Saved from slipping through the cracks

Psychology major advocates for other historically marginalized students

There was a time when Tyrone Fleurizard lacked the will power to even get out of bed for class, much less try to make A’s and B’s. Some days, during that freshman
malaise, he’d peer down from the top bunk in his room in JM Smith Hall and think, Nah, it’s not gonna happen. “I’d miss whole days of class,” he says.

Other days, he’d manage to make it to an early class but then go back to the dorm and nap through calculus. That class represents the nadir of his educational career.
“My mom wasn’t calling me to get me up for my 12 o’clock class,” he says. “I failed my first class ever.”

During his first semester at Wingate University, in 2014, Fleurizard registered a 1.08 grade point average. He was on his own, 700 miles away from his parents in Connecticut, and was struggling like he never did at Fairfield College Preparatory School.

Then he met Dr. Steven Hyland.

Hyland, a history professor, taught Fleurizard a Global Perspectives class – or GPS, for short. Fleurizard participated in class discussions, but his written work left much to be desired. “I said to myself, ‘Aha, he reminds me of me as an undergrad,’” Hyland says. “This is not a compliment, I have to admit.”

Hyland approached Fleurizard and told him what he thought.

“At the time when I was incredibly low, depressed and everything, Dr. Hyland was the first person to tell me, ‘I believe in you. You have incredible potential. You just have to be more disciplined,’” Fleurizard says. “Unsolicited. He didn’t have to do that.”

Fleurizard took Hyland’s appraisal to heart, and now the once-lost college freshman is preparing to graduate in May with a GPA in the mid-3.0s, a CV full of accomplishments, and a placement in a graduate program at Boston College awaiting him.

“Literally, I owe everything I have to Dr. Hyland,” Fleurizard says. “Without him, I don’t know where I would be right now.”

The next step is to become a Steven Hyland for the next generation of Tyrone Fleurizards.

Economic divide

As you make your way up the Connecticut seaboard, you pass through affluent town after affluent town. Greenwich. Westport. Fairfield. Then you come to the shipping center of Bridgeport, Connecticut’s largest city, and everything changes. In 2014, the median household income in the city of 145,000 was just over $42,000 a year. The city is slowly regenerating, but when Fleurizard was growing up there, Bridgeport was economically depressed and had a reputation as an unsafe place to live. As recently as 2014, at least two studies ranked the city as one of the 10 most dangerous in the United States.

Had his parents not found a way to send him to school outside of Bridgeport, Fleurizard contends that he “wouldn’t be here (at Wingate).” He says he would have had a tough time, psychologically, walking through metal detectors every day to get into his school.

Fleurizard’s parents, both Haitian immigrants, were determined to give their children a better chance than they thought Bridgeport could offer. When Fleurizard was a child, his mother, Myriam Milfort, worked as a paralegal, and his father, Gerard Fleurizard, managed a local bank. Fleurizard’s parents divorced when he was young, but they stuck together when it came to doing what was best for their children, cutting corners where they could in order to send their kids to private schools in more-affluent areas of Connecticut.

At the all-boys Fairfield Prep, Fleurizard and his classmates had to wear a suit and tie every day. Although his parents made sacrifices to put him in a better position, Fleurizard’s outlook on life – and ultimately his scholarly interest – was honed in the gulf between Bridgeport and Fairfield. At Fairfield Prep, Fleurizard – though he fit in well enough to be named “best dressed” his senior year – was keenly aware that he was an outsider, one of a small group of black students on scholarship, many from Bridgeport. On weekends in Bridgeport, he felt just as out of place.

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“At Prep I was ‘too black’,” Fleurizard says. “We all know the stereotypes: Black students are lazy, poor, misbehaved. Then I would go back home and all of a sudden I was ‘too white.’ ‘Oh, you go to Prep? Are you better than us?’

“I guess I was in purgatory and didn’t know that my identities were reconcilable and could co-exist. That internal struggle of self-discovery primarily informs my research interest now.”

Pinballing between majors

Fleurizard came to Wingate because of the pharmacy school. He had initially targeted the Massachusetts College of Health Sciences, one of the oldest pharmacy schools in the country, but reconsidered moving south because of the financial package Wingate offered.

His parents were just happy that he was going into a profession with such promise. “A lot of first-generation Americans in general live with immense pressure to meet and exceed the high expectations of their family,” Fleurizard says. “Be a pharmacist, make six figures, have a nice life – my parents were ecstatic.”

Fleurizard was less enthused. In true liberal-arts tradition, he began trying out majors until one fit just right. He first switched to sport management but says “it wasn’t satisfying my hunger for activism.” He moved on to political science, only to become horrified when in one class the students undertook an ethical exercise called “prisoner’s dilemma.” In that exercise, two prisoners are given the option of either staying silent or ratting out their partner in crime.

“I was just a good person,” Fleurizard says with a laugh. “I believed in positive change, and people were straight up backstabbing. That game kind of blew my mind as far as the human psyche.”

