On May 19, Donald Taylor graduated from Columbia University School of General Studies in New York City. It was a triumph-not only because Taylor had reached a significant collegiate milestone, but also because only 12 years earlier it appeared unlikely that Taylor would be graduating from any school as his life was dramatically altered by a family conflict.
When Taylor was an adolescent, he says his parents were highly nomadic. “My early years really prepared me for life as a Columbia student because we were always moving during my childhood,” said Taylor who spent part of his youth in the Austin community. “You could never get to comfortable with one spot.”
The years of instability began to take its toll on the family and eventually Taylor’s parents, Rose Hardy and Donald Taylor Sr., separated. His mother re-married and Donald moved with his mother to Fort Wayne, Ind. “I really became estranged from my biological father because he was always working and there were fundamental disagreements by my parents in terms of visitation,” said Taylor. “Consequently, when I was about 14 years old, I asked my mother if I could move back to Chicago with my dad,” said Taylor. “I was pretty insistent.”
Rose eventually conceded, and Donald moved in with his father. The two settled in Darien, where he attended classes at Hinsdale South High School. However, the pomp and circumstance surrounding his graduation would be overshadowed by an ugly incident three weeks before the mortarboard toss.
“I was a bit of a rebellious teen and my father was pretty strict,” Taylor recollects. “I had come home late one night and my father was very upset about it. We had a verbal spat and then he hit me in the mouth, and we started tussling. It was a nightmarish moment that I will never forget.”
The conflict resulted in Donald leaving the house that night. When the fight broke out, he said, he was wearing a white Carolina Panthers inaugural jersey, but by the time the altercation ended “it was a red jersey.” He was briefly homeless and found shelter wherever he could for a few days, while working as a cashier at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Despite the circumstances, he refused to return home to his mother and stepfather, nor did he seek assistance from his family still residing in Chicago.
“I think it was pride that prevented me from reaching out,” said Taylor. “Perhaps it was my need to prove that I can overcome this alone. Call it Proud Man Syndrome. I was inflicted pretty hard by it.”
He eventually relented and accepted an invitation from a Hinsdale friend to live with him and his aunt just until graduation. During commencement, his grandmother, Marie Mull, who found out that day about the tumultuous times he had endured, insisted he live with her in the interim.
“My grandmother was really the catalyst for me getting in college because she was just pushing me all the time,” said Taylor. “She told me how much it meant to her that I go to college and see the world, and she supported me every step of the way.”
During this stretch, Taylor worked for Northern Trust Bank, the United States Postal Service, and the Academy of Communication Technology, where his boss, Latoya Wolfe, suggested he apply for entrance at her alma mater, Columbia University in New York City.
“She felt I had a gift for creative writing and encouraged me to pursue it,” said Taylor, “although the first time I applied, I was rejected.”
Undeterred by the disappointment, Taylor framed the rejection letter and hung it on the wall in his room as motivation. He then began taking classes at Malcolm X College to build his resume. He reapplied and was accepted in 2005.
However, shortly after his arrival on campus, his grandmother passed away. And when he first entered the school, the creative writing department was undergoing dramatic re-tooling and Taylor became interested in African-American Studies, which he would choose as his focus of study.
To pay the portion of tuition his grants didn’t cover, as well as his housing, he would eventually work up to five jobs just to support himself.
“It was a rough stretch but being constantly in motion was very much like my childhood years,” Taylor recalled. “I worked for the Hu-Man Bookstore near the campus as well as the P.S. 123 Harlem grade school [tutoring third graders]. My teachers and employers were very understanding though and I was able to schedule my work hours around my classes.”
Already proven adept at multi-tasking, he was asked by Columbia Professor Manning Marable to moderate a panel discussion at the university about black history. The experience inspired Taylor so much, he began speaking at similar academic discussions across the country.
“I especially remember speaking in Virginia at a gathering of scholars discussing the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement-or invasion depending on who you ask,” said Taylor. “It was a spirited debate, and I felt we were making history at that moment. I learned so much from the other speakers on the panel.”
After graduating, Taylor wanted to return to Illinois to see his family. He recently spoke with his mother and stepfather. He also wants to re-establish a relationship with his father, which he says is on the mend.