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Oral History Interview with Michael Herndon


Date of Interview: September 20, 2000
Location of Interview: Sound Booth, Media Building at Virginia Tech,
Blacksburg, Va
Interviewer: Susan Cook
Transcribers: Susan Cook

Part Three

Cook: Well it's a shame. People like that need to retire or worse. Do you want to tell me... you talked to me a little bit about it already... but just a little bit about what your dissertation is on?

Herndon: Alright, my research is looking at the role of African American families in the life of college students. How do families influence the behavior of college students while they're in college? Particularly black families. What is it about those black family's interactions that impede or enhance a person's experiences while they are at the university? So I'm looking at the kind of support that students receive from their families and how that support relate to what goes on here at Virginia Tech. What kinds of values, lessons, influences have they learned at home and brought to the University and how if at all have those values and experiences clashed with experiences and values here at the University. How do people embrace a certain kind of academic culture here?

How some of the values may be different from the kind of culture of being at home and how they draw the line for example how do they make decisions of when am I a family member when do I perform as a student. Sometimes those two roles conflict and overlap for all students, but particularly black students who are at predominantly white campuses where many of them seek and receive the support they need and the kind of support that sustains them. That support is not on campus. It's back at home with the family. What about those family interactions how do they shape students experiences while here at the university?

So I'm comparing and contrasting the experiences of students at an urban university and students at a rural university and seeing if there's any differences between their family experiences based on institutional type.

Cook: So you have your own perspective as a student and you get to talk to other students about their perspective.

Herndon: Yes.

Cook: What about some of your results as far as Tech. What backgrounds are more successful or what?

Herndon: Well essentially what I've found, whether the family member or the parent went to college or not, pretty much if a student is receiving support for the most part they are excelling or achieving the kinds of goals they need to achieve academically. On the other hand if the student isn't receiving support, they may not be excelling but then again that may be a motivating factor for them to excel because they aren't receiving support. They may be on their own.

Cook: I was thinking... parents that maybe didn't go to college and maybe want their children to go to college and therefore, that's their support. Mom and Dad are saying you can do it, you can do it.

Herndon: Yes that's one of the things I've seen in my research both at the rural and the urban [level]. If the parent didn't go to college and they are very supportive of their son or daughter in a way they are going to college through the life experiences of their son or daughter. What I've termed that theme is 'vicarious matriculation.' What I mean by that, in a way that son or daughter is representing that mother or father who didn't get a change to go to college. And the mother or father in a sense is still participating in higher education through the life of the son or daughter.

So when that son or daughter graduates the mother is graduating even though the mother didn't go to college. But the mother did go to college through the blood that's running in the veins of that son or daughter on that campus.

Cook: I can absolutely see that and that's your own word - vicarious matriculation?

Herndon: Right, vicarious matriculation and it's nowhere documented anywhere in the literature so I'm going to be the first one to put that down on paper.

Cook: That's wonderful!

Herndon: And you hear responses from students who say I'm doing this for mom. I'm doing this for grandma. In a lot of cases, grandmothers are instrumental in the college student experiences. So maybe grandmother didn't get to go to college but grandmother is doing everything she can to make sure that grandchild has what he or she needs from a physical standpoint, spiritual, emotional standpoint in order to exceed and excel in this kind of environment. So that's one of the things that's really been exciting for me to come up and coin that term and put it down on paper and get it out in the literature.

Cook: Was it like a light bulb thing?

Herndon: Something just went off and I started thinking about what can I call it... what can I label this phenomenon that I kept hearing all these people over and over... you know this is really not about me. This degree is a family degree. It's not about me, it's about me and family. It's about my neighborhood, my community, the little kids who play on the playground and know I'm in college. They see me and they come back and they say if John or Jane can graduate and go to college, if they can do well, then I can do it to. So, even in this instance, others who are not even related to the student, but in some kind of way interact with the student (either as a church member or a neighborhood person), they in a way vicariously matriculate through the walls of higher education through the life of the student. Especially if that student is a first generation student they themselves are actually here in spirit. They're here emotionally.

