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    Excerpt from Chapter 17: City Year

    One day after lunch, I was walking back to the office and ran into one of my former Co-op advisors from Northeastern. Janice had recently left the university to work for an organization called City Year. Michael Brown and Alan Khazei, roommates at Harvard Law School in 1988, founded City Year because they felt strongly that young people in service could be a powerful resource for addressing America's most pressing issues. Together they built City Year with the conviction that one person can make a difference; and since its inception, City Year has promoted the vision of service as a common expectation—and a real opportunity—for citizens all around the world. City Year’s vision is that one day the most commonly asked question of a young person will be, “Where are you going to do your service year?” Currently, City Year is serving in 25 cities across the United States and in three international affiliate sites located in Johannesburg, South Africa, Birmingham, England, and London, England. They are known for their red jackets, sense of idealism, and strong organizational culture. Many times on my way to work, I saw over 50 energized and enthusiastic young people with bright red jackets, khaki pants, and boots doing morning military-like calisthenics called PT on Copley Plaza. Rain or shine, wind or snow, they were out there. I was inspired by their spirit, discipline, purpose, and pride for the work they did throughout the community and thought City Year might be a better fit for me. I liked the image of working in a corporation, but I also wanted to work within the community helping the poor and other kids who grew up the way I did.

    My former Co-op advisor introduced me to a woman named Nancy Routh, who was the Director of Human Resources at the time. Nancy was looking to grow her HR department, and my generalist position at John Hancock and my HR degree from Northeastern were a perfect match. Almost six months later, before my next formal review with Diane, I resigned from John Hancock and accepted a position with City Year. I would be working with Nancy in Human Resources, making more money working in a nonprofit than I was receiving at John Hancock. The pay surprised me, but Nancy shared that City Year was looking to recruit top talent and was willing to compete with the for-profit sector to get the right people on board. Without looking back, I walked away from John Hancock, leaving the start of my corporate insurance career and Diane’s iron fist of poor leadership behind.

    The move to City Year felt right; the staff I worked with appreciated the skills I contributed. Not long after being hired, Nancy offered me a lateral move to become a Team Leader, overseeing and managing six to eight corps members. “Doug, I have been watching you since you started here, and I’m impressed with your attention to detail and professional sense of urgency. I think the role we have you in is great but will not get the best out of you. I would like to provide you with an opportunity where you can utilize your leadership skills and work more directly with our young people in the community,” Nancy persisted. This would be my first formal supervisory role and would give me greater exposure in the company as a burgeoning leader. It was hard to believe that Diane had told me at John Hancock that I was a procrastinator and had poor time management, and now in my new job, I was being asked to play a greater role. If Diane only knew, I thought.

    Being a Team Leader was more challenging because I worked with young adults, ages seventeen to twenty-four, who were working on their GED, had a high school diploma, had some college experience, or were college graduates. The young adults had different maturity levels, work experiences, and intellectual capacities. With nervous enthusiasm, I spoke. “So, hi, everyone. My name is Doug, and I will be your new Team Leader for the rest of the year.” The team looked at me with blank stares plastered on their faces; it was clear that we did not all share the same excitement. On cue, the team looked toward Jonah—the pseudo- Team Leader.

    He recognized the attention, stood, stepped forward one foot, and spoke. “You are the third Team Leader we’ve had in the past four months. I guess we are glad to have you, but I’m compelled to ask: will you be with us for the remainder of the year?” His voice was steady and stoic, but he wore an apprehensive and nervous look on his face, as if to say he wasn’t convinced I was there to stay. “I can tell you that I just joined City Year, and I don’t plan on going anywhere, so I hope you guys will at least give me a chance.”

    The team looked up to Jonah and trusted him, so I knew very early on that in order to make progress with the team, I had to get Jonah on my side as quickly as possible. City Year was an organization that believed in order and structure and had strict policies regarding being on time, wearing a neat and clean uniform, and wearing your nametag on the top right side of your shirt. If corps members or staff showed up late, were out of uniform, or forgot their nametag, they were written up. After three write-ups, corps members and staff members would be put on probation and risk being released by the organization. The first week, I wrote down infractions but did not formalize them. It was my way of showing the team that I meant business but that I wanted to make sure we were all clear on the expectations before I upheld existing parameters.

    The second week was a different story. At physical training, or PT, that Monday, I noted two members who arrived after we started. Once the exercise was complete, I pulled the team aside and explained the rules, the process, and my detailed notes regarding the previous week. “Someone once told me that if you are 15 minutes early, you are on time. If you are on time, you are late. And if you are late, you are fired. After today, if you are going to be late you need to call me. If you don’t, I will mark you down as a no-show, no-call, and you will be written up.” Immediately, there was push-back by Jonah. “Written up? You just got here and already you are trying to be Mr. By-the-Book Team Leader? Give me a break . . . I’m out of here!” He turned on his heel, his chin in the air, and walked off. I called after him. “Fine, Jonah. If you walk away, I will have to write you up for insubordination and for leaving our team circle.” But Jonah kept walking.

    I turned my attention to the rest of the team. “Does anyone else want to leave?” To my surprise, no one else left, even though they acted like they wanted to by looking in Jonah’s direction; some rolled their eyes while others huffed with a sigh of frustration. It was then that I realized that their alliance was not as strong as I thought it was. Later on that evening, after I ate dinner and had some downtime, I decided to give Jonah a call. Not really wanting to deal with the confrontation, I sat at my kitchen table and slowly dialed each number, and then took a deep breath when I heard the call go through. “Hello, Jonah, this is Doug. I find it ironic that you questioned me about walking out on the team and then you walked off when you heard something you didn’t like.” “Well, you became our third Team Leader and then within a week, you went on a power trip. You don’t even know who we are,” Jonah fired back.

