Made of Mettle

Posted on 20. Apr, 2010 by in Profiles

A young Dwight Dickerson plays the trumpet. Courtesy Dwight Dickerson

Many Yale undergraduates are surprised to encounter Dwight Dickerson in their Spanish seminars and Political Psychology lectures. His usual uniform is collegiate enough – black Velcro sneakers, blue jeans, a black pinstriped button-down left untucked and a grey Yale Bulldogs sweatshirt – but his bald head and the white hairs salting his pepper black mustache suggest he is a fair bit older than your average undergraduate.

Dwight sees them staring, and sometimes even whispering about what he’s doing in the classroom. Is he really an undergraduate? Perhaps he’s just auditing? How old is he?

If he wanted to, Dwight could volunteer that he is indeed an undergraduate – a 53- year-old senior. He could tell them about the obstacles he overcame on his sinuous path to Yale – how he grew up in the poorest area of the South Bronx where he was once shot in the leg, how he had to drop out of Howard University when both of his parents passed away in the same year, or how his father’s mistress seized his meager inheritance. He could reveal how he lost his job after September 11th, and had to work five temp jobs to stay afloat. When his classmates complain about their overwhelming slew of exams and extra-curriculars, he could mention that in addition to taking classes, he works 11:30pm to 6:30am seven days a week as an inspector at the Sikorsky helicopter plant. He could tell them that his wife is ill – making him the sole breadwinner for his family of four.

He could tell them all this if he wanted. But Dwight doesn’t want to draw attention to himself, and sensing that his background is different, his younger peers don’t want to pry.

When I first met Dwight in my discussion section for Colonial Latin America, an undergraduate history course, I was one of those undergraduates too nervous to ask him about his background. How would I even phrase the question, I wondered. How are you here? No. Why are you here? No, definitely not. Why are you so old? Even worse.

I resorted to asking other people in my section about Dwight. Though everyone I asked was intrigued, no one had any answers. One friend responded that she had once been in class with another older man – his name was Robert Johnson ’10 and he was an active duty officer in the United States Army. She explained that he was part of “the Eli Whitney something or other”, unable to remember the program’s official name.

Suspecting that Dwight might be part of the same program, I visited the website for more clues.  The most prominent item on the strikingly sparse and archaic homepage was a video titled “Voices of the Eli Whitney Students Program.”

“If someone would have told me when I was younger…that I would be graduating from Yale at the age of 53… I would have told them that they were crazy.” Suddenly, I realized that I knew that voice: deliberate, articulate with pauses for reflection. “I would not have had an inkling of an idea that that would happen to an individual like myself from the South Bronx…But it has.”

Dwight Dickerson at home. Haley Cohen

Since 2004, Dwight has attended Yale as an Eli Whitney student. Previously known as Yale’s Special Student program, the Eli Whitney Student program accepts “non-traditional” students to work towards Yale bachelor’s degrees. These students are usually older than typical undergraduates because their college plans have been postponed or interrupted. They are selected, according to the program’s website, for their unique life experiences and perspective that 18 to 22 year-old undergraduates simply cannot offer.

Past and current Eli Whitney students run the gamut from Mike Richter, a former goalie for the New York Rangers, to 25 year-old used car salesman-cum-financial advisor William Chmelar and gay rights activist Gregg Gonsalves. The program garnered international media attention in 2006 when former Taliban spokesman Rahmatullah Hashemi applied. Hashemi had started taking classes at Yale in September 2005 on the non-degree track, and applied for degree status as an Eli Whitney student in Spring 2006.  Possibly because of the controversy sparked by his presence at Yale even as a non-degree student, Hashemi was denied from the Eli Whitney students program – a decision that prompted even more press. But in spite of the ample coverage of Hashemi, the Eli Whitney Students program and its participants still remain under the radar, relatively mysterious.