There also here because of the blood that's running in their veins but also because of the values that's been placed in that person to go to college and the kind of support, the lifeline that student has while they're in college. Even though their family may be hours away from the University and how it has baffled the higher education community because for the most part people say if you come to a university setting you must take on or adapt to the University. You must take on different values, severe the ties that you have at home. But for a lot of women and minority students those ties are essential for their success. So that is what I'm looking at and some of the things that are being revealed. For those students who don't have a close family network where they can drive home on the weekends, they developed their own victive kin, extended family or make believe family. Not an imaginary family but for example as I mentioned earlier, Dr. Barbara Pendergrass and Dr. Laura Scott, those were two names that came out in our research where people said that these two women have been like big sisters to me. They've been like an aunt to me, a mother to me. They've taken me in under their wings; they've shown me these are the things you need to do in order to be successful. But beyond that they've cared for me just as a human being. So the kinds of things that they would have received say at home with their mother, with a godmother or with an aunt, they were receiving from these women here on campus.

So again that's even groundwork for maybe another study to look at kinds of family relationships that students form on campus while they're in college and how those relationships influence their college career.

Cook: Seems like those strong family ties should be nurtured. Did you know that Kimberly Ware and Barbara Pendergrass are Sam's adopted sisters? Mrs. Cook is their adopted mom. She cooks for them because they're always cooking for other people especially Barbara.

Herndon: Right! She's always cooking a fish fry.

Cook: Have you ever had her trout?

Herndon: Yes, and her catfish.

Cook: That's what I mean, her catfish.

Herndon: Very good!

Cook: I did, but I didn't get enough.

Herndon: And her cabbage.

Cook: I've never had that. Was it fried?

Herndon: She has it in a stir-fry.

Cook: Well, I'm hungry now, I think we better move on. [Laughter] Now I'm thinking about fried catfish. Are you politically active?

Herndon: Not as much as when I was on the School Board... I was more politically active. But I'm politically active in my right to vote and I encourage others to vote and encourage voter registration. I've even gone to the point of handing out voter registration forms to the people to register or give out absentee forms so that people... to make sure that they vote back in their precinct at home. So I've been more politically subdued, you might say.

Cook: While you're getting your Ph.D.?

Herndon: Right but I do see when I graduate getting back in... for example, I'm a member of the NAACP but I haven't been really as involved in it as I want to be and going to committee meetings and doing other kinds of things because I've been bogged down with this graduate work but that's one of the things I want to be...

Cook: That's what you'll pick up... ?

Herndon: Right. Because I was involved with that when I was at home, when I was working at Longwood College and on the School Board. In fact, it was an interesting situation where the local NAACP brought these charges against the School Board and I was also a member of the School Board and a member of NAACP. I was walking that fine line there. So I want to pick that back up and I encourage everyone to vote in the 2000 election.

Cook: I feel like you'd be a good writer independent of you Ph.D. because you have a lot of stories like just that one.

Herndon: Well thank you. I'm glad you mentioned that because right before you came over earlier today I was talking to a student about two books I feel I have within me that I feel that need to be developed. One book is a book I'm going to co-author with Dr. Farrar and James Moore. I don't know if you know James Moore? He just recently graduated.

Cook: Wait, did he teach the class with you?

Herndon: That's right, you know James.

Cook: Yes, yes. He's wonderful!

Herndon: Yes, I forgot about that you know James. He is now at the University of South Carolina as an assistant professor.

Cook: He's from South Carolina?

Herndon: That's right. He's about 80 miles away from home where he was raised, University of South Carolina. Columbia is about an hour.

Cook: I know exactly where that is. My first husband was from Columbia, South Carolina.

Herndon: Okay, well, he and I... we have this title that I came up with. I don't know if I should tell all of this because...

Cook: You can cross it out if you want.

Herndon: Okay, well the working title of the book is Hope Unborn: Reclaiming Our Destiny.

Cook: Wow, you have the title, okay!

Herndon: James' is going to write three chapters, Dr. Farrar is going to write three chapters and I'm going to write three chapters. We may have some other person write the intro, preface or forward. The whole premise of the book, in a nutshell, we're looking at say for example the kind of stories I told you about my parents, grandparents and so forth. They had less and they did more. This generation of people... we have more but we are doing less.

Cook: I'm seeing that in my reading.

Herndon: We have more opportunities. We have more... just think about people who wrote a thesis even ten years ago on a word processor. The technological advances that a person can enjoy today because of what's out there on computers. Just think about different rewrites. If we had a whole lot of rewrites on a manual typewriter compared to cutting and pasting...

Cook: A nightmare!

Herndon: On a PC today... we have more technologically. We have more in a sense of tangible things that we can put our hands on and say look what we have accomplished. But on the other hand as a group, as a society, not just black people, including whomever, we are more morally bankrupt now in 2000 than we were in say 1900. You talk about families who would sit around the dinner table.

