Morehouse-to-Bowdoin Exchange Student Recalls his 1965 Bowdoin Semester

CB7Eo5WUkAEbEbuFifty years after his semester exchange at Bowdoin College, Morehouse College alumnus Freddie J. Cook returned to Bowdoin on Monday to speak to students, staff and faculty about his experiences as a student in the 1960s.

The first of his family to go to college, Cook traveled from Morehouse to Bowdoin in 1965 when he was chosen to participate in the selective semester-exchange program.

In the turbulent ’60s, Cook recalled the overwhelming tension across the country. “We had young versus old, black versus white, rich versus poor,” he said. In his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, Cook struggled to understand the socioeconomic disparities he saw. Out of a neighborhood with 70 boys, only three made it to adulthood without going to jail or dying, Cook recounted. He and his older brother were two of them.

While his semester at Bowdoin represented an opportunity to escape the poverty of Atlanta, he said that the new environment, so radically different from his childhood, was almost too much to handle as a young student.

Cook’s daughter, 30-year-old Elon Cook, a recent graduate of Brown University’s Public Humanities M.A. program, attended her father’s talk. She tweeted throughout, repeating some of her father’s telling anecdotes and quotes.

— The Descendant (@Their_Child) April 6, 2015

One of the greatest surprises for Cook upon arriving at Bowdoin was finding that students here had maids. Back at home, his mother worked as a maid and a nanny for a Coca-Cola executive. For many years, his mother got by on the low wages she was paid, but she didn’t leave the job until one of the boys she took care of returned home from college and addressed her with a racial slur. She quit when the son refused to apologize, which forced her to resort to welfare for several months to support her family.

Early on at Bowdoin, Cook remembers feeling like a fish out of water. “I had boundless ambition to gather me, yet I soon found myself lapsing into depression,” he told students. Cook spent much of his time in isolation and writing poetry to help cope with the shock of luxury at Bowdoin. However, despite his initial feelings of bitterness and despair, he remembers building excellent relationships with his professors and enjoying class discussions, particularly in English literature and economics. He even began wearing a bow tie and a sweater as the Bowdoin aesthetic began to grow on him.

Cook returned to Morehouse College, where there were no toga parties, kegs or 24-hour dining, with a very different perspective. While some mixed emotions remained, Cook learned the value of breaking away from his comfort zone and making something more of his education. Addressing the students sitting around him, he said he hopes they find the “fire within” and a desire to always move forward. As for his own young self, Cook said he always felt “there was some kind of invisible hand pushing me along.”

After graduating from college, Cook embarked on a long career in sales, and he fulfilled his lifelong goal of raising a loving family. His wife, two daughters and granddaughter joined Cook during his reflections in Russwurm African American Center and his walk around campus.

The discussion was sponsored by the African-American Society and organized by Symone Howard ’15.

 

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