    I cleared my throat, careful about the words I would use. “Listen, I just started working here, and I’m following the rules set in place by the organization. Our team needs order, structure, and accountability, and it is my role to make sure that happens. You can either help me or you can leave the team, because there is only room for one Team Leader.” Jonah’s frustration was palpable through the phone. “Is that a threat?”“No, it is a promise. But . . . I hope you will work with me to lead the team, because I need your help, Jonah. Give me a chance and see what I can do by backing me, bro. Can you do that?” I protested as the seriousness of the conversation lifted me out of my chair to a standing position. The tone of my voice was firm yet hopeful that Jonah would join me. Dead silence paused our conversation for so long that I wasn’t sure if the phone had died. “Hello, Jonah. Are you still there?”

    His voice dropped, an unhappy reconciling with the reality of accountability confronting him. “Yeah, I’m still here, but I have a lot to think about tonight to see if I want to still do this.” I exhaled relief. “Okay, I can respect that and want you to have that time. If I see you tomorrow, I will consider that you are with me on this. Thank you for taking my call.” And with that, we hung up. When I set the phone down, a lump filled my throat. I wondered if Jonah would be willing to work with me. He was a leader, and I really wanted to work with him—growing our previously leaderless team and him. Even though I was on the verge of strong emotion, I was confident I could do it with the right people surrounding me. I went to bed that night dreading the worst—that Jonah had called the other team members after our call and that no one would show up for work the next day. Despite my confidence that I handled it the best possible way, I tossed and turned, questioning whether leaving John Hancock was a wise career move. I realized that being in a leadership position is one thing, but becoming a leader is another. I was starting to learn that being a leader might also mean being misunderstood.

    The next morning, there were no messages from him or any of the other members. Right away, I concluded the worst: that they had bailed and that I was down to a team of one: me. At work before the morning program, other teams huddled and stretched together, but I stood alone. I replayed the conversation I’d had with Jonah the night before until it was a broken record. Was I off target with what I shared with him? Was I wrong to push him so hard? I sat down on the cement staircase and questioned my leadership and fit with City Year, the lump from last night returning to my throat. I looked up and shaded my eyes to avoid the beam of sun on my face, and off in the distance, Jonah clipped his way towards me, each team member behind him in single file. I sat there motionless and smiled on the inside, but my pride would not allow me to show it. The image of him leading the team towards me was a sign of the changing of the guard. My words had impacted him, and he now seemed receptive to letting me lead. I stood up, and when he was within a few feet, I first extended my hand to him, looking him directly in the eyes, and and then pulled him to me to show gratitude for him trusting me.

    I said good morning to each team member and gave them each a hug, too. Then we circled up. “Thank you guys for coming this morning! It means a lot to me. Now let’s get to work!” The big smile covering my face from ear to ear made the team smile and laugh, too. Our team worked at two different sites each day. In the mornings, after we finished all organizational affairs, we headed to Boston City Hospital where we worked in various departments. In the afternoons, we worked at an afterschool program called The Shelburne Community Center, serving as tutors, mentors, and recreational aides. We ran a homework assistance program, and once homework was completed, we led various athletic activities such as basketball, dodge ball, kickball, volleyball, and capture the flag. We had a two-hour break to travel from one site to the next via public transportation and ate lunch along the way. During the travel time between both sites, I gained the best insights on each of my team members.

    City Year changed my life and helped me realize my purpose in life! To read more about my City Year experience go to Amazon and order your copy of Watch Me Rise: From the Streets of Despair to the Halls of the Ivy League today.



    Excerpt from Chapter 16: The White House

    My mouth fell open at the beauty of it all: the large chandelier glittering with light, the marble and ivory columns that separated one room from another, the intricate oil paintings of former U.S. Presidents with red patterned velvet chairs placed up against the walls, the ruby red carpet with golden trim that filled the entire hallway. Instantly I felt like I was somebody, which was the feeling I had been searching for all of my life—the feeling of being noticed, of being wanted, and of being valued and appreciated by others. We then toured the East Room, Green Room, Blue Room, Red Room, and the State Dining Room. Our guide pointed out that the Green and Red Rooms were personally designed and refurbished by former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. At this, Ma perked up with excitement, just as she had at Senator’s Kennedy’s office.

    She leaned toward the guide with a half-joking-half-serious candor. “Are you guys looking for a housekeeper?” she asked, followed by, “How long does it take your housekeeping staff to clean this part of the White House?” Her questions went along with her expressions of approval at the former First Lady’s color and design scheme in each room. My only response was an eye roll, and I put my head down and chuckled as I watched her act as if we were in our own home.

    We toured the museum-like public access part of the White House for an hour and then walked back outside, along the White House lawn, toward the West Wing—the entrance to the Oval Office. There, a single U.S. Marine stood expressionless and opened the door for us. I felt very official with the U.S. Marine posted outside the door. As we walked in, my palms began to sweat, and my knees threatened to buckle as our guide shared that when the President is working in the West Wing, a single U.S. Marine stands sentry outside the north entrance on thirty-minute shifts until the President leaves the West Wing. I was ecstatic with heart-pounding excitement to see the President again, now on his turf. In the West Wing reception room, where visitors wait to meet with the President, well-known politicians walked past us, sharing hellos or smiles. In the hustle and bustle, we saw Vice President Al Gore, former U.S. Surgeon General Charles Everett Koop, various members of Congress, foreign dignitaries, and other world leaders I had seen on television. After twenty or so minutes, we were escorted down a hallway just outside the doors of the Oval Office and were told to stand there until someone came out to get us. Everyone in our group was full of excitement and reverence for the situation. Although there was commotion, talking, and lots of activity all around us, we became observers, not saying a word.

    White House Communications Director George Stephanopoulos opened the doors of the Oval Office, and the breeze it created brought with it the same confidence that came over me at the podium during my graduation speech. With his clipboard in hand, Mr. Stephanopoulos addressed us all.

    “The President of the United States is now ready to see you.” Those words were music to my ears. The President of the United States will now see me. In that moment, I felt that if the President would give me the time of day, as he was right now, then the world was my oyster . . . I could do anything.