My restraint eroded, I shot Dwight an email and asked if he would share his story. Instead of being offended that I’d violated his privacy, Dwight welcomed me into his world, insisting that I call him Dwight instead of Mr. Dickerson.

“I am more than willing to do this,” he wrote. “The question I pose is: are you?”

The following week I find myself in a basement classroom in Rosenkranz Hall, where Norms and Deviance, Dwight’s sociology class, meets every Monday. Taught by renowned ethnographer Elijah Anderson, the seminar covers the origins, development and reactions surrounding deviance in contemporary society.

Dwight flips deliberately through his copy of John Hope Franklin’s autobiography Mirror to America. The book details Franklin’s path from childhood in segregated Oklahoma to serving as first black president of the American Historical society. Dwight has coated the book’s pages with highlighter and penned notes. Unlike many undergrads at Yale, he actually seems to finish his reading.

Anderson calls on him, and he launches into a comment, subtly gesticulating as he speaks.

“I agree with Bianca’s deduction that in parts of this book, Franklin tries to downplay his race.” Dwight speaks slowly, taking time to think and pause, picking just the right word. “But even though he never directly alluded to it, there wasn’t an hour where race wasn’t an issue.”

“The fact that he’s black and grew up in the inner city in the ‘60s and ‘70s gives him a different perspective than a lot of the other kids in class,” explains Professor Anderson, Dwight’s professor for Norms and Deviance. “But he doesn’t bring his background into his comments much, it just comes out with commentary.” He adds, without a hint of irony, “He’s a very bright young man.”

While Dwight’s two classes last semester, Norms and Deviance and Colonial Latin America, might seem a light workload to your average Yale undergraduate, your average Yale undergraduates also don’t work 6-7 days a week from 11:30 p.m. to 6 a.m. And if they did, you would probably find those normal Yale students sleeping in their free time instead of playing piano for the local church band, volunteering at a program to aid previously incarcerated individuals readjust to everyday life and singing on sales-worthy demo CDs.

Lastly, your average Yale students probably don’t know any of these things about Dwight.

Both in and out of the classroom, when it comes to Eli Whitney students, a tacit policy of “don’t ask don’t tell” seems to be in effect. Younger Yalies don’t want to seem rude by peppering their older peers with personal questions, and the Eli Whitney students keep quiet, wanting to assimilate as best they can. While this unofficial system protects the privacy of the Eli Whitney students, it also fails to honor the accomplishments that earned them positions at Yale.

Dwight invites me to spend a Saturday with him so I can better understand his life outside academia. He begins the day at 9:30 a.m. with band rehearsal for tommorrow’s services at Church on the Rocks, a cinderblock cube in New Haven’s Long Wharf neighborhood.

When I walk into the Church’s airy auditorium, I immediately spot Dwight on the stage, leaning over the piano. He is dressed in his usual outfit:  black Velcro sneakers, a black turtleneck tucked into jeans, and a gold cross on a chain. His oft-worn Bulldogs sweatshirt drapes over a front row chair facing the stage.

The room looks more like a United Nations conference room than a place of worship. Flags from Japan, Brazil, Jamaica and Scotland hang on the back wall, and there are no stained glass windows, carvings of saints, or other religious symbols anywhere in sight.  The only sign of the room’s function is an inscription carved above the stage: “For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations… – Isaiah.”

Except for Dwight, a drummer, and a sprinkling of college-aged girls choreographing dances to gospel songs, the space is empty. Dwight checks his watch. It is pushing 9:50 a.m.; practice was slated to start twenty minutes ago.  Dwight taps his foot anxiously as his band mates slowly trickle in. He’s on a tight schedule, and tardiness can throw things off.

At around 10 a.m. the conductor of the Church on the Rocks band arrives, a tall, broad shouldered man named Jason. Dwight and Jason hug and slap each other on the back before Jason puts his arm around Dwight and leads him down the stairs off the stage. He summons the rest of the band, the dancers, and the singers to circle up. They join hands and Jason leads the group in prayer, so impassioned he is almost shouting.

