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The Pathway To Freedom
When asked, ‘How did you achieve your work ethic?’, the answer was simple: I can trace it back to my childhood. The earliest memory was cleaning houses of the wealthy with my grandmother. As a teenager; earning 50 cents an hour to clean hallways and laundromats; getting a work permit as soon as I was old enough; working a summer job during high school at what was then the Retreat State Hospital. My responsibility was to escort patients from the overactive ward to school.
I studied into the wee hours of the night to excel in class. I sold shoes in the local mall and spending the money just as quickly as I earned it for new clothes. I figured out how to get back and forth to class to Penn State Wilkes-Barre almost twenty miles from home even though I did not own a car. I was a banquet waitress during high school and a maid in the Poconos during Summer break to pay tuition to Penn State in the Fall. Let’s not forget selling Christmas cards door to door and being an Avon lady.
Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania had a long history of being a coal mining town. Embedded in the culture were stories of the work ethic of the men who were miners and their willingness to do the work that was necessary to support their families. If you want something, work for it! I knew what I wanted and I was willing to work for it! That spirit of commitment has never left. It’s one thing to dream and believe that dreams can come true. However, are you willing to put in the time, the hours, the investment, and the work to achieve the goal?
The more I was exposed to, the more I began to understand what was possible. June, Johnny and Aunt Minnie were clear there was one destination: graduation from high school and a college degree as the end game. Anything below a B was an unacceptable grade, at least in June’s house. Everyone was clear - education was the pathway to freedom. That’s not to say a few C’s didn’t come home! Let it suffice to be known it wasn’t a pretty site. For the most part, meeting their expectations was easy. I loved school!
My decision to attend Penn State University was solely based on seeing Larry Graham and Graham Central Station in concert at University Park. My guidance counselor had chosen a small college for women in the same geographic area of Harvard. In her mind, we were small town girls who at the end of four years should leave with not only a degree, but a husband from Harvard! She completely ignored the fact I may have wanted Harvard! Oh well, off to visit my dear friend, Vina, at Penn State.
The concert was more than I could have imagined! Once I got back to Wilkes-Barre, I was Penn State bound. Vina connected me with John Murphy, Dean of Student Affairs at Penn State Wilkes-Barre who guided me through the admissions process. Next stop was the University Park Educational Opportunity Program the summer after graduation, Penn State Wilkes-Barre year one and the next three years at University Park. I left with a Bachelor of Science in Education of Exceptional Children with a focus on autistic and schizophrenic children. Connecting the dots, this began with the summer job at Retreat State Hospital.
One of my fondest memories of Penn State Wilkes-Barre was going to class in a mansion, especially economics! Little did I know that one day my office would be in the very mansion where my education began. What makes this really crazy I would be hired by the same Dean of Student Affairs, John Murphy. While at University Park I could be found studying in the stacks of Pattee Library located directly across the street from the college of education. I loved the stacks.
With my Penn State degree in hand, Elwyn Institute, here I come! Elwyn was my first choice for student teaching and immediately after graduation they offered me the opportunity to work full time. Media, Pennsylvania became home. I no longer had a job - I had a career in education! Media was small and quaint with easy access to Philadelphia via train. I loved suburban life!
Media, Pennsylvania transitioned to Chester Springs and an 86 acre horse farm! I fed goats in the morning before I went to teach school and mucked the horse stalls when I got home! How did this season unfold? Easy answer: I married a man who loved horses and graduated from Penn State with a degree in agriculture. Mornings and evenings I would walk across the property with Shabazz, our Irish Setter and on Saturdays, watched the Arabian Horses come to train. We were in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania and it was and still is the epitome of horse country! Can you say Grand Adventure?
When we returned to Northeastern Pennsylvania, I decided to attend an alumni meeting at Penn State Wilkes-Barre hosted by John Murphy, the Dean of Student Affairs. That meeting turned into being offered a position with Penn State as a coordinator of Financial Aid! Sometimes you don’t know how simply showing up can take on a deeper meaning in life. I remember jokingly saying, ‘The only thing I knew about financial aid was how to receive it’, to which he replied, “We Are...Penn State! We can teach you anything!” Oh my goodness, my office was now in Hayfield House, the mansion where it all began! The rest is history!
