Columns » Max Brantley

Graduation honors

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I went to a dinner for UALR contributors a few weeks ago and came away impressed by a public relations film that told the UALR story vividly through its students. They included a dead-end high school student who blossomed years later with UALR’s help and a middle-aged woman who works at a shelter for battered women who wants to be better equipped to help people in need. Several work their way through school, fitting classes around jobs and kids. They are on fire about education, in a mature, world-wise way. This brings me to Charlie Miller. UALR graduation is this Saturday. They don’t pass out honorary degrees at UALR. They honor students instead, students like Charles Miller Jr., 35, who took a mere 18 years to qualify for his degree in math and physics. He’s the first African-American to earn a physics degree at UALR. We can forgive Miller for his long slog to a bachelor’s degree. He graduated from Hall High School in 1987 and started UALR immediately. But he had to work for a living. And he married young. He and his wife Rulisa now have five children — Neiko, 19; Jason, 17; twins Charlie and Charity, 14, and Destiny, 11. They also provide care for two young relatives, an 18-month-old and a three-month-old. Working sometimes meant multiple jobs. Some years, he just couldn’t find time to enroll in a class. He sold Chevys. He worked in a factory making videocassettes. He worked in restaurants, finally becoming catering director at Cajun’s Wharf. He doesn’t think he could have done it anywhere but UALR. “Most of us are in the same situation,” Miller said. “We’re older, working at a full-time job. They really try to work around your schedule. It’s a much more serious atmosphere than where the younger kids are.” For years, Miller and his wife promised themselves that graduation would be a time to celebrate with a trip to Paris. But there are real-world complications. Miller is doing much of the work on restoration of a house in the Central High neighborhood. (You may have read in the paper about a surprise he found when he began this project — skeletal remains in the attic, a mystery still unsolved.) Miller hopes to have an important friend at graduation. He’s William Harris, who got Miller interested in science when he was Harris’ student at Metropolitan high school. “Without him, I’d have never gone to college,” Miller says. He thinks if more teachers put the enthusiastic emphasis on science that Harris did, more students, black and white, might get interested. Charlie Miller did and he became the first of six children in his family to complete a college education. Not that it’s completed. Though he might take a job teaching part-time at Pulaski Tech, Miller doesn’t think he has the qualifications to win a job with the kind of pay he wants. (He says it’s a pity to know what beginning science faculty members make at UALR.) When Miller first enrolled, he chose physics as a major because UALR didn’t offer engineering. It does now. He may push on for a master’s degree. “When I walk on that stage there will be a sense of accomplishment that it’s finally over. But, really, it’s not over. It’s just the end of one chapter and the beginning of another.”

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