    Mr. Stephanopoulos turned to the President. “Mr. President, I would like to present to you Doug Luffborough and his mother, Elsa Luffborough Mensah; President John Curry from Northeastern University; and Senator John Kerry from Massachusetts.”

    The mystique of the Oval Office covered me, and it was just like it looked in the movies—but it was real. I was first to cross the threshold, and President Clinton greeted me and handed me an autographed photo of us from my graduation.

    Right behind me was my mother, who by this time felt so at home that the first thing out of her mouth was, “Mr. President, it is nice to meet you, but my throat is dry from today’s tour, and I wonder if you would be so kind as to get me a glass of water?” Her straight face and polite demeanor incited laughter from everyone in the room, and an aide quickly met her request. My insides leaped in momentary humiliation that the first thing my mother did when she met the President of the United States in the Oval Office was ask him for a glass of water, but even though all formality was out the window for her, she was in her element, so I let her have her moment in the sun. After the life she lived, why not!

    The President walked me over to his desk and told me that when he was sixteen years old and a part of Boy’s Nation, he met former President John F. Kennedy.

    “That was the first time in my life that I knew that one day, a boy from Hope, Arkansas, would also become President. In fact,” he went on, beaming, “when I became President, I found out that each President has a choice of using another President’s desk during his term, and for me, only one desk would do. I chose the famous JFK Resolute Desk, recognized in the historic photograph of the young JFK, Jr. peeking out from its panel. See!” He pointed out the details of the picture, and being so close to modern history sent another wave of amazement through me. I vowed then to keep giving life my best.

    After the exchange, we all sat down to visit, but I was so mesmerized that I can’t remember much of our conversation. A short time later, we gathered in the front of the Oval Office as what seemed like a drove of Associated Press staff filled the back of the room for a formal press conference.

    Right on cue, the President commanded the room. “Hello, everybody. Those of you who travel with me regularly will, I think, recognize the young man on my right, Mr. Doug Luffborough. He was the student speaker at Northeastern University in Boston the other day. This is his mother, whom I introduced and got a big hand. They’re here with President John Curry of Northeastern and Senator John Kerry, his senator. I invited Doug and his mother to come visit me in the Oval Office, so they didn't wait long to take me up on the invitation.” The president paused as the room filled with laughter, and then added, “I'm glad to see them here today.

    “You may remember also that he brought the house down. He not only gave a great speech, but he sang at the beginning of his speech. I thought to myself, if I could sing like that, I wouldn't be giving speeches today.”

    Compelled to say something, I blurted out, “Well, it was a wonderful opportunity for me and a wonderful opportunity for my family and especially for my mother. I've been waiting for an opportunity like this, and I'm just really thrilled. And I'm really glad that Northeastern was the place you decided to come. It's been a pleasure and an honor to be here today. Thank you.”

    Ms. Walker, the news reporter from Boston, chimed in. “Mr. President, what was it about Doug that impressed you so much?”

    Without skipping a beat, the President eloquently answered her. “Well, first of all, that he had come from such humble circumstances to go to college and to stay in college and that he had made the most of it. He obviously never felt sorry for himself. He obviously had a mother who helped him to believe in himself, as many others do. And the fact that his fellow students picked him to be the spokesperson for their class showed that they identified with the values and the inner strength and drive that took him to the success that he enjoys. I was very impressed. And I just thought it would be neat if they could come down here and see me.”

    After the President finished his statement, Mr. Stephanopoulos ushered the press out of the room and we said our goodbyes. I had hoped to have more time with the President, but I also understood how busy he must have been, and I knew that these moments would be some of the most memorable in my entire life.

    President Clinton turned to shake my hand. “Thanks for coming to see me. By the way, Doug, have you ever thought about a career in politics?” “Not at this time, Mr. President, but I’m open to where my career will take me,” I said before I turned to leave the Oval Office. The President smiled and nodded, pursing his lips in a satisfied smile, which I took as approval for my politically correct response.

    It was hard leaving the White House because I knew the realities I faced back at work. My supervisor, Diane, would be the pin to burst the White House visit bubble. However, deep down, I knew how real this experience was for me and my mother, and I knew that we would never forget it. To this day, I’m appreciative of President Clinton’s public invitation to visit him in the Oval Office. He honored my journey from being homeless to graduating from college in less than five years, but what impressed me the most was the way he treated my mom . . . like the queen that she is and has always deserved to be.

    Order your copy of Watch Me Rise on Amazon. Schools and nonprofit organizations receive a 50% discount for bulk orders and for the ordering form please email Doug at

    Continue to Rise!


    Excerpt from Chapter 15: Lights, Camera, Action!

    We climbed the stairs to the stage, and I found the seat that had my name on it: Doug Luffborough, Student Commencement Speaker. As I sat down, I realized that I was among the top politicians in our state. Seated next to President Clinton was Senator Ted Kennedy, and not too far from him was Senator John Kerry. Next to Kerry was the former Governor of Massachusetts, Mike Dukakis. There I sat, among men who had given decades of their lives to public service, and I knew my life, my story, represented what they fought for: access to higher education for low income, first generation college students, access to financial aid and student scholarships, and access to college-to-career opportunities through Co-op programs at Northeastern. There was no coincidence that I was seated among these men. I, too, was meant for something greater than my past.

    Right next to me, a Secret Service agent was dressed in cap and gown, but he stood out like a sore thumb. He wore an earpiece and spoke quietly into his wrist every time the President engaged in conversations with others. From my seat on the stage, I could see my mother, sister, and two brothers, nestled close to one another in their seats. I could not believe what was happening and was more than ready to speak. After the color guard presentation finished and everyone sang the national anthem, President Curry took to the podium to introduce me:

    “Ladies and gentlemen, Douglas Luffborough III represents what Northeastern University is all about. Access to college regardless of economic station, access to academic excellence for bright and talented young people, access to good professional jobs during college and afterwards. A double business major in management and human resources, Doug will next week begin full-time work at John Hancock Financial Services, where he has worked under our co-operative plan of education over the last two and a half years. I am proud, ladies and gentlemen, to introduce to you your student speaker, Doug Luffborough!”

