Benjamin Brown Inspires with Hard-won Wisdom as He Pursues Dream
He is a non-traditional student.
At 65, Benjamin Brown of Randle Cliff in Calvert County is more than a generation older than the average 25-year-old College of Southern Maryland (CSM) undergraduate. And while some of his fellow students have just recently finished high school and may still be living with their parents, Brown arrived at CSM for his first semester the fall of 2016 as a retiree laden with experience earned from overcoming a lifetime of challenges — the death of his father at a young age, incarceration in a juvenile detention home and the responsibility of supporting a family on an education that ended in high school.
Brown is also an inspiring student.
“Benjamin Brown is one of those students whom I will never forget,” said Martha Maratta, one of Brown’s academic advisers at CSM. “He teaches us that college is just not for traditional students right out of high school and that it is never too late to learn and to pursue goals that may have been delayed due to life experiences. I am also extremely impressed how Benjamin inspires and mentors younger students. He contributes a new depth to the classroom experience.”
“I’ve got a story to tell, and I don’t mind telling it,” he said.
Brown also impressed his criminal justice instructor at CSM, Assistant Professor Katrina Robertson. She noted that he was unusually engaged with the subject matter, and he was willing to tell the class about his personal experiences with the criminal justice system and what he learned from them.
“His openness, and willingness to share his experiences impacted not only the class, but me as well,” Robertson said. “I won’t say I was surprised to find out he supported law enforcement, but I was surprised that he would share those feelings with the class. His classmates respected him, his views and his experiences. He made my class what it was this semester. Benjamin ‘left a mark,’ not only on the class, but on me as well.”
CSM student Simon French became friends with Brown in Robertson’s class. “He approached the lessons with such confidence and charisma, making it a refreshing experience for all,” French said. “By speaking of his multiple experiences and sharing wonderful anecdotes, he was able to support the content being supplied by [Instructor] Robertson.”
French added that he was not the only one impressed by Brown’s life experience and contribution to the class. “We shared the class with a few students fresh out of high school, and I feel he definitely changed their perspective on work ethic and dedication.”
Brown grew up near Richmond, Virginia. When he was 3 years old, his father died at 42 of a heart attack. At school, Brown was a good learner, he said, “But I was mischievous.” A record of suspensions and getting in trouble caused by that mischievousness at school impacted the outcome of an event the summer of 1968, just before Brown’s senior year in high school. “What you do in school carries. That’s a record,” he said.
That summer day, he had arranged to meet a group of five friends to play basketball. Unbeknownst to him, the friends planned to use the gathering as an opportunity to rob a couple they knew would be in the area. “They beat them up pretty bad,” Brown said. “I intervened, but it wasn’t enough.”
Brown was the only one of the group that the woman could identify due to an unusual piece of clothing he was wearing, and the police found Brown and arrested him. “I made the biggest mistake of my life,” he said.
“The judge was hard,” Brown said. Even though his grades were solid and he had a letter from the military accepting him, the judge pointed out that there were some suspensions on Brown’s school record. “The judge said … ‘He’s heading down the wrong road,’” Brown said.
“I respect his decision because it helped me grow up as a man,” Brown said.
Brown was incarcerated until 1972 in what he describes as a maximum security youth prison. He remembers the shame and embarrassment he felt when his mother, Janie Brown, came to visit him and how he wished he hadn’t put her in that situation. At the center, he stayed out of trouble and worked on completing a string of certificate programs — woodworking, welding, electrical. And he counseled fellow inmates to rethink any plans of pursuing a career in crime, “They weren’t very successful at it if they were in the detention center, were they?” he said.
After Brown completed his sentence and was released, his parole officer helped him get a job with the Commonwealth of Virginia, working with the maintenance department. He worked there for the next 11 years. Then, he took a job with a box manufacturer and worked there for 25 years. He married twice and helped raise three children.
From the time he was released from the detention center, his mother had urged him to go to college to complete his education. Brown had always dreamed of becoming an attorney. During his work career, he exercised his advocacy and mediation skills serving as his union’s president for 21 years. But, the financial responsibility of taking care of his family never seemed to afford him the opportunity to attend college to get the training and credentials he desired. “I just never took the time,” he said. “I just worked.”
Brown retired in 2011 and moved to Southern Maryland where he has family, and he looked forward to enjoying the water and some good fishing.
Visiting the public library one day, he was reminded of his early dreams and his now deceased mother’s hopes for him. He heard a librarian and a patron talking about the General Educational Development (GED) test. When a test taker passes this exam, he or she is awarded a high school diploma in the state of Maryland. Once the library patron had left, Brown approached the librarian to learn more. He needed to re-earn his GED because the detention center’s records of his first GED were so poor, and there were aspects of his schooling that Brown needed to relearn.
He found that he could earn his diploma through the Maryland Adult National External Diploma Program (NEDP), which is a nationally recognized high school diploma option for adults, 18 and older. The program is designed for adults who have developed high school level skills through life experience.
Brown enrolled and completed the program in five months. But, to Brown, earning his high school diploma was just the first step. “You’ve got this rare diamond, too large to put on my hand,” he said, describing his new credentials. “I want to see what it can do going forward.”
For the past several years, he had been receiving CSM’s course listing in the mail, and, now that he qualified, he said he couldn’t wait to finally make some selections for himself. “I was excited,” he said, “like a kid getting his first, brand-new bike.”
He began college courses at CSM in fall 2016. “It seemed like a better fit for me,” he said, explaining why he chose a community college. “I thought I would be better prepared once the four-year college came into play.” And he liked that he was already familiar with the campus because the GED course had ended there. “You’re right in this building. You can get your start right here,” he said.
By 2018, Brown hopes to have earned his associate degree. Then he hopes to enter the University of Maryland’s law program and, he chuckles, earn his juris doctorate by 2024. “By the time I’m 71, I should have that in my hand,” he said. “That would be a joy to me.”
Brown came to the attention of Dr. Rich Fleming, vice president at CSM’s Prince Frederick Campus, at an Adult Education graduation ceremony held at Huntingtown High School. CSM now oversees the GED program in both Calvert and St. Mary’s counties. Brown was one of the student speakers at the ceremony. “His story is impressive, and community colleges exist, in part, to help people like him achieve their academic goals. He epitomizes an adult learner who has a goal and the drive to achieve that goal. He is an inspiration to many of our students. We’re here to help him succeed and I can’t wait to be at graduation when he receives his associate degree.”
“My experience with CSM has been just incredible,” Brown said. “The school has a lot to offer. CSM has opened doors and my eyes to a lot of things.
CSM provides low/no cost Adult Basic Education (ABE) and GED Preparation. Classes meet two times per week at various locations in Calvert and St. Mary’s counties. These classes are small and learning is individualized to meet the needs of each student.
The Maryland Adult NEDP is another option also offered in Calvert and St. Mary’s counties. Students will meet once a week for a one-on-one appointment with an adviser. Students must attend orientation and receive a qualifying score on the assessment to enter the program. The Maryland Adult NEDP is a nationally recognized high school diploma option for adults, 18 and older. It is an alternative to the GED exam and is designed for adults who have developed high school level skills through life experience. NEDP measures academic as well as life skills through on-line, at-home assignments and work done in the center. The diploma is issued by the Maryland State Board of Education and the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation and is accepted by colleges and universities. Some colleges may require that adults meet additional admission standards.