“Call us forward to prepare us, Lord God, soldiers in your name Lord God. Let us inspire the young people to explode in the midst of worship, Lord God. Make us ready, Lord God!”

They release hands and assume their appropriate positions at instruments or microphones. Jason gives the go-ahead, and the music begins.

Is it enough to gather in this place? The worship dancers twirl across the floor and make sweeping movements with their arms as if reaching to heaven. Is it enough to lift your hands in praise? The singers belt into their microphones, eyes closed, rocking back and forth. You want it all: my spirit, mind and heart. Amidst this emotional scene, Dwight seems strangely collected. He leans over his keyboard like a brain surgeon over his patient, meticulously following the notes on his music.

Dwight loosens up a little bit for the next song. He taps his foot, bobs his head, and in a rare moment of impulsiveness even sweeps his fingers across the keyboard. Perhaps because he’s had to improvise so much in his life, Dwight admits he is mildly uncomfortable with musical spontaneity. He likes to have a plan, a blueprint that lets him know exactly what to do and exactly when to do it.

“I don’t like to be vulnerable,” he explains.

After rehearsal ends, Dwight and I jump in his silver 2003 Chrysler and drive to his home on Westminster Street. Painted pistachio green and surrounded by a snowy white picket fence, Dwight’s house is inviting and homey.  As we pull up behind the house Dwight mutters something about needing to rake the “damn leaves,” but otherwise he seems very proud of his home. He unlocks the door and a fluffy white dog catapults onto his leg.

“Sit, Elliot! You know better!” The dog drops to the floor for a few seconds before hopping up on my leg instead.

Elliot” Dwight warns. The dog hits the ground. “Elliot’s my daughter’s dog, but for some reason that I can’t figure out, he likes me the best. Oooh,” Dwight says, remembering something. He motions for me to come to the mantle. “C’mere, I want to show you this.”

He holds up a faded photograph of a woman and a man standing in front of a brick building with a fire escape snaking down the exterior. The pair is nicely dressed – the man in a suit and the woman in a skirt suit and hat with lacey appliqués. Only the woman is smiling.

“My parents,” Dwight says, nearly whispering.

Born November 6th, 1956, to Elmore and Dora Dickerson, Dwight was the ninth of ten children. Five were from Elmore’s previous marriage and lived out of the house, while Bernice, Patricia, Donna, Dwight and Betty all grew up together in the Dickersons’ cramped apartment in the Morrisania neighborhood of the South Bronx. Dwight’s mother stayed home to take care of her gaggle of children while his father worked as a mechanic for Con Edison Light and Power. Later, Elmore opened two linoleum tile and carpet stores where the Dickersont children worked after school from the day that they turned ten until they moved out.

Then, as now, poverty and desperation reigned in Morrisania. When Dwight played outside he had to watch for hypodermic needles discarded by neighborhood junkies and avoid known gang territories. Once Dwight was carrying groceries home when a group of men cornered him, guns cocked, and demanded he hand over all of his money. Though he immediately surrendered his wallet, the teens shot him in the thigh as they left. “Went straight through,” Dwight informs me. After that, the pulse of gunshots often resonated in his head when he tried to sleep at night.

Dwight credits a different kind of beat for keeping him out of trouble: music. When Dwight was nine, his father presented him with a guitar. Dwight mastered the riffs and chords so quickly that before a year had passed he was invited to play at his church’s Sunday folk mass. Elmore scrounged to pay for lessons for his son. Before long Dwight had mastered the tenor sax, piano and accordion. While his friends from the neighborhood fooled around beneath the tracks of the Third Avenue elevated train, Dwight fooled around on his collection of instruments.

“I owe a lot to my Dad for introducing me to music,” Dwight says with a sigh. “Paying for my music lessons was pretty much the only thing my Dad did that showed he had any faith in me. Otherwise he just told me I was good for nothing. That’s part of the reason I am so determined to finish college.”