Cook: Visit on Sundays.

Herndon: Visit on Sundays and everybody is so busy, busy, busy, busy. Yeah, being busy is okay. But then I would ask, are you fruitful and productive in your busyness. People are just scurrying and running, to and fro, doing this, that and the other and the next thing you know the kids are grown up. What kinds of values have you been able to speak into their life, the lasting kinds of values, lessons for them to carry on to their children and their children's children. But we're just so busy, so busy doing nothing. That's why I ask, what have we accomplished. Have we been fruitful in our busyness?

So the premise of this book is really going back to our fore-parents and looking at what they accomplished with so little and how we can develop a plan or model to tell people to get back on track. To put first things first, to have a plan for life if you want to call it that. This whole idea of hope unborn, the thing about the person as a baby. The person has the potential to because either positive or negative, whatever. When you think about hope unborn, that's 'unborn,' the hope that's in the womb. The possibilities, opportunities to become great, the opportunities for success. Those things that are already built into a child aren't nurtured or developed.

What happens like Ray Hansbury says, dries up like a raisin in the sun. So we're trying to go back and remind people of the greatness not only in this country, but the greatness of individual family stories and how people were able to do a lot of things and not have the kinds of financial resources. But they had other kinds of resources. They had spiritual resources. If you want to look at it from that perspective. There were the kinds of resources... for example in my generation we haven't had to endure any of the things that my grandparents or even my parents had to endure.

Cook: Children dying, illnesses just even the flu, pneumonia, measles, whatever.

Herndon: That's right. We have all the technology and medical advances we have now. And just think about even with racism and sexism, they were legal and on the books. Somehow people were able to endure and now today it just seems that people don't have backbone and stick to-itiveness. I don't know if that's even a word. But just to see something through to completion, the hanging in there, to not give up. There's an expression of hoping against hope. You can hope even when all the odds against you suggest you shouldn't hope. That group of people, that generation of people still hoped.

Cook: Why are we so hopeless?

Herndon: Right. Yet we look around... all these things we have and how we can find things on the Internet to help people, provide information to people. We have more advances in technology; we have more advances in science. We have all these other things. Why do we just walk around hopeless and empty?

Cook: Yes and I've seen in my reading about black 'granny' midwives. It's social history. For instance a black woman, who had ten kids... how her husband would carry on, how her children would help, how the farm would keep going. It was just incredible. Now what happens... ? You're right. It's a wonderful subject! You are a writer! You'll have to go on circuit!

Herndon: Yeah and I have another book title that I want to develop. It's called the Evolution of Success.

Cook: Would that just be your book?

Herndon: Yes that's the book I want to write. I was looking at how people are successful. They get to one plateau but then they grow and they reinvent and retool themselves for another level, plateau of success. They reach that and they go on and on. I don't believe in the whole idea of evolution from Darwinism but I do pull from what he's talked about, the survival of the fittest and those that do survive and have been able to survive because they were willing or had the possibility to adapt to change. If people don't adapt you know regardless of your field, if there's a language to pick up, pick up that language, if there's new computer technology to learn, pick that up because people are going to be left behind if you don't pick up different things to do to reinvent ourselves and retool ourselves...

That's what I'm talking about with the 'evolution of success,' reaching plateaus and moving on to the next rung. In that I want to look at peoples personal histories and how they did that. For instance, for the housewife whose been at home 15-20 years and she says I'm going to college or I'm going to go back and get a master's degree or I'm going to open up my own business or I'm going to write a book, do this that and the other. How they then move from one and it's not that you stop doing whatever it is that you're doing before. It's not an either/or. It's a both 'and.' It's adding on something else that to the foundation that you already have. So that's what I'm talking about. It's an adding on.

Cook: My father retired and then two years later got his real estate license and now he's selling real estate. A good person would be Leni Sorenson. She just started college, she told me, when she was forty-six.

Herndon: Wow!

Cook: After she raised... four... how many children... I can't quite remember... but she started her undergraduate degree at forty-six.

Herndon: Forty-six. Wow! Now look at her.

Cook: Now look at her, she's wonderful. I love talking to her. So there you go. There's one person.

Herndon: Put her down! Just to talk to her, she has all these ideas and so much enthusiasm for living. I think that would be a great book because it would inspire other people too.

Cook: Get certain case histories and studies of people and say, "this is how they did it, so you can do it!"

Herndon: Yes, I need to read things like that - inspiration!

Cook: Are you still the graduate representative on the Board of Visitors?

