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a new breeze and a new direction

BY JUSTIN HAMPTON

There is a very long story that is summed up in two words. Here’s the short and sweet of it: I QUIT! 

Okay, okay, hold up before you flood your hearts with judgment and criticisms of how I’m running away from social responsibility or abandoning the kids that look up to me so much. Give me a chance to explain why. 

Last July the brother of a Tuskegee classmate of mine accompanied a volunteer group down to CGM for a few days to assist in their service project on our campus. It was my first time meeting him face to face, but the Facebook chats and profile pictures I’d seen of him clued me in on one thing about him; he worked at Harvard.

As you can imagine, a position at a university of that magnitude raised all sorts of questions on my end. Many of which were addressed in our conversation. He told me about his position and the potential for people to apply to that position. He shared how it affords him and his family the chance to live on campus and avoid the hefty rent prices of the local Boston area, all while serving as administration and pursuing a graduate degree.

My response to him was, “I’d love to do something like that.”

To which said, “Really? Because Harvard needs people just like you!”

Later I found out that he said that to many other people besides me, but in my naivety I just believed him. His small statement led to what became a yearlong pursuit of admittance into a school that has a 95% rejection rate. His little paradigm shattering statement that made me believe I was more valuable to them than they were to me, initiated months of GRE prep, essay writing, resume polishing, personal visits, phone calls, test taking, emailing, and prayer, that each would log in an entire book chapter should I divulge the details of God’s hand throughout. Suffice it to say, I applied in December 2014 with a GRE score that was comparable to Harvard grad students so I was at least hopeful. 

Now I had to figure out how it was going to get paid for. I began researching ways to fund an education that would tally an excess of $50,0000 per year and came across a fellowship provided by the former owner of BET. America’s first black female billionaire, Ms. Sheila C. Johnson had, just one year prior to my application, established a scholarship that was designed for “under-represented groups that are seeking to close disparities in under-served communities.” It was like she was looking at my CGM profile and made a scholarship just for me. One that could potentially cover tuition and my health insurance for the duration of my Masters in Public Administration program. 

The fellowship had its own criteria. Essays, personal CV, face to face interview, recommendations, and a process that shaved down their applicant pool from over 400 to only an eventual four chosen fellows for the 2015-2016 school year. Again, because I felt like my background and current work fit their expectations so perfectly, it seemed as if it was meant to be. So… I applied for that, too. 

The limbo between both application deadlines and being accepted or rejected was a little nerve racking. With the admission application due in December and the fellowship application due in February, I didn’t have much downtime between the latter and the early March release of the school’s decision. I waited in eager anticipation, prayer, fasting, and an unusual calm more akin to a kid who knows Christmas is in the morning and that something good is under the tree. 

I was at work on March 11, when my email from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government admissions committee came with the headline, “update to your admission status.” I knew exactly what the link in that email was going to direct me to: a day of exuberant celebration, or one of disappointment and re-strategizing my family’s future. I called my wife and said, “Baby, I think this is it, it's yes or no.”

With her on the phone I clicked the link that sent me to a video where the headline and the first words of the video were the same: CONGRATULATIONS!! I erupted in the office with shouts like my team had just won the Super Bowl. I high-fived my coworkers, accidentally hung up on my wife, and within seconds was back in my chair streaming tears of pure joy and gratitude toward my heavenly Father. I put my head down on my desk for a few minutes and just wept. It was an emotion unlike any other. One that brought together both the climax of the hard work I’d put into the application process and the personal development I’d undergone at CGM through no compulsion of my own. I realized in that moment that my qualifications were intellectual, professional, and academic. However, my application was approved not so much by a large committee assessing my life and character, but by a committee of one. I know I’m not Jesus but in that moment it felt like God was saying, “This is my son in whom I am well pleased.” It was a deep affirmation knowing that ultimately God opened this door and it was He who really thought me worthy of the opportunity.

The trials, losses, failures, triumphs, relationships, programs, and personalities that have poured into me intentionally and unintentionally over the course of the last four and half years had qualified me. Every death or imprisonment of a student, every victory, every graduation, every day was a classroom, training ground, and an experience that was unlike anything else Harvard had seen. That’s no credit to me. I didn’t create the circumstances. I just tried to learn from them. 

A few weeks after getting this life changing news another email arrived. It was news that I was a finalist for the fellowship. They flew me, along with 13 other applicants, up for personal interviews with a panel that grilled us with questions in the quickest interview I’d ever been in. During which time another interesting revelation occurred to me. I hadn't been on a competitive interview since college because I’d always worked in places no one else wanted to go. Strangely this revelation gave me the freedom to just “do me.” I could be myself knowing that truly this wasn’t a competition per se. It was just them, getting to know me. And when they asked me about a time my program didn’t work, and the ensuing explanation of the loss of one of my kids brought tears to my eyes and to the eyes of one of the panelists, the facade of professionalism was broken for the remainder of my 20 minutes. I was a bit embarrassed having cried in my interview. I emailed them a thank you for the opportunity and an apology if I was too unprofessional. But, in spite of my emotional response they must have liked me, because when financial aid decisions came out, they awarded me the fellowship. 

So basically The LORD has given me admittance to arguably one of the most prestigious schools on the planet, and paid every scholarly expense and then some. IT’S CRAZY!! All that to say, my time at CGM is quickly coming to a close. My family and I are slated to move in June with classes beginning in July. By this time next year I, the middle school bible study guy, will be finishing up a Mid-Career Masters in Public Administration degree alongside classmates that are current international diplomats, government officials, former special forces, and future prime ministers and presidents. What specifically the Lord has in store for me is anyone’s guess. All I know is that at this point it is pointless to doubt the possibilities. 

Please celebrate with my family and I, but most of all pray for our transition and for the transition of CGM and the youth that my heart is so attached to. God has amazing things in store both for me and for all of them. But for now I must humbly, and with mixed emotion, submit my letter of resignation to an organization that has indelibly shaped my life and destiny.

Thank you Common Ground Montgomery, you and the people that comprise your heartbeat will never be forgotten.