Paterson, who was the first African-American and legally blind governor of New York, spoke about the hardships he faced in school and throughout his life. His parents moved to Hempstead when Paterson was a child to avoid New York City public schools, where he would have been placed in special education classes because of his impairment.
After graduating from high school a year early, Paterson attended Columbia University. It was during college where he faced one of his biggest challenges, he said.
“Something happened to me in my second year of my college life that almost ended any chance of me ever having any career,” Paterson said. During the summer of his sophomore year, he attended a barbecue and was asked by the host to come up with a list of 15 people who could work at a catering service, bagging lunches for children going to day camp. Paterson included his name on the list but was not hired because of his impairment.
“He did not think that I could put an apple and a sandwich in a lunchbox and close it,” Paterson said.
His underage brother was also hired, which upset Paterson even further. The former governor said that when he went back to school he was too upset to study and was in danger of failing out of school. Paterson went back to Hempstead to speak to an old teacher and she encouraged him to take a break from school and find a job to boost his confidence. He went back to school a year later and graduated with a degree in history.
In an interview with The Courier, Paterson said he spoke about his struggles to make his message relatable to all students.
“Hopefully, they won’t think of me in the best of times because they don’t need me in the best of times. They need my words when things are not going well,” he said.
Graduate Enola Fasola, who wants to be a video game designer when he grows up, said he learned about perseverance during Paterson’s speech.
“I learned that if something happens to you, you can always rise back up,” Fasola said.
Principal Dr. Karen Valbrun said seeing her students graduate was a proud moment for her, and that she is excited to find out what they accomplish in the future.
“My message to them is no matter what disability, no matter what challenge stands in front of you, if you want to accomplish something, nothing should stand in your way,” Valbrun said. “To hold such a high position, in spite of what the media may say about black students especially in terms of being disadvantaged or fatherless homes or whatever other negative perceptions that may lie out there, they can still achieve.”