Associate Vice Provost and Director of the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives, University of Michigan.
by Sandy Gholston - November 19, 2009
Eager for an opportunity to prove himself, John Matlock boarded a bus that took him to what today is known as Ferris State University. That was in the spring of 1968.
In a way, the once introverted young man's journey placed him on a course for parts unknown.
Matlock's leap of faith was the start of an amazing journey symbolic of how a blend of opportunity and hard work can serve as the foundation of success. The opportunity at Ferris took the Detroit native from being a high-school dropout, at the age of 16, to earning a Bachelor of Science degree from Ferris in 1971 and a Master of Arts degree and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan.
In many ways, John's journey can be a template for the vision of Woodbridge N. Ferris, who believed in education for all people. Indeed, one of Mr. Ferris' legendary quotes reads: "My plea in Michigan -- and it will be my plea to the last breath I draw, and the last word I speak -- is education for all children, all men, and all women of Michigan, all the people in all our states all the time."
"I was accepted at Ferris and honestly, I really didn't know where Big Rapids was located. But, I hopped on a bus with my life's possessions in a footlocker and headed for Brophy Hall," said Matlock, who today serves as Associate Vice Provost and Director of the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives at the University of Michigan. "I was from Detroit and I had been working on an (auto) assembly line for nearly four years -- since age 18, but I knew that I wanted to go to college. When I was accepted at Ferris it gave me an opportunity to live out that dream. Ferris was the only college that would accept me and give me a chance."
Education, sparked by opportunity, eventually opened doors for John and numerous others who pursued a college degree at Ferris. He went from wondering about his personal future to helping shape the nation's future as chief of staff for U.S. Representatives John Conyers, of Michigan and Harold Ford Sr., of Tennessee, and through his involvement with students at several college campuses. Through his association with Rep. Conyers, John had an extraordinary opportunity to get to know a woman who had influenced not only him, but his generation and future generations of young African-Americans -- the legendary civil rights activist Rosa Parks.
The foundation for such amazing opportunities was Ferris.
In Big Rapids, John became editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, The Torch -- a status that once was unthinkable for an African-American prior to the period he assumed that role for the 1970-71 academic year. He also was the first African-American to receive the "FSU Man of the Year" award. Additionally, John served as (acting) student publication adviser and taught journalism for two years at Ferris after earning his master's at the University of Michigan.
The Ferris opportunity was one John made sure he did not squander.
"Ferris was an excellent place for me to develop, and I honestly don't think that development could have happened at any other campus," said John, who also interned at the Detroit Free Press prior to earning his master's in journalism. "When I was at Ferris there was no doubting my mind that I was right where I needed to be, having a chance to meet a group of folks, in my various capacities, who would go on to be lifelong friends, including current Ferris Board of Trustees member Ronald Snead. I also had great professors who encouraged me -- in particular, Professor John McNamara who believed in me and my capabilities much sooner than I did."
His college years molded him into the man he is today.
"I came in as a pretty shy person. Ferris allowed me an opportunity to get to know myself and to become comfortable dealing with others," said John, who married his wife, Margaret Scisney-Matlock, a professor of nursing at U-M, both in Detroit and, at the invitation of Nigerian friends, in Africa. The couple has one daughter, Robin. "Getting involved in social activism and standing up for a greater cause allowed me to blossom. I always tell my students that activism is not confined to just experiences on a college campus -- you need to commit your entire life to trying to make a difference. The issues just don't disappear when one graduates," he said.
A Ferris education was the foundation for future success.
"For me, Ferris was a place to put it all together," John said. "It made the next steps for me that much easier and that's why Ferris will always be a special place for me. As a matter of fact, it really prepared me for my continued studies."
John, still an activist at heart, hopes future students will have the same chance he got from Ferris as he turned opportunity into achievement.
He believes access to a college education is critically important -- just as Woodbridge Ferris thought when he founded Ferris State University 125 years ago when it was known as the Big Rapids Industrial School.
". . .I often think of the number of students who will not have the same opportunities that I have had -- we still have a long ways to go in creating educational opportunities, and access and success for students of color and employment opportunities for faculty and staff of color," he said. "Given the racial, ethnic and gender demographics of the future, all colleges and universities have no choice but to diversify as a matter of survival."