Against the Odds: One Woman’s Journey to Higher Education
As the commencement speaker for Colorado Technical University’s June 2014 ceremony, Dr. Bertice Berry has plenty of wisdom to impart to the graduating class. So much so that we’re bringing her trademark combination of fierce intellect and razor-sharp humor to bear on a series of blog posts in which she reveals a few life lessons everyone ought to know.
There’s a reason why Dr. Bertice Berry is a highly sought presenter and speaker. Look at her, and you’re mesmerized by the joy she radiates. Listen to her, and you’re inspired by her message (and entertained by her humor).
Considering her charisma and laundry list of accomplishments – she has a Ph.D. in Sociology, she’s a bestselling author, she was once the host of a nationally syndicated talk show – it’s easy to assume that success breeds success. Yet Berry’s life has not always been this satisfying, and even she marvels at the trajectory it’s taken. “It’s eerie to wake up and see the life I once dreamt,” she admits. Even more so considering that this fabulous success story was once told, point blank, that she simply was not “college material.”
Diamond in the Rough
Sadly, this proclamation might not have surprised Berry. As the sixth of seven children born to a single mother who struggled both to make ends meet and to stay sober, Berry grew up under the bleakest of circumstances. A legacy of victimized women preceded her, and a future hemmed in by cultural constraints seemed to await her. As she writes in her memoir, “The Ties That Bind,” Berry struggled to find her true self outside of racial and socioeconomic paradigms. “Many African-Americans face the fear of being thought of as ‘not black enough,’” Berry writes. “It is this fear that sometimes moves us away from our more holistic self, a self that is connected to a world that goes beyond black and white.”
In Berry’s case, she ignored the naysayers and chose instead to listen to the people around her who believed in her, like the teachers who encouraged her to apply to college. “You can’t live a life without having someone speak kindness or truth to you,” she explains, “but you must first recognize it and, second, be able to believe it.”
Berry believed it. Realizing that the way out of poverty was through education, Berry applied to seven different schools. When the time came to choose between one traditionally favored by African-American students or Jacksonville University in Florida, she followed her destiny to the Sunshine State. As luck (or fate) would have it, a wealthy benefactor contacted the university the day Berry’s application arrived. The benefactor was looking to back a potential student, “who could swim if s/he had the right backing,” but who might sink otherwise. Berry, in other words, was in.
There is, Berry hypothesizes, a small percentage of people who are self-motivated, who take action because there’s something driving them internally. Considering her story, it’s easy to see why she counts herself among those blessed few. While attending college, Berry would clean houses before going to school and clean banks after class. During the three hours she had between class and work, she’d head to the library to consume books, magazines, microfiche – whatever she could get her hands on. (And despite this schedule, Berry would eventually graduate magna cum laude.) Such self-motivation enabled Berry to surmount the tremendous obstacles that might’ve otherwise prevented her from going to college and, later, earning her graduate degree. Refusing to give credence to those who questioned her right to an education, believing that she belonged exactly where she was and then never giving up on any challenge that presented itself – all of this created a recipe for success.
Berry’s answer to how people can maintain their own self-motivation is informed by her sociological background. People can pursue status and money, or they can pursue inner growth and community involvement. One set of principles leaves people demonstrably bankrupt in the happiness department, and you can probably guess which one that is. “We miss the opportunity to be uplifted in every moment,” Berry explains. “So look and shift your focus. And if that fails, watch the birds. They can inspire you, too.”
The avian theme feels appropriate for Berry. After earning her bachelor’s degree (and the President’s Cup for leadership), she matriculated to Kent State University and earned her Ph.D. in Sociology at the tender age of 26. From there, Berry nested within the ivory tower of academia, where she became an immensely popular lecturer. So much so, in fact, that larger and larger auditoriums had to be found to accommodate the crowds clamoring for her telltale brand of teaching, which combined relatable humor with real messages about racism, sexism and other sociological subjects.
Yet, despite her popularity, academia was not Berry’s calling. She likes to quote an Arabic proverb that goes along the lines of, “When a person seeks his/her purpose, the universe aspires to answer.” In Berry’s case, the answer involved leaving academia and pursuing the multifaceted career that has become her life’s work. She is an author, a speaker, a mother, an award-winning comedienne and even, at one point, the host of “The Bertice Berry Show”. No matter what a person is doing, she says, there is always some aspect of a job to love. That belief, which she held on to even as she cleaned houses, is still true today, because loving that job creates enthusiasm, and enthusiasm gets you noticed for the next advancement.
“You can struggle,” Berry counsels, wise from life’s experience. “Or you can dream and struggle.”