a mechanical engineer. Neither of my parents went to college, and so my father learned his trade through the Army. When I was born he worked for Reynolds Aluminum and actually was one of their top designers for their assembly line kind of pieces to make cans for beer and soda, as well as Reynolds wrap and things like that. So I always found it very interesting that he had a very skilled career without formalized training. He actually worked for them for about twenty years or so. I remember this very vividly, because there was a point around fifth or sixth grade where they wanted to transfer him to either Virginia or Hawaii. My mother was fairly adamant [about] not wanting to relocate our household and so he left the company and struggled a great deal in finding employment in that field because he didn't have the formalized credentials. He was unemployed for a little while and that's actually what prompted my mom to return to work. Because when I was growing up, prior to that point, she was a stay-at-home mom.
When my father kind of struggled to find employment in the engineering field he went back to his roots, which was furniture upholstery. My grandfather owned an upholstery business in New Brunswick that him and my two uncles, basically, kind of learned the trade as kids, into their early kind of young adulthood, before they all went into the military. So my father went back into the upholstery business which was not by design and, actually, they never talked about it, but I knew it was difficult for our family because it was a significant decrease of his earning salary in doing that. But again, because he didn't have a kind of formalized education his opportunities were more limited. So, he continued on that pathway until he retired, yes.
SI: Your grandparents and other family members had a store in New Brunswick.
HK: It was my father's father, so my paternal grandfather, yes.
SI: Do you remember the name?
HK: I don't remember the name of it. It was on Easton Avenue near what is St. Peter's Hospital now, kind of in that area. That's all I recall.
SI: Did he have his own business or did he work for somebody else?
HK: My father?
HK: My father when he went back into the upholstery he worked for actually someone who worked, I don't know with or for my grandfather, but there was a connection from my grandfather. So it wasn't his own business, but it was kind of like an extended family business, it felt like.
SI: Can you tell me a little bit about the neighborhood you grew up in?
HK: Yes. I grew up in South Brunswick. My parents actually built our house from scratch. I also remember this too, they paid cash for it. I remember them saying that years later and I'm like, "How the heck did you do that?" And it all kind of drove back to I think their Depression Era roots that they just saved and saved and saved and kind of squirreled money away, and was somewhat kind of, I wouldn't say untrusting, but hesitant about banks and things like that. They had a house built in the suburbs as opposed to the city of New Brunswick, far enough away that they actually could have some land, but close enough to the rest of their extended family. So when that was built, which was like, I guess, '73, '74, South Brunswick was starting to kind of grow and in two ways though. Like Route 1 kind of divides the township and the part north of Route 1 was more established and the part south of Route 1 was more farmland and rural. That's where we lived. I remember very vividly like looking at the farm part of town and not feeling like a farm kid. Both my parents grew up on farms, so that felt more common and familiar to them. I remember when I finally got to junior high, where all the elementary schools kind of like combined, I was defined as one of the farm kids and I'm like, "That's not my world, even though that's where our house is."
SI: It's interesting. I've interviewed a number of people from South Brunswick, from earlier. It's interesting to see that it's still maintained that up until the '70s.
HK: Yes, yes, and I think the years that I grew up there is when more of the development was happening. The smaller kind of part of South Brunswick that I grew up in was Deans and Dayton. They were by far the smallest elementary schools and they were two of the earliest elementary schools in that area. So, like I grew up in this very old kind of like brick building, and they were two identical buildings, compared to my friends who grew up in the Brunswick Acres area. That was kind of like built up in the late '60s, very modern, open classrooms as an elementary kid and things like that. So, it was a very interesting juxtaposition of living experiences in the same town that all came to a head in junior high. [laughter] Yes.
SI: When you say it was a farm, would you do anything there, like raise chickens?
HK: Yes, so we actually didn't have farmland. We were just on the farm side of town. So, like the houses were much further apart. Actually, so like Route 1 cut the town in half, but then Route 130 cut like the true, "I'm plowing the fields" and kind of just the rural section. So, we were actually better Route 1 and Route 130, but my bus route in elementary school got all the farm kids. I remember hating taking the bus as a kid because we were so close to the elementary school. We were picked up first every morning, and then had to go through this very long bus route to pick all these farm kids, you know, that were bordering on North Brunswick, Jamesburg, and Monroe. It felt like we were on the bus for like an hour every morning. Then, the reverse, I was always the last kid dropped off at the end of the day. Whereas like you know, my friends who grew up on the other side of town, they walked three blocks and their elementary school was right like literally plopped right in there, you know, prefabbed, you know, suburban neighborhood with their, you know, very planned and structured streets and things like that, so. We didn't have sidewalk and I remember also as someone who grew up kind of in the '80s, we didn't have cable television until much later. It was a big thing when cable was run on our street and I was like, "I finally have my MTV2." [laughter]
SI: So, how many people would be on your street, roughly?
HK: You could see the houses. You could probably fit a house in between every house. Where I immediately grew up though, there was a house two doors down with two kids my age, the house next door with one kid, and then maybe like a quarter of a mile the other direction there were two more kids. That was the closest the kids my age lived. Then it was kind of just like further ripples of distance from there. The kids that I went to elementary school [with], I would have to like take my bike and cross Route 130, which my parents didn't want me to do, but I always did anyway, and I used to take these like back roads around some parks and waterfalls and things like that that I'm remembering, and I'm blanking on the names of them, to get to like where like the kids were. It was a lot of work to hang out with kids in elementary school, because we were so far apart, you know, distance wise even though we were all in class together. I remember kindergarten through third grade there was much less development. Then, when I got into fourth grade, the Dayton section was starting to develop. There was this big kind of condominium, townhouse, Dayton Square I think it was called, and that's where like a lot of like younger families with kids moved into. So, when I got to like fourth and sixth grade I was like, "Who are all you kids?" I was like, "You're actually not the farm kids that I've been going to school with for the first three years and now like, okay." So, that made it actually a little bit easier, once I got to fourth, fifth and sixth, to like access more kids and hang out after school and they had sidewalks. Like that was the big adventure. Oh, wow, you have sidewalks. [laughter]
SI: How would you describe your neighborhood in terms of ethnicity and race?
HK: I can't remember anyone who wasn't white. I think almost everyone was blue collar, working class. There probably were some professionals, kind of trickled in. There definitely were older families and a couple homes that had multi-generations in the home. Like particularly the two kids who lived two doors down, it was actually their grandparents' home that their parents and they lived in together. Even if I were to extend to kind of all the kids I went to elementary school, ethnic diversity, with the exception of two or three individuals, like didn't come in until that condominium complex in Dayton started to happen. Then, you know, when I got to junior high and we were all merged together, it was extremely diverse. I, actually, often say quite proudly, I learned how to use chopsticks when I was in like seventh grade. By the time I got to high school I felt that I had more non-Caucasian friends in my closest circle than white people who looked like me. South Brunswick was very diverse when I grew up there and is even more diverse, I think, now. There was a very clear division by Route 1 of like the professional families and their parents who often, basically, commuted into New York or Philadelphia to work, and then the working-class families that were on the other side of Route 1 when I grew up. I'm certain that's different now, but that was very apparent, not in the moment, but as I reflect on my childhood, very, very clearly delineated.
SI: You said when you went to school you were designated as a farm kid. Were you treated differently because of where you were from?
HK: Yes, yes, and I kind of hated the definition because even though that's where I lived, I had no connection or association with it. I also took it as a derogatory label and kind of an extension of a class label, because my parents weren't college educated, even though we had a very nice house and my parents did very well to provide for us. I felt always different than the kind of ways people around me naturally defined me. That, actually, has always transgressed throughout my life, in junior high, in high school, and actually only started to change when I went to college at Rutgers.
SI: What interested you the most in school?
HK: In college or still [high school]?
SI: Leading up to college.
HK: Both my parents had very strong work ethics and while they were not academics themselves, they always stressed the importance to go, do good in school and they were very committed to saving for both myself and my sister to go to college. So, I always knew I would go to college. Though I always I approached my academics to say I'm fine with being a B student. I never felt so book smart or motivated to like work my butt off to get the A, but I was happy enough to get B's and B+'s and to be in some of the smarter classes. I always kind of said, particularly when I was in high school, I was the dumbest AP [Advanced Placement] kid. So, I was able to get into the AP math classes and the AP science classes, but I was always kind of the bottom score, which still was a decent score, but you know, someone's got to be in the bottom. But I was happy because most of my friends were also in those classes; they were doing a lot better than I was. I rounded out my experiences different where I was willing to kind of give up, you know, just spending a weekend at the library or dug in my books to do other things, and I was ok with that.
SI: Outside of school, what did you do for fun?
HK: So, growing up I found that actually really interesting. Partly because we were in the more rural part and I went to a very small elementary school. I didn't have a lot of like structured activities as a kid. Oddly, and I asked my father this before he passed away because my father was a star-athlete and he actually played in the minor leagues in baseball for about fifteen years, he never once pushed me to do Little League. I told him very late in life I actually regret that he didn't push me and his response was, "Well, I felt like that should have been your decision." And I'm like well, does a six year old know that they want to do tee ball. I almost wish my parents had kind of forced some of those structured youth activities on me. Like, I didn't do Little League. I didn't do Boy Scouts. I kind of was in my own little world with the few kids that were, you know, living around me and we just kind of like had fun in the land, you know. We rode our bikes a lot. We, kind of fished in the creek, really simple kinds of things. Played a lot of like hide and seek and games in the woods, which actually, you know, I enjoyed as a kid, but it really made junior high really hard, because when I got to junior high I had a very small circle of friends where all the kids that did Boy Scouts and did Little League and all of those other kinds of structured activities or church and things like that, they knew kids from the other elementary schools. I really hated seventh grade for a variety of reasons, but that definitely contributed to it, because I knew such a small group of kids and they were mostly kids that I didn't feel that were like me. They were the farm kids, you know and they were my friends, but I even knew back then without being able to articulate it. I had different aspirations in life and I think more of them saw their path as kind of repeating their parents' paths. I knew I was going to aspire differently.
SI: You were very active at Rutgers. Were you also active in high school?
HK: Yes, by surviving junior high those two years, I tried to make up for lost time and so my strategy of tackling high school was all about kind of involving myself in different experiences in high school. So, I was involved in lots of student organizations, which is why and how I kind of approached my rationalization of academic life. Like, if I could maintain B's and be involved in five clubs, I was totally fine with that. Whenever my academics kind of started to go under the B, if it did, then I would scale back kind of on my you know activities and stuff. But because I didn't have the Little League experience--like, I wasn't good in athletics. I actually remember trying out for the tennis team and got cut like the first day. I went to an information meeting about kind of track and field and that didn't go very far very quickly. So, I was like, okay, athletics was not where I was going to participate in my high school life. So, it was different student clubs that I chose to kind of latch on and get connected with that really defined my high school experience. There were two in particular--well actually, I guess I would say three. I don't know what my inroad to this was, but I had a very close relationship with a math teacher, Mr. Weiner, who after hours was starting to work on developing a afterschool kind of youth center through our high school and through the community. South Brunswick got some type of grant and I ended up kind of like running that. I wasn't like the president, because I don't think that was an official title, but like for three of my four years in high school I was running what was called the Teen Center, which started as kind of a summer program that turned into a summer and two days a week during the school year to like every day, creating kind of programs and structured after school activities for students. It was really trying to create a space for kids who were not involved in some of the other more structured things, like sports and the band and you know, those were kind of the two main kind of things. So, it was kind of like, where would the artistic or the theater kids go? Where would the book-smart kids go? Where would, you know, other kind of populations and stuff? So that was a very involved student experience I had in high school. I remember actually going to the board of education. I don't know if it was testimony, but giving kind of like a report, annually, about kind of the teen's center's activities and stuff. One time actually going to, I don't think it was Trenton, but like going to some type of government meeting with a couple of my teachers and representatives from the city talking about it. So that was a very big piece of my high school, kind of outside of the classroom experience.