    While my introduction was being read, instead of fear or nerves, what ran through my mind was that this was the moment I had waited for my entire life—a chance for my voice to be heard.

    I stood up and went straight for the glass of water I saw just beside the podium. My speech would open with a song, and with the steam-room heat, the talking and the laughing, I did not want my voice to crack. As I tasted the refreshing, cold water, I noticed that my thumb covered over the emblem of the White House, and then it dawned on me that the water was not intended for me, but for President Clinton. I could not believe that I just drank the President’s water . . . but making sure that I stood proud in front of 14,000 people on live television was my number one priority.

    My classmates immediately made me feel comfortable and at ease, and I looked across the audience to locate my mother and family. In the rafters, Secret Service snipers had their semi-automatic rifles pointed in my direction. I was just a few feet from the President of the United States, and security was their top priority. I closed my eyes, found my pitch, and inhaled the first breath for my speech, which began with singing “Day-O.” At first, the audience joined me, but after a few bars, they listened closer to see how the song would end.

    When I finished the song, the auditorium erupted in cheers and applause. For an instant, I thought, Yes! This is exactly what I was hoping would happen! The energy in the Boston Garden was electrifying. I had them!

    After the applause quieted, the silence was reverent—I could have heard a pin drop when I started speaking. And while I knew that everyone there wanted to hear President Clinton, I wanted them to know about Doug Luffborough, too. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to address students, both past and present, who were just like me, who struggled in life to get to college. I wanted my story to encourage other students and parents to believe that what seems impossible can be possible.

    It seemed as though everyone there, including the President of the United States, was on the edge of their seats with anticipation of each word, each phrase that I had prepared. I thought about my trials and tribulations during my speech and looked at my mother several times out of respect for all she had done in my life. When I finished speaking, over 14,000 people rose to their feet, including the President of the United States, who greeted me at the podium. He shook my hand, bringing us closer together. “Great job! Where is your mother?”

    I wanted to point, but the President held my hand firmly with both of his, so I tried to explain where she was, which was difficult in a room full of thousands of proud parents. I could see the Secret Service snipers in the ready position because I was right next to—and touching—the President. Fortunately, my directions worked, and he was able to see where my mother was sitting. I then made my way back to my chair, sighing in relief. I did it, I thought. I nailed it.

    President Curry returned to the podium beaming with pride, obviously moved by my speech. After that, the focus shifted to the keynote speaker, President Clinton. As he took the podium, the reality of what I had just done hit me. I felt like I had just woken up from an uplifting dream. At that point, I could not focus on his speech; I was dwelling on what I had just done and the courage and confidence it required. Especially with what I had endured in the third grade, with my challenges with stuttering and reading out loud in public, with the lack of support from my guidance counselor—but now, my inferiority complex and personal insecurities were shattered in front of the entire nation. Then, one part of Clinton’s speech caught my attention:

     “I can also tell you that I was deeply impressed by Doug Luffborough, and if I could sing like him, I would not be up here today as President.” The audience laughed, as President Clinton went on. “I read an article about Doug and his mother and his family, and his trials and working his way through college before I came here. And, in the article, he said he plans to invite himself and his mother to the White House. Well, I’m going to beat him to the punch . . . I would like Doug and his mother to come to the White House. If any man in America knows what having a good, hardworking, strong, loving, and disciplining mother can mean, I certainly do. I know it can make all the difference in the world as it did for Doug and as it has for me, and I think it would be appropriate, just sort of as a symbol of all the parents who are here, if Doug’s mother, Mrs. Elsa Luffborough Mensah, would stand up!”

     As my mother stood to her feet, I stood as well, to honor the woman who endured pain, physical abuse, and disappointment after disappointment, but who did not let the negative circumstances around her change her positive outlook on life. One by one, others stood to honor the housekeeper and single parent who raised four kids on her own, and who was now being honored by the President of the United States of America. One of my life goals has always been to make my mother proud, and on that day, I knew she was. She had every right to be proud that the nation recognized her for her journey, and the sacrifices she made for her children.

    Go to Amazon to order your copy of Watch Me Rise.


    Excerpt from Chapter 14: Day-O, Day-O

    From that moment on, I decided to surround myself with people who would lift me up in life instead of tear me down. I wanted people in my life who filled my cup instead of emptying it, and living by myself gave me the confidence and freedom to limit the negative influences of others. Through that interaction and subsequent lesson, I learned that sometimes the people closest to you are the ones trying to stop you from pursuing your dreams. They are the dream stealers, the yeah, but-ers around you. By this time, I could stand on my own two feet and was not moved by what others thought I should do. I was moved only by what I felt was best for me in that situation.

    When my classes ended that day, I retreated to the serenity of my apartment to reflect on the conversations I’d had with others throughout the day regarding the student commencement speaker application. I was surprised that none of my friends had any interest in applying for the opportunity and was even more surprised at the revelation that most of the naysayers in my life were people who were close to me—people I had known for a long time. With this thought as the backdrop in my mind, I started working on the application. In just two nights of purposeful intensity, I finished a first draft of the speech, which was the major component of the application; however, I decided that I would not share my progress with anyone until my application was submitted—I was finished letting negative people sprinkle their opinions in my life. Every day for a week, I worked on the application, refining sentences, phrases, and whole paragraphs. I wanted each statement, each word, to reflect a universal message of hope, accomplishment, and inspiration, not just to my fellow classmates, but also to all who would hear it.

    By the end of the week, and several days before the deadline, I submitted my application with all the required documents. I felt very strongly that the speech represented me, the student body, and the university well. The process beyond that point was out of my hands.

    There were three rounds to the application process: the first was passing all the application requirements; the next was having the speech reviewed, evaluated, and scored by a mixed group of student leaders and faculty members; and the final part was auditioning in front of a panel comprising the Dean of Students and other faculty members and student leaders.