At ten years old, Dwight joined a newly formed competitive drum and bugle corps then called the Morrisanian Lancers. Within a year, he had honed his skills enough to become the lead horn soloist. Dwight credits his involvement with the corps for keeping him “off the streets,” though his time with the Lancers was also the closest he came to being on them. At its foundation, the Lancers was a fusion of two Morrisanian street gangs – the Savage Skulls and the Imperial Bachelors. To fit in, Dwight felt he needed to join one. He picked the “Bachelors,” where he eventually became the warlord, the leader of the gang.

“They picked me as warlord because I was the least…assuming,” Dwight remembers, his lips curling into a smug smile. “Everyone thought I was just a god-fearing, goody two-shoes Catholic school boy, which was partially true. But it meant I could fly under the radar.”

Dwight insists that the gang didn’t get in too much trouble. Yes, sometimes they jumped onto the backs of buses to get around for free, on occasion they “smoked herb,” but it was the 70s! Who didn’t? The energy that most gangs would funnel towards violence, however, the Bachelors focused on music, teaming up with the Skulls to win many state and national competitions. “I was a lover, not a fighter,” Dwight admits. Gang tensions fell away and the Lancers became a close-knit troop with a common purpose. Every member counted.

Once, on the day of a competition, Elmore had grounded Dwight for talking back. He was sitting forlornly on his bed, fingering his Lancers uniform – black pants and a red satin jacket – which he’d laid out the night before in anticipation of the contest. Suddenly Dwight heard a honk and ran to the window where he saw two big coach buses pull up and discharge the Corps director, Carmelo Saez. Carmelo winked at Dwight through the window and disappeared inside Dwight’s front door. Dwight’s heart beat like a snare drum. After a few minutes of suspense, Elmore opened the door and said simply: “Go.”

“It was my first experience with really feeling valuable – like I was part of a larger group. Man, if they were willing to drive up in two big buses to come get me, I must be worth something.”

Dwight’s experiences with the Lancers are still very important to him. Dwight picks up a multi-photo frame inscribed with phrases like “Wow!” “What a night!” “Let the good times roll!” An adult Dwight stares back from the photos, posing with various people in a hotel ballroom.

“This is from a few years ago when I was honored by the Lancers,” he explains, smiling down at the frame. “That’s my wife, Loretta and those are the Lancers I used to jam with.”

Dwight served as the lead horn soloist for the Lancers until 1975, when he graduated from Cardinal Hayes high school, an all-boys catholic institution, and moved to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music. For two years, Dwight thrived on the regimented practice schedule, living and breathing in scales, majors, and sharps.

But one day Dwight found that he couldn’t practice any more. Something just felt wrong. Amidst the cacophony of horns, strings, pianos, and drums emanating from the practice rooms, Dwight felt empty. He needed more – more stimulation, more variety, and more choice.

Dwight took two years off to help his father with his business at home before enrolling at Howard University, a liberal arts institution where he could take classes in politics and sociology as well as music. He loved Howard – he loved living in Washington, D.C., he loved his classes and his classmates. But it didn’t last long.  After only two years at Howard, in January 1981, Dwight’s mother, Dora, passed away. Dwight dropped out of school and returned to Morrisania to support his father and help him run his linoleum and carpet warehouses. Only a few months later, Elmore married a woman with whom Dwight soon discovered he’d been having a long-term affair, extending back far before his mother’s death. When Elmore passed away in October of that same year, his new wife seized the family’s assets, leaving Dwight and his siblings virtually penniless.

“It took me fifteen years to finally visit his grave,” Dwight says, picking up a rolled American flag he’d taken from Elmore’s burial site. “I felt a lot of anger towards him.”

With no reason to stay in Morrisania and no money to support himself, Dwight moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut to live with his sister Patricia. There, he worked odd jobs at homeless shelters and restitution centers until meeting Loretta.