SI: Would kinds of things would they do at the teen center?
HK: I mean it was everything from, you know, we had trips, you know. Like, we created a bowling league. There was a roller skating group. There was structured kind of like mini-classes that kids could take on like cooking and art and like theater. So, like they were extensions of like academic classes that the high school offered, but it was after school and it became an inroad for eighth graders in the junior high to start to get some exposure to the high school in kind of a semi-structured less threatening way. So I'd say on a given day we probably have like 150 kids participating in different activities. Then in the summer program, it varied and I don't remember what the number was, but it grew into a very big program in a few years. I remember, you know, when I was in college, since I was at Rutgers, you know, just down the street, I was still able to kind of keep tabs on it. It was still continuing to grow and grow and grow. I have no idea if it still exists in a, you know, evolved format, but it started when I was in high school and I definitely played an important role very early in those efforts, so, yes.
SI: That seems to foreshadow other parts of your life.
HK: Yes, yes, I think so. I mentioned there were three activities and the second became an extension of my work with the teen center because one of the other teachers that was very involved in it was the home economics teacher, Mrs. (unclear) and I grew a very close relationship with her and Mr. Weiner, both. I never took any home ec [economics] classes, you know, during school and stuff like that, but in working with her and stuff, I actually became involved in--and I don't share this with many people and I don't even know that my husband knows this. One of the clubs that she was advisor to was the Future Homemakers of the America, which was exactly what it sounds like. [laughter] An antiquated space at the time I think, but still creating a space for students, but it was all women and me involved in this organization. I, eventually, my senior year, was the president of the Future Homemakers Club in South Brunswick, as a male. But, you know, I laugh about it. I think there's a sense of like shame to an extent too to why I don't talk about it a lot. But it was such an empowering experience to me as a young kid because it was all about skill development, like, what are skills that we can develop in these young minds to run a household, to raise a family, to contribute to rearing children. If the club was called something else, I think more boys would have been interested in the activities that we were involved in, but it wasn't and they weren't. But I was and some of my closest friendships through high school came directly through that club. So, I was very proud of being part of it, but in the same respect I was also a little shy and bashful about being the president of the future homemakers because I also knew I aspired to not be a homemaker. So, I saw something different in that activity, but very defining for my life, for sure.
Then the third outlet was the yearbook, which kind of took an area of creativity that I felt I had and allowed me to apply it in a very concrete way. Actually, when I was in high school, I wanted to be an architect and I actually used the teen center to take drawing classes and painting classes. Actually wasn't really that good at it. This was the time in, you know, the world pre-auto CAD [Computer Aided Design]. So, like architects actually had to have artistic ability as well as kind of engineering, you know, capabilities too. I had that kind of math and engineering kind of mindset, but I definitely did not have the artistic ability. I abandoned my dream of being an architect very early on only because of that. Actually, it's ironic; I was just asked if your life had taken a different path what would it have been just last week by someone. I said my biggest regret is that I didn't push forward in pursuing architecture because I think I would have been a phenomenal architect because I have this very strong, creative mind and I also have a very structured logic, you know, data numbers kind of, you know, mind too. I think it's a profession that blends those incredibly well. I just found it at a point where the technologies and the resources weren't there to kind of integrate those worlds more easily. I think if I was five years younger I would be a phenomenal architect now because I think that would have happened and I wouldn't have so easily written it off as a young person. I also attributed that to having parents that didn't go to college, because they didn't question my thought process about not choosing to pursue architecture. Whereas I think if they had gone to college they would have appreciated pursuing a major or a course of study isn't exclusively job training, but kind of intellectual growth. I think I would have been advised differently if my parents had themselves different experiences. So, that's a big tangent. [laughter]
SI: Why did you decide on Rutgers and a little bit more specifically, Livingston?
PG: I did not decide on Rutgers. My parents decided on Rutgers. You know, I started talking about my family, my extended family; my whole world was in central New Jersey and I think I gravitated to these stories of my mom's youth of being in the USO and being in Europe to be like, "I want to experience the world." I mean that really defined my interest and passion of like things other than what I know. So, I was kind of hell bent in leaving New Jersey and getting, you know, experiencing the world and college was going to be my ticket to do that. So, I started to look at colleges all over the US and I ended up applying to a lot of schools. I think like eleven or thirteen when it was all said and done, which back then students didn't do that. But my parents basically told me they would not pay for my other school applications if I didn't also at least apply to one in-state school. So, I was like, "Fine. I'll apply to Rutgers." And I applied to Rutgers because the application was in Scantron form. Fill in the little dots and send the check in. Like, it couldn't have been more like, "You're only a number," than every other application that I did and I didn't even think about the reality that I applied to it because I so focused on some of the other schools that I was looking at. Then I systematically was waitlisted and rejected from some of the better schools in the country. I also applied to some safety schools and got some very sizable scholarships, but they felt like, even as a high school kid back then, they felt like Tier-II schools even in my mind. I struggled really to convince my parents to say this decision has to be more than just money.
One school in particular, it was Indiana University of Pennsylvania, in like coal country, middle of nowhere Pennsylvania, but I got a full ride as a out-of-state, pre-business major student. I remember driving out there for like a visit day with my parents. I just remember the sky being grey and driving down the Pennsylvania Turnpike and eventually getting off at an exit and just seeing this like smoke stack in the horizon. It just kept on getting closer and closer and closer and lo and behold, the smokestack's on campus. I was like, "I do not see myself here."
My parents were really like we want you to get a good education, but we also want, you know, the money that we've saved for you to go very far. So they were really pushing to go there or one or two other places that had given me a lot of money and I said no. I was like, "I really need to be somewhere where I feel like I can see opportunities." So I was like, "Fine. I'm going to go to Rutgers, because it's literally down the street." It was eleven miles, door to door, from my driveway to my dorm room. But I actually went with the full intention that I was going to transfer.
One of the schools that I was waitlisted in, well actually two, one was Cornell University, the Ivy League, but what was interesting is the admissions staff told me to apply to the Ag [Agriculture] school as the back door to get into Cornell. Study pigs for a year, and then transfer to what you want to major. I was like, that sounded great to me [laughter] and my parents were like, "No. We're not paying for a year of school for you to study something that you have no interest in, just to eventually get to where you want to be." And I was like, "But it's Cornell. It's the Ivy League." And they were like, "No. That doesn't make sense." And then other school was North Carolina-Chapel Hill. I had got wait-listed. Eventually, really close to the start of the school year, I was admitted, but they couldn't give me housing at that point and my parents were like, oh, hell no. We're not sending you down to North Carolina where we don't know anyone and don't know where you're going to be living. So, that's not happening.
So, I kind of, you know, begrudgingly was like, "Fine. I'll just go to Rutgers, but I'm going to transfer and I'm going to figure out one of these two schools or some other school. Something else is going to happen to me." The largest reason why I didn't initially want to go to Rutgers is because I believed very firmly it was going to be thirteenth grade. I graduated and I don't know that I know these numbers correct, but I think my high school graduating class was like 226 kids. Almost ninety of us went to Rutgers-New Brunswick, not even like the three campuses, but New Brunswick, and then when you broke up the colleges there were like six of us that went to Livingston, and then one of them ended up on my floor in my dorm. My two best friends who went to Rutgers College, they ended up being assigned together as roommates even though they didn't even ask to be roommates, and three other friends from our class were also on their floor in their dorm. I immediately was like, "This is just going to be an extension of high school." While that was both comforting, it was also kind of sickening in the same vain for me. Most of the closest circle of my friends in high school, we actually all went to Rutgers together, and a lot of them really struggled I think to strip those experiences. Well not strip them out, but like to broaden their experiences beyond that circle of friends or beyond kind of the connections that they already had. I kind of had wanted to have nothing to do with that.
It was also, most of the kids from my high school, in all of my circle of friends, they all got into Rutgers College. I did not get into Rutgers College. I got in to Livingston College, which at the time, everyone was like, oh, that's the default for the less smart kids, you know, in-state. And I was like, "I didn't know the difference." I was like, "Rutgers is Rutgers. We're all taking the same classes." But, you know, because I was the stupid kid in AP [Advanced Placement] they were like, oh, I understand why you got into Livingston instead of Rutgers College. And I was like, "Screw you," you know. "What's so great about Rutgers College?" So I very intentionally made a break with my high school friends that were at Rutgers to want to kind of go off on life on my own at Livingston. That's where my kind of Livingston pride really started to germinate, because my Rutgers College friends from high school, not all of them, but some of them kind of made me feel like I was less of a Rutgers University student because I was at Livingston. I was like, "Screw y'all." I was like, "I'm going to be now a big fish in a smaller pond and I'm going to have a very different experience and this isn't going to be thirteenth grade for me and you all can still go in the dining hall together and maybe meet other people, you know."
And so what quickly as a mindset in kind of like September and October, up until about Thanksgiving, was like, "I'm transferring. I'm transferring. I'm transferring and I'm not going to kind of embrace thirteenth grade." I came back after kind of Thanksgiving and I'm like, "I'm making it all happen here." And I just grabbed kind of Livingston by, you know, my hands in my teeth and I was like, "This is it. This is who I'm going to be. This is what my experience is going to be and it's going to be awesome." And I'm so thankful that I got into Livingston over Rutgers College, because I know absolutely I am infinitely more of a stronger person and a more confident and independent person because of that experience and kind of that adversity that not only just stemmed from like my high school friends who went to Rutgers College, but that was the environment at the university at the time. Like, Rutgers College were the haves and Douglas and Cook and Livingston were the have-nots. That's what prompted me to get involved in student government. That's what prompted to get involved with the Targum and the yearbook and all these other experiences was to say like, "The lesser colleges, the other colleges can have a phenomenal experience too. We don't have to be on College Avenue. What's so great about Busch Campus? You got a new dining hall, big whoop."
SI: Tell me about getting settled over at Livingston. Where did you live your freshman year?
HK: I lived in the Towers. So, if you've been on the campus, it's a tiny little campus. I think there's like ten buildings. You know, there's the Towers or the Quads and the Livingston students were really kind of like you owned that definition. Like, "I'm from the Towers," or "I'm from the Quads," but we all got together in Tillett, at the dining hall. Because I lived eleven miles door-to-door, my parents didn't actually drive me to move-in. They were like, "It's down the street. You can move in yourself. We drive past Rutgers all the time." And I'm like, "Are you friggin kidding me? You're cheating me out of this experience and you're cheating yourself out of this experience." And I think that decision also came back to like, they didn't go to college themselves and I was actually really hurt that my parents didn't move me in. I actually didn't tell them where I lived on campus for my first year. I'm sure there was a bill or some piece of paperwork that probably told them. But first semester I didn't have a car on campus, and when my parents came to like pick me up, if I went home on a weekend, I told them to pick me up somewhere else every time. They're like, "Well, where do you live?" And I'm like, "Over there, you know." And I'd be very vague, you know and not specific. I was like, "Well, if you had moved me in you would know exactly where my room was, but since you didn't." I was very spiteful about that for a while, which is ironic since I work in college housing now, you know, all these years later. The ironies of my life just always circle back.
I lived in the Towers my freshman year; then my sophomore year. Then I eventually moved off campus my junior and senior year, off of College Avenue. But all four years, I actually maintained a full meal plan. Dining in Tillett and dining on campus was a huge part of the social experience of students, and I actually loved the meal plan and the food. I never ate vegetables before going to college and like broccoli and cheese sauce was like my thing, you know, or putting wheat germ on your soft serve ice cream. [laughter] I mean, such weird memories I kind of attach to. So, I started living on campus and I had a horrendous freshman roommate, which a lot of people do.