He might have run screaming from poli sci, but the underlying mind games of “prisoner’s dilemma” piqued his interest in psychology, and Fleurizard soon moved on to his fourth major. It’s been a good fit.

“I think Tyrone is a prime example of the importance of the liberal arts education,” Hyland says. “Inasmuch as the liberal arts education inspires lifelong learning, it also demonstrates how the different disciplines interact and inform each other.”

After talking to his new advisor, psychology professor Dr. Terese Lund, Fleurizard was hooked. “It was clear that psychology would not only provide me the first opportunity to fully understand my life, but it would also allowed me to think deeper about the things I cared about,” he says.

It became more than just a major. It was a way to understand himself, as a black man from both a Connecticut prep school and rough-and-tumble Bridgeport. “Through psychology I was able to better understand what I was going through as one of the only black students at my high school,” Fleurizard says. “The psychology courses I took validated my experiences and emotions.”

Turning his fortunes around

Upon arrival at Wingate, Fleurizard was perhaps overconfident, both academically and socially. “When I got here, I thought, I’m a pro. I know how to navigate this space already,” he says. “I was very full of myself, very sure of myself. I said, ‘I got this. I went to prep school. Piece of cake.’”

It turned out not to be quite so simple – and it wasn’t just learning to love chicken-and-waffles, Cheerwine and sweet tea. He still felt as if he were in that identity purgatory, alternatively being perceived as too black or too white.

Academically, Fairfield Prep had done its job, but Fleurizard was getting soft. “Holdups were, again, not going to class, thinking I was prepared,” he says. “Some of my classes, I knew some of the stuff already, so I kind of slacked off. I took my foot way off the gas.”

By his sophomore year, Fleurizard had regained his academic footing. And he became much more active on campus and in the classroom. Fleurizard’s resume is impressive. He has co-authored a paper, alongside two professors, Dr. Catherine Wright and Dr. Melanie Keel, that has been published in the Michigan Journal of Community and Service Learning. He has guest lectured and co-lectured in psychology classes.

By the time Hyland taught Fleurizard in another GPS class – GPS 320 honors – he was a brand-new Tyrone. “He was a changed man – much more professional in his approach and committed to his coursework,” Hyland says. “Night and day. The classroom participation was still there, but it was in his written work for me that one clearly saw the growth.”

It’s not just academics, either. Fleurizard has been a tour guide for Admissions and a presidential ambassador and has served on the executive boards of the Black Student Union, the Psychology Club and the Model United Nations Club. He trains tutors and handles all social media for the Academic Resource Center.

The activity that is closest to Fleurizard’s heart, though, is probably the KIN Program. Fleurizard and his friend Tim Myers had been involved with Men of Valor, a mentorship program that helped black and Hispanic teens from local high schools prepare for life after graduation, holding workshops to guide them through the college-application process and enlightening them about the college experience. When that program dissolved, Fleurizard and Myers decided to do something similar on the Wingate campus. They created KIN, which stands for Knowledge, Impact, Next. They match up freshmen with upperclassmen to help them navigate the academic and social minefields of college. Recently, KIN awarded its first scholarship, paying for textbooks for a first-generation student.

“It’s personal and professional development for historically marginalized students, and it serves as a social and emotional support for them,” Fleurizard says. “Because we know from our personal experiences what it means to be black on a predominately white campus and the struggles associated with that. But also there’s this kind of push in higher education to get historically marginalized students to college but there aren’t sufficient resources to get them through college, at least at the rate of their more affluent counterparts. What are the resources you’re going to give them? KIN is here for that ‘through’ part.”

Fleurizard and Myers wanted to create something that will last, so they’ve applied for – and recently received – a Board of Visitors grant to keep KIN going after they graduate in May.

Fleurizard’s next move is to Boston College, where where he’ll work on his master’s and Ph.D in the applied developmental and educational psychology (ADEP) program.

He is eyeing research into how contexts and intergroup relationships shape motivation and achievement for students of color. His ultimate goal is to help other young people replicate his collegiate experience. “I honestly don’t care about the 4.0 student,” Fleurizard says. “You’ve got a 4.0? That tells me you’ve got it. The kids with the 2.7s, the 2.5s – How can I help you achieve your highest potential?”

That’s the kind of boost Fleurizard says he found at Wingate.

“Wingate gave me a deeper sense of self and a deeper sense of community and commitment,” he says. “I’m taking that deeper sense and trying to be practical in what I do, to apply it.”

“I have two favorite aspects of my job at Wingate,” Hyland says. “One is that I get the opportunity to sit, read, think and write for a living. That’s pretty cool. The other, which actually comes with greater responsibility, is the opportunity to mentor young people like Tyrone.

“I am confident Tyrone will act with great compassion and humanity with his future students, mentees or for whomever he advocates. His heart is in the right place, and he has the intellectual chops and personal commitment to effect positive change for the communities within which he will live and work.”

Communities Fleurizard will undoubtedly make better, one reclamation project at a time.