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Janine's Story

In his book The Tipping Point, the writer Malcolm Gladwell defines our world as being populated by three types of people: connectors—people who know countless number of people; mavens—people who know how to accumulate information and share it; and salespeople—charismatic individuals who can get the job done. All three of these definitions can apply to Professor Janine Fondon. The founder of the On the Move Forum at Bay Path University and co-curator of the exhibit, Intersection, highlighting women of color, she has worked tirelessly to bring women’s stories, history and issues to all generations. With an aunt (Irene Morgan) who won an historic case before the U.S. Supreme Court and a grandmother who came to this country via Ellis Island, her backstory is a page out of American history.

“I come from New York City and my family lived in Queens and the Bronx. I grew up in a predominately Caribbean / African-American neighborhood. It was very close-knit, and I was lucky to have my grandmother by my side.

Although we had public schools in Queens Village, from kindergarten to the eighth grade I was bused to Little Neck, Long Island.

At the time, busing was very controversial. Recently, I was researching family history for my daughter, and I came across an article written about busing in New York City during the 1960s. It suddenly hit me I had lived through the experience.

Janine Fondon Assistant Professor of Undergraduate Communications Chair of the Undergraduate Communications DepartmentI remember as a small child getting off the bus, and people yelling at me and the others: ‘We don’t want you here!’ Believe me, for not only the students from my area of Queens, but the students already enrolled in the school, this was all very new. Very stressful. There were fights, bullies on both sides, and just an uneasy space.

Did it make me more resilient? Quite honestly, I took things day by day. I was fortunate in that my grandmother was a big influence in my life. She believed in getting an education and doing the right thing. She had my back.

My grandmother is from Jamaica and had my mother in New York City. In fact, my grandmother came through Ellis Island in the early 1900s. She earned a living house cleaning and sewing. From time to time, the families my grandmother worked for would give her newspapers, and she would bring them home and say to me: ‘This is The New York Times. This is what they are reading, so you should read this paper, too.’

After completing the eighth grade, the next step was high school. At the time, I said to one of my friends: ‘We have to get out of here. I play the piano, and you do too. I sing a bit, and you do as well.’ Then my friend Valerie said, ‘Let’s apply to one of the specialized high schools in the city.’

If it wasn’t for standardized testing, I wouldn’t be sitting here. Teachers would give us Fs, but those tests became our equalizers. I scored high on the tests! When I told my guidance counselor that we were applying to a specialized school, the reply was: ‘You don’t have a prayer.’

We applied to the High School of Music and Art. Most people know of it because of the movie, Fame. Of course, we had to go to the school and audition. I just said to myself, ‘I can do this.’ The first piece I played was Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# minor, followed by the Negro National Anthem. I was admitted, and also my friend.

It was a wonderful high school. I had to get up every morning and leave the house by 5:30 AM to catch a bus and then take three trains. During that time, I studied and did homework. Most of my fellow students were trying to get into the arts: Broadway, theater, music, and other areas. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but as luck would have it my mother, who worked at Dun & Bradstreet as the manager of human resources, approached an African-American man who worked at the firm and asked if he would talk to me about continuing my education.

Well, this gentleman recommended I apply to his alma mater—Colgate University. Not only did I apply, but I received a scholarship and was accepted into the University Scholars program. At the time, universities and colleges were just beginning to be integrated. At Colgate, I was part of a very small cohort of diverse students. For the next four years, it was quite a learning curve for me and not just in the classroom. I am proud of what I accomplished at Colgate, including being the first African-American to pass the piano test in my peer group and co-founding with other students the Sojourners Gospel Choir. The Choir is still performing at Colgate. Whenever I was challenged, I said to myself, ‘I can do this.’

Looking back, most students didn’t have mentors. You just had to navigate on your own and survive. My experiences made me strong, and not afraid to dive in. I still say, ‘I can do this.’ And today, it’s that spirit that I try to share with my students.”