Another thing that was kind of pivotal about Thanksgiving of my freshman year was I really had a really bad freshman roommate and so I went to the housing office and kind of said, "I can't kind of be in this situation anymore." And so over Thanksgiving, well, the dorms closed so we had to leave. But like he left, you know, like Wednesday, early in the morning. As soon as he left, I literally like packed all of my stuff and moved four doors down on our floor, into another room. When he came back, he's like "What the heck?" I'm like, "See you later." I was like, "I'm still gotta see you in the bathroom, but I don't have to live with you." He was like, "That's fine with me. Now I have a double," until someone moved in [with] him.
That was a move to a much healthier situation and I think then kind of allowed me to fully kind of open my eyes to like, "I'm going to be really happy here and I have this now new group of friends" who, like, you know, one was from Brooklyn, one lived under the George Washington Bridge, one was from Connecticut, one was from outside of Boston. I met a whole bunch of people from various points in New Jersey. Never realized New Jersey had accents until I went to Rutgers. Like, in Central Jersey I feel like not a lot of people have very strong accents. But then when you get all the North Jersey kids and all the South Jersey kids and they're talking like New Yorkers, they're talking like Philly people, you're like, "Oh, my God, how is this little state so linguistically diverse?"
SI: Being an expert in [college] housing, looking back on the Towers, what do you think was good about the experience? What do you think was bad?
HK: We had cinderblock walls and you could beat the hell of out them and they were not, you know, coming apart, you know. Aesthetically, they're the ugliest things on the planet. But as a housing professional, I would love cinderblock walls in some of the buildings that I work with and operate on this campus and other campuses. The bathroom was the most important thing. What's interesting, you know, I've spent my entire professional career working in collegiate housing, and colleges and universities over that twenty year span have really embraced the amenities arms race in creating residence halls that are very customer-service driven at the expense of a lot of like community-forced interaction. Having to share a bathroom with twenty other people was a defining life lesson, you know, experience that I think most college students today don't experience nearly to the extent that was the norm when I was in school. Having to wait in line with your robe and your bucket with your shampoo and your towel and your soap and just kind of chatting in the mornings or seeing people really late at night or calling people out for vomiting, you know, in the bathroom after a raging weekend like was really important life lessons learned really young. I mean, I know why colleges are not building, you know, dormitories with, you know, common floor bathrooms, because, you know, for a variety of reasons, but like it is at the expense of some of that really kind of, you know, life lessons learned, I truly believe.
We also had a great lounge and my freshman RA [Resident Assistant] in particular, Yolanda, was just so wonderful to like kind of force us out of our rooms and to have us hang out in the lounge and in the kitchen on the floor. We had the little kitchenette and a little seated dining area and it was all really simple and kind of dated '70s furniture and dated, you know, window treatments and carpeting; maintained, but really kind of like old, ugly looking, you know, but we loved it. I mean, you know, that freshman year I remember just like so many people all the time hanging out, you know, doing classwork together. A lot of us were in similar classes and so we would just kind of circle around the tables in the lounge and like work on calculus together or help each other out with those things. Those were the experiences that I defined of living on campus, which definitively, eventually, influenced why I wanted to pursue this as a career path and field for me. [I] didn't know it at the time, obviously. It was tremendous pride for our floor to decorate for the holidays and we won, you know, in the Towers, like you know. They called it Christmas decorations. [laughter] They were quite as sensitive to other, you know, traditions and holidays but, you know, we won, you know, the best Christmas decorations and we loved it. I mean, we had a pizza party. I mean, real simple, stupid stuff, but super, super, super, fun memories of living in the dorms, living in the residence halls on camps.
I actually made a decision my sophomore year because I was really kind of embracing, I want to kind of take slightly a different path for everyone. I learned about a brand new community service residence hall that was being developed as a pilot program at Rutgers which actually was the first time they were allowing students from all the colleges to apply to live together and it was right on College Avenue. It was an old fraternity house that the university had absorbed and it was kind of around the same time where kind of President Clinton's--well, he wasn't president then--but like strides in kind of community service and stuff were being developed. So Rutgers at the time got some type of grant to develop this program. I was like, "I'm going to go for this." So, I got picked to live in the house and there was like thirty-six students from all the different New Brunswick schools that got selected for it. I remember, quite vividly, they had kind of an orientation picnic that summer before the fall began when we all moved in together and a lot of us actually attended it. I was actually living at home, but taking classes during my first summer there and I met a couple people. I knew a couple people that got into the house with me. So, we were at this picnic and a lot of people were strangers, but some weren't.
I remember seeing this one guy who was an older student and I suspected was openly gay, but didn't know it in the immediacy. Back then, which was like 1990, you know. Students were not open and out and gay, you know, in mass or even in small pockets, they weren't. I leaned over to a friend of mine and I was like, "I'm going to put ten bucks that he's going to be my roommate." I didn't know this. I was like, "I don't know. I just have some kind of inkling." And he ended up being my roommate and we ended up being assigned into the smallest room in the house which was smaller than any single room that I had seen in any other dorm at Rutgers. The furniture could only fit in the room if the beds were bunked and the dressers were stacked and we literally had no other floor space beyond that and our two desks and a really, really, tiny closet. I learned, very quickly, who this student was and he was James Dale who was the person who sued the Boy Scouts of America and very open and out at a time where that wasn't common or accepted. [Editor's Note: James Dale joined the Boys Scouts of America (BSA) as a young boy. In 1988, the Scouts awarded Dale the rank of Eagle Scout. Two years later, Dale told Newark Star-Ledger that he was gay. Subsequently, the BSA revoked Dale's membership which prompted the former scout to sue.] I was really excited that he was my roommate, but I was also really freaking the hell out that we were in this space, literally on top of each other. He was the first person that I felt as I knew as a gay person. He was very, you know, open about who he was and his life experiences and things like that and his sexuality. I'm gay now, but I came out much later in life. I didn't come out until I was twenty-five. But I always felt different, but I never could understand the difference, you know. Like, I was the president of the Future Homemakers of America, that's different. I was, you know, doing the yearbook. Guys didn't do that. There were all these cues, but I didn't put all the pieces of the puzzle together. I just wasn't ready to confront my own shit in living with him.
I made the very difficult decision around Halloween to actually move out of the house. I used the size of the room as the excuse. But I've actually never admitted this actually to anyone, I don't think, that I just really wasn't ready to kind of confront my own shit, that I'm sure, subconsciously, I knew I would at some point work through and come to accept and understand my own sexuality. But I remember just one day in particular, I walked in on him and I don't know if it was a boyfriend or just someone he was fooling around with, but I was just terribly, I wouldn't say uncomfortable, but just thrown off guard by his so openness of his lifestyle. Because for him, and I guess I'm saying this for him, but he was very much about his sexuality being a statement at the time, and I just wanted him to be my roommate. I didn't want to be an association of his statement by living with him.
I remember and I'm sure this factored in, but I was taking a sociology class at the time where there were a lot of the meathead basketball players at the back of the room and the Daily Targum, on National Coming Out Day, had a picture of James Dale kissing a boy on the steps of Brower Commons and the sociology class was on collective behaviors and social movements. So, we were studying the women's movement, the gay movement, the Civil Rights Movement and stuff like that. So, obviously, the front page picture and article the professor tied into the lecture of the day and I remember all of these basketball players, and I'm sure I'm lumping them into a stereotype which they may not have all been, were just like snickering and making kind of, you know, ignorant comments about James kissing his boyfriend on the steps of Brower Commons. Someone next to me leaned in and kind of said loudly, "Hey, isn't that your roommate." And I'm like, "It is. [laughter] It is. And he's a great guy." It felt like the right decision for me at the time.
So, I went back to Livingston for my second year living in the Towers, and it was back to a safe place with my friends also living there. I never actually kept in touch with James even years after the fact. I always kind of wonder what if I had stuck it out, you know. I know I would have been a deeply different person than who I am today, or at least my evolution of coming to understand my own sexuality and sexual identity would have definitely taken a radically different path. But everything happens for a reason and I felt like it was a good decision.
Then I ended up having this amazing second year back in the Towers with these phenomenal students on our floor, where like we ended up being this really close group of students, where like literally like fourteen of us would like all go to dinner together. Fourteen of us would all head to the bus on a Friday night and head to a party off campus off, off of College Avenue. We went in this pack and it was fun and it was great, you know. So, like I'm a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, yes, so another tangent.
SI: No, it was great. Did you keep up with the service fraternity after you went back?
HK: Spring of my freshman year I pledged Alpha Phi Omega National Service Fraternity, again, kind of not knowing the ropes of college life, because my parents didn't go to college, I totally didn't get Greek life and I also didn't get that a co-ed fraternity was out of the norm of Greek life. So when all of my friends were talking about "Yeah, we're going Greek." I'm like, "Okay, I saw a flyer. Oh, service fraternity, okay I'll go to that." And I made the decision to pledge.
I remember my first week or two pledging this co-ed fraternity and one of my best friends from my freshman dorm, a female Naomi, was pledging with me. We both went to a social fraternity house--it was her boyfriend's at the time--wearing our pledge pins and I remember being in line to get into the house to the party and the fraternity member at the door saw my pin. He's like, "Oh, what chapter is that." And I was like, "Alpha Phi Omega." And he was like, "Oh, what school do you go to." And I'm like. "I go here." And they're like, "Where's your house?" And I'm like "Oh." I was like, "We don't have a house. We're a co-ed service fraternity." He's like, "That's not a Greek organization." And I'm like, "What?" [laughter] So, again, it was kind of this like "you are, but you're not," you know, kind of like theme in my life. I was like, "Well, I love this organization. I love this fraternity and I'm going to make the most of it." I did that my freshman year and I was very involved all of my years at Rutgers with APO [Alpha Phi Omega] to the extent actually when I went to graduate school at the University of Georgia I re-chartered the chapter at Georgia and served as the president for two years while I was getting my master's degree. It still is a very near and dear to my heart organization that drew a lot of like, you know, my interests in serving the community, which had stemmed from high school with the community center, the teen center and all that, so.
SI: What sort of projects would you do?
HK: You know, like, there was a lot of, you know, we would serve food at a soup kitchen down in New Brunswick and that was I think the first time that I was exposed to people that were truly kind of not well off, you know, and helping them. We did a lot of, you know, like your typical drives, blood drives and canned food drives and things like that. We had a very stupid project that we did on campus all the time called "de-stapling," where we would go to bulletin boards and just pull out all the staples and clean them up. We always used to just have fun with it because we would take squeegee bottles and like mixed drinks and drink while we were pulling out these staples in the middle of the night, you know, stupid stuff. The APO chapter at Rutgers, we ran the university's lost and found. So, that was kind of like a big thing. It was kind of our office where, you know, since we didn't have a house, it was kind of like our, you know, stomping ground. I'm sure there were more kinds of projects. There was a whole range. We were a big chapter. We actually at the high point, which was probably my sophomore year, we were pushing almost two hundred members, where like the social fraternities and sororities were like thirty, maybe sixty. So, I was like, you know, "You're mocking us, but like we're big." You know and like, "We have lots of people involved in what we're doing and we're doing good things and we also, you know, drink off campus too." [laughter] So, I kind of saw it as the best of both worlds even thought it was presented to me as like not Greek life.
SI: What was involved in pledging?
