Campus & Community

The meaning of ‘bootstrap’

5 min read

Erby Mitchell's epiphanies brought him to a master's at HGSE – and beyond

Like many young New Yorkers, Erby Mitchell grew up with hoop dreams.

His passion for basketball didn’t take him to the NBA. But it did set him off on an unlikely road, from the public housing projects of Brooklyn to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, by way of a small Catholic liberal arts college in Maine.

With his new master’s degree in hand, Mitchell will return to Maine to pursue his new passion – “providing this elite education to underrepresented students.”

The message he tries to impart to young people of color: “Just because you’re raised in the ‘hood doesn’t mean you can’t go further, and remain who you are. That’s the core of diversity. That’s what it’s all about.”

In high school, Mitchell was good enough on the basketball courts to attract the attention of athletic recruiters. But he couldn’t qualify academically: His combined SAT score was just 670.

A turning point came when he and his family were arrested on their way to his high school graduation. “I got involved in a physical altercation,” he says, explaining that he had gone to the aid of his godmother, who was being beaten by her husband.

“That was interesting,” he says, philosophically, of the whole experience. He adds, “At that point, it was clear that I needed to get as far away from New York City as possible.”

He spent that summer at a basketball camp a mentor had gotten him into, hoping for a scholarship offer to play for some school somewhere.

Finally, he got a break, though not exactly what he was hoping for: A point guard had quit at tiny St. Joseph’s College in Standish, Maine. Mitchell was offered admission to the school, and a place on the basketball team – but no scholarship money.

To attend, he would have to incur an amount of debt that boggled his young mind: $30,000. He was initially terrified, but ultimately the St. Joseph’s coach took things into his own hands. One day a van with a Maine license plate pulled up at Mitchell’s front door in Brooklyn: “We put everything I owned into trash bags and shoeboxes and moved me up to Maine.”

The transition to St. Joseph’s had its challenges. He was one of only a handful of black students. The only whites he had known before were other basketball players.

It was an isolated place; especially for someone used to being able to get onto the MTA and go where he wanted to go. There was no subway in Standish.

But he had an adviser he connected with. Lynn Davey challenged him to do more than play the role of the “exploited athlete.” She challenged him to be a real student.

“It would have been easy for me to say, ‘Who is this white woman?’” he says. But she got him to read the books he had missed growing up and helped fill in other gaps in his academic background. Though nearing retirement, she promised him she would stay at the school until he graduated, and she kept that promise.

It was during his junior year that he had the experience he doesn’t hesitate to describe as his “transformation.”

“I realized I could be one of those people who have an intellectual experience and could enjoy learning. I was in a position of being able to think for myself,” he says.

As he blossomed academically, though, he also found himself in the position of being accused by his old friends of “acting white.”

After graduation from St. Joseph’s – at the top of his class – he spent a couple of years as an admissions counselor there. Then he accepted a position as director of multicultural recruitment at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.

If St. Joseph’s was the supportive, nurturing environment he needed to find himself academically, Bowdoin was the place where he found black intellectuals to relate to, and the inspiration to pursue further education.

“I’m biased toward small liberal arts colleges,” Mitchell says.

From his experience as an admissions counselor and recruiter, Mitchell has learned a lot. He points out that many minority families have a very localized sense of higher education. A Baltimore family, for instance, may know of Johns Hopkins as well as the University of Maryland, but be unaware of a school like Bowdoin. And, he adds, “Families of color don’t send kids to institutions; they send them to people.” Mitchell makes a point of letting parents know that if ever their child has an issue on campus, they can get him on the phone and find a listening ear.

Mitchell will return to Bowdoin as an associate dean of admissions.

Is there a doctorate in his future? “You’ll have to ask my wife that question,” he answers with a laugh.

He met his wife, Jennifer, now an elementary school teacher – “a wonderful educator” – when they were at St. Joseph’s together. They have two children, Olivia, 6, and Christopher Jeremiah (C.J.), who is 4.

“I go home every single weekend. Seeing my family keeps me balanced – it reminds me why all this is important.”

His son already has his college plan figured out, Mitchell reports: “C.J. wants to go to Bowdoin. But my daughter’s conflicted. She’s not sure she wants to go to Harvard.”