When I ask how they met he laughs.

“Well do you want the version I tell everyone or the real story?” Without waiting for an answer he launches into both.

Dwight’s sister lived across the street from a woman named Doris who ran a hairdressing business out of her home. Doris immediately took a liking to Dwight and insisted on trying to set him up. One day she demanded that he come over to her house because there was a “nice Christian girl” she wanted him to meet.

“The girl was nice enough, but she had this roommate that came to pick her up. I saw her pull up in her car and I liked what I saw. When she rang the doorbell, you can bet I made sure to be the one who answered it,” Dwight pauses and shakes his head, chuckling.  “I always tell people that when I opened the door Loretta started drooling so much I had to ask her if she needed a napkin. In reality, it was probably the other way around.”

The couple was married on Valentine’s Day of 1987 in Maryland, where they settled so Dwight could finally finish his education at Howard. But Loretta was deeply unhappy living in Maryland. She missed her friends, and above all her church back in Bridgeport where her uncle served as the pastor. She was homesick.

“It got to the point where I would come home at night after work and find her on the floor crying,” Dwight remembers. “Finally, I asked ‘You wanna move back?’”

A close friend of Dwight’s from Bridgeport put him in touch with another friend who was renting out his apartment on Auburn Street in New Haven. Without even looking at the apartment, Dwight and Loretta packed up their things and moved back to Connecticut, further postponing Dwight’s college plans.

Suddenly Elliot starts growling at the door. “Elliot! Sit!” A key turns in the lock and the door opens to reveal a young woman overloaded with groceries.

“A little help?” she asks.

Dwight rushes to the door and takes most of the bags.

“Lanna, this is Haley. She’s following me around for a day because she thinks I’m interesting. Haley, this is my daughter Talanna.”

Talanna sets her remaining bags on the kitchen counter and gives me a once over. “So you’re stalking him for a day?” Laughing, she raises an eyebrow and says: “His life is not that interesting. His kids are all raised and working, he has a great job and goes to a great school. Sounds pretty easy to me.”

In addition to Talanna, a twenty one year-old junior at the University of New Haven, Dwight has two other children: Chris, a twenty two year-old who recently graduated with a B.A. in Theater from the University of Vermont and Andres, a thirty year-old son by a prior relationship who now lives in Texas with a wife and children. For years, Dwight has also provided for one of Talanna’s friends, Clarissa, whose previous home life was in Dwight’s euphemistic words, “unhealthy.”

“We give Dad a lot of crap for going to Yale,” Talanna continues. “Whenever he makes a mistake, or admits he doesn’t know something we’re like ‘What?! You don’t know this?! But you go to YALE!’” Dwight’s smile fails to mask his exasperation but Talanna rattles on. “He’s gotten better but he certainly has his moments.”

Lanna,” Dwight warns, in a voice that resembles the one he used to speak to Elliot.

“Fine, well can I at least tell her the story about you at church that one time? Please?” Dwight agrees and the tension dissipates as Talanna begins her story with a laugh.

“Dad doesn’t get a lot of sleep so he’s constantly ‘resting his eyes.’ At red lights, at the dinner table, whatever. Anyway, one day at our old church he was on stage because he’d played a trumpet solo, and he fell asleep during the preacher’s sermon! The preacher was so offended that he turned around at one point and shouted: ‘am I BORING you?!”

Dwight counters, “Well it was 12:01. The sermon was supposed to end at 12. That was MY time.”

Dwight schedules his life down to the minute. If he didn’t construct a daily plan to follow, he might break down, like a helicopter without a blueprint.

Talanna has satisfied her need to embarrass her Dad and Dwight is eager to show me other things. “Let me take you to my wife’s favorite part of the house,” he says, walking up the stairs. We walk down the hall and he opens the door to a large bedroom decorated in rich beiges and brown.