HK: It was a lot of team building. My pledge class was the first of several large pledge classes. Prior to my class, [APO] was used to like taking in ten or twelve members, and for whatever reason, I don't know what they didn't differently, but like my pledge class was forty-seven people. Then the pledge class after that was like sixty-seven, and then like eighty or something. It got crazy. But so like these forty-seven kids, and we were from all the different Rutgers colleges, you know, Livingston, Cook and stuff like that, we had pledge meetings on Sunday nights and chapter meetings on Tuesday nights. You had to do forty hours of community service during the pledge semester, and so you had to like log and track all of that. You had to do interviews with the brothers. Men and women were all called brothers. You were broken up into families by your big brother and their big brothers, and so like you had smaller family functions. So, it made this bigger organization feel smaller. It was just a lot of fun, both the combination of actually doing legitimate community service, which is the core interest that brought everyone to the organization, but also just doing wackadoodle crazy fun stuff as college co-eds. One of the most fun things that we used to do annually was this massive scavenger hunt which would take all weekend. It was all around kind of like New Brunswick or Piscataway. It wasn't just on campuses. I remember one year there was a clue at a sex shop store on Route 1, by the Route 1 flea market, and as the local kid who grew up [around here], I knew exactly where that was. So, like my team like, we got extra points for like figuring out that clue really quickly. But it was a tremendous amount of fun. A lot of my closest friends from college, well they basically all came from the dorms in Livingston and the student orgs [organizations] that I was involved in at Livingston and APO. Those were my two main very, very defined kind of social networks and you know, half of my wedding party came from those two, you know populations.
SI: When did you get involved in student government?
HK: So, my best friends from the Towers, Staci Berger, who was my best person at my wedding, who stood side by side with me, was a very involved student activist at Rutgers at the time. So she ran as a freshman representative to the LCGA [Livingston College Governing Association] and won, and then after her first year encouraged me to run my sophomore year. I ran and I was elected to the LCGA my second year, and then served my sophomore, junior and senior year as a representative. Then I was the secretary one year. Was I the treasurer? I might have been. I was involved. I ended up doing student government for my remaining three years. I wasn't quite the activist that Staci and some of the other people were. I was more of the centrist. Staci was a part of another organization on campus called CARE, which was the Campaign for the Affordable Rutgers Education. They were the students that took over the buildings in the years that I was there, and she was deeply entrenched in those activities. I supported her and I loved her. They took over a building in their senior year and there was a protracted university hearing board that they ended up being suspended and she ended up graduating one year later because of it. She actually has spent her entire career in public advocacy work, which I think that experience has defined her professional path and the experiences I had as a student leader have defined my professional path. I never drank the punch as much as she did and some of the other very strong activists. I would bring her food while she was taking over the building, you know, brought her her pillow, brought her her textbooks, not nearly as engaged in that respect.
SI: What do you remember as being some of the major issues you faced in the Livingston College Governing Association?
HK: There was always throughout the entire time I was at Rutgers the whole notion of the haves and have nots from a resource stand point. So, Rutgers College, because it was the largest undergraduate college, had the most student funds and access to those student funds, whereas Livingston and Cook and Douglas had much less. So there was always also this animosity between the RCGA and the LCGA and the DCCG and the CCC. We all kind of collaborated kind of it was us versus the RCGA. I got involved also in the university senate where all of that kind of came together and we actually had more of an equal voice. It was interesting for these very pompous, opinioned RCGA kids to really struggle with us having equal voices in the senate because they didn't see us as equal players in the political landscape of the campus at the time. I loved it. I loved the tension and kind of the animosity between the schools. It just fueled my pride in my Livingston experience and I know it fueled and, you know, the pride of a lot of my friends who went to Douglass. I mean, Douglass felt more natural because it was the women's college of the self-definition of that. You know, like, I, as a white male, you know, growing up in the suburbs, like I'm not the definition of the Livingston, at least the population that, you know, why Livingston was formed, you know. But the desire to create a college that was the first co-ed school, that was academically progressive--I mean, it opened its doors without offering formalized grades to students, it offered some of the more cutting edge academic disciplines for the first time in New Brunswick--I took tremendous pride in that history and its emphasis on diversity, very strongly, and absolutely defined like every kind of element of what I valued in going to Livingston and being a part of that college at Rutgers.
I actually was devastated when the institution made the decision to basically absolve the residential colleges. I had written in my doctoral program a paper on that decision because, from a college administrator stand point, I absolutely understood it. It is, you know, much more efficient, a better use of resources, an easier way to recruit and market and retain students when there's continuity of services and programs, but it was completely counter to my experience. Like, I feel very strongly I went to an undergraduate school of about three thousand students with the resources of thirty thousand students. I appreciated that contrast from my undergraduate to my time at Georgia in my graduate school, because [University of] Georgia was almost similar identical in size to Rutgers at the time, but it was all one campus. So, when I got there as a master's student working with undergrads working on campus, that place felt enormous. I always attributed the residential colleges in New Brunswick as a way to make a big place feel very small and very supported for their students, you know. I knew my dean of students extremely closely. My dean, you know, of the student center, my dean of residence life. Like, they knew me not just as a name or a number, but like they knew and supported and advised me. I mean, I am who I am because of those relationships I had with administrators and obviously influenced my career path.
SI: Who are they?
HK: Dean George Jones was the dean of students when I was there. I worked with him most closely with the LCGA and then actually starting with the yearbook. Me and two other students resurrected the Livingston College yearbook. I served as the editor-in-chief my sophomore, junior, and senior year. I worked really closely with him to say the college needs to have a yearbook. Actually, every college in New Brunswick had one except for Livingston. Even University College had this really crappy yearbook for their night students. I was like, "We got to have one. I have experience in it. These other kids have experience in it. So, we're starting it." And he found resources to make it happen. It grew into this really great program and another thing, you know, I'm extremely proud of, you know, from my time there. Dean Herman was the dean over kind of the student center and the student organization. So all of the other groups that I was involved in he was very closely connected with, as well as there are two staff members that were kind of the main advisors, Ron and Sue, who had these side-by-side offices next to the LCGA office and around the corner from the program board office and the yearbook office, all the things that I did. So I basically saw these people like four, five days a week, you know, for several hours a day. I spent more time with them than with my parents growing up in high school.
Dean Haines was the dean over the residence life program and he lived in the Towers, so I used to see him all the time. I used to also give, not my freshman RA because I loved Yolanda, but my sophomore RA, I used to give him shit all the time. He was horrible. So, I remember getting in trouble a couple time and having to go talk to Dean Haines. Then there was a couple other administrators in the main dean of students office. Dean Bromley, who dealt with a lot of the academic stuff--I remember I had mono my senior year and so I had to withdraw from a class really late, and she helped me with that. There was a woman and I can visualize her, but I don't remember her name, who like dealt with all the course registration and the registrar activities. Just as a student leader on what felt like a very small campus, you know, those who that chose to engage those people were able to have very close relationships with the administrators on campus. They're the ones that actually who encouraged me to consider this as a career path.
I remember kind of late in my junior year, kind of sitting around in the student center shooting the shit with a couple of the staff and they were like, "What are you thinking about, you know, going into your senior year and afterward?" And I was like, "I'm a sociology major." I was like, "What does someone do with that?" I was like, "I don't know." I was like, "Career retail?" I was like, "No. That isn't for me." So, I was like I know I'm going to get more schooling, but I didn't know what. It was actually Dean Herman that said, you know, that this is actually a legitimate profession, what we do. And I'm like, "What do you mean?" He's like, "Several of us have actually degrees in higher education, student affairs work." And I'm like, "What do you mean?" And so I just asked all these probing question and didn't know it existed as a career field because it's not an undergraduate major and it's not a natural path that people find on their own. I think most people are encouraged by administrators to think about it.
In addition to being a sociology major, I was a secondary education. Well, I didn't complete the major because after having my first in field teaching placement, I knew the high school classroom was not where I wanted to be, but I had taken a number of education courses and I was really interested in the study of education, but knew that secondary ed and elementary ed was not the path for me. So when Dean Herman kind of planted that seed I was like, "Oh, I'm gonna look into this." I knew, absolutely, I was going right to graduate school.
As a student my senior year, I was a part of the Paul Robeson scholars program with Livingston, which was a small selected group of students to do an independent research project. Mine was studying AIDS [Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome] education programs in the state of New Jersey and the elementary school systems in public school in New Jersey. I came to that topic from a couple sociology classes that I had and two professors that were doing public health and public policy research around kind of public health issues and things like that. I was very interested and engaged in that arena, but also knew I had a fairly steep learning curve because other than these couple courses I didn't have that background. I also didn't have the science background that more public health kind of students tend to have.
So my senior year, when I was kind of looking into graduate schools, I was looking at a lot of master's in public health, public administration, and then higher education, student affairs work. So in my apartment I had three milk crates on the floor, because I was just being inundated with like brochures. It would be like things I need to read, things I don't know why I'm even being sent this and God, no I'm not interested in this school or this program. I would just throw things in piles. I was getting both public health brochures as well as higher education brochures.
Again, going back to I'm a firm believer in everything happening for the reason that it happens, I got a brochure from the University of Georgia. I don't ever remember requesting it, but I got it and the brochure was beautiful, visually it was a stunning brochure. I put it aside because I was actually at the same time working on some yearbook layouts and I liked the visual element in this brochure that I wanted to kind of steal some of their ideas and try to incorporate them into these yearbook layouts that I was working on. As I was kind of flipping through their brochure and trying to digest kind of the visual beauty of these elements, I was reading it and I was like, "Oh, they actually have my program in student affairs." And I was like, "Oh, that's interesting. I didn't realize that when perhaps it came my way," and I remember this quite clearly. The next day was a Tuesday and I called them and I said, "Oh, I recently got a brochure and I'm interested in your program. Can you send me some information?" And the receptionist or whoever answered the phone was like, "Oh, yeah, absolutely we can, but our application deadline's Friday." And I'm like, "Friday? It's Tuesday." And I was like, "Well, what can I do about that?" And I knew Federal Express existed, but I never used it or accessed it or whatever and she's like, "Well, we can get stuff out to you." Like, "We will FedEx it to you." And I'm like, "Okay." So, that was the first FedEx package that I think I ever got in my life and they were like, "Well," you know, "if you apply, it needs to be in hand by Friday." So, I literally got it like Wednesday, like very late in the day, and I had twenty-four hours to work on it. I had to figure out how the hell do I Federal Express something. [laughter] I remember going back to the Student Center and saying like, "Help me. How the hell do you Federal Express something?" And they were like, "Oh, we have an account. There's someone who comes every day. Leave it here." So, I was like, "Okay." And then I called that next Monday. I'm like, "Did you get it?" They're like, "We got it." And then, lo and behold, all the other pieces, you know, feel into place and I ended up going to Georgia. It all happened because of a very pretty brochure and being this yearbook person and you know. That's why I'm very much a fatalist in life living. Like, everything does happen for a reason. You don't always know it, why or things like that, but I pick up on all these events that like.
SI: You also did work with the Targum?
HK: When I was still kind of my freshman year, "Am I transferring? Am I not transferring? I don't know what I'm doing." You know, it's the start of every school year, you know, student organization fair, you know, happened, and I remember this also quite clearly, Livingston College didn't have its own student organization fair. I had to go to College Avenue to attend the organization fair for the university. I remember going to all these different tables and practically the first question out of your mouth is, "Are you a Rutgers College student?" I'd be like, "No, I go to Livingston." They were like, "Oh, you can't join this organization. It's only for Rutgers College only. You can't do this because it's only Rutgers College only." I was like, "Alright, what do I do." And then I found the Targum's table and they were like, "We don't care what college you're in." Like, we take everyone. And I'm like, "Take me." And I think it was probably the second week on campus I joined the Targum.
