On A Mission

Colin Powell made his mark in public life. Now he's giving back to students at CCNY

M aybe it was because he grew up during World War II and came of age during the Korean conflict, times when a blue star in the window meant that someone was in the military and a gold star meant that someone had been killed. Or because war movies made indelible impressions during his youth. Or his conclusion that if he were to get drafted, he might as well go in as an officer. Or just seeing so many young men in uniform stride across the City College campus.

Whatever the reason (and his autobiography mentions all of those), in 1954 Colin Powell signed up for City College's Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) — a decision that set him on the path toward becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. secretary of state and a philanthropist who supports a City College public policy center that's named after him. "I found my career and my life's work at CCNY," Powell said. "When I finished my military career and went out into private life, I wanted to try to give back to young people who are like me, coming up in modest or disadvantaged circumstances."

His involvement with students began in earnest in 1997 after he had retired from the Army. Presidents Carter, Clinton, Ford and George H.W. Bush, as well as former first lady Nancy Reagan, asked him to chair the Presidents' Summit for America's Future, then to create America's Promise — The Alliance for Youth, a foundation that works with companies, nonprofits and governments across the country to help children and youth. That prompted him to make his first City College endowment, the Maud and Luther Powell America's Promise Scholarship, which is aimed at City College students who perform community or public service.

Also that year, New York City's Rudin Family Foundation paid tribute to the general by launching the Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies at City College. Its goals are to develop leaders from underrepresented groups and to bridge the academic and policy-making spheres through research and programs.

Because of his work with America's Promise and his later return to government, Powell at first did not have time to engage with the Powell Center. But after his four-year hitch as secretary of state ended in January 2005, "I went up to see what was going on at this center that had my name at my alma mater. I met with 10 or 12 youngsters in the president's conference room, and they told me what they were doing and what the center was doing for them. They were from everywhere imaginable in the world. I said to them, 'You kids look like I was 50 years ago.' That is when I decided I wanted to get more actively involved."

He hopes that the Powell Fellows emerge with an expansive vision of society. "We want to get young people involved in serving others. We send them around the world on fellowships and programs to learn what is happening and to expand the base of knowledge and experience of inner-city kids so that they understand the broader world," he said.

For example, Renee Rolston spent last summer at a district health office in Malawi, working on HIV/AIDS and malaria. She expects to graduate this spring from the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education as part of a seven-year BS-MD program, which she intends to finish at New York Medical College.

Powell uses his personal connections to further the fellows' education. "We send students to sit and talk with Henry Kissinger [the former secretary of state who is on the center's advisory council] in his office about foreign policy. I sent a bunch of youngsters down to Leonard Lauder [the chair of Estée Lauder Inc.] and I said, 'Leonard, I do not want you to give them all of that Horatio Alger stuff [about how his mother started the company]. They can tell you their Horatio Alger stories. What I want you to tell them is: How do you make money in business?'"

 

If Powell has one regret about City College, it might be that it ended the ROTC program in June 1972, at the height of anti-war sentiment on American campuses. From a high of 1,500 cadets during the Korean War, enrollment had plunged to 81 in its last year. "In a country where civilian control of the military is fundamental, I found it unfortunate to have this source of citizen officers reduced," Powell wrote in his 1995 autobiography, My American Journey.

 

"Friendships that I formed there are still alive and well 55 years later," he told Salute to Scholars. He was a geology major, but ROTC "showed me a way of moving forward and something to do with my life and something that I was good at." ROTC "led me to hang around, even though my grades were not great. Then they sent me out to the Army and said good luck."

Powell is helping to assure good luck for today's students by putting $1 million into the center while helping with fund-raising.

Other grants include $10 million from the New York Life Foundation in 2006 to endow scholarships and programs related to African-American issues and, most recently, $1 million from the Korea Foundation for policy and service lessons rooted in the Korean experience.

"Townsend Harris [the founder of The Free Academy that became City College] said that the children of the poor and the children of the rich should sit together in brotherhood and learning," Powell said. "To keep that spirit alive takes money. It is wonderful that the taxpayers of New York State and New York City are willing to fund such a system of public higher education, but we need to get more private philanthropy involved. Those of us who have been successful in life have an obligation to reach down to those who wonder whether or not they can be successful."

Powell on Immigration

The nonpartisan Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies chooses its fellows through a competitive process. Scholarships and fellowships offer up to $12,000 for undergraduates for each of two years and one-time grants of $15,000 for graduate students to support scholarship, research and internships.

Students participate in service learning, in which they volunteer or intern in a public service setting. The Powell Center also has shown City College faculty members how to weave service learning into courses ranging from architecture to public relations writing.

Students receive professional mentoring and participate in the center's policy programs. Its core initiatives are urban issues in New York City; leadership and philanthropy; democracy assistance; and multilateral diplomacy and international organizations.

The students focus on a different theme each year. This year it was immigration, the subject of a February conference where experts in immigration policy and advocates for immigrant rights discussed the challenges and opportunities facing both immigrants and the society they are joining.

At the conference, Powell spoke of his immigrant heritage — his parents were Jamaican — and the importance of public higher education.

"Few experiences bind people to the life of their society more than the process of getting an education," he said. If you didn't succeed, he added with humor, "There was no greater curse … than for one of your relatives … to say, 'What, you have shamed the family.'

"Hit me, beat me, do anything you want, but don't give me that shame, because they had dreams, they had expectations for you."

Immigrants are often portrayed as posing threats to safety and American jobs while the reality is that most work hard, succeed and contribute to the economy.

Yes, Powell argued, strengthen the borders, but also devise policies to develop the economies of the neighboring countries and make "a sensible decision" about who should be allowed into this country and under what circumstances. "We can neither throw open our borders entirely nor can we shut them down completely. We must rather think about the rights and roles of new Americans and temporary residents in relationship to our broader interests of security, prosperity and democracy," he said.

Master's student and Powell Fellow Easter Wood found the conference and the focus on immigration stimulating.

"I have been a student of African-American studies, but I had not thought as much about the intertwinement between immigrant populations and the African-American population," she said. She particularly appreciated "the opportunities to meet with dynamic people and get to talk to those who are out there on the front lines in the policy field and doing the work that I hope to be doing."