    After I submitted my application, I went back to my life and did not think about the application any further. My goal was just to apply and see what happened. Two weeks later, I received a letter in the mail informing me that I met the requirements and that my speech was moving to round two. It would be reviewed and scored by the graduation commencement review board. Less than one week after that, I was in my room when I received a phone call.

    “Mr. Luffborough,” said a man with a baritone voice, “I am with this year’s graduation commencement review board, and I’m calling to congratulate you for passing the second round and to schedule your final oral audition with our review board next week!”

    I was beside myself with surprise and excitement. I immediately took out my planner to reserve one of the available slots. I was ecstatic. I had made it to the finals, and now it was on! I decided that I needed to take it up another level, but how? I only had one week to prepare.

    I took out the speech and read it from beginning to end, pausing and taking notes where I thought I could improve it. When I finished, I still felt like something was missing . . . but I could not figure out what it was.

    Deciding I needed a mental break, I turned on my nature music and stared at the bridge picture at the foot of my bed, meditating about the present moment and the possibility of becoming the student commencement speaker. I envisioned myself standing at the edge of the dock. Then, the dock transformed into a stage at the old Boston Garden. Speaking with confidence and conviction to a sea of excited graduates, proudly wearing their graduation gowns, hats, and tassels, I conducted the audience into embracing their overwhelming pride. I could hear the applause of friends and family members swelling to a roar in the auditorium.

    In that moment, I saw myself singing in my speech. I jumped up from bed. That was it! I needed to start my speech by singing like Maya Angelou had my freshman year! After nine years of singing in high school and college, and singing musical selections at karaoke and during the last call for alcohol at the local watering holes, I knew I could carry a note or two. My only obstacle now was that I did not know what song to sing, and more importantly, how I would connect the song to my speech.

    The next day I called my mother to tell her that I was chosen as a finalist for the student commencement speaker, and I told her about my daydream about opening my speech by singing. Ma was very supportive.

    “Douglas, that is so great,” she said. “I told you that one day all of those music lessons would pay off. Yes, you should sing for them. No one else will do that.”

    “Yeah, Ma, I think singing will set me apart from the others, but the only problem is I don’t know what song to sing,” I replied. In the long, silent pause on the phone, I could tell my mother was thinking.

    “If God inspired you to sing, then I am in agreement with it, and I’m positive that He will give you the song. Just spend some time praying, and God will reveal it to you.”

    This response soothed me, as I had come to know it as her default anytime we came to a crossroad in life. My mother always trusted in God for direction, and nine times out of ten, God responded.

    I worked on my speech for hours. “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” by Harry Belafonte kept coming back to me. But I couldn’t figure out how this Jamaican calypso folk song could tie it all together. Sure, it was a fan favorite at the karaoke bars at the end of the night. The song is widely known as a work song, as it’s sung from the point of view of dock workers who spend all night loading bananas onto ships, and when daylight appears, the shift is over and they want their work to be counted up so they can go home. Even though the connection wasn’t clear, I had to trust that the song kept returning to me for a reason. I was determined to find a way to connect it to my story.

    Then, an inner voice—what my mother calls the Holy Spirit—spoke clearly and directly to me: “Home, daylight come and me want to go home. When you were a senior in high school, you were homeless and had no place to stay. Slow the melody of the song down, and sing it from a place of being homeless—as if you were recounting the days you spent on the streets, in the motel, couch-hopping from friends’ homes, and sleeping on the floor at Joe’s place.” I heard these words whispered into my ears and my heart, so right away I worked on revising my speech to connect the metaphor. I was certain this was the direction I needed to take, but I wanted to try it out in public before my audition.

    I went back to the training department at John Hancock and asked Steven Bell and his team to give me some constructive feedback, and they graciously agreed to serve as my panel of friendly critics. I felt very nervous but told myself that if I couldn’t do it in front of less than twenty familiar faces, then how could I do it in front of thousands of not-so-friendly faces? With the confidence of a lion, I roared the opening bars of the Banana Boat Song from a place of being homeless, and in that moment, I saw the eyes well up on the faces of those staring at me. It was the first time since being homeless that I had emotionally put myself back in that situation, and it took everything inside me to finish the song and the speech without breaking down.

    “Wow, Doug, what a voice,” one person said, and then others chimed in.

    “Why that song and why did you change the melody that way?”

    “Oh, I loved the song, but I would sing it this way.”

    “What a story, Doug. I never knew you were homeless; you are such an inspiration to so many others . . . keep going.”

    “There are some areas that need work, but I think you are on to something.”

    Their responses were both encouraging and constructive—and the group was unanimous that opening my speech by singing was the best way to do it. In the back of my mind, I kept thinking of Ms. G and her pep talks about singing from my heart and using music to tell my story. She never knew how impactful her teaching and mentoring was for me, but I felt that winning this competition was a way for me to let her know.

    By the day of my audition, my speech had undergone multiple iterations and had been reviewed by over a dozen critical friends who provided feedback, guidance, and constructive opinions. I felt that what remained was my very best work. It was out of my hands and in the hands of the judges.

    I arrived fifteen minutes early, just as Coach Miller had taught me when I was ten years old. I checked in and sat down in the hallway, fiddling with the paper on which my speech was written, so much so that it lost its crisp and neatly prepared shape. There I sat, alone in the hallway, and I couldn’t help recounting the experience of living on the street less than five years prior. Regardless of the outcome, I had already won. There was nothing for me to be ashamed of. I had accomplished so much more than I ever thought was possible.  

    A voice called out from the other end of the hallway. “Doug Luffborough!” “Yes,” I replied, jumping up from my seat. “We are ready for you,” the voice came back. As I walked down the hallway, I heard a bell go off in my head from the Rocky movie, and I knew there was no turning back. I gave myself a silent pep talk. Let’s do this. This is my Whitney Houston, one-moment-in-time chance to let them know what Doug Luffborough is all about, and I will never get this type of opportunity again, so let them have it.