They were particularly interested in me because I wasn't interested in being a reporter. I wanted to do all the layout because I had that experience from the yearbook. They were like, "Oh, no one ever asks about working in that area." And it's also a very small area. So I very quickly got trained. I don't even remember what that kind of area of the newspaper was called, but it was like me, one other person, the student editor who was responsible for those functions, and then that person reported to the editor-in-chief of the paper. Whereas like the sports department was gargantuan, and the news department was gargantuan, and the area that covered all the campus events was gargantuan, and then there was like three of us in the corner with computers. At first, all it was fixing point sizes and, you know, layouts to like, you know, fit on the page and stuff like that. But then it became very quickly, they were like, "Oh, you picked up on all that stuff. Now you can start writing headlines." I'm like, "I can write a headline?" So, I started to write headlines for the pieces that were going on and they were like, "Oh, now you can start helping us lay out where we're going to put things in the paper." And so within kind of I would say a month or six weeks I went from I was doing nothing to being the right hand of the layout editor--that was her title--which was involved in basically kind of like going in at night when the edition went to bed to this kind of like warehousey space that was off Easton Avenue where it was all mocked up. Then you actually then had to actually manipulate the mock ups before it went to the press and it was always this like, it had to have been in there by like twelve thirty or one in the morning by the latest in order for it to get run and get delivered, you know, by 6:30 the next morning. So, it was a lot of pressure, which I loved. It also kind of harkened back to some of that kind of like architecture thought like, "I have space that I have to manipulate. I have words I have to manipulate. It needs to fit. It needs to look good visually." And I loved it. It turned into my spring board of feeling good about Rutgers. I actually found APO from people who were at the Targum. The sports editor was an older brother in the fraternity and like so that connected to that and that and that, so I loved it. Once I started to get more involved at Livingston, I couldn't keep up with the demands that the Targum had. As I took on wanted to launch the Livingston yearbook I ended my time at the Targum because it started to feel like too much. It felt like they were grooming me to become the layout editor, but I was like, "The other person needs to do that because they're willing to give it what it needs." And I don't want to half-ass it.
SI: Tell me a little more about the yearbook. I've always been interested in this because I go down to the archives and I see the copies from the '70s.
HK: And then it died, yes.
SI: I don't realize it wasn't published. I thought maybe they didn't collect them.
HK: No, it didn't publish. I think the last full-on edition was like '83-'85. So, I got to Livingston fall of '89. So, there was, you know, a gap there and the first edition that we published was '91. So, '91, '92, '93 when I graduated, yes. So I met two girls, two women, who lived in the Quads who were also both editors-in-chief of their high school yearbooks. We met in the dining hall and we were all talking because they actually, in the same organization fair at Rutgers College, when they went to the yearbook table, which we were like, "This is the Rutgers University yearbook." They lied and said they went to Rutgers College to get on staff. I forget the--Scarlet Letter, the Rutgers College yearbook. So, they kind of lied or didn't emphasize that they weren't Rutgers College students and they quickly went from like, I just joined staff to now we're the co-copy editors of the Rutgers College yearbook as two Livingston students. And when others found out, they were like, "Well, they're really good at their job. We're going to let them still work on the Scarlet Letter." And so, the three of us were like, "We could do this at Livingston ourselves. We don't need to work for the Rutgers College yearbook and then never actually be represented in it." And so we're like, "Screw that." So, I went to Dean Jones and I said, you know, "This is embarrassing that Livingston College doesn't have its own yearbook." It was actually my platform that got me elected to the LCGA. I was like, "We need to have this. We need to have these things that Rutgers College has that Livingston doesn't. We need to have our own organization fair. We need to have our own yearbook. We need to have our own things." And he made it happen and we were able to start it.
I remember sitting in his office. The three of us were summoned to his office and sitting there one day. He went to the University of Alabama, you know, steeped in tradition and he had all of his college yearbooks on his college bookcase and he pointed to that and he's like, "This is important for a college. I'm entrusting that you're going to make this happen and do this right." So, he actually had some very defined ideas of what it should be, but he also gave us fairly creative license or actually I would say didn't micromanage the decisions we were making along the way, until the first edition came out. We all grew up in a time period where yearbooks had themes, annual themes, and they were represented in the book. Dean Jones grew up, "It's a yearbook." It felt like an encyclopedia. I mean, it looked beautiful on the shelf. Every cover basically looked the same. The color might have changed from one year to the next and to the next. So he had this very traditional concept and we threw all that out the window. We were like, "We're having a theme for our yearbook this year." The theme of the first yearbook, the inaugural yearbook we published, we called "Not Just a Generic College" because we wanted to kind of play tongue-in-cheek to the fact that we felt like Livingston was so not intentionally thought out that they didn't even have the luxury to name our streets or buildings. It was Avenue A, Avenue B, Avenue C, North Tower, South Tower, Quad 1, Quad 2, Quad 3. I mean, a couple of the academic buildings had names. Even the campus signs, at the time, said Kilmer Campus, not Livingston Campus, not Livingston College. There was one itty bitty little sign in one corner that was like, "Welcome to Livingston College." We were like, "What the hell?" We're like, "We're not this generic college. We're not Avenue A, Avenue B." So, this was our kind of like protest to senior administrators to say, you know, you need to be more intentional in the environment you're creating here. Goddamn, name some buildings and some streets.
We were so proud of that theme and that idea and being very tongue-in-cheek and the design of the cover was very contemporary. I remember when we unboxed it, he gasped and I thought he was going to have a heart attack. He was just like, "What is this?" And I'm like, "This is the yearbook." He pulled out his yearbook. He's like, "That's not a yearbook. This is a yearbook." You know, leather cover, big embossed, you know, university emblem in the center, University of Alabama and the year, that's it. He's like, "This is what I was expecting." I'm like, "Well, that's what you got and this is what you're going to continue to get because this is ours." And he was great. I mean, I loved, you know, his, you know, challenge and support, you know, and kind of like guiding us and allowing us, but also having very, very clear opinions of, you know, the world he was working with and around.
That was a great year. Starting that yearbook, you know, we just found some like-minded students, you know. One person had worked for the Targum doing copy. One was, you know, really big into photography. We tried to tap into people who were like connected with different student orgs and we just kind of charted a path to say what do we want to cover about what our experience is like on this side of the river. I haven't actually cracked open the yearbook in quite a while. It's on a shelf in my home. But we were just so proud of what we were able to do and Dean Jones was also very proud of us too, even though it wasn't what he thought it would be, to the point we were able to convince the LCGA that supporting the yearbook needed to be institutionalized. So we ended being the first college to get approval to create an automatic fee that every person who graduated from Livingston got a yearbook for free. Whereas all the other colleges you actually had to sell them and people had to pay for them and only a smaller portion of the actual graduating class every year actually chose to buy a yearbook. Every single graduate of Livingston got a free yearbook and gave us the consistent revenue stream to build the book into something quite good and big. I don't know if it still exists, well, obviously it doesn't because Livingston sort of doesn't.
SI: All the yearbooks were discontinued in the early 2000s.
HK: Yes. But I remember actually jumping through those hoops and hurdles with Dean Jones to say like, "This is worth a unique fee." And got the support of the LCGA in a very creative way that not any other schools or colleges had thought about supporting student orgs before and I'm like, "Ha-ha. You know what we're doing here at Livingston."
SI: Part of your platform was about getting things that other colleges had. What other things stand out?
HK: Well, it was like, you know, having our own organization fair. We didn't have our own programming board, which was another student organization that I actually helped create and kind of institutionalize to plan kind of social and cultural activities for the campus. All of the things that I felt like in my first year when I got to Rutgers was always said, "No, this is a Rutgers College only thing." I'm like, "Well, screw it. We're going to replicate it at Livingston and we're going to have it be better." And honestly a lot of it didn't exist and it was interesting because those things did exist at Douglas and sometimes they existed at Cook. Livingston when I was there ended up I think being a very basic utilitarian kind of environment. Like we had Res Life [Residence Life]. We had RAs. We had student government, you know, but it was all being kind of like the next evolution of those things. I do believe, you know, they existed at some point, but I feel like there was probably a time period in Livingston's history in the '80s when the first kind of round of centralization was happening with the academic programs that some of the unique programs and services and student organizations that were completely decentralized just kind of disbanded. So it took another ten years and the timing was kind of right when I was there to say we're going to recreate these things now, because we wanted them and we had administrators who also wanted and had those visions too. You know, I think they also, as much as the student leaders had a tremendous amount of pride and like, you know, putting our stamp and putting our mark for Livingston, they also, I think when they talked with their colleagues at the other schools, also felt like they were the have-nots too and they were like, "We're sick and tired of it. We're going to do our own thing here and we're going to do it with our students and we're going to have some really great programs and services." And I think we did, you know. The Medium, I always thought, was the best college paper of all of the college papers.
SI: Was it a serious paper?
HK: No, no, no. [laughter]
SI: At one point it was.
HK: Yes, no, it was the total satire and the personals which was the best part of the paper. The Yearbook and the Medium shared their office space together, so our two staffs were very close and also shared the dark room and things like that. We had Loco which was our concert organization which was actually better than the Rutgers College organization. We had our own radio station which was actually better than the other college radio stations. So, there were some things that really stood out, but like, they were never kind of promoted or emphasized from a point of pride and that was something that like, me and other student leaders who were involved in the LCGA at the time were just like, "Screw you all. We're proud of what we're doing here and we're making the most of it and we're going to have this great experience and so we're really frankly tired of you saying you're less because we're not. We don't feel it. So, stop saying it or we're going to beat you up on the playground." [laughter]
SI: What about classes and professors stand out to you?
HK: I attended them all. [laughter] I felt like I was a number for a very long time, from the academic perspective, with the exception of things that were more actually more Livingston influenced. English 101 was influenced by the colleges and so, you had these very small English 101 classrooms. Then, I don't remember the professor's name--he was an adjunct, actually--but it felt like Dead Poet's Society, like he was just this engaged person and really connected, you know, with his students in this small classroom. I then also remember my very first lecture was sociology 101 and I was in the big, massive lecture hall in Lucy Stone Hall and it was Professor Toby in the Sociology Department who was this like relic of an old man. There had to have been 350, 400 students in the class and I was just like, "Are you kidding me?" I was like, "This is college?" I was like, "Oh, I got to listen to this old white man in the front of the room and all we're having is, you know, five multiple choice exams. Okay, alright." Actually, one of my earlier academic memories was spring semester of my freshman year. All of my classes fall semester, freshman year, were on Livingston Campus. So it was nice. I rolled out of bed. I went to Beck Hall or I went to Lucy Stone. I went to Tillett. It was easy. It was simple.
Spring semester I actually had a couple classes at College Avenue and I was like, "Oh, got to take the bus for class." I remember taking general psychology, you know, 101 and it was in Scott Hall, the big lecture hall. I know I don't know these numbers correctly, but it felt like that lecture hall had 450 seats. There were 600 students enrolled in the class. The first day of class, in the first two or three weeks, the rows were just lined with students sitting on the floor because there weren't enough seats. That was kind of the climate at the time that I was at Rutgers. I remember also, much like Professor Toby, whoever was teaching that class, huge lecture hall, five multiple choice exams, the lowest score dropped. So she literally kind of said four words as introductions and just started lecturing the first day. It was a Tuesday, Friday, 9 AM class, really early for me and on College Avenue, so I had to leave by like 8:15 in order to get there on time, and even earlier if I wanted to get a seat. So, she's throwing up all these overheads and there's all these statistics and like these, you know, really narrow pieces of information and I said to my friend sitting next to me, I was like, "There's no fucking way she's going to be testing us on something this minute in a multiple choice exam." And I was like, "I took psychology in high school." I was like, "I'm taking a gamble." I never went back to a single lecture. I took the five exams. I got an A in the class and I was like, "I can do this. I'm going to major in psychology." Next semester I registered for cognitive psychology, didn't quite approach it with the same lackadaisical interest in going to lectures, but realized there was a much steeper learning curve the next semester. I was like, "Oh, no, psychology is not for me."