I could have never imagined that showing up at an alumni meeting would lay the foundation for the recruitment and retention of minority students for Penn State Wilkes-Barre as part of my responsibilities. Going to my first Convocation and meeting Dr. W. Terrell Jones was a game changer. Not only did I not know what the word convocation meant, I had never seen a facilitator. It was incredible how he used a stack of index cards to convey the Penn State plan for diversity to the entire campus! I was hooked! Did I mention I followed him to the parking lot insistent on my commitment to the Penn State plan and that I would follow him anywhere? This dear man allowed me to enter his world for the remainder of his life.
From the time we met to when Dr. W. Terrell Jones became the Vice Provost for Educational Equity at Penn State his true character remained the same. He was open, giving, accessible and willing to embrace the authentic Vera. Terrell Jones was a man of vision that strategically navigated the Penn State System and co-created with others the foundation for what is now the Penn State Plan for Diversity and Inclusion.
Because of Terrell Jones’ core values, I had the opportunity to serve on various university committees. Imagine the journey from an apartment covered in roaches to now sitting in Old Main, the center of decision making for the Penn State System. Because of his guidance, I had the opportunity to become deeply involved in the Pennsylvania Black Conference On Higher Education (PBCOHE) with both the annual conference and the Robert Lynch Student Leadership Conference. And yes, he did allow me to follow him everywhere! I wanted to be a facilitator. I credit him with learning how to create safe environments for authentic and sometimes fragile conversations. All this laid the foundation for my position as the first Director of Institutional Diversity at Harrisburg Area Community College. Even in my transition to entrepreneurship, he was the first advertiser in the Urban Connection.
Many years later, I looked up and he and his dear wife Carla were standing in the lobby of the Hershey Theater. They had come to enjoy An Evening With Buddy Guy. Amazingly we all loved the blues and had his support for the launch of Women In The Blues with my friend and colleague Michael Cloeren, founder and producer of the Pennsylvania Blues Festival. Most of all, I learned to embrace the impact one person can have in my life! It was a grand adventure having Dr. W. Terrell Jones as part of my Penn State journey and it continues today with Carla as my friend.
In the midst of developing an educational partnership between Penn State Wilkes-Barre and Proctor & Gamble, I came to an understanding of the importance of a Master’s Degree in my profession. With little hesitation I took an educational leave of absence and went to College Misericordia as a full time student. The Dean of the college worked with me to develop an independent course of study with two practical outcomes. The first was professional development for school districts addressing prejudice reduction in children based on the work of Gordon Allport and the second was creating the framework for a diversity institute. Approximately one year later, I graduated with a Master’s in Education with a specialization
in Multi-Cultural Curriculum Development. This degree paired with my course work in Design, Development, and Training at Penn State Great Valley I was ready to conquer the world! Back to Penn State to continue the journey.
When I read the ad in Black Issues In Higher Education, I knew this position was created for me. Preparation was about to meet opportunity!
I will always be in gratitude to Charles Peguese, Chair of the search committee for graciously guiding me through the interview process. Being hired as the first Director of Institutional Diversity at Harrisburg Area Community College meant life had come full circle. I now held a position with direct report to the president and with the goal being to impact diversity from an institutional perspective. My first college event with then President Mary Fifield was featuring Maya Angelou! Dr. Henry Louis Gates delivered the keynote of my first national conference and I purchased the first edition of The Norton Anthology Of African American Literature! I had grown up in high school reading cover to cover the Norton Anthology of Literature and had no knowledge of this depth of African American writers in prose and poetry even existed! I was like a kid in a candy store!
Make no mistake, during my season as the head of diversity at Harrisburg Area Community College, everyone was not overjoyed about the changes that were taking place. It is amazing how many people can be engaged when you focus on the positive and treat others with respect. We strengthened existing structures, created mini-grants for faculty to diversify curriculum, developed student leadership programs, and brought students together with other campuses from across the state to create support networks. A Multi-Cultural Advisory Committee was launched and a series of breakfast meetings with the president took place. The intention was requesting churches and community leaders to deliver the message of total access to education. Why? Then President Mary Fifield made it a priority to engage the communities closest to the college.
As with any form of change there are those who are not on board and will test your resolve to be steadfast in what you believe. One such memory was an evening that we returned to the campus and the bathrooms in the president’s wing were painted with swastikas. We immediately went strategic and used this as an educational opportunity for the college. We collaborated with all faculty involved with police training on campus, the Pennsylvania State Police Heritage Affairs Office, and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. The Cooper Student Center became a classroom with each of the collaborators bringing their full expertise of what it means to address hate in The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. With approximately three hundred students present we delivered a powerful message.