    When I walked into the room, I introduced myself to a panel of five people staring at me with blank, expectant faces. Three were faces of faculty members that I vaguely recognized, and the two others were student leaders on campus—but I did not know or have personal relationships with any of them. After I introduced myself, I handed out an updated speech. The judges seemed amicable to the change, so without any second thoughts, I put my head back, rolled my eyes back in my head, and took a deep and powerful breath. I opened my mouth with confidence and sang.

    “Day-O, Day-O . . .” And just like my pre-audition with my co-workers at John Hancock, when I opened my eyes and looked at the judges, their eyes were welled up with tears. I could see that they were doing everything they could to fight off the emotional connections the song was making with them, just like what happened to me five years earlier with Maya Angelou’s speech. It was then that I thought, I might just get this thing.

    When I finished my speech, the judges still seemed to be fighting back tears, but they maintained the same stoic demeanors they displayed as I entered the room. One member of the panel said, “Thank you, Doug. We have five finalists, and we will make our decision in about a week. Regardless of the outcome, you will hear back from us. Thank you for coming in.”

    Outside the building in the quad area, I felt the weight of all that pressure had lifted. There was no trace of the stuttering impediment that plagued me in the third grade and throughout most of elementary and middle school. It was not an overnight transformation, but this was when public speaking became natural to me, as natural as breathing. In one way or another, I wanted to become a professional speaker and move others with my words.

    Before I knew it, a week had passed and I received the phone call I had been waiting for. “Doug, I want to start off by congratulating you for being chosen as our next student commencement speaker for Northeastern University.”

    “Wow,” I said, in total amazement. “I am so excited and honored to win this distinction and to represent my class.” In that conversation, I learned that I needed to meet with the president of the university, who would assign a speech coach to work with me, but that bar none, my speech was the best and the most creative. I had put myself out there by singing, but my motto in life was swiftly becoming, “Go big or go home.” God knew what He was doing, and I immediately called my mother to tell her the good news. I went to my bedroom and lay on my bed to make the call, and as the phone rang, the boardwalk picture at the foot of my bed caught my attention.

    “Ma, you are never going to believe this, but I did it! We did it! I was chosen as the student commencement speaker for my graduation!” “Praise God,” she replied. “I knew it! I knew you could do it. Thank you, Jesus. Yes!” I added to her excitement. “I don’t know who the keynote speaker will be at this point, but usually it’s someone famous, and I will be sharing the podium with that person. I cannot believe that they chose me!”

    “Well, whoever it is, it will be someone that complements you, son. Now is your time, and I have a feeling that whoever speaks will be moved with what you have to say,” Mom said confidently. They picked me, they picked me, I do have something to say! I said to myself after getting off the phone.

    The next week, I started working with my speech coach. To my surprise, he did not cut up the speech or re-write it. The only thing we worked on was my delivery, formalizing certain comments and phrases, and slightly condensing the speech to fit within a seven-minute window that had little wiggle room.

    After my speech was polished, I went to my meeting with John Curry, who was then President of Northeastern University. He was a very warm and welcoming person. He wanted to know more about my family and me, and he reviewed my transcript. “So, Doug, tell me a little something about yourself.”

    “Well, sir, I grew up in Worcester, the oldest of four and the first person in my family to go to college.” The words flowed freely from my lips as I continued. “I had a tough upbringing but have learned to take my disadvantages in life and turn them around.”

    Next, Mr. Curry shared his story, and as he was talking, I realized that this was a bigger deal than I expected. He looked at me with serious composure and asked, “Is there anything in your past that I need to know about that could reflect negatively on the university?” I got nervous, not wanting to self-sabotage this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, yet I also wanted to be as transparent as possible.

    “I have nothing to hide, President Curry. My story is true. I grew up without a dad, had challenges in school, was involved in a breakdance gang, and was homeless my senior year of high school. That’s it. I have never been arrested and really want to make you, my mother, my mentors, and the university proud. This is an opportunity of a lifetime, sir, and I’m not trying to mess it up.”

    Assured by my confidence, President Curry nodded and said seriously, “Good, because the spotlight will certainly be on you and the university. Our keynote speaker for your graduation will be the President Bill Clinton.”

    I grabbed the desk with both hands. Excuse me? The President of the United States will be the keynote speaker?! No pressure there. My internal sarcasm competed with my enthusiasm, but shock won out. I felt like I blacked out for a couple of seconds, and chills went down my spine as I envisioned preceding the President of the United States of America. If there was ever a time to step up to a challenge, now was it. For most of my life, I had sought shadows instead of spotlights, and now I would share my story and the stage with the President of the United States while my mom, Mr. Cott, Coach Miller, Mrs. Quinn, Ms. G, Pam Boisvert, Steven Bell, and the rest of the world watched.

    The news travelled fast, and students came up to me saying things like, “Wow, how did you get that?” and “Are you ready to speak before the President? What an honor.” The team that had helped me with my speech at John Hancock was ecstatic. Every time I passed one of them in the hallway, they looked at me as if to say, “That’s my boy!” Pride gleamed from them.

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    Excerpt from Chapter 13: Northeastern - My Dream School

    On Monday, September 26, 1988, I woke up extra early because the day had finally come: I was officially moving out of my home and into my college residence hall. My mother prearranged for me to drive her friend’s car up to Northeastern with all of my belongings, since we did not have our own car. I was eager to pack and get on the road because I did not want to be the last student checking in after everyone else had settled in. The drive from Worcester up the Mass Pike was surreal. Mom and I went back and forth, sharing stories and the excitement that I was going to college. Due to overcrowding, I was assigned to a residence hall on the campus of Wentworth University, just up the street from Northeastern. As we drove up to the building, I was overwhelmed by the chaos of U-Haul trucks and parents getting their kids situated.

    “Hi, my name is Doug Luffborough and I’m here to check in,” I said to the Resident Director, who wore a bright red Northeastern University logo shirt. “Yes, here you are,” he said with a smile as he handed me a packet full of papers and some miscellaneous other items. “This is your ID, and the keys to the front door and to your room. Folks are getting settled right now, and then we have a meeting this evening around six as your official welcome.”