So, I remember really early on having very large classes, kind of feeling like a number, definitely only focused on kind of rote regurgitation of very broad facts. It was only kind of like your English class that you actually got to talk or write things. So Livingston required two semesters of English, where all the other schools required one. I liked that actually because it gave me more experiences to kind of write papers and be in these smaller settings.
Before I found sociology as a final major, I was coming in initially thinking I wanted to do pre-business or mathematics because I was good in math in high school and I just had this interest in kind of business acumen. I placed out of two levels of math. So, I entered in a higher [level]. I was in calculus for business majors as a freshman, which most freshman weren't, or a lot of freshman weren't. I remember being in that class and the professor, it was a big lecture hall as well, like barely spoke good English and taught the numbers and basically just handed out, again, multiple choice exams. I was like, "I don't want this to define what courses I was going to take for the rest of my career." So, I dropped math pretty quickly and was going to continue on the business route, but also ended up abandoning that really quickly because at the time, the business school was the upper division. So you had to take all these prerequisite classes and you had to apply your sophomore year to get into the business school your junior and senior year, and then you only took business classes your junior and senior year. I'm like, "Well, I want to take business classes now. I want to see if I'm interested in it." And they were like, "Well, you can't do that." And I'm like, "Well, I'm not going to take all of these courses that I have varied degrees of interest in only to not definitively know am I going to get into the business school or not, and then have to wait two years to take something that I'm actually really interested in." So, I was just like, "No, this doesn't sound right to me." So, I was like, "Screw that. Screw business school." And I almost didn't stick with sociology because of Professor Toby. But then my second semester and I don't remember what class it was, but I took a different sociology class and it was Professor Carr, C-A-R-R, who I learned after the fact was not a tenured professor, but she was working towards her tenure, and she was amazing. That first class was actually, not a huge lecture hall, but it was over a hundred students. By the third week she knew every single student's name in that lecture hall and called on people and led discussions in a hundred plus person class. She was so engaging and so just interested in her field and made us interested in sociology. I was like, "I found it. I got it." And I ended up taking three more classes with her over my sophomore and junior year and I was devastated at the end of my junior year that she did not get tenure and she left Rutgers. I remember marching my butt into Dean Jones' office saying like, "You got to help me to figure out how to fix this." I was like, "This is one of the best faculty I have experienced here and someone screwed the hell up." And that didn't get very far, obviously. That wasn't his area of influence either. But I remember because the last class I had with her was a junior-senior seminar and it was a much smaller class and she kind of announced to the class towards the end of the semester that she didn't get tenure and that she was likely moving on, you know. She pulled me aside after class and she's like, "You need to stick with this. Like, you need to not only major in this, you need to study this." And I was just so like enamored that this person saw kind of something academically brilliant in me when I always kind of defined myself as a B student and she was just wonderful. I mean, I never actually bothered to kind of find her again or see where [she went]. I think I heard that she ended up going to like Montclair State or something like that. I mean, maybe she's this brilliant mind in sociology now, but she was very transformative for me academically.
The contrast of that though, and I think this speaks to just the administration of Rutgers at the time. My advisor in the sociology department was Professor (Legget?). The first time I met him is when he handed me my diploma. I never once went to an advising session with him. I was able to figure out how to work around not being formally advised by your official advisor, largely because I had these other deans being able to sign off on things for me and stuff like that. So I laughed, you know, because we're up at the podium, you know, shaking hands, shaking hands and he's like, "Oh, congratulations." And I said, I was like, "You're my advisor. It's nice to meet you. [laughter] Thanks for my diploma." And he looked at me and he was like, "What?" And I was like, "I'm not going to embarrass you, you know. We're not mic'ed." And I was like "Hi. I was probably on a list that you know, you just passed me by."
SI: What else stands out about your time at Livingston? We kind of covered a lot of topics. What kind of doesn't make it into the paper?
HK: What did I miss? You know, the people, I mean, we talk so much about the people, both the students that I went to school with at that time and really the student leaders. So, many of the students who just were going to class and going there, just didn't embrace all that they could have gotten out of their time. They got an education, mostly. They had great, you know, memories I'm sure. But like, for those who wanted to kind of grab on to more they really benefited from grabbing on to more because of the kind of close knit structure of the small colleges. I know that that was echoed definitely at Douglas and definitively at Cook, not as much to the extent at Rutgers actually. The rub of like the haves and the have-nots was a very defining piece of my time there.
A lot of people in some of the local press used to describe Rutgers as the Berkley of the East Coast, in the time that I was there. It was during the Iraq War. I started with President Bloustein who died and the other pain in the ass came in, Frances, who there was a lot of animosity between the student and the administration--the whole CARE [Campaign for an Affordable Rutgers Education] stuff and taking over buildings. I learned what political activism meant and representing the interest of people around you from my experience of being at Rutgers at the time, not just Livingston. I ended up being very involved in President Clinton's first campaign in the activities in New Jersey and New Brunswick because of those experiences and stuff. When Clinton was elected, one of his first major public policy addresses was at Rutgers when he was introducing what evolved into City Year and kind of the community activism stuff. I was on stage and got to shake his hand during that moment. It was because of my experience with APO and the community service house and some of the other things and LCGA that I got kind of tapped to kind of be on stage, you know, at that moment, that snapshot in time. It was eleven miles from what I knew and the only thing I knew up until that point, but it was uniquely its own world for me. That wasn't the case for most of my high school friends. It was thirteenth grade for most of them. They all, eventually, kind of grew out of that, but not like I did. I mean, we had seminal, different experiences in attending the same university and it was wonderful. I mean, I'm a very Alma mater of my time. It really hurts me to know that that time doesn't exist for the current generation of students. I totally get it as a college administrator. I totally get it. I even thought, as a student, I was like, "God, this is so inefficient that like each school has their own thing, does their own thing their own way when we're all talking about these budget cuts and crises and can't get into the classes." I was like, "You can trim some of the fat by, you know, figuring some of this out." If I draw on my experience as a student, it feels like they swung the pendulum too far in the other direction--just abandoning pretty much all that what are the benefits of the college system, other than Douglas. I mean, Douglas was kind of the one protected college because of women. I think, actually, you know, had Livingston evolved to still be a prominent college for minority and underrepresented students it would have been preserved too, but it didn't. It lost and shed some of that progressiveness of its founding and just turned into another, you know, undergraduate college that just looked like Rutgers College, just on an uglier campus with worse landscaping.
SI: Let me pause for a second.
SI: We talked a little bit about getting your master's degree from University of Georgia. Does anything stand out from that experience?
HK: Yes, it was absolutely amazing. It was the foundation that has kept me committed to a career path that I'm deeply passionate about. What I thoroughly enjoyed about my time at Georgia, it was interesting. So when you apply to programs in student affairs and higher education work back then, there weren't a lot of schools that taught the programs and it was a very small professional network. So, everyone knows what school you went to and things like that. More times, back then, when you went to school, you also were required to have a graduate assistantship working in some office around the university to get some practical experience with the academic, you know, curriculum. So you went on the interview circuit to these universities to apply to graduate school and the assistantships. I remember, you know, I applied to about eight or nine different graduate schools and I interviewed in person at about five or six of them. Every school you went to they always asked, "Well, what are the schools that you applied to and what other jobs or assistantships are you looking at?" You know, my experiences at Rutgers were largely student activities based. But, mathematically, more of the graduate assistantships were in housing and residence life, being RAs or resident directors and stuff like that. So, I tried to kind of get my foot into that door even though that wasn't the direct lineage of my experience. I was never an RA on campus at Rutgers. I had offers for assistantships, but they were for kind of lower positions then. You know, they weren't graduate resident directors. It was like a graduate RA, you know, and it didn't give me a full scholarship. It gave me a partial scholarship.
Then when I went to the University of Georgia, I applied to this fairly unique graduate assistantship in the housing department which was the graduate assistant for staffing development and special projects and it was kind of this hodgepodge of a lot different experiences. So I did leadership programs which I tied in with the LCGA. I was involved in marketing and communication, which I tied in with the Targum and the yearbook. I did staff recruitment and selection and training, which I tied into my work with APO and pledge classes and things like that. So I applied for this assistantship and the person who I would work for was this prominent name in higher education that I didn't know his name, Vernon Wall. He's a preeminent kind of, you know, figure in student affairs work and every school I went to on this interview circuit, you know, when I said I applied to the University of Georgia they were like, "Oh, my god. Did you meet the Vernon Wall?" And I'm like, "Not only did I meet him, I applied to be his graduate assistant." And it was weird when I had people at these other schools that were trying to recruit me to say, "If you get that job, you go to Georgia and you work for this man." And I'm like, "Who's this man?" I mean, I had an hour conversation with him when I went down there. Lo and behold, he picked me and I was like, "Alright. I'm going down South. I don't know who Vernon Wall is, but everyone else seems to know who he is." And I got free housing. [laughter] I had this neat job that was uniquely mine. You know, I wasn't one of twelve resident directors working in the department. I always like kind of being my own person, you know, and maybe that goes back to the Little League. Like, I was never part of a team. I was always kind of this independent, you know, little force and so the fit of this assistantship was ideal for me. Working in that department with the job that I had literally kind of like transformed why I do the work that I do because I had responsibilities where I worked with the director of University Housing, all the way to housekeeping supervisors, you know. I helped coordinate an English as a Second Language after work program for the housekeepers in our department. To have these like varied experiences all in between just introduced me to residence life and housing work as such a pivotal service in the collegiate setting, despite never being an RA. So, like twenty years later, I've spent my entire career in this arena all because of my time at Georgia and in that assistantship, in working for the Vernon Wall. He lives here in DC and so I still have good close relationships with him. I loved Georgia.
Everything that Rutgers wasn't, Georgia was. Rutgers was not big into sports and Georgia was this powerhouse in the SEC [Southeastern Conference]. Like, I remember, four years I was at Rutgers I actually went into the stadium once my senior year because I was covering it for the yearbook for someone who was sick. I remember going into my first football game at Georgia and like there's a hundred thousand people wearing red and black, screaming. They're also drunk off their butt and having this amazing shared collegiate experience. So where I had this very personalized and decentralized and kind of customized experience at Livingston and at Rutgers, I had this very like grandiose, big, shared experience at Georgia that just like exposed me to this whole other world of higher education at the same time and I loved it. I say quite easily I bleed red and black. It's convenient that both Rutgers and Georgia are red and black. [laughter]
SI: Your first job was at Southwest?
SI: Southwestern, sorry.
HK: Very small, private, religiously affiliated school in central Texas. What was interesting, so as I was finishing up my master's degree, the hiring process in student affairs work is very structured and centralized around two main professional associations, and actually March is the season when people get jobs. So these professional associations have annual conferences and part of those conferences, they're these job placement kind of situations. So, as I was preparing for my first job search, again, like with assistantships, probably seven out of every ten entry level jobs in student affairs work is in residence life and housing. While I worked in the housing department, I was not a traditional resident director. I found it challenging to translate my experiences into entry level jobs. What I was doing was actually more next person's job, but I needed to have that entry level experience. I also thought, as I was the product of two very large state institutions, that that's where I was going to naturally, professionally fit as my first job and so I interviewed at a lot of, you know, big state universities and I was like, "Something about this doesn't feel right." I was applying for resident director jobs and be like, "Oh, I'm going to be one of fifteen resident directors working in this department." I'm like, "I always kind of want to be my own little me," you know. So I, by slight happenstance, came across this job posting for Southwestern University for the assistant director for residence life. I knew the school only because one of my master's classmates did his undergrad there and so he used to talk about it in class a lot, but I never visited there, never went to the state of Texas before going out there to interview. Did a phone interview; it was fine. They invited me to campus and so I flew out there and I found myself on this really tiny little campus, that was really pretty, but it reminded me of Livingston in a lot of ways. It was this small little environment. It was about twelve- or thirteen hundred students and the position was being created because they were building a new apartment complex on campus and adding to their on campus population and so they used to have one position and they were now creating it into two. But it was a job with a co-lateral assignment. So I was being hired in residence life with this co-lateral assignment to also work in career services, and I was like, "I've never done that." I said, "Okay, this will be an opportunity for me to get this whole new experience working in career services"--helping people with resume writing, preparing people for interviews--and that was something I felt that I could actually do well. So I was like, "I'm taking this job." And it was actually because of that career services component that I found myself on this really small, religiously affiliated campus in central Texas, you know, two thousand miles from home or school and loved it and hated it in the same breathe. Ironically, the reason that I took the job was the reason I left the job was the career services component, because it was ill-conceived as a structure of what they thought they needed. It was a rocky road in making that work both for me as the employee and for them as the institution. So my job was created and eliminated in the same year because my res life job ... was defined basically, like an eighty-twenty split. Eighty percent would be res life and twenty percent would be there that I would be working on kind of what I said, resume critiquing and interview skills. So that's what they sold me when I applied for the job.
