On the Road to Northampton

The roads diverged -- and led to Northampton

by Myra Saturen,

Michael Sparrow, Brian Alnutt, Amy Van Varick and Anize Appel"There is a theme song for everything in my life," said Dr. Anize Appel, assistant director of the Center for International Education at Northampton Community College (NCC).  On February 16, Appel surprised an audience at NCC with clips of traditional Haitian music, a Sub-Saharan bimba song, and several other tunes that held special meaning for her at different phases of her life.  

Appel's was one of many inspiring stories told at the annual event, "The Road to Northampton." by four panelists whose paths led them to work at the College.  

Appel grew up in a bicultural, bilingual family; her father, an elevator operator, came from Haiti and her mother, a sweatshop worker, from Panama.  Her parents gave Appel her first glimpse down the road to a possible career; gifts of children's toy medical kits.  Was this a hint?  If you asked Appel herself at that time, she would have told you she preferred to be a bubble-gum maker because she loved the treat.  "I was setting myself up for low expectations," she said.     

Eventually, instead of gum, she focused on higher education, treading a path strewn with barriers. Rather than discourage her, however, these obstacles spurred her on.  The first roadblock arose at age 19 when she contracted meningitis.  Her bout with a potentially fatal illness urged her to do what she had longed to do: marry her fiancé, and have children.  Then she discovered that one of her children had reading difficulties.  This challenge prompted her to earn a master's degree in education. 

During graduate school, Appel's theme song became Crazy by Gnarls Barkely, as she navigated a world "where no one looked like me."  Mary J. Blige's affirmative song I'm Fine propelled Appel across the political quicksand that is often a doctoral program.   Now, she says, Pharrell Williams's hit "Happy" conveys her feelings at NCC, where her journey took her last year.  

Brian Alnutt, associate professor of history, followed his love for learning and history to NCC six years ago.  Born in Philadelphia, he was raised in southern New Jersey, which he describes as sort of a state within a state, a flat, swampy place where beach-goers "go down the shore," or "go downa shore."  His favorite subject in prep school was social studies, and he devoured history books.  "I couldn't keep myself out of libraries," he said. 

Nonetheless, after graduating from Muhlenberg College, Alnutt did not envision a career in academia.  Rather, he went into corporate communication and advertising, fields he enjoyed for a while.  Attending his fiancee's graduation ceremony at Moravian College, however, he watched the procession of professors.  "Think of the deep levels of knowledge there," he thought to himself, comparing the conversations he imagined faculty would have with the usual shop talk and chats about sports he'd encountered at the office.  He wanted to talk about politics and history instead.  He decided it was time for the next stage, a PhD.  "I was fulfilled every day," he said of his studies.  

Alnutt's passion now is to acquire knowledge and disseminate it.  He delights when a student says "I never knew that," or "Your teaching shook me up!"  He notes that in order to be active citizens, people must know about their country and world. 

Michael Sparrow, director of NCC's Learning Center, recalled his inauspicious beginning as a seventeen-year-old student at Northampton.  He remembers his first day, when his mother dropped him off in a leaky Lebaron car and he was late for class.  "I lasted ten months, and then I withdrew," he said.  I was adrift.  I had no idea what I was doing [in college]."  

His grandfather was a Marine, but Sparrow enlisted in the Navy, where he thrived.  He received five promotions in seven years, attaining the rank of petty officer, first class.  But then the unexpected happened: he began losing dramatic amounts of weight.  Bewildered, he first thought that job pressure as a Navy recruiter lay behind his accelerating thinness.  It turned out he had a serious chronic disease, ulcerative colitis.  During a long hospitalization at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, where he underwent surgery, he decided to give college another try.  Although he had been accepted at Columbia University and had started at Hunter College, his stepfather's death convinced him to study in the Lehigh Valley, to be near his twice-widowed mother.  He enrolled at Lafayette College.  After graduation, he taught at various colleges and worked to help veterans before landing his position at NCC.   

Sparrow's road to Northampton brought him full circle, back to Northampton.  It also brought him to his future wife, whom he met in the Harriett and Paul Mack Library on the Bethlehem campus.  "I am happy to give back to NCC, which has given me so much," he said.

His experiences taught Sparrow's three lessons: perseverance, having a Plan B and that the past informs the present but doesn't dictate the future.      

"You are not college material," Amy Van Varick's guidance counselor told her.   The assistant professor of business law and paralegal studies did well in class but not on the standardized tests used to "track" students in high school.  "Go into the farming arts,"-a field remote from Van Varick's interests-her guidance counselor advised, based on one of these exams.  

She continued to struggle at Montclair State College.  "I was the first in my family to go to college, and failure wasn't an option," she said. "I studied like Rambo."  She also sought help from the learning center at her college.    

Fortunately, after trying accounting and business management, Van Varick chose paralegal studies.  The head of the department, Marilyn Tayler, saw Van Varick's high potential.  With Tayler's encouragement, Van Varick became a stellar student and gained self-confidence.  She was admitted to Seton Hall University Law School, where she received the prestigious Reardon Award.  Still, another hurdle lay ahead: the law board exams.  She failed her first attempt by one point.  What could be blocking her path?  At last she solved the puzzle: she had dyslexia.  She now realized that her high school's reliance on standardized tests not only misrepresented her abilities, but also left her unprepared for college.  On her second try, she conquered the bar exam, going on to teach at Montclair and at other colleges, setting up a law practice, and arriving at NCC.  

"All of my roads led me to Northampton," she said.  Her own battles have made her sensitive to  students' different learning styles, an insight she uses in  her teaching.  She strives to do for her students what her mentors did for her.   Besides crediting Tayler for leading her on her way, she also thanks her parents: "When I told them that I couldn't do it, they said 'why not? ,' " she recalls.  

Ironically, Van Varick, now a lawyer, ran into her high school guidance counselor at a conference at Montclair State.  "Are you here waiting for someone?" the counselor asked.  "I'm teaching here, and I have a law degree," Van Varick replied, with graciousness and dignity.   

In the "Road to Northampton" program booklet, the panelists encapsulated their core beliefs: 

Alnutt: "You'll spend your lives learning." 

Appel: "Compete against yourself; use your last best performance as the guide." 

Sparrow: "A goal without a plan is just a wish.  Dream, plan, act, repeat." 

Van Varick: "Prove a naysayer wrong with dignity and grace...even if it's your high school guidance counselor."  

The Road to Northampton annual panel discussion began about twenty years ago, initiated by Sandra Del Cueto and the Hispanic Caucus when members of the caucus realized that although the College brings in interesting outside speakers, NCC faculty and administrators have fascinating and inspirational life stories, too.  

The event was sponsored by the Hispanic Caucus and the International Students program.  It included an international coffee bar.