“Loretta decorated all this,” he says, opening the door to the bathroom. “I call this the bathroom, but Loretta calls it her palace. ”

The room is large and airy with a bean-shaped Jacuzzi, huge vanity mirrors, and a glass-paned shower that houses a waterproof phone and radio. The sinks and floors are pink marble and it smells faintly of flowers. The toilet is hidden from the rest of the room, separated by a wall and a door.

“This,” Dwight says sweeping his hand across the room “is why I work.”

He explains that, seven years ago, Loretta developed gastric fibrosis and had to go on disability leave from her job at the Yale Child Studies Center. For a while she thought she’d be able to return to work but then the disease triggered problems with her pancreas, and on top of everything she developed lupus, a disease of the immune system that causes joint pain, muscle pain, and chronic fevers.

For the first year Loretta stopped working, Dwight had a hard time making ends meet. In 2001, Dwight lost his job at aviation supplier GKN aerospace when they downsized after September 11th and for the next two years he juggled five temp jobs. He worked such long hours that he barely saw the family he was working to support.

It was only in 2003, when Dwight landed his job at Sikorsky, that things got a little bit easier. His starting salary at Sikorsky was $70,000 – more than his old income combined with Loretta’s when she could still work – which allowed him to quit all his other jobs.

Working at Sikorsky also allowed him to fulfill his lifelong dream of finishing school. United Technology, the umbrella company that owns Sikorsky, runs an employee scholar program that completely covers the cost of the education of all its employees as well as offering paid study time. As an incentive for employees to pursue education, the company also presents them with a $10,000 stock option upon completion of their bachelor’s degree. This policy allowed Dwight to enroll at Yale, where he is set to graduate on May 24th, 2010.

The ample benefit package is not the only reason Dwight loves working at Sikorsky.

“I was born to be a machinist,” Dwight insists as we walk into the plant, a sprawling compound right off of the Merritt Parkway in Stratford. “I’ve always loved taking things apart, seeing how they work, and putting them back together.”

Dwight’s role as a final line inspector does not require active building, but it is just as important. Blueprint in hand, Dwight scours his assigned helicopters millimeter by millimeter to make sure every last screw matches the plan. It hurts his eyes a “heck of a lot” but Dwight finds the job extremely fulfilling. He knows that if he makes one misstep there could be dire consequences. The safety of the helicopter’s future crew – whether it be Army men, navy men or businessmen – is in his hands and on his eyes.

We begin our tour of the Sikorsky plant at the blades and spars station. As we approach the rows of metal rods, Dwight pushes me to the side as a forklift whizzes by, nearly taking off my arm.

“This place is chaotic like that. You’ve got to watch yourself,” he says handing me a pair of safety goggles that all employees and visitors are required to wear on the work floor. The complex is vast and mazelike, with long poorly lit hallways opening up to work stations. From the way he navigates it seems that Dwight could find his way around the factory in his sleep – and perhaps he has. He has spent the past six years working the graveyard shift six to seven nights a week. At first he tried to avoid working weekend nights, but Sikorsky pays $1,000 for one night of overtime – an offer Dwight finds hard to refuse.

Despite the amount of time he has spent looking at helicopters, Dwight has never flown in one. On Sikorsky’s annual family day, members of the Sikorsky administration drive a number of helicopter models out onto the flight field where they allow employees and their families to sit in the luxurious leather seats and finger the controls, but the vehicles remain securely on the ground.

“I wouldn’t argue if they tried to give me one of those,” Dwight says, patting one of the corporate helicopters, complete with wood-paneled bars, which sell for up to $15 million.

“I would just park it in my front yard for the neighbors to gawk at. No way I could pay for gas, but can you imagine?”

Before we call it a day, Dwight wants to show me something special: a fleet of helicopters that Sikorsky is building for Obama. We wind through hangers housing completed helicopters and storerooms with disembodied helicopter parts. We dodge forklift after forklift and weave in and out of a tour group of young children and teenagers dressed in camouflage. “Stratford Eagles: Stratford’s Civil Air Force” I make out on their patches.