Then, when I accepted the job, when they sent me my hiring paperwork, it was then defined seventy-thirty. When I got on the campus, it turned to sixty-[forty]. Then, when the students arrived in September, it was fifty-fifty, but nothing was shed in my res life world. So, I still had an eighty-percent res life job, but had to work literally half of my day in career services, and was only permitted to unlock the door, turn on the lights, make the coffee, answer the phone and take messages. I was not permitted to talk with a student beyond scheduling appointments. I was not permitted to do any of the things that I thought I would be in helping with workshops and events and stuff like that, all the way to the point that there was a point maybe in like November where one of the staff people had called out sick--it was a small office, too. It was like four professional staff. One person had called out sick. One person was at a conference and the other person was like really busy. These students had come in for these appointments for the person who was out sick and I was like, "I can help you reschedule them," stuff like that. They're all freaking out because they're like, "I have to get this application in," for something or other. And I was like, "Well, what do you need help with?" So, they said a couple things. I was like, "Oh, we have these resources here in the resource room. Here's some, you know, brochures. Here's some things that'll help you out." You know, no problem. I thought I was just being helpful. I got reprimanded and documented for exceeding my authority in working with those students and I was just like, "We're done here. Like, this is not working."
SI: Where did you go?
HK: As I said, my job created and eliminated in the same year. Thankfully, though, they decided to give me the courtesy to tell me in like February that they were not going to renew my position. So, I was able to still participate in like the normal cycle of jobs. I was like, "Okay, I need to go back to more familiar territory," so I started looking at bigger state and private schools that were kind of more like Rutgers and Georgia. I ended up interviewing at a bunch of schools. I was down to a decision between Syracuse University and Virginia Tech, and I ended up choosing to go to Syracuse. Both were elevated jobs, professionally, so it was actually a really good move where like most people that had that job had like three or four years of professional work under their belt. I got it after one, which I think said a lot about my capabilities that they saw in hiring me that kind of young in that role. So I moved from Texas to upstate New York. So I went, literally, from like, you know, ninety-degree climate to snow, you know, seven months, eight months out of the year--loved Syracuse, ironic. One month after I arrived, our department got a new director and his first initiative on putting his stamp on being the director was, "I'm going to restructure the department." And my job was completely restructured. Originally, it was supposed to be a five-year phase-in to take what was kind of a mid-level manager--we were called complex directors--and replace them with entry level, master's resident directors in every building. So I had a complex of several buildings, the largest freshman complex at Syracuse and it was kind of the animal house complex and I loved it, absolutely loved it. Unfortunately, though, that plan kind of like got sped up because all of my peers who had been at Syracuse two, three and four years were just like, "We're out of here." So, after that first year, only two of us stayed and his plans went from a five-year phase-in to two.
That second year that I worked at Syracuse, our department actually operated in two structures, all of these new people in these other positions, and then me and this other person and the other person was kind of turned into somewhat of eight different roles. So it was kind of me and then all of the staff that were kind of leftover were kind of lumped under me. So it was this very interesting environment at the time, because it was kind of like new school and old school--the way the director wanted it and the way the director inherited it. Professionally, I always disagreed with his approach to how he made those decisions because I felt like he focused on wanting to create a clean organizational chart over looking at the people who were actually contributing to doing good work on that campus. It really disenfranchised a lot of very good people, most of whom actually left the profession because of that. I stuck it out. That person is also very prominent in my field and all these years later, you know, I felt a sense of redemption when he departed from Syracuse and the next person brought back the old model, because it actually worked better for the institution and served the students better. I was like, I knew that back then from my own professional experience, but I had no power or influence to change that course of action. I think if that didn't play out the way it did, I may have spent my entire career at Syracuse, because it was such a wonderful and dynamic professional environment to work at. It was really, really hard to, I mean, in essence, really be forced out of that place.
SI: How long were you there?
HK: Only two years. That's actually where I had come out and came to terms with being gay. I know I was ready and able to do that at that point in my life because it was such a supportive professional environment as well as also a supportive environment for our students. What actually, I think, prevented me from coming to terms with my sexuality until later in life is that the people who I met earlier in my life, the James Dales, the Vernon Walls, other people from graduate school, amazing people and I love them all and they all played very important roles in my life, but I didn't identify with their experiences of being gay. I felt like I had a uniquely different experience that wasn't being represented by their world. James was all about the political activism of his sexual identity. Vernon, you know, as a side kind of interest used to perform in drag, and still does, actually, you know. Those were not things that I resonated with, with regard to my sexual orientation. It wasn't actually until I was in Syracuse, where I had an RA on my staff who was a little bit older than a traditional undergrad student, who was a junior at the time, and extremely popular on campus, extremely well-liked by his other RAs and student leaders and things like that, and totally kind of open as a gay male student and also appeared like he kind of stepped out of a J Crew catalog--preppy, not well off, but I mean like well put together--and I saw him and saw his experiences about being an open gay male student leader on that campus and largely fully accepted by that campus community, and he was truly the first person that I felt like I see pieces of myself in him that, in retrospect, know is pivotal in me in understanding my own sexual identity. An RA, kind of crazy, I mean, he worked for me, you know. He probably has no idea. I mean, I think I told him after the fact, but he was so transformative in my life in ways that he had no way in the moment to appreciate.
SI: You had what we'll call a revelation. Then you came out to your coworkers at the same time, so it was all at the same time.
HK: Yes, and it was so funny too, because when I started to kind of come to terms with it, the first person that I actually verbalized it to was one of my coworkers in the residence life department who was also in my wedding party, Karen. We were out to dinner at the Red Lobster and over eating our cheddar biscuits I was like, "I'm gay. Can I have a biscuit?" And she's like, "I know. Here's your biscuit." And everyone knew and I didn't know. It was really nice that they were like, one they were all supportive of me coming out, but two, they were all like, "You needed to come to that journey yourself." They didn't force it. They didn't push it. They just were there to support me and as I had all those conversations that all kind of resonated. Like, very few people, other than my girlfriend [laughter] was surprised by my coming to terms. I laugh about saying that and I shouldn't because I was involved with a woman from undergrad, from Rutgers and in a long distance relationship for a number of years and I hurt her deeply. I still, to this day, believe that I was not intentional in hurting her. She believes differently--that if you're gay, you know you're gay and if you're not, you know you're not. For me, after I left college and we kind of started kind of this long distance relationship, I always in my head used to rationalize the problems that I was feeling in our relationship, not feeling kind of the degree of intimacy that I thought I should with a partner, not feeling fully comfortable with the sexual experience with that partner. I always in my head rationalized it on it's because we're in a long distance relationship and it would be different if we were together, you know, seeing each other. The year I lived in Texas I saw her for eleven days that calendar year and in those eleven days we were pretty much preoccupied with her family around holidays. So, while I was committed to her and she was to me, you know, being in that long distance relationship also kind of was like a safe space for me not to confront my own feelings of my sexual identity. We don't talk anymore and it was very hard on her. We tried being friends after the fact and you know, she ultimately came to kind of the belief system that I had to have always known. I always came to the position that we both knew and felt that there were problems with our relationship and she didn't own her problems too because we both felt that there was, you know, issues with our intimacy, but like, we never talked about it, you know. Or we both felt that there was, you know, issues with our intimacy, but like we never talked about it, you know. Or we both, you know, felt like, you know, things, but we didn't talk about it until when I was at Syracuse. One of the reasons I took the job at Syracuse versus Virginia Tech is because it was closer to her. So while I knew we would still be long distance, we were only about three hours apart versus three thousand miles apart or two thousand miles apart. So when I was at Syracuse, we actually saw each other pretty much every other weekend. Then I started to have to confront it actually isn't the long distance, because now we're seeing each other more frequently and spending time privately together and something's not right, or what it should be, or all that it could be. So, all of those things kind of came to head at the expense of that relationship. I've never hurt a person more in my life I don't think. It actually makes me really sad that she was the most important person in my life up until that point and I will go to my grave regretting how that kind of played out the way it did so. Sorry.
SI: Do you want to take a break?
HK: No, no I'm good. I haven't thought about that or her in a little bit. It was really hard too, because not only did I hurt her, but as a way for her to kind of deal with that hurt she not only cut me out of her life, but every single mutual friend that we shared she just cut out of her life for many, many, many years. I'm sorry that like that happened to her and I never felt like I was intentionally deceiving her. So, I still, you know, Facebook-stalk her and you know, like try to find her and stuff like that. I know we'll never be in each other's lives again and I don't know what her history has been these past probably, you know, eighteen, twenty years, but I love her still.
SI: Well, let's go back.
SI: This job at Syracuse kind of wrapped up. Was that when you went to Temple University?
HK: No, there was a job in the middle, Dickinson College in central Pennsylvania. What was interesting with that life choice is, so when I was at Syracuse, you know the job was eliminated, I had just come out. I, again, was faced with another job search very early in my career, but oddly I was very capable of taking another jump in my career and I was now interviewing for jobs where most people had like five to seven years of experience under their belt and this was only my third year. I remember being down to two final decisions, to take a lateral position--almost the identical job at NYU--or to take this director of residence life and judicial programs at Dickinson College, and I allowed my professional ego to drive that decision instead of my personal needs as a newly out, single, gay male. I could have moved to Greenwich Village and I chose not to do that at the expense of wanting to progress in my career--worst decision of my life, probably the darkest sixteen months of my life.
I was sold on the job at Dickinson because they were saying they wanted a change agent. They felt like they had a residence life program that was old and dusty and really antiquated and really something they weren't proud of, and they had a judicial system that was very inefficient, not responsive and had no accountability systems for students and a lot of kind of really bad behavior that just wasn't being addressed. Those were things that in my time at Syracuse, I had mentioned, I had the animal house complex. I made with my supervisor and my team that worked under me, like we transformed the culture of that animal house into a much [more] positive living environment for those freshman and so that was kind of like my stamp at Syracuse and the hallmark that I was bringing to my next job. So I was very attracted by the notion that I could actually make change and not just do what I was already doing just somewhere else. So, I was like, "Okay, I'm moving to central Pennsylvania. I'm not going to think a minute about the personal sacrifice of moving to a very small town in a kind of conservative region as a new gay male."
My immediate boss who was the associate dean was amazing--this wonderful intellectual, had a fantastic student affairs pedigree, went to all the top masters and doctoral schools, you know, for her education, had this fantastic relationship with her. She had an extremely tenuous relationship with the dean which I didn't realize right away, but started to get slivers or it very quickly. The associate dean was the driver of the want for the change, but the dean was very happy with the status quo. So, they rubbed raw very badly and I kind of ended up associated with my boss. So I was a part of the bad element in the eyes of the dean. Simultaneously, the only year that I was at Dickinson, the president announces retirement. The college started a process to hire a new president. This was the first time I truly got exposure to the true politics of higher education, and as a director of residence life at a small liberal arts college where all the students lived on campus I actually had a position of some influence. I was a part of the president's council and went to monthly faculty meetings of the college, which were all these new experiences for me which I was really excited about. But I was also incredibly underprepared for the politics after really only having three years of professional experience under my belt despite being in this director role.
