By Mark Ziobro
When individuals leave the Utica area, we seldom, if ever, hear of what accomplishments they may have achieved while calling an area other than Utica home. Several schools of higher education line the area – MVCC, Utica College, SUNY Poly, to name a few – and opportunities for students to better themselves are aplenty.
But what happens when an individual who grows up in the greater Utica area takes the issues he sees that afflict our community and applies it to a larger scale, with a larger education, after he leaves the area. That’s what I sought to discover when talking to Fred Engram, a Utica native no working in higher education in Washington D.C.
Engram currently works in the District of Columbia at American University, where he manages graduate recruitment communications, oversees grad enrollment overall, and is an adjunct faculty in the School of Education. He has worked at this institution since 2016.
Fred Engram spoke to the Utica Phoenix about his background and current position; and probably the most remarkable thing about Engram is the deference and respect he has for the Utica area that he used to call home. Engram grew up in Cornhill, and spent time in many locales of Utica before finally moving on.
“I grew up in Utica in Cornhill when I was younger,” Engram said. “Then East Utica, and West Utica.”
Engram shared that he graduated from high school in 2001 and went straight to undergraduate college at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte NC.
“I graduated from Proctor in 2001, and after that attended Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte NC private school, and graduated in 2005 with a BA in Criminology. I earned my Masters at the University of Phoenix in 2009 in the Administration of Justice and Security (for many years I wanted to go to law school). Then I had a come to Jesus moment. I have a deep a passion for social justice and the law, but more from an educational perspective. I developed a great interest in educating people.”
Engram didn’t go straight from Utica to college to American University, however. After earning his BA in Charlotte, jobs looked bleak, and Engram came back to Utica to pursue employment. In Utica, he held jobs at the following agencies and companies: The House of the Good Shepherd, Bank of NY Mellon, and Utica College.
Engram shared that Utica College was a wake up experience for him, and, in many ways, shaped the path of his career toward race, social justice, and education.
Engram shared that at Utica College he was the only African American in the office, and was assigned to urban areas like Atlanta, NYC, etc. His position was the Assistant Director of Undergraduate Administration. But Engram, who didn’t have a car (and which wasn’t elaborated during the job application process or interview as a necessity for the position) was unable to drive to some of the out-of-the way locations such as Atlanta. He was summarily let go from the position, which Engram found odd and unsettling.
“This could have been a learning moment, not just a summary termination,” he said “I was like ‘wow.’”
However distasteful his termination from UC was, it pointed Engram in the direction that he wanted to go with his life and his career. One of the things he noticed was that not a lot of representatives in higher education/administration advocate for students of color specifically. Looking at that, Engram realized what issues students of color face; and, lugubriously, the sheer amount of racism and race issues that afflict American college campuses. He elaborated on this, stating that students often don’t feel like they belong, even in a more liberal, advanced city like his campus in D.C.
“Students complain about not feeling they belong here, and deal with aggressive behaviors from the teachers themselves.”
When I asked Engram what kind of aggressive behaviors these entailed, he stated that they ranged from professors talking down to students, comments about physical appearance, (natural hair, why/how they got here,) and not having resources (lack of internships, etc. being told there’s nothing available while white people have these opportunities given to them).
Some more deleterious elements Engram also spotted on campus, such as overt signs of racism such as nooses hanging from trees and bananas scattered around, etc. He attributed some of this to old fashioned racism, but some to the current administration.
“With the recent administration people are becoming more emboldened. Howard University is historically black, and white female high school students came on campus with MAGA hats. Quite naturally this will cause students to feel “who’s really here for us?” These kind of things let me know what I was supposed to do with my education.
Engram, who eventually went on to get his doctorate in Higher Education Administration from Northeastern University in Boston had some advice for people looking to go into education, specifically in representing under-represented groups.
“It requires passion,” he stated. “It’s more work than it is fun.” He underlined the importance to Black youths to see Black teachers – to see representation of themselves in the classroom.
“Seeing representation like this can make them think “this can happen to me too.” A lot these kids come from single-parent homes, Seeing this kind of structure can save lives..”
Engram also spoke about the elephant in the room when dealing with race issues – systemic racism.
“[We] have to have people who aren’t afraid to have the conversation. Most people who hold white supremacist views are the people most afraid to talk about it out loud. The way we look at white privilege…but once you talk about it, it gives you permission to fight it in some ways.,” he stated.
Engram wants to continue to aid and assist those he represents While he doesn’t have plans to return to the Utica area to work and/or live, he’s offered his services in terms of offering advice, mentorship, and enlightenment on how he managed to do what he did.
He also felt remiss to not conclude the interview without paying homage to his family, which not only helped point him in the right direction, but to keep him out of harms’ way.
“My immediate family kept me grounded,” he said.
Fred Engram is a sterling example of what good can come from both fighting racism and encouraging youths of color to strive for their potential. We need role models, not illusory concepts and lip service. Let’s learn from his example and help inspire the students of tomorrow to follow in his footsteps.