“Did you know that Obama actually flies with three helicopters so that potential terrorists don’t know which one he’s in?” Dwight asks as we walk. “It’s an awful waste of fuel, but he is Obama.”

Finally we arrive at our destination: a door with a small wire-crossed window cut in it.

We peek through the wired glass to catch a glimpse of the aircraft, but a frowning guard taps at us from the other side and shakes his finger “no.”

“Aw, shucks,” Dwight says, sighing. “Security on those birds is ti-ight.”

Defeated, he leads me to the cafeteria so he can get a snack. I feel relieved. It is 3 p.m. and I have yet to see him eat or drink anything since I met him at 9:30 a.m. I had started to wonder whether Dwight was a machine himself.

The hot food area is closed, so he opts for something from one of the five vending machines in the lounge. He punches in D7 and watches intently as the mechanical springs move to eject a plastic wrapped blueberry muffin from its roost. He waits a split second to claim his treat, trying to figure out the mechanics of the machine.

Back at Yale, Dwight and I sit on a bench outside of William L. Harkness Hall, and we talk about his overall experience as a Yalie.

Because he’s so busy, Dwight has had little time to get to know other undergraduates. In fact, in his five years at Yale, he tells me I am just the third person to inquire about his background.

“Whether people ask me about my story or not is not the issue,” Dwight explains. “Even though the Eli Whitney Students Program has been in existence for over 20 years, a lot of people don’t know about it. It was almost as if Yale was hiding it.”

I had to purposefully dig to find information on the Eli Whitney program and its students. The website, a small subset of yale.edu, is oddly sparse. The promotional video in which Dwight appears, a short description, and a Frequently Asked Questions section are the only components. There is no list of current or past Eli Whitney students, or reports on their accomplishments before enrolling at Yale.

Presumably, this is to protect the privacy of the Eli Whitney students who — like their undergraduate peers — came to Yale to take classes. Yale doesn’t publicize personal information about other undergraduates, so why should it treat Eli Whitney students differently?

Most Yale undergrads speak of their classmates as the centerpiece of their Yale experience; they often claim getting to know other students is more important than classes themselves. It seems strange, then, that the Eli Whitney program accepts individuals with such unique life experiences, but does not provide a framework in which they can easily share them. If the program were more visible, other Yale undergraduates would be less fearful of intruding and more likely to engage their Eli Whitney classmates outside of lecture and section.

The promotional video on the website, filmed and posted in 2008, represents Yale’s recent realization for a need to publicize the Eli Whitney students program.

“When I first saw that video,” Dwight says, pausing, “I cried. I used to walk around campus looking at the buildings and think ‘how did I make it here? Am I even alive?’”

Considering his circumstances, Dwight has done very well at Yale – earning 7 As and A-s in his 17 classes.

“John Hope Franklin graduated Harvard with a 3.7,” Dwight comments, referring to the renowned black scholar whose biography he’d read in Norms and Deviance. “But during that time he didn’t work, or have a wife, or kids. To me graduating Yale with a 3.3 would be like graduating with a 4.0.”

Dwight credits his graduation from Yale to years of hard work, sacrifice and the support of his family. Graduating from college has been his goal for over 30 years, though he never dreamed it would be from Yale.

“My father once told me that I would never amount to anything. Finally, I can stop trying to prove him wrong.”

A Yale Spanish professor once asked Dwight if there was anything she could do to help make her class easier for him. Dwight was struggling with conjugations and pronunciation, and couldn’t seem to remember vocabulary.

“I thanked her for her offer, but told her that I wasn’t looking for any special treatment. I’m just a Yale student just like any other. Except maybe a little older.”

Dwight has never taken handouts and doesn’t plan on starting now. When the dean of Ezra Stiles College hands him his Yale diploma in May, it will be because he’s earned it.

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