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Lifelong Journey for Carlos Figueroa Begins With Chance Bus Ride to Mercer


WEST WINDSOR – It was almost by accident that Carlos Figueroa ’91 (A.S., Business) ended up at Mercer County Community College (MCCC). His journey, which started with a random bus ride, has taken him to a Ph.D. degree and his current position as Assistant Professor of Politics at Ithaca College in upstate New York.

Figueroa said he was a sophomore at Trenton Central High School at the time, when on a half-day Wednesday, he and a friend saw a small yellow bus parked in front of the school on Chambers Street.  Always curious and feeling a little adventurous, Figueroa convinced his friend to climb on the bus to see where it would take them.

Figueroa told his friend "hey, let’s explore."  The rest, as they say, is history.

"Basically, by accident, I ended up following the crowd on that bus and met a person that would end up changing the course of my life," Figueroa said.

The bus Figueroa and his friend boarded turned out to be bound for MCCC’s Trenton Campus as part of Talent Search, a program that encourages middle school and high school students to consider post-secondary educational opportunities.  The program provides support services to help students make that transition. And the man Figueroa met that day was Stan Johnson, a counselor for MCCC’s Talent Search at the time, who would mentor him through high school, college, and beyond.

Carlos Figueroa

Mercer alumnus Carlos Figueroa, currently Assistant Professor of Politics at Ithaca College in New York.

"Everything just started from there," Figueroa said. "Stan arranged trips to college campuses (such as Haverford College, Temple University and Rutgers), academic tutoring services, and various meetings with other Talent Search students for networking purposes.  Because of his efforts, I then started using the resources at the Trenton Campus more frequently.  It was just a short walk downtown from my old Chambersburg home. These experiences served me well, especially as a first-generation college bound-student, and later graduate at the highest levels."

Those walks were the first steps for what grew into a long academic, personal, and professional relationship with Mercer.  Figueroa said that while he enrolled initially as a Business student, he used Mercer as a way to experiment, taking courses in the Liberal Arts, Communications, Economics, Accounting, Theatre and other areas in search of his true passion: linking active learning to pragmatic politics. Besides his academic interests, he was a catcher for the Vikings baseball team for a year, and became active in several student organizations, including the EOF Club, and the International Student Organization.  Figueroa also worked full- and part-time jobs during his college years inside and outside Mercer.

As a work-study student, Figueroa first worked in the Music Department with Paul Scheid and later moved on to the Office of Institutional Research with Holly Staatse, Helene Plank and Roy Bundy.  And with the help of Coordinator of Cooperative Education Lynn Coopersmith – currently Dean of Organization Development and Community Programs – he landed a job in the Human Resources Office at United Parcel Service in Hamilton.  He graduated from Mercer in 1991 and went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Pre-Legal Studies at Fairleigh Dickinson University-Madison.  Then, in early 1994, Figueroa returned to Mercer – this time as Assistant Director of Admissions and Advisement under Michael Glass, who is now Director of Career Services.

Just like his first visit to Mercer, Figueroa’s second turn also resulted in a life-changing experience. It was then that he embraced his passion for pragmatic politics, which included community activism and volunteer activities both inside and outside organized labor. He served as grievance chair for the professional staff federation (AFT-Local 4357) while at MCCC, and engaged in social and racial justice politics on-campus with Alvyn Haywood, who is now Associate Professor of Communications at Mercer.

In addition, Figueroa began substitute teaching in Trenton, and teaching State and Local Government as a Mercer adjunct professor.

"The teaching flame had started," Figueroa said. "I decided that teaching and academia would be my next long-term challenge, and started rearranging my life from there."

Figueroa left Mercer in 1999, and briefly attended Seton Hall Law School before deciding to pursue a dual Ph.D. in Political Science and Historical Studies at the New School for Social Research in New York City, which he completed in 2010. He continued his pursuit of political activism while in graduate school under the tutelage of Adolph Reed, who is now Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

For three years Figueroa served as an Assistant Professor in the Government Department at the University of Texas-Brownsville, teaching courses in American government and politics, public policy and leadership, and in 2013, he accepted his current position as Assistant Professor, Department of Politics, at Ithaca College.

Figueroa says he loves his current position because at Ithaca College he is "free to teach and do research in an interdisciplinary way." He attributes this freedom to explore and practice new ways of thinking and teaching to his periods of experimentation while at Mercer. He currently lives in Ithaca, with his wife Lucía and daughter Maya.

Along the way Figueroa has presented at professional and academic conferences across the nation and abroad, has multiple publications to his credit, and two book manuscripts in preparation. Most recently, he was published in the Journal of Public Affairs Education with an article titled "Developing Practical/Analytical Skills for Doing Leadership Through Mindful Classroom Simulations" in Winter/Feb. 2014.

None of this, he said, would be possible without his experiences at Mercer. Figueroa mentions the "tough love" of English Professor Michael Shea – who would push him to keep going until he got it right. Then there was the "word of the day" from Marketing Professor Carl Kovelowski, and numerous other instructors, friends, counselors, mentors and co-workers, such as Haywood and Glass, both of whom he keeps in touch with to this day.

"The people at Mercer are part of my biography," Figueroa said. "People play a role in shaping your biography, and create a solid foundation you can draw from."

And when it comes to advice for future Mercer students, Figueroa keeps it simple: Don’t be afraid to get on the bus. He elaborated, “Your bus, whatever it means to you, can lead to new places, positive people and broader adventures you never thought possible.  Keep yourself open to learning something new every day, even from the most unlikely of places, or seemingly incompatible people.

"Let your curiosity and intuition guide you – listen to your intuition. Find something that is connected to who you are at that moment, and take the right path. Surround yourself with positive people, listen to what people have to say, and create a network of people who can help you along the way."

Visit Figueroa's Ithaca College website at: http://faculty.ithaca.edu/cfigueroa/.



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