So the college announced the new president. The new president was coming from [Johns] Hopkins [University] and he did start July 1. Well, his first kind of, you know, action as the incoming president, some random day in the spring, before he was even technically the seated president, the trustees allowed him to, basically, terminate the entire development area of the college and he brought this whole team from Hopkins with him. I'm sure that was all worked out, you know, from the beginning, just not transparent. Well, when you work at a little college campus and you terminate a quarter of the professional administration staff in feel swoop, everyone's on pins and needles and, you know, the rumors after that happened was student life is next. This president has ideas and they're not in line with where we're at and so the dean, one day after commencement, sacked my boss and tried to use her as the scapegoat for what was the problems of the existing programs and services, when in reality it was the programs and the services that the dean was maintaining status quo on were the problems. The associate dean, my boss, was trying to be the positive change agent and lost her job and left the field because of that experience.
Overnight, I began to report to three different deans who were all jockeying for their new power and influence with the incoming president. One, I'm sure probably trying to protect their own asses, and two, just trying to like figure out what did this new president want. To the extent that a night in July, it was so stressful I ended up in the hospital with a bleeding ulcer and spent the first night of my life sleeping in a hospital bed by myself with no support network around me in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in a miserable job, with no social life, no dating life, and I just said to myself, "There isn't a paycheck in the world that is worth what is happening to me right now." And I mentally made the decision at that moment, I'm leaving this place. Like and I'm also not going to do what I did the last time and I'm not going to listen to my professional voice with this job search now. I was like, I wanted to stay in student affairs and higher education, but I'm like, "Screw it. I'm moving where I'm going to have, you know, a fabulous gay single life in a big city and if I so happen to be able to land a job at a university or a job that actually aligns with my experiences to date, great, but I'm not going to force that." What also was driving that simultaneously too was when I initially started that next job search I was only three years into my professional career. I was already a director. I was now applying for, interviewing, and competing for assistant dean jobs and director jobs at big schools.
I remember this quite vividly, that I was a finalist for the assistant dean of students at the University of Delaware, running their judicial services area. It was down to me and one or two other candidates. The dean of students, when he called me to tell me I was not getting the job, he was like, "I need you to hear how impressed we were with you and I need you to understand that you were not only competing, but you exceeded people who have ten and fifteen years of experience and have doctoral degrees. You not only held your own," like, "you really made it a hard conversation." That happened actually three more times at other universities for similar like kind of assistant dean and director roles. I said, "Okay, I'm not going to be able to advance this next move and I'm probably also not ready to advance even though these people are seeing actually true promise in my professional capabilities." So I just kind of said I'm going to do this real differently and I ended up finding Temple [University], largely because I said, "Alright, I'm moving into Philly because it's close to Jersey where still a lot of my family and personal networks were. It's close to my ex-girlfriend, who her extended family for all the years that we were together while we were no longer together, was my family as well and so they still welcomed me even though we were not together as a couple." I never lived in a city before and I was like, "I could navigate Philadelphia, you know." Manhattan and New York City, when I was presented with the idea of going to NYU, was actually a little bit too big and scary for me at that time in my life.
I found this job at Temple and it was moving out of the residence life realm and doing the housing administration, so putting heads on beds, budget, you know, like administrative moving parts. Very much nine to five, you know, but still in the environment I knew and I got, and like I understood the conversations around the table, but just very different conversations. I absolutely made that move to Temple not because I wanted to run housing lotteries, or like, you know, other things, but because I wanted to have this fabulous single gay life in a urban center. That ended up being a very strategic professional move for me, because it exposed me to the business side of higher education and the political side of higher education in an environment that I was not responsible or directly engaged in the politics, but tangentially had to work with and around them. So, where I failed at Dickinson in not having that experience I was able to accumulate and amass it at Temple in a way to be quite successful in navigating that world. Where you don't see in the programmatic and development side of residence life stuff, usually, but it's front and center in that side. It was never intentional as a career move for me, but it was pivotal in framing who I am today as a professional.
The other element about my time at Temple was it wasn't a great fit. It actually was a very tenuous professional work environment to work under, but my old boss from Syracuse, who knew my whole story and stuff like that, she said, "You're moving around too much." She's like, "I know it's not by your design." But she's like, "You got to stay somewhere because there is tremendous importance to understand the longevity and the evolution of working in a department and working at an institution." So I ended up working at Temple for five years and it was actually a fairly hard five years. I grew tremendously from it, but it never felt like an ideal fit for me. I always figured out how to make it work, and definitely elevated kind of the programs, but it was a lot of kind of bucking heads. But I kind of didn't care as much. Like, I was able to have this fabulous gay life, met my husband now there, formed this incredible social life outside of my job, so I was quite comfortable in saying, "I'm collecting a paycheck. I'm doing good work, but this time's about me." And so when I was ready to leave--and what prompted leaving Philadelphia and leaving Temple was actually my husband, boyfriend at the time, who was finishing his doctorate work at Penn where we were kind of embarking on a dual career move, kind of simultaneously, where he was literally starting his career and I was trying to progress with my career. Within the span of about two-and-a-half weeks apart, an opportunity that presented itself to him in DC and an opportunity presented itself to me to come to GW [George Washington University] and the stars kind of aligned, not perfect, but pretty close to perfect that both brought us here to DC and ten years later, you know, still here.
SI: You've had a long career in this field. What are some of the biggest changes that you've seen? You mentioned one earlier, the amentias, how much more there are.
HK: Yes, yes. The most transformative difference in higher education or student affairs, the student affairs side of higher education during my career has been the evolution of technology. When I went to Rutgers I didn't have an email account. I got my first email account at Georgia and I'm like, "What do I do with this. I don't need to use it. I talk to people. I call them on the phone. We have an in -person meeting." But obviously, the way technology has evolved and transformed how students and individuals interact and engage with people has been both the most interesting and the most challenging pieces of my professional career. I do firmly believe that I see this turning around in the past three or four years, but if you were to ask me about five to six years ago, where we were at the height of the helicopter parent, where we were at the absolute height of, in housing, the full-on amenities race of like customer service, customer service, customer service at the expense of the educational, you know. Early in my career we used to mediate roommate conflicts and now we solve them as customer service issues. We change your room, you know. Like those types of life lessons learned that were lost are now starting to circle back in different ways because I think finally technologies in the present are more two directional or multidirectional rather than one directional. So, whereas, you know, ten years ago, twelve years ago, the technologies were all about pushing information out, websites, blogs, Wikipedia. Well, I guess Wikipedia's not an example because that's collaborative, but like, it was one directional. Now technologies with Facebook, with blogs, with virtual environments there is more collaboration. So, I feel like there is the opportunity to revisit life lessons learned through a new lens.
That, actually, is what kind of excites me kind of about the next horizon of my career. Because I feel like that's finally gain some traction in some more meaningful ways, where five to seven years ago I was kind of starting to become disillusioned by kind of the staunch kind of customer service positions as well as the aggressive nature of students and parents and how they were choosing to engage higher education as a field. Parents are not as difficult or challenging anymore. They see themselves back again as partners. They're more willing, I think, to allow their kids to own their problems again. Whereas seven to ten years ago, you know, the evolution of the soccer mom is that, you know, I'm going to fix everything for my kid. Everyone won. Everyone got an award. Everyone got a trophy. My kid's special about everything they do. Well, they're not. You know, the millennials today are learning they're not all special. They all can't get a job right out of college. Their paths and journeys for the next chapter aren't always so absolute anymore. I'm so happy that that is happening, because it's helping them to grow into stronger, more independent people, with value systems and ideas that are still progressive and creative and innovative and interesting. I kind of feel like, you know, the kids from seven to ten years ago, they're kind of lost. I'm kind of scared to see them evolve through the next twenty or thirty years because, they're going to be the ones contributing if Social Security still like exists when I am at that point. They were kind of a nightmare. [laughter] A lot of people of my age left student affairs and higher education work because they were just that difficult and that draining and that exhausting to want to work with. So it's really nice for me. These are my own observations or my own personal professional opinions, like to see changes in the student culture and the student experience and how they chose to want to interact, you know, with the university that they're attending. So it makes me look really excited about the prospects about what the next chapter will be for me, so.
SI: Is there anything else you'd like to tell me about your career?
HK: I'm really interested in what the next chapter will be, you know. I've been here at GW for ten years and I've been in the same position for ten years, although our department's reorganized four times and I would say no two years have ever been the same. It's been a tremendous professional experience and I've contributed a lot to really evolve the programs here, but I've also largely had to or have had to stay in my current career because I'm also supporting my husband. He works in the federal government, so his career is here, so our household is here. So the opportunities to advance in my career, priorities have been more limited and more difficult for me to make that next move. I've had very open and honest conversations with my immediate boss about those personal realities and he's been tremendously supportive to continue to make my experience new and fresh and give me different responsibilities to continue to help me grow even though I keep on serving in the same capacity. So, professionally, I've learned how to quite well navigate middle management when you stay in middle management for a long time. You know, a lot of people in middle management just begin to call it in and get kind of, you know, disillusioned about the rewards of professional life as the rewards of personal life kind of start to take a greater priority.
My husband and I don't presently have kids. We're actually looking into that and pursuing that, but like, some of the traditional markers of mid-life responsibilities outside of your profession, I think gay couples don't uniformly always have. I think more gay couples tend to naturally latch on their profession for reward systems, you know. I've not been able to do that in the way that professional advancement has been that reward, so it has been professional diversification that has kind of been, you know, the reward systems for me. Then actually kind of like creating a something here that has really allowed me to transform the experience of a very small group of student leaders every year, which brings me back to Rutgers and Livingston.
As an administrator, I took all of the elements of what I had at Livingston with the relationships and the access to the administrators and the support and the resources to do quality work and created something here that every year I hire to work in my office a group of about ten students. The role that we've created here and I know I didn't do it alone, but it was my idea and it's been my kind of baby to grow and to nurture in my tenure here for the about sixty, seventy students that have served in that role has transformed their lives exponentially and creating that here is how I gave back to my roots and my time at Rutgers in a very concrete way. So, many of those students from GW that served in that role were at my wedding. I went to, you know, have drinks with one of them last night from 2008 who, you know, was working in the Yemeni Embassy for the State Department up until the embassy closed. One of them is a medical doctor for the Navy. Another's a lawyer for the IRS. I mean, they're doing these profound things with their lives and I take tremendous pride that so many of them relate back their time working in my office as getting them to achieve to where they are because that's exactly what I had and felt and could connect from my time at Livingston. So, you know, in a lot of ways I feel like professionally, I've finally been able to come full circle as a student being supported and now being able to serve in that capacity in such a transformative way is why I've chosen to stay in this field. It's not for the money. It's not for glory or the glamour. I still think I would have been an amazing architect, but instead of kind of inspiring people by a structure, I've inspired people by the individuals I've been to groom and mentor, so.
SI: Thank you very much. I appreciate all your time today.
SI: You answered all my questions.
HK: Yes, this was super interesting. I know I went into a lot of tangents and off stories and stuff like that. I'll be curious to see how it kind of [turns out]. Well, do you edit it?
SI: I'll tell you more afterwards. Thank you again.
HK: Thank you.
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Reviewed by Juli McDonald 10/10/2014
Reviewed by William Buie 2/22/2017
Reviewed by Harry Knabe 9/13/2019