In August 2001, somebody moved Alton Austin’s cheese. You’d never know that he’d faced that mouse-in-the-maze feeling if you met him today, but everything about Austin’s character has been tested, tried, and tempered by the choices he’s made since he discovered his future wasn’t what he thought it would be.
It’s one thing to sit around and daydream about quitting a job to go back to school, but it’s a whole different thing to have that choice forced upon you. Austin, 36, was walking a clear successful path that began when he was 17 and decided to enter the Air Force. After almost 10 years in the service, he developed enough skills as a UNIX-system administrator to stay working in the computer field after being discharged from the military. Within two years, Austin was working for IBM, packing a $100K salary, and feeling pretty good about the future. Marriage, three kids, a good job—if life were a maze, Austin had a copy of the map. “I worked as a system administrator for about two months and then was quickly promoted to a project manager,” he says. “This is where I first started teaching leadership and helping to develop the skills of the people working for me—the non-technical skills, such as people skills.”
Suddenly, Austin’s maze changed. “My manager called in July 2001 and told me I had been selected for layoff, along with 400 others,” he says. For a short while, Austin and his family scrambled to adapt—he took a retail job, and his wife, who had been at home with their children for the last five years, re-entered the workforce. But low pay and a miserable job weren’t things Austin saw as a promising future. Armed with VA benefits and financial aid, Austin enrolled as a freshman at Seminole Community College. “I traded a paycheck for grants and benefits,“ he says. “In the first 33 years of my life at that point, I had taken exactly two college classes, both of them related to my work in the Air Force. Both were related to computers or work and neither were fun, so I didn’t continue.”
As long as the maze was different, Austin decided he might as well pursue every possible avenue of change. “All I knew at the time was that I enjoyed working with people and helping them with whatever they needed, so I decided to start with psychology and go from there,” he says. “This was the first conscious decision that I’d ever made about the direction my life was taking—one without any outside influence.”
Vowing to turn “disaster into opportunity,” Austin didn’t hem or haw about getting involved at SCC. Within his first semester, he attended his first leadership retreat, thinking he had as much to teach as he had to learn. “How wrong I was,” he says. “I learned so much from the kids that were attending that I was overwhelmed. They made me see things about myself that I never even realized or thought about—that I could make a difference in other people’s lives, just by being who I am.” Instead of staying firmly planted in his comfort zone and nursing his own lack of confidence, Austin met with Randy Pawlowski, director of student life and the man behind SCC’s Leadership Challenge Team. He quickly learned that serving on the LCT for Pawlowski wouldn’t allow him much time in that cozy comfort zone, either. “Randy has had a tremendous impact on my life,” he says. “It’s not what he does or what he says but rather the questions that he makes you ask yourself: ‘What am I doing, why am I doing it, and what will it mean to me in the future?’ The kinds of questions that can change the very fabric of your life if you aren’t doing what your heart is telling you to do and you answer them honestly.”
Serving on the team meant kissing certain personal obstacles goodbye. “I used to be terrified to get up in front of a group,” Austin says. “I had the opportunity to work on my degree while I was in the service, but there was a requirement for public speaking—so I didn’t go.” After presenting at the retreats and in classrooms all over campus, that fear is gone. “After working with Randy, I learned how ridiculous I was for being that way,” he says. “I continue to try and keep outside my comfort zone, doing things I normally wouldn’t do, hoping that one day, it’ll just become my nature to be that way.”
“Even though he was an adult student returning to earn his degree, he worked collaboratively and effectively with students much younger than he,” Pawlowski says. “He became our top leadership workshop presenter, top facilitator of problem-solving exercises, and one of the best team leaders out on the low ropes course.”
Working at the leadership retreats gained him another mentor as well—SCC President Ann McGee. “One of the first retreats I went to, I came in late and sat by a lady in the back of the room. I had to stand and introduce myself to the group, and after I did, she asked me, ‘How old are you?’ and I told her, ‘Too old,’” he says. “Then Randy introduced her, and I realized I’d just smarted off to the president of the college.” But what she said that day mattered more than Austin’s funny remark—she invited any student who wanted to talk or get advice to come knock on her door. “And a week later, I did,” he says, noting that he met with McGee three or four times after that to discuss what direction his education should take. “I asked her how I could end up like her!” Austin says.
“I knew Alton well when he was a student at SCC,” McGee says. “One can only imagine the toll [being downsized] takes on someone. However, he handled it with incredible maturity, used it as a growth experience, and established himself as a role model for others.”
His duties on the leadership team didn’t distract him from academics, which resulted in his being tapped by Phi Theta Kappa. He decided to join the day before the induction ceremony, and at the end of the event, he was surprised to learn he’d been chosen as a nominee for the USA Today All-Academic Team. He ended up on the B team for Florida, which was enough to open up the next segment of the maze. “It was enough to earn a full scholarship to Florida International University,” he says. The only drawback to attending FIU was that it’s in Miami—and his family wasn’t. “To be honest, on my way to Miami to check into housing the weekend before school started, I nearly turned around as I got close to the school,” he says.