Herndon: No longer. That was a one-year appointment. So people serve one year and then they appoint two more people, an undergrad and a graduate.

Cook: Can you talk about that?

Herndon: I had a great time doing that! I pretty much was the spokesperson for the graduate student population at the Board of Visitor meetings to let them know certain issues, certain concerns that were going on with the graduate student population. How they could shape policy related to certain things within the graduate student population. Even though I was for the graduate student population, I was also at times given the opportunity to speak for students, in general. So, that was a great situation for me. I enjoyed it, learned a lot, learned about policy, learned about the operation of the University from the top, a birds-eye view and seeing how when someone says we should have this that or the other kind of thing here at the University just the different chains of command and the different levels of bureaucracy that it has to go through before it reaches the Board of Visitors before they have an opportunity to vote the ARNA... So groundwork has to be done, research has to be done on that particular matter.

Cook: It's like a full time job.

Herndon: Right. Then it goes from committees. We have different committees here at the university. Like for example, the Commission of Student Affairs. They deal with student related issues so if the Committee on Student Affairs studies an issue and they recommend a policy. For example and that goes from the Commission of Student Affairs to the Provost, then to the President and the President will recommend to the Board of Visitors for that particular policy. Then that particular policy becomes 'a policy' in the graduate or undergrad catalog.

Cook: Very complicated! This isn't on my list but it just popped into my mind. You're a very good professor and I was wondering where you get your technique. Was it at Howard or did you just come to it naturally?

Herndon: I think from a combination of things. From my mother, from my mother being a schoolteacher and seeing her teach and also she's a Sunday school teacher and I'd see her teach on Sunday's and from other people that I pull from. From my aunt, from some of my Howard professors and even some people that I worked with at Longwood. So from a combination of people have influenced the way that I've approached people and approach students and approach a topic is how I teach.

Cook: I think that you are very student oriented but you're approachable and also demand respect and I think that's hard to balance.

Herndon: Yes, it's hard. It's a tightrope act. Because I always say that respect begets respect and that if a person wants to receive respect then they have to show respect just like if a person wants to have friends they have to show themselves as friendly. So if a person wants to receive respect and respect is earned you know it's not just because they are the XYZ of the ABC, that you automatically... you know but because of the relationship they have with others and how they engage and respect other people.

So if I want people to respect me whether they are students or whatever, I have to first open up myself to give respect in order to receive respect. I always do that especially with students to say that my time is their time and if I want them to respect me than I have to approach them in a very respectful manner. First, they are human beings. They have value, they have worth. They have potential. They have this 'hope that's unborn.' Maybe they have been untapped and so I can learn from them and they can learn from me. It's a reciprocal kind of thing. I don't see it as I'm standing on this platform and I'm looking down upon the underlings but we're all in the same level.

We're all in the same life's journey and we can learn from each other and I think that the system of hierarchy is okay in certain situations and circumstances because we can only have one president of the university, we can only have one President of the United States but just in the regular day-to-day interactions of human experiences I think we should cut through all of that and see each other on a human level. We can learn from each other. We can give and receive something and everybody has something to contribute. So we look at a person from their perspective and not look at them as some people... I've heard the term the 'lowly freshman.' Well you have to start somewhere.

Cook: I've never understood that.

Herndon: You can't start off from high school and become a senior in college so whomever, the president of the university, the president of the nation, they all had to be a freshman. Everybody had to be a freshman some time so it's not a state of lowliness but it's a...

Cook: Step...

Herndon: That's right. It's a beginning. I was... I don't like to use that kind of terminology... the lowly freshman or even... because even though that person is a freshman, they could teach me a whole lot about computers. They could teach me something... I mean I know some freshmen that come here... they know how to build computers from the ground up. So who am I to say because this person doesn't have any credit hours they don't have anything to contribute. I've had some life lessons I've learned and some things I can share with them and also they can share some things with me that I don't know anything about. People just have to rethink the way they interact with people and how we treat people. I was always taught to treat people the way you want to be treated. If you want to be treated with respect, you give respect.

Cook: I also like the way... I guess it is my perspective as an older student but some students still want to slide by and do as little as they can... like in your class and how you handled that when students in Maymester, weren't showing up when there weren't many classes. I liked how you demanded respect.

Herndon: I also want to show them they're not only hurting themselves, you're cheating yourself. I don't know what it is now. I'll have to recalculate it. But based on last years tuition for every class a person missed it's like taking $62.00 and basically throwing it out the window or flushing it.

