UM-Flint Alumnus Helps Others Access Higher Education

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Clarence “Cee Jay” Jennings, Jr. (’02, ’06)
Clarence “Cee Jay” Jennings, Jr. (’02, ’06)

University of Michigan-Flint alumnus, Clarence "Cee Jay" Jennings, Jr. ('02, '06) is a well-known face to those that attend events on and around the UM-Flint campus. A dedicated and active alumni volunteer, Jennings' story – moving to Flint for a better future, earning both his bachelor's and master's degrees, and putting his education to work in his community – epitomize the UM-Flint experience for both students and alumni over the past 60 years.

Jennings was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky. At age 11, his mother, an employee of the Hyatt Hotel Corporation, accepted a promotion and transferred to Flint to open the new downtown Hyatt Regency Hotel. Jennings would visit his mother during the summers and holidays and, though the hotel would close and become a symbol of the rise and fall of the city, he found a connection with the city that he would later call home.

Upon his graduation from high school, Jennings moved to Flint to attend General Motors Institute, now Kettering University. He completed only four semesters there before the lure of a well-paying job at the Buick City complex drew him into full-time work and put a temporary halt to his education.

"I was doing well for a young guy," said Jennings. "I made good money, had nice things…it was a good job at General Motors."

Even a steady paycheck, though, could not stop Jennings from questioning his decision to leave college. Conversations with well-intentioned GM colleagues at the complex served as frequent reminders of this choice, and inspiration to later return for his degree.

"I was only slightly older than many of my coworkers' own children," recalled Jennings. "They would tell me about the hopes and dreams they had for their kids; dreams that centered on the children doing better than themselves, and these dreams almost always included attending college."

When things started to change in the automotive industry in Flint, Jennings began to seriously reconsider his decision to leave school. Then, when GM announced the closing of the remaining plants at the Buick City complex, he had the impetus he needed to return to school.

"I had been thinking about going back to school for a while," said Jennings. "When GM made the announcement that they were moving our jobs to another plant, I decided I was going to go for it."

Jennings enrolled at UM-Flint to pursue a degree in psychology. As a first generation college student supporting a young family, though, he found himself ill-prepared for the life and responsibilities of a full-time student. As a result, he initially struggled.

"Going back to school after such a long delay made that first semester tough. I was working, raising a family, taking 18 credit hours, and just trying to survive it all," said Jennings. "I did not do well, and that was a wake-up call for me that this was not going to be easy."

Fortunately, Jennings sought help on campus, and soon found people at UM-Flint that helped him get the support he needed. This support, combined with Jennings' own hard work and perseverance, earned him a BS in Psychology with honors and an MA in Education.

"There were several people who helped me at the university in my early time there," said Jennings. "Dr. Mary Jo Sekelsky was a great help, always concerned about how I was doing and encouraging me to get involved in campus activities or to take advantage of the services the university had to offer. It meant a lot to me that I had access to one of the top university professionals, and that support was immeasurable."

Jennings also praised the support he received from faculty during his time on campus. Eric Freedman, professor of psychology at UM-Flint from 1993 until his death in 2014, was an academic advisor and mentor to Jennings.

"Dr. Freedman showed me how to go beyond being just a college student and be a scholar," said Jennings. "I was struggling in his Human Cognition course, so I would spend time with him after class discussing the theories. During these conversations, he would always say, 'Think beyond the text, what's missing?'"

"Soon thereafter, he asked me if I would be interested in assisting him with his research, and I took him up on the offer," Jennings said. "I am so glad that I did."

Jennings found that, by working side-by-side with a faculty mentor on research, he was becoming better prepared for a career after college as well. He learned the value of collaborations through his work with Freedman and other colleagues in Ann Arbor. His confidence grew too, allowing him to present on the research findings at the annual Meeting of Minds conference offered through Research and Sponsored Programs, a collaborative effort between the University of Michigan-Flint, University of Michigan-Dearborn, and Oakland University that showcases the results of student-faculty collaboration in research and creative activities from across all academic disciplines.

Not all of the support that Jennings received, though, came from individuals at UM-Flint. He also received several scholarships that provided the financial support needed not only to attend school, but to decrease his workload so as to have additional time for studying and family.

One such scholarship, named in honor of a fellow former Buick employee and Flint civil rights advocate Edgar B. Holt, also planted in Jennings' mind a seed about creating opportunities for future students.

"The financial support I received from UM-Flint through the Holt Scholarship, and others, enabled me to focus on raising my family and maximizing my educational experiences," said Jennings. "I saw the example of generosity and it inspired me to think about how I might be able to create opportunities for young people someday in the future."

Since his graduation from UM-Flint, Jennings has indeed been doing his part to create opportunities for young people through both his professional life and volunteer service. His work with a local faith-based, non-profit organization focused on community building and youth development reinforced his desire to make education accessible for young people.

"Those early years of my work focused on developing ways to support the dreams and goals of young people," Jennings claimed. "That time in my life strengthened my resolve to help the young people of the Flint community have hope and to let them know that a college education was a reachable goal."

This is a message that Jennings took with him to a new position at Mott Community College. His work there includes managing programs that assist underrepresented, low-income, single-parent, first-generation, non-traditional, and disabled students to achieve academic success such as transferring students to four-year post-secondary institutions or employment assistance for those completing vocational and technical education programs.

"The most rewarding part of my work today is when I see we have made an education attainable for someone," said Jennings. "A big part of that work is to create a college-going culture within a disadvantaged community that frequently does not see a college education as a viable option. Sometimes it is about showing students and families that young people in our community can have dreams and goals that include college."

Jennings' passion for helping people attain their education is also a big part of what drives him to be an engaged alumni volunteer for UM-Flint. For the last 15 years, Jennings has served on numerous alumni committees and boards while helping to design and implement UM-Flint's largest annual alumni gathering, Go Blue on the Bricks. This June, Jennings will assume the role of Board President for the University of Michigan Club of Greater Flint, a local alumni group open to graduates of all three campuses of the University of Michigan and a major supporter of UM-Flint scholarships.

When asked why he has been such an active and engaged alumnus, Jennings said, "The simple answer is that I believe in the mission of the University. I am living proof of the vision that the Mott family and the regents of the university had over 60 years ago when they established this campus for the families and children of Flint. I am a living example of someone that has made the transition from a manufacturing job to one in education. I have witnessed the transition of Flint from a car town to a college town, and I want to keep that momentum going."

"Being an engaged alumnus allows me to do that and to create opportunities like those that were created for me."

Brent is the Alumni Relations Manager in the Office of University Advancement. Contact him with questions related to alumni programs, activities, and services.