In keeping with February’s emphasis on Black History Month we profile one of our MLK Leader Scholars, John-Paul Gillett, a senior from Brooklyn, New York.
For New York City native John-Paul Gillett, leaving the venerable cultural melting pot of Brooklyn to attend a small private college in Kansas did not make any sense—until his father asked him to do it.
“It’s time to talk about college, Son,” Gillett says, recalling the conversation between him and his father.
“Great! There are so many good schools in Brooklyn.”
“Not in Brooklyn. You’d be going to Kansas. I want you to visit MidAmerica Nazarene University, son, where I went to school.”
“At that point I just stopped talking,” says Gillett laughing.
Like so many Brooklynites, Gillett felt a strong connection to New York City’s most populous borough, where public transportation meant not needing a car—or a driver’s license—good schools in New York were abundant—and a strong support network of friends became like members of his extended family.
“It was never all good, though” Gillett says. “Drugs would get sold right in front of our home, prostitution was highly visible, and there are times we heard gun shots ring out really close in the neighborhood. But I was at home in Brownsville, and I felt a really deep connection to the good that lies at the heart of Brooklyn. At that point, I never really wanted to leave.”
According to an article written by Feifei Sun, associate editor for Time Magazine, Brownsville has long been one of New York City’s most perilous neighborhoods, especially in the context of gang activity, robbery and other forms violent crime. Although Sun acknowledges the significant downward trend in crime in NYC’s other boroughs since 2009, Brownsville remains the unfortunate exception. In the years that followed the study, violent crime rates and gang activity in Brownsville continued to rise, leading many small business owners to sell their livelihoods, relocate and inadvertantly contribute the decline of economic conditions and thus the increase in crime.
While living in the borough, and attending a high school that reflects the same challenges of illicit drug use and violence so prevalent in the community, Gillett says he began to realize many students feel trapped by their environment, and some were contending with either broken or dysfunctional homes that offered little encouragement or emotional support. For this reason, Gillett believes his Christian upbringing and the wisdom of his father, Rev. Elmer Gillett (’78), helped him rise above the influence of his surroundings and to become something different. In the future, Gillett says he hopes to pass that wisdom on to students who may never hear it again by visiting high schools in order to give motivational presentations.
“I want them to understand they’re not trapped in that environment,” Gillett says. “It is possible to succeed; you’re not stuck.”
After serious reflection, Gillett says he began to consider life outside New York City, and how new experiences might bring added focus to his college career.
“I knew I would have to make some sacrifices to leave,” Gillett says, “I just needed to find someplace a little ways off that would give me an opportunity to succeed in a different environment. Being in Kansas really taught me how to adapt and overcome.”
Taking the advice of his father—a Nazarene minister and graduate of Nazarene Theological Seminary—Gillett traveled to MNU in order to experience the Pioneer community first-hand.
“I fell in love with the school,” Gillett says. “Just the environment; how friendly the people were. I met a lot of people that I can call my lifelong friends. It’s just crazy how much these people care about you.”
Although he acknowledges the higher cost of tuition and housing fees at private universities, Gillett say he believes the smaller class sizes and better access to professors make MNU a worthwhile investment for many Americans.
“Unlike many public schools that only tell you what they expect from you to graduate, MNU actually gives you an end state, “Gillett says. “The school explains not only what they expect, but why it is expected. MNU wants you to succeed and graduate, and they make that clear from day one.”
During his first semester, Gillett says his education was funded by MNU’s Martin Luther King Jr. [MLK] scholarship, a distinction he earned based partly on the strength of his application essay. However, after attending MNU’s “Pioneer Day” recruiting fair, the young student’s direction in college morphed to allow the pursuit of a different challenge: the United States military.
“I felt I had a calling to serve my country,” Gillett says. “After high school, I wanted to join the United States Naval Academy, but during that time my parents wanted my education to come first. Fortunately, ROTC is a route that accomplishes both.”
Currently, Gillett is majoring in English, hoping the broad applicability of the degree--coupled with its emphasis on critical thinking and good communication skills--will serve both his military occupation and futre civilian employment.
“Going into the Army as an officer is challenging on its own,” Gillett says. “Not many people are qualified to do that. But to go in as an intelligence officer, you’re truly put under the microscope. I feel as if a degree in English really helps in your analytical skills, and your ability to think critically about text—two really big components of being in the intelligence branch.”
In the English department, Gillet says he has been positively impacted by a variety of students and professors, specifically Dr. Tyler Bake, MNU English professor of English and head of the English department.
"Dr. Blake has been here for me in my darkest times," Gillett says. "He has acted like a mentor to me, always giving me great academic advice, and really offering to be there for. You really know he cares."
Solid academic guidance and a patient ear are not the only virtures Dr. Blake has to offer, according to Gillett.
"He really kicks me in the butt, in a good way, if I know I've done wrong," Gillet says while laughing. "I appreciate that, becase there aren't many professors still willing to do that."
With his college career nearing a successful completion, Gillett says accepting the advice of his father and getting an education at MNU has positioned him for success. So much so that he hopes to become a role model for the high school students back home.
“I want kids from New York to know that, upon graduating, they don’t have to remain in the same environment,” Gillett says. “There are tons of opportunities outside of that city where kids can get away from street culture, learn to be independent, and make a career for themselves. They’re not stuck, and can achieve anything they’re willing to work for. I plan on being an example of that.”
Fortunately for the Cadet, Dr. Blake has more than a "kick in the butt" session to offer this time around.
"J.P.'s cheerful demeanor brings a ray of joy to everyone he encounters," Dr. Blake says. "As the father of a student soldier, I know how taxing the military workload can be, but J.P. never complains. Instead, he brightens each room he enters with his Gatsby-esque smile and enthusiasm for the topic of the day. Each semester I have had him in class, he has grown as a literary scholar, and I know he will do very well after college because of his ability to accept feedback and remain joyful in all circumstances."