Three presidents later, I resigned my position. I remember lying on my back looking at the ceiling knowing I had to call Dr. Edna Baehre and tell her I could not sign my contract. She was leaving for a trip and I didn’t want her to return without knowing my decision. When she asked what had gone wrong, I told her absolutely nothing was wrong. I had simply heard from God. She asked me to meet her for coffee immediately upon her return. We met. I simply showed her my driver’s licenses. The difference between the two could not be denied. One was dark with shadows and the second was as if the sun itself was shining on me. The glow was incredible. I will always remember her saying, “I don’t have the same walk of faith as you, but let me support you on your journey.”
This dear woman only had one request and that was for me to announce at the college wide administrative staff meeting my resignation and explain why I was resigning. I was more than willing to do so, if she was comfortable allowing me to tell the truth that I had heard from God, recommitting my life to Christ and I was to take all the wisdom I had garnered over the years to the marketplace. She agreed and we both knew why. There are always those that want to create their own story and undermine the president.
That day was amazing! Standing with Dr. Baehre by my side I had the opportunity to share my incredible journey that education was my path to freedom and now it was time to take that message wherever God sent me. The meeting was held on the Harrisburg Campus and simulcast to other locations. This required spotlights focused on the podium! These two very different women are now both standing in the light and supporting each other. God does have a sense of humor! I was given the incredible opportunity to share my walk of faith and thank everyone who had supported the work that had taken place during my tenure at Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC) . Dr. Baehre’s support translated to the first Women of Heritage Breakfast taking place at the then Wildwood Conference Center. The new adventure had just begun!
Today I am grateful for the relationship that continues with HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College. I never take for granted having access to the president and members of the executive team of any organization. There are those that were members of the Multi-Cultural Advisory Committee that now serve in leadership positions: Deep C. Gupta, Board of Trustees and Timothy L. DeFoor, Chair, HACC Foundation Board. To now see the impact of the work of Warren R. Anderson, Vice President of Inclusion and Diversity and Linnie S. Carter, Vice President of College Advancement. I stand in awe. A special thank you to President John J. “Ski” Sygielski, for his relentless commitment to providing access to education for all students in Central Pennsylvania.
I truly believe education is a pathway to freedom and the more access the more opportunities one has in life.
Who Is Vera Cornish
Vera Cornish is a renowned speaker, publisher, and empowerment strategist! She is the first in her family to graduate high school, college and work in higher education. Her audiences and clients include individuals, colleges, universities, and corporations. Her presentations have included Dare To Dream, Branding You, The Power of Perseverance, and The Tenacity Of Leadership.
She is the founder of The Women Of Heritage Leadership Breakfast and the Access & Opportunity Breakfast Series. Companies and organizations that have utilized her expertise have included Giant Foods LLC., Highmark, The Hershey Company, Milton Hershey School, Capital BlueCross, Business Women’s Forum, Pennsylvania Women’s Conference, Talk Magazine, Michael Cloeren Productions, Hamilton Health Center and Hershey Entertainment & Resorts. In addition Vera is the publisher of The Urban Connection Central PA's leading publication for diversity, inclusion and multicultural news.
What people find amazing about Vera is the huge smile that exudes from the warmth of her spirit and the wisdom that flows freely! It is this very temperament that creates a judgment-free atmosphere for authentic conversations. Her interactive style is inspirational, thought-provoking, and transformational.
Vera is transparent that adversity and devastation are woven into the technicolor fabric of her life. Name it! She has most likely faced it! However, she firmly believes that devastation does not determine your destiny! With a gentle tenacity, she shares that every life experience formed the building blocks to create the woman she is today!
Because of Vera’s work, people identify their limiting beliefs, resolve inner conflicts, commit to taking action and become architects of concepts. They create new businesses, embrace their ability to lead, gain a keener understanding of grace under pressure and the power of perseverance. They find their voice and act on their dreams.
Vera is clear; everyone has a story. She invites you to ask the hard questions: Are you sitting in the back row of life knowing there are seats in front and center? Are you ready to let go of worry, doubt, and fear? Are you ready to be honest with yourself? Are you ready to live and work with an expectation of success?
For more information on Vera Cornish visit www.veracornish.com.