LaMont Toliver, the Director of the Meyerhoff Scholars Program and Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Education at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), passed away yesterday – Feburary 28, 2012. He suffered a heart attack while at work on campus. I am somewhat humbled to say that Mr. Toliver (as I knew him as a young college student) had a tremendously positive impact in my own life and career. And, unfortunately, I am only now realizing and reflecting on his support.
I was a Meyerhoff Scholar through my freshman and part of my sophomore years. But, I made the difficult decision to leave for a number of reasons, primary among them that the program’s focus on the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) failed to include support for the social sciences. This is meant as no critique; the program was developed specifically to advance people of color into graduate training programs in these fields. Though I came to UMBC as an eager mathematician-in-training, I realized my love of math was actually the confluence of being good at math and liking my high school math (and science) teachers. By my sophomore year, I was ready to leave the Meyerhoff program to pursue my passion (which, I eventually realized was sociology).
Though I thought as a know-it-all 19 year old that I had Mr. Toliver and the rest of the program staff fooled, taking classes like Introduction to Lesbian and Gay Studies, Human Sexuality in a Sociological Perspective, and Introduction to Acting, I am certain now that they knew that I was unhappy in the program. Despite my parents’ pleas to stay in the program because I was supported by a full scholarship, I went ahead with the official process to leave the Meyerhoff program to pick up a general scholarship in its place — a rare and difficult option to obtain for students in specialized programs. When I met with Mr. Toliver to explain my decision to leave, he was supportive, but stressed the importance of giving the decision more thought first. My mind was made up, though. At a later meeting, he proposed pursuing an independent major — a build-your-own-major of sorts that would combine sociology with statistics. That is, he offered me a chance to stay in the program, while beginning to incorporate my interest in sociology. (In hindsight, it would be beneficial to have the statistical background, but I likely would have hated stats classes. Ironically, I’m now called a “quantoid” by my colleagues because of my exclusive use of quantitative research methods.)
I charged ahead with my decision to leave. At that time, I had a grade point average (GPA) that was too low to obtain any scholarship at UMBC, and a mish-mash of classes that could have been read as indirection or even goofing around. The 27-year-old me today is astonished at the leap of faith I took as a stubborn yet passionate 19-year-old. That is, once I formally left the Meyerhoff program, I then waited for the scholarship office to decide whether to award me another scholarship in place of the one I blindly gave up. As luck, or fate, or the gods, or chance — or whatever — would have it, I was granted a full scholarship to pursue any major of my choice with the one stipulation of maintaining a 3.25 GPA. (Fortunately, once I was pursing classes I liked — sociology with some psychology and women’s studies — I rarely dipped below a perfect 4.0.)
The director of the scholarship office shared with me her conversation with Mr. Toliver. She explained that he said nothing but positive things, and strongly recommended that UMBC grant me another full scholarship. Though he certainly had in his court a few reasons to cast doubt in this decision, he extended his support for me.
I am saddened to see that a mentor and advisor who has touched so many lives, like my own, has left this world at the young age of 49. His loss is one to his own family, as well as the Meyerhoff family and UMBC community. I wish I had thought sooner to send him a card, or email, or call him just to say thanks. But, for what it’s worth — Thank you, Mr. Toliver. Thank you for your support, encouragement, tough love, and faith in me. Rest in peace.