I grew up in a small town in Louisiana where Jim Crow laws and segregation were a way of life. My father was a sharecropper, and as a child, I helped with the farming, including picking cotton. I attended the school for “coloreds,” and Black men were frequently referred to as “boy.”
The first inkling that I was meant to carve out a different future was when I earned an athletic and music scholarship to attend Grambling State University in Louisiana. I loved being surrounded by others who spoke their mind and engaged in meaningful debate. The experience inspired me to help myself and others achieve their goals through education, and that commitment shaped the man I am today.
In the early 1960s, I moved my family to San Francisco. Social attitudes, perspectives and restrictions placed on others by previous generations were changing.
I was accepted into the Stanford Graduate School of Education, which has a long, rich history of producing pioneers and leaders in every area of academia.
In hindsight, I realized my mountain to climb—convincing myself and others that a better future is possible—was nurtured by that educational experience.
Often the most difficult challenge in making change is believing that you deserve to rise up out of your current circumstances and achieve loftier goals. I credit the faculty and shared ideas at Stanford for my life’s work and successes.
I’ve enjoyed an exhilarating career that provided me the opportunities to:
- redesign the San Francisco police exam, which improved entry-level hiring of minorities and paved the way for women to serve in street assignments;
- travel to the Soviet Union to reestablish cultural exchanges with the United States following a ban of U.S. participation in the 1980 Olympics;
- assist the South African government with drafting affirmative action guidelines; and
- design and help implement an award-winning cultural diversity program at Palo Alto University.
Thus, thanks to the training and guidance I received at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, climbing my mountain has been challenging and extremely rewarding.
We alumni are tasked with continuing that legacy of excellence, which is the cornerstone of my personal mission. I wish to inspire all those with whom I share a conversation, and hope it can be said that I am a friend, mentor, advocate, and a leader.
In the words of John Adams, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.”
My advice to those would-be scholars in education and any other field … Be a leader!”
Leonard C. Beckum received his PhD in counseling psychology from the School of Education in 1973. He is a former dean of the City College of New York School of Education and a former vice president and vice provost of Duke University. Today, he is associate vice president for academic affairs and professor of psychology at Palo Alto University.