With a grade point average hovering below 1.0, Larry McDaniel Jr. tried and failed at community college, dismissed on four separate occasions.
Now a master’s student in the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, McDaniel says his progress was part of a long, difficult and emotional journey.
As an African-American living in his hometown of Oakland, Calif., McDaniel spent his early 20s working a variety of retail jobs, eventually finding steady work testing video games and then supervising a quality assurance team at the same company. But layoffs during the recession forced him back into retail, selling cell phones in a shopping mall.
“I suffered a huge drop-off in income and self-esteem,” he says, “I came to a crossroads. Do I stay on a path of retail, or give education another chance?”
In 2010, he “had to beg” Berkeley City College, where he had left with a 0.81 GPA, to let him take that risk. He met with counselors and wrote a letter to the dean, explaining his experience drifting through public schools, and his decision to change his life’s path.
“I grew up in a community where working and surviving was the daily task. Education wasn’t something you focused on. You needed to work,” he says.
A first-generation college student, no one in his family had completed a four-year college degree.
“I didn’t understand the relevance of education,” he says. “My parents provided a great example of work ethic, self-taught knowledge, and sacrifice, but I had no idea what I wanted to study or needed to study to progress in my education or life.”
At 33, McDaniel is completing his master’s degree at Penn GSE. He is also a research associate at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions and has been accepted into a doctoral program at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he will start this fall.
“I’m excited to see what Larry does as he pursues his intellectual dreams,” says GSE professor Marybeth Gasman, founder and director of the Center for MSIs. “His experiences throughout college will surely shape his research and his sense of understanding for the experience of others.”
During his first year back at Berkley City College, he did not yet qualify for financial aid and had limited savings. Unable to afford to pay his gas and electricity bill, he lived in a cold, dark apartment, reading next to the window, using the light from the street lamps to do his homework.
His strategy was to stay on campus as long as he could each day, McDaniel says, hanging out in common areas as a way to escape his situation. Eventually he became part of a group of students, who he says are “like brothers now.” They helped him learn how to navigate the educational system, including the basics of how to study and read effectively.
“Getting all A’s while enduring that level of hardship told me I was in the right place,” he says. “The group insulated me and helped me build myself up to the student I am today.”
McDaniel decided he wanted to be a professor, influenced by Berkeley City College sociology professor Linda McAllister. “Office hours with her for me were like going to church,” he says.
“Community college was a place for building up – confidence, self-esteem, intellectuality – through people who really cared,” he says. “People really cared.”
In 2012, with a 3.86 GPA and a number of academic honors, he set his sights on studying sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, a block and a world away. He applied for fall admission there and at UCLA.
Both universities rejected him. McDaniel decided to write letters of appeal. As a result, he was accepted at both.
“It taught me to always be resilient, stay steadfast in my determination,” he says about the long-shot appeals. “For me there have always been roadblocks and hardships, but I have to keep pushing through.”
At UC Berkeley he found another supportive community through the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Research Fellowship. Focusing on the African American Studies Department at Berkeley High School, he researched the impact of combining culture and gender on student engagement in class.
Turns out, it matters. A lesson on the economics of African-American hair was particularly interesting, he says.
“When you talk about culture and gender, something folks strongly identify with, students become more engaged in the class,” he says, noting that was missing in his high school experience.
McDaniel’s thesis based on that research received high honors. With a 3.94 GPA and graduation from Berkeley approaching, he applied to 12 universities to pursue his Ph.D. in education.
He was rejected by every single one. Again, he was at a crossroads.
Penn, his top choice, offered him admission to the master’s program instead. He took the chance, partially supported by a Penn GSE Dean’s scholarship.
Now he is part of the Penn Center for MSIs, studying with Gasman. As a research assistant, he is working with teams on several projects, including a look at the benefits for students of having faculty of the same race or gender.
“The Center, for me, has been my safe haven,” he says.
A goal for McDaniel was to write and publish opinion pieces, which he has accomplished, writing about free speech in the higher education publication Diverse.
“I was really proud of him,” Gasman says about the article. “I think it is important for people who are interested in an academic career to be able to speak to larger audience. If you have an opinion, you should be able to back it up with evidence.”
Now McDaniel is headed to UCLA, where he will be conducting his doctoral research on community college transfer students who attend historically and predominately white universities.
“Again, I’ll be studying myself,” he says.
He emphasizes the 11 years he spent in community college, attending intermittently between 2002 and 2013, and he understands how discouraging the journey can be for students.
“I think it’s important to show them it doesn’t matter how long you’re there, just keep pushing forward,” says McDaniel.
Inspired by Gasman and her push for more diverse faculty in higher education, McDaniel says he eventually hopes to become a professor at UC Berkeley.
“I’ve taken on the challenge of being a role model for my community, to look at me as an example,” he says. “I’ve always felt that sense of responsibility since I started my new education career. I embody the change.”