    I smiled at my mom and held my new college ID to my face as if to say, “I know this guy!” My mother laughed in relief that I had made it, that we had made it. “I’m so proud of you, Douglas. Wait until your brothers and sister see that . . . so impressive,” Mom said as she looked into my eyes. The other students were excited and were showing off their IDs, as well. I put the keys on the Northeastern key chain I had purchased at the bookstore. But no key could lock away the new feeling I had that, both literally and figuratively, I was holding the keys to my own place.

    As Ma and I made our way to my new room, I was in awe. This was it. I was now a college student. A few months prior, I had been homeless . . . but not anymore. I opened the door to my room. One side of it had already been prepared, so I went to the side that was still bare. Mom started doing what she did best: cleaning my room as if it was a house on her regular route.

    “Ma, stop! You don’t have to clean the room.” I cleared my throat. “It’s already clean.” Ignoring my request, she started making my bed and putting my clothes in the dresser and closet. While Ma was still hanging things in my closet, a punk-rocker guy, about my age, with blonde hair, a medium build, and black gloves on, walked into the room. Both Ma and I looked at each other as if to say this is not going to be good. However, his demeanor was friendly and inviting as he threw his bags on his side of the room, put out his hand and said, “What’s up, dude. My name is Tom, and it looks like I’m going to be your new roommate.” His carefree and open approach to being my roommate surprised me, but I accepted him as he was and went back to unpacking.

    “Where are you from?” I asked Tom. “Plymouth . . . you know? Plymouth rock!” Shaking my head, I said, “Cool . . . I’m from Worcester. You know Woosta.” We both burst into laughter, which broke the ice. Once Ma and I finished, we left right away. We had to drive back to Worcester to return the borrowed car, and I still had to take a bus back to school in time for my six o’clock orientation meeting.

    The drive back home to Worcester was quiet. “Your roommate seems okay,” Ma said. “Yep, he seems cool.” I replied. As we drove on the freeway, I thought about the months and weeks leading up to this day. My mother seemed to be doing the same thing, just staring out the window, admiring the vibrant New England fall foliage.

    “You okay, Ma?” I asked to break the silence. “Yes baby, just taking it all in, just taking it all in. I’m just so proud of you, Douglas.”  As if on cue, after that, songs that we both liked to sing came on the radio, and we sang and harmonized the rest of the way back to Worcester. My heart swelled in moments of bittersweetness. We both worked so hard to get here, and this was a time of transition, joy, and growth. We shared only one or two sentences the rest of the way back, but we didn’t need to exchange much more than song. Once we returned to Worcester, I picked up Mrs. Humphrey and thanked her for letting me use her car. She drove me immediately back to the bus station.

    Outside the terminal, I hugged my mom and swallowed back the feelings as I told her I would see her during the Thanksgiving break, and I would call her when I made it back to campus. On the bus, I wept both tears of joy and tears of sorrow for the journey I had taken to get to this point in my life. It was a surreal experience to know that I was heading back to my room on a college campus and that, despite the obstacles before me, I had made it this far.

    When I got back to the residence hall, I had less than two hours to rest before the orientation meeting. Tom stood on the opposite wall, at the open window. “What are you doing?” I asked. “I’m smoking some bud out of this soda can. Do you want some?”  “What . . . what are you smoking?” I fired back. “Weed, my man, I’m smoking some good weed,” he said, with his head tilted back in bliss.

    I jumped to my feet and had to fight from raising my voice. “Dude, you must be crazy. This is our first night, and already you are breaking the rules and smoking pot. You have no idea what it took for me to get here, and I will be damned if I get kicked out because of your sorry, drug-addicted ass. Put that shit away now, or I will put it away for you.”

    Todd held his hands up in defense, a look of confusion on his face. “Chill out, dude. I got you. I won’t smoke with you in the room . . . I just like it, you know. It helps me relax,” he persisted. Even as he stood there, trying to put me at ease, I was angry. I left the room to hang out in the common area with other students until our meeting.

    In the common area, many of the other guys on my floor were casually meeting each other, and I easily slipped into several conversations about where folks where from and why they chose Northeastern. At six o’clock sharp, the orientation meeting started. Dave, the resident advisor, had a larger-than-average build and an obviously kind and gentle spirit.

    “Well, hello guys! My name is Dave Peters, and I want to welcome you to your first college experience at Northeastern University—home of the Huskies!” In unison, everyone cheered and high-fived one another, and as chills went down my spine, it settled in that I was accepted here and more so, that I deserved to be here. I had earned it.

    Dave continued. “I want to make sure that you have a great experience here, but first, I have to go over some important rules that you all need to be mindful of.” His voice was serious and steady. “I want to make it clear that you are here to get a college education and one non-negotiable is that this is a drug-free residence hall. If you get caught with alcohol and/or drugs in your room, your college experience, as you know it, will be over.”

    As I heard the word over, in my mind’s eye, I heard the loud bang of prison doors closing behind me. I lifted my head and saw Todd across the room, red faced and half-baked. The look on his face conveyed confidence that masked his guilt, and I looked around the room and saw other similar expressions of guilt on people’s faces. I suddenly felt as if all these incoming freshmen thought going to college was going to be a big pot-fest and that not many planned on taking it as seriously as I did. I felt my blood heating up with flashbacks of homelessness and hearing that I was not college material. I thought to myself, “I’m not covering for Todd, some guy I met less than ten hours ago, at the expense of getting kicked out of college. This dude must be crazy. My mother would kill me . . . and I would kill myself, for that matter.”

    The rest of the meeting was a blur to me, and I was hell-bent that I needed to talk with Dave as soon as possible. I had to explain my situation to him . . . the only ass I was covering at this point was my own.

