With so many potential obstacles on his path to a college degree - teenage fatherhood, poverty, domestic violence in the home, Carl Meredith ’91 leaned on the strength of his mother and the family he discovered as a first-generation student at Carroll to find his way.
“I had so many reasons why I should not have made it to Carroll, why I should not have transitioned. But I was really just blessed that God put people in my life and situations in my life to help me to think and process through and keep me on my path,” he said.
“What got me through were the same things that got me through all the same challenges before: I kept believing that God had a purpose for my life and a plan for me about who to become.”
Growing up and the move to Milwaukee
Carl spent a portion of his youth growing up in Rockford, Illinois with his mother and stepfather. His mother and biological father had divorced when he was just 2. The relationship and family life in Rockford, though, was tumultuous and by high school, domestic violence drove the family – Carl, his mother, and his younger sister, Tosha Meredith – to seek a new life on the upper floor of a duplex in Milwaukee at 48th St. and North Ave. He would be forced to leave behind, though, a pregnant girlfriend with a daughter he later considered strongly when he decided to pursue a college degree and better life for himself and his family.
College was not something he had ever thought would be for him - not until his high school football coach at Solomon Juneau Business High School in Milwaukee told him he should consider it. No one in his immediate family had ever gone to college. The coach, John Schmitz, brought Carl to Carroll for a tour. He was taken aback, he said, by Carroll’s intimacy, its coziness.
“The people there were very warm, seemed very genuine, and Coach Mase (Merle Masonholder) told me I could play football and told me I could succeed. Quite honestly, that was one of my biggest motivations for going there, for selecting Carroll,” he said. “I really believed that I could make it there.”
A mother's love and sacrifice
He recalls his first day at Carroll. It was summertime and he came early to start football practice. In front of the Steele-Swarthout dorm, he and his mother drove up to the curb.There, she pulled out a trunk. Inside there was food for Carl to take with him to school.
“My mom, and this even chokes me up thinking about it, she had gone through the cupboards in our house and scraped together whatever food she could spare for me and she put it in this trunk and given me basically the last little bit of food we had in the house for me to take to college. That’s all my mom could give me," he said.
Carl added: “She had gone and taken the last of what she had and sacrificed it for me. That’s the epitome of my mom and the woman she is and the reason I’ve had so many opportunities. I’ve had them because of her. I’ll never forget that.”
She was a single mom who at one time worked three jobs to support Carl and his sister, two children who never really understood that they were poor, he said. They had no furniture, no appliances, but had a proud and innovative mother who figured out how to make it all work for her children. That included propping an iron upside down to cook their meals.
“We didn’t have a table to sit at. We didn’t have chairs to sit in. We didn’t have a bed to sleep in for a while. Yet my mom, she never, I never heard her complain. She worked hard. She did what she could do. She provided for us. She was an amazing example of someone who is determined and who was just innovative. She would figure out ways to do things,” Carl said.
Support through life's changes
He drew from his mother’s strength and a strong foundation of faith and values to set his anchor point at Carroll as he faced new and unique experiences. He remembers that he was one of six African American students on campus at one point, allowing him lessons that he still uses today in being able to adjust to almost any situation.
“When other people might not have felt comfortable, I learned how to use experience and perspective to engage people and understand people,” he said.
He said some of that perspective came from his psychology training at Carroll. He credits staff and faculty like Psychology Professor Dr. David Simpson with helping him overcome academic struggles he experienced after a rough first semester freshman year. He said Dr. Simpson was one of the “foundational faculty members who made all the world of difference for me in making it through Carroll.”
“He believed in me. He challenged me. He encouraged me. He befriended me. I was this young African American male kid from the inner city. There was nothing about college that was a frame of reference for me,” Carl said. “He never gave up on me, where I’m sure he had every opportunity to. But he believed in me, and ultimately, I made it through Carroll.”
The challenges did not stop for Carl as he pursued his education. In July of his junior year, his father was murdered in Detroit. Carl had just returned from military training and was scheduled for pre-season football practice at Carroll. He let his coaches know he couldn't make it to practice. He had to figure out how to get his father's body back to Milwaukee. He was 21.
"That was a time in my life when I could have just given up. It was like someone took my legs out from under me. So devastating. I was thinking about not coming back to Carroll. It really rocked my world.
“And just being at Carroll was where I needed to be. I needed to be in an environment that was going to continue to move me forward at a time when I didn’t know if I had anything in me to move myself forward,” he said.
Move forward he did. He ran track and played football. He said the family built under Coaches Masonholder and Brian Bliese gave him support. He became active in the Black Student Union, where Deryl Davis Fulmer, director of minority affairs, talked tough love and forced him to focus.
"Carroll's such a great school. So much of my life's experiences and things I went through at that stage in my life when I was there I still find myself drawing on. It was foundational for me," he said.
He graduated in 1991 with majors in communication and psychology and a minor in business. He would go on to work as director of a pre-college academy at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, encouraging young kids like himself that they, too, could make it. Carl also spent 27 years serving in the military and most recently 12 years full-time in the Wisconsin National Guard. He is the highest ranking African American officer in the State of Wisconsin's Army National Guard. He has two sons, one nine and one five, and three grandchildren from the baby daughter – now 34 – back in Rockford, Illinois.
“Carroll really stretched me to develop a curiosity and desire to get to know people more and to know people’s stories," he said. "That helped me because I began to be gradually more and more comfortable in that environment and not intimidated and not afraid and not feeling like I didn’t belong or I didn’t have what it took to be successful.”