One day during his senior year at Brighton High School, Steven Brown received a college application in the mail that would change the course he’d planned for his life. The application was from Princeton and he wanted to throw it away, but hesitated. He’d already thrown the Harvard application away, thinking he would never be chosen to attend so prestigious a university.
Steven had applied to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Duke University in North Carolina and Washington University in St. Louis. His yearbook advisor at Brighton, Datch McLaughlin, and her husband, Larry, also a teacher, encouraged him to “exceed his boundaries” by applying to several different schools. The couple, whom he lovingly calls “The Macs,” helped him with the college application process and they encouraged him to complete the Princeton application.
“The worst they could have said was no,” said Brown. He laughed and said he didn’t think he’d have a chance.
But he did, in fact, receive an acceptance packet.
“That was one of the happiest days of my life,” he said. His bright smile beamed with pride. “I remember it like it was yesterday. I was very excited and very flattered. It was a big deal!”
And because Princeton presented a great financial aid package, he enrolled.
“I am the first person in my family that didn’t go to the University of Tennessee at Martin,” Brown joked.
And while he was understandably excited over the opportunity, his mother, Sandra, had mixed emotions.
“She preferred having me close to home. Princeton is very different from Mason. She was afraid, but she was proud.”
In the fall of 2002, he began attending Princeton and was met head-on with culture shock.
“When we first got there we saw everyone in really expensive cars. Then parents left and I realized these cars belonged to the students. It’s a very different environment. There’s this preppy persona and I’m not inherently preppy. There’s a sense of wealth there. Tuition is $44,000 per year and half the people are not on financial aid.”
He roomed with Harrison Frist, the son of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, during his first year. Steven said the experience was interesting. In his new world he was rooming with a guy whose father is worth millions.
“I met him a few times. He talked to me longer than he talked to everyone else, maybe because I’m a constituent,” Steven laughed.
His first year there was not an easy one, he admitted. He struggled with trying to find himself and trying to find himself academically.
“It was definitely different from Brighton High School.”
Adjusting to Princeton, New Jersey was not easy for Steven, either. Princeton’s student body is obviously very diverse, much more diverse than Mason, and consists of people from different ethnic, racial, national and socioeconomic backgrounds.
“Tipton County is safe, everything is similar and things don’t dramatically change. It’s a very different world.”
After his freshman year, Steven took some time away from Princeton. He returned to Mason and began attending the University of Memphis. He considered staying in Tennessee, but ended up returning to Princeton. Afterall, he didn’t want to regret not giving Princeton another shot.
“My sophomore year was better, but not great. My junior year was more comfortable. I was doing much better academically. I became a sociology major; it interested me and I did well with it.”
When not in class, Steven was working. He worked in dining halls and at the campus center, was a research assistant for a professor, guided tours, and, in between his junior and senior years, interned at Merrill Lynch Investments.
He still didn’t know what he wanted to do, but decided he wanted to teach temporarily.
Steven’s senior year went well, and most of his time was spent working on his senior thesis, a project he called massive. His was titled “Beside the Mule: The Influence of Social Connections on Black Middle Class Political Thought” and was 125 pages long. His hard work paid off, though, because Steven won the award for best undergraduate thesis.
“That was nice,” he said, proudly. “I was really happy about it. I felt like it was a big deal.”
And it was a big deal.
“A Princeton professor may only award an A+ after submitted a letter to ‘the powers that be’ explaining while the A+ is deserved,” said friend and mentor Larry McLaughlin. “What an accomplishment! The story of this poor Black man’s journey from the rural MidSouth to the pinnacle of undergraduate academia is inspirational.”
Earlier this month Steven’s mother and the Macs traveled to Princeton to watch Steven graduate, which he did magna cum laude.
“The Macs were really thrilled and excited,” Steven said.
His graduating class included 1,146 people, more than the 1,089 estimated to live in his hometown.
After a brief visit to Tipton County, Steven returned to the east coast to prepare for a two-year program with Teach for America.
In the fall he will be teaching English at an inner city school in Philadelphia while pursuing his masters degree at the University of Pennsylvania. Afterwards he plans to work on his Ph.D. in sociology and eventually become a college professor.
“I enjoy the research more than I do working. I’ll go to school for a few more years – it’s more fun than a 9 to 5.”
He does not, however, plan to return to Mason permanently in the near future.
“I’m not done exploring what else the world has to offer. I want to do that before living here again. Some people are very happy and comfortable living here with their family and friends, a simple life where they go to work and enjoy watching their kids play softball. There’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes I wish I was happy with that simplicity. For me, I have a sense of doing something bigger and better. I want to take advantage of the opportunities that are right there.”
College are becoming increasingly selective and Steven encouraged prospective college students to learn how they can distinguish themselves from other applicants.
“Dream big, but prepare yourself for the work your dream requires because dreams don’t happen overnight.”