    When the meeting ended, I could see Tom looking at me, wondering what I was going to do, but I decided to hang out with some of the other guys and get to know them to avoid Tom altogether. Around ten o’clock, I went back to my room. After I closed the door, Todd looked at me sternly. “Hey dude, you didn’t say anything, did you?”

    “No,” I responded. “But, if you do it again, I’m out of here and will ask to be switched to a different room.” He nodded his head in understanding, and we both went on with our business for the night. The next morning was the freshmen orientation with the President of the University, Mr. John Curry. I tried to wake Todd up, but he decided that it wasn’t very important, so he slept in. As I strode down the hallway to make it to the meeting on time, I thought to myself, “This guy is a bad example for me, and he will be lucky to make it through his first year if he keeps it up.”

    Dave told all of us that he would take us down to the auditorium if we wanted to go with him. I walked right next to him, taking it all in like a little boy getting his first bike for Christmas from Santa Claus.

    What seemed like thousands of bouncing and eager college freshmen filled the traditional auditorium with excitement as if we were attending a concert. The buzz of a new dawn filled the room, and President Curry came to the podium to make his opening remarks.    

    “Let me be the first to welcome you to Northeastern University!” The auditorium, full of freshmen, erupted in hoots and applause. When the excitement waned, he continued. “I want each of you to look to the person to your left and the person on your right. One of you will not make it through the next five years—and right here, right now, I want you to be one of the two that does make it!”

    I sat there, feeling triumphant, thinking of my mother, Coach Miller, Ms. G, Mrs. Quinn, and Pam Boisvert. I looked into the eyes of the students flanked to my sides as if to say, “Sorry that you are not going to make it.” President Curry’s message was inspiring but also scared me because I knew he was speaking the truth. If I was going to make it, I had to treat going to college with the same discipline with which I treated my jobs at Frito-Lay, the factory, and the library.

    After President Curry spoke, he introduced the next speaker as Maya Angelou. I thought, Maya Angelou, wow, she’s big-time. I wonder what she’s going to say. Exhibiting a stoic demeanor and confident gait, she took the stage, grabbed the microphone, looked out among the crowd, and opened her speech by singing. I don’t remember the name of the song, but she sang a song that rocked the foundation of my core because the place from which she sang was all too familiar to me. It was a place of moving from despair to hope, from anxiety to peace, from hurting to healing, from fighting through barriers to overcoming obstacles, and from meaning-making and becoming. I tried my best to stop the tears from streaming down my face, but it was useless. The tone of her voice and the expressions on her face resonated so deeply within me in the same way I sang away my homelessness with my classmates in Ms. G’s class. A student sitting next to me patted me on the back, and another leaned in and asked, “You okay, brother?” I nodded my head, because I knew I was going to be okay. I thoughtfully repeated my statement of purpose to myself. “I’m not going to be the one that doesn’t make it. I have come too far to turn back now. I’m graduating from this school. This is where I belong. I am Northeastern University!”

    After Ms. Angelou’s speech, I was overflowing with enthusiasm for and commitment to my success than ever before; it was just what I needed to hear.

    Later in the first week, I sat down with Dave and shared that I wanted to switch rooms. I told him that I suspected my roommate was using drugs, and I did not want to get in trouble for his drug use. I asked him in confidence to not say anything directly but to do a room inspection and see for himself. Dave understood, and had me talk to Jeff, another guy on the floor who happened to need a roommate. Jeff was a rich kid from Jersey who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. At first, we got along well, but he, too, had a friendship with weed. He partied a lot and was a bad influence on me. Over time, I lowered my standards and started drinking in the residence halls—something that I was sure I had left behind.

    As the quality of my schoolwork declined, I took refuge in joining the Northeastern chorus. I did not take it as a formal class and only received one semester credit; I took it because music was a love that I’d wanted to continue pursuing. Choir practice was once a week and was a great place to meet all kinds of eclectic people—nerds, alternatives, conservatives—it was a melting pot of unique personalities brought together by their love of classical music. All the years of playing the violin and singing in high school felt natural in college. I got along well with all the guys in the bass and tenor sections and found out that one of them was looking for a roommate at a different hall in the center of campus, and I knew it would be a better choice for me.

    Again, I went to Dave. “I really love being here, but I think I need to find another roommate. I just don’t have much in common with Jordan. I know of another student who lives in Speare Hall who sings in the chorus with me, and he needs a new roommate. Would you help me transfer to that residence hall to live with someone else?”

    Dave looked at me with a kind smile and a face full of optimism. “Doug, you’re a good kid, and all of my rooms are full . . . but I will call the Resident Director over there to see if we can make the change.”

    “Thank you! You know, ever since I met you, I’ve been impressed with your outlook on life and how you treat people,” I added. “No problem! That’s what I’m here for!” he fired back. That would be my third roommate in four months, but I felt that I was finally getting to the place I needed to be.

    I moved again, and Frank, a fair skinned, blue-eyed, blonde haired guy who looked like he could have been in an L.L. Bean commercial was my next roommate. He was from a small town in Maine and was an all-around good guy who also loved singing. We had no problems rooming together, except that Frank liked to drink beer as well. We drank every weekend and sometimes on weekdays.

    One evening, there was a knock on the door. “Hi, my name is Chris, Chris Corso . . . but you can call me Corso.” I recognized him as someone who lived a few rooms down the hall. “I am having a few guys over to my room later tonight and wanted to extend the invite to you guys.” Corso was short and Italian, with a big spirit. He seemed like a little Napoleon who rose as a leader on my floor, only he was kind and friendly to everyone. He was in most of my classes, and we instantly connected with one another. I would later find out that he was from Attleboro, went to private school, listened to AC/DC, and was the captain of his high school cross-country team. We couldn’t be more different, but we developed a very strong brotherly bond with one another that still exists to this day. I went to the majority of my classes, but they were all lecture-style, some with more than 100 students in them, so it was hard for me to focus. I lacked the discipline necessary to study and complete the course readings. Corso and I partied every weekend, but he also was a great study partner. We definitely worked hard and played hard.

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