Cook: Do you know I told my daughter that and she said that was one of the most important things and that when she would get up in the morning she would think that's $62.00.

Herndon: Just think about in the whole scheme of things with tuition and fees for every class, Monday, Wednesday, Fridays or Tuesday/Thursdays classes and of course Tuesday/Thursday classes cost more because it's only two times a week but the Monday, Wednesday, Friday class, that's two hours for every class missed and you think about for example getting back to family and parents and the sacrifices that certain families are making. Some people are working two or three jobs, taking out loans...

Cook: That's a lot of money to me!

Herndon: Right! That's a telephone bill or a light bill that could be paid or something or food... !

Cook: Or money you won't have to owe. I told my daughter $60. That's a good thing to tell students. I wanted to ask about your church community in Blacksburg.

Herndon: Okay. My church community here in Blacksburg. I'm a member. Well, I'm actually not a member of... but I attend. They treat me like a member... St. Paul's African Methodist Episcopal. That's where Dr. Pendergrass attends. I like that as well. It's a good church, small, community oriented, family oriented.

Cook: I'd like to go sometimes. Mrs. Cook has been at least once that I know and she just really liked it.

Herndon: Very good people, warm. They greet you and it's the kind of place that they want you to come back. I like it. I've gone there since I've been here.

Cook: So that's Methodist and Episcopal?

Herndon: Yes.

Cook: What's the community that you belong to in Farmville?

Herndon: At home I belong to a Baptist Church. Actually I'm a bonafide, official, if you want to call it that, member. This is your regular traditional Baptist church. It's an independent Baptist Church. It's not associated with any particular denomination. Its called Race...like running a race... Race Street Baptist Church.

Cook: That sounds familiar... Race Street... I don't know why.

Herndon: I have to go because I have to meet a student in a few minutes.

Cook: Okay. How about are there any other things you'd like to bring up that I haven't asked you? Have we covered everything? We've done pretty well.

Herndon: We've covered it.

Cook: Alright. How about this one? If you could briefly address this. What problems pertaining to African Americans do you think the University should address?

Herndon: In a nutshell. I guess, in short, the University needs to really focus on recruiting and retaining. They both go hand-in-hand. Don't bring more black people here until those people who are already here feel comfortable enough and satisfied to the point where they can tell their brothers and sisters and other black people at home or their high schools, their cousins, you need to be at Virginia Tech.

Cook: It's a good place!

Herndon: It's a good place to be. It really is a good place. I'm not saying that recruitment efforts shouldn't go on. Yes, it's a both/and situation while we are recruiting more people to come here we need to bump up the retention efforts. What can we do to keep those who are already here? As we are doing it we are recruiting people but as people become more satisfied with the University experience then the recruitment effort will be easier. Word of mouth is the best kind of advertisement. So we need to do that. One of the things I'm concerned about that has troubled me and this is a whole other session but I'll tell you about it in a nutshell. Some of the people here on campus, the white people, some of the white people who are on campus, who are opposed to whatever kind of recruitment or retention efforts of black students. Some of those people, some of those same ones are hollering and yelling at Cassell Coliseum at the football team. Why is it that the football players can find Exit 118 off of 581 but other students who would fit in well with Virginia Tech, they don't find Virginia Tech but they find JMU, they find William and Mary, they find VCU, they find some of the other schools. What are those schools doing that Virginia Tech isn't doing?

So on the one hand, it's really a contradictory kind of situation where some people have said we don't need to be doing this and we don't need to be doing anything in terms of affirmative action because it's not right. They think it's reverse discrimination but none of them are fussing or complaining about the disproportionate amount of blacks being on the football team. I have nothing against the football team. I love the football team. I know a lot of football players but it's a contradiction. So in a sense, they're saying if the black people do come here they should only perform for the University on the athletic perspective but they don't highlight or look on the greater possibilities of people who want to come here purely for academics.

I think that the University could do a better job of recruiting and retaining. I know that the President currently has that as one of his top goals and initiatives. I'm glad that he's here to do that and I also thing that other black people need to embrace that initiative and help with the recruitment and retaining. It's not what the University can do for you. I'm not trying to pull of a 'John Kennedy' kind of statement but it falls along the lines of a John Kennedy statement. What is it we are doing for ourselves and doing for the University to make it a better place? It's not going to become a better place overnight without a lot of hard work. That's why I want to stay here to be in the trenches to see the evolution of success at Virginia Tech.

Cook: Good comment! Thank you, Professor Herndon


Part One - Part Two -Part Three


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