Being far from his wife and kids may have given him the motivation to finish his bachelor’s degree in just over three years, but Austin was equally motivated to stay as involved as he’d been at SCC. “My goal as I left SCC and came to FIU was to get involved right away, simply because I was afraid if I waited too long, I could get lazy or lose my confidence and not do it at all,” he says. “Within a week or two of arriving, I stopped by the Center for Leadership Development and Civic Responsibility and volunteered to help facilitate.” He quickly made himself so useful that the center’s director, Dr. Beverly Dalrymple, offered him a job helping FIU’s Leadership Education and Development Team. “Dr. Dalrymple has been very receptive to the ideas that I’ve offered, allowing me to put my experience at SCC to good use in helping to shape the programs here at FIU,” he says. “Being a young program, we’re still dealing with growing pains, but it’s an excellent opportunity for students to put their skills to use. What better way to learn than to help teach?” His commitment to the program hasn’t gone unnoticed. “Alton’s commitment to leadership development goes far beyond his paid employment with the center,” says Rosa L. Jones, vice president of student affairs. “For example, one of our leadership programs was suffering from lack of motivation from the student participants. Alton took it upon himself to meet with the student group each week on his own time to help them identify issues and work toward solutions for the group.”
“Alton Austin isn’t only an excellent student who graduated from SCC through Seminole’s Honors College, but he manages to maintain his good standing at FIU’s Honors College, be active as a facilitator, advisor, and researcher at FIU’s Center for Leadership Development and Civic Responsibility, and is a dedicated husband and father of three children,” says Provost Mark B. Rosenberg.
Serving as the advisor for the LEAD Team and attending honors classes still left Austin with enough time to help establish the Tau Sigma Academic Honor Society for Transfer Students and act as founding president in spring 2004. The niche that the group created has been rapidly filled. “Membership in the society has quickly grown to over 75 members, clearly demonstrating that there was a need felt by transfer students to be recognized for our unique contributions to the university,” he says. Fall semester added to his commitments and expanded his family when he became a brother in Phi Gamma Delta fraternity and got to work as the new-member educator. He also fits in meetings for Psi Chi, the National Honor Society for Psychology, and Golden Key International Honour Society. Although his volunteer activities at the Center for Leadership Development and Civic Responsibility evolved into a job, he still volunteers frequently, serving as a coordinator at “U Can Do It Day” in North Miami, working the sports events at National Women and Girls Day, and participating in neighborhood clean-ups.
Austin’s experiences prior to enrolling in college continue to give him a unique perspective as he teaches leadership skills. The irony isn’t lost on him that he’s particularly well-suited to teaching one specific workshop—he frequently presents on the book Who Moved My Cheese? “It was one of the topics that I was assigned to facilitate on at an SCC leadership retreat,” he says, explaining that he’d read the book prior to attending college and loved it. “When I came to FIU, Dr. Dalrymple asked me to present at one of our ENGAGE seminars, and that’s what I chose to do. I discuss the last three years of my life, starting with getting laid off by IBM. It usually has quite the effect on the group.” Being the elder statesman of the group hasn’t kept his fellow students from relating to him. “His teachings on such topics as integrity, commitment, and leadership skills leave nothing more but to emulate him,” says fellow senior and LEAD Team member Jorge Alvarez. “From mentoring us as our advisor in the LEAD Team and multiple other leadership workshops, Alton has taught us to continuously prepare by challenging ourselves to become more effective leaders.”
Fellow LEAD Team member Sania Elshorbgy says that she’s part of the legacy Austin will leave at FIU. “The biggest impact that I see Alton leaving on FIU is his ability to help fellow students find their niche. He sometimes seems like he’s giving you a hard time, but when you get under the surface and really start to understand what he’s trying to accomplish, you realize that he’s pushing you to your fullest potential,” she says. “He has helped many students, including myself, realize that you can achieve all your goals through hard work, dedication, and it helps having someone like him to guide you.”
His classroom commitments, leadership advising, and fraternity roles don’t prevent Austin from seeing what’s at the end of the maze. He only applied to the Ph.D. program at the University of Central Florida back home in Orlando for one reason. “When I graduate in May, I will have been gone 20 months, and that’s been too long,” he says. “I decided that if I was meant to be in a Ph.D. program, then God or fate would make sure I was admitted to UCF.” He was accepted to UCF, which will put a crimp in his kids’ road trip time. “They’ve come to Miami and stayed with me several times, and they always are amazed at how ‘cool’ their dad is,” he says. “My 14-year-old daughter, Miranda, and my 11-year-old son, Morgan, have both set their sights on attending FIU and being as involved as I am. My son is hoping that one day, he’ll join my fraternity and live in the same room I’ve lived in here at FIU.”—SRR
Contact Austin at email@example.com.
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