May 25, 2024

Non-Traditional Student Excels at CSM

Non-Traditional Student at CSM

This student is non-traditional.

Benjamin Brown of Randle Cliff in Calvert County is 65. That makes him more than a generation older than the average 25-year-old College of Southern Maryland student. While some of his classmates have recently finished high school and might still live with their parents, Mr. Brown arrived at CSM for his first semester fall 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 stopped in high school.

Mr. 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.”

His life has not always been easy, but Mr. Brown has responded with the attitude that “you make mistakes, but you learn from them, and then you have to move on.” From his earliest experiences to now, he is known for an open, friendly demeanor, enthusiasm for learning, and his commitment to sharing life’s lessons with others. Those who have benefited from these lessons began with his fellow detainees in juvenile detention, carrying forward to his three children, seven grandchildren, and now his fellow CSM students.

“I’ve got a story to tell, and I don’t mind telling it,” he said.

Mr. Brown impressed his criminal justice instructor at CSM, Assistant Professor Katrina Robertson. She noted that he was unusually engaged with the subject, and he was willing to share with 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,” Ms. 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 Mr. Brown in Ms. Robertson’s class. “He approached the lessons with such confidence and charisma, making it a refreshing experience for all,” Mr. French said. “By speaking of his multiple experiences and sharing wonderful anecdotes, he was able to support the content being supplied by [instructor] Robertson.”

Mr. French said he was not the only one impressed by Mr. 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,” he said.

Mr. Brown grew up near Richmond, Va. When he was 3, his father died of a heart attack at 42. At school, Mr. Brown liked to learn, 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 his 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,” Mr. Brown said. “I intervened, but it wasn’t enough.”

He 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 him and arrested him. “I made the biggest mistake of my life,” he said.

“The judge was hard,” Mr. 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 his school record.

“I respect his decision because it helped me grow up as a man,” he said.

Mr. Brown was incarcerated until 1972 in what he described as a maximum security youth prison. He recalled 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 he completed his sentence and was released, Mr. Brown’s 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 raised three children.

When he was released, his mother urged him to go to college to complete his education. Mr. Brown had always dreamed of becoming an attorney. During his 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 allow him to attend college to get the training and credentials he wanted. “I just never took the time,” he said. “I just worked.”

He 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 dreams and his late mother’s hopes for him. He heard a librarian and a patron talking about the General Educational Development 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 find out 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 earned his diploma through the Maryland Adult National External Diploma Program, 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.

For Mr. Brown, earning his high school diploma was only 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.”

He had been receiving CSM’s course listing in the mail for years, and now that he qualified to go back to school, he couldn’t wait to use that listing to make his own selections. “I was excited,” he said, “like a kid getting his first, brand-new bike.”

He started his college courses at CSM in 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, Mr. 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.”

CSM provides low/no cost Adult Basic Education 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 tailored to meet the needs of each student.

The Maryland Adult NEDP is another option also offered in Calvert and St. Mary’s counties. Students 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 online, 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.

For information about these programs, email [email protected] or call 240-725-5473 in St. Mary’s County or 443-550-6149 in Calvert County.

For more about the College of Southern Maryland, visit their Leader member page.

One Response to “Non-Traditional Student Excels at CSM”
  1. This is a wonderful story. Good luck and congratulations on starting this new and exciting chapter of your life, Mr. Brown!

Leave A Comment