In his 21 years at Lamar University, Oney Fitzpatrick Jr., 55, has witnessed prestige and growth as well as prejudice and intolerance. He has watched thousands of students graduate, many his own, and said that helping them reach that goal has been his greatest accomplishment.
“Some come in and aren’t really sure what it is they want to do or even whether a college education is for them,” said Fitzpatrick, associate provost for student retention at Lamar and long-time psychology professor. “To see them get all the way through and happily dance across the stage is probably the biggest thrill.”
Fitzpatrick said that although many professors don’t like to attend graduation because it gets repetitive and old, he goes out of his way to make it to each ceremony because it is an important day for the students.
“I like to be there to watch,” he said. “Graduation is about the students — it’s their day. I just think we (should) look at it from that perspective.”
As much of a joy as it is for him to see his students on stage, Fitzpatrick said that it is as much of a tragedy for students who never reach that benchmark.
According to The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education’s website, “the nationwide college graduation rate for black students stands at an appallingly low rate of 43 percent. This figure is 20 percentage points below the 63 percentage rate for white students.” Fitzpatrick said that the low percentage of graduating African-American males could be attributed to several factors.
“I think the problems go back even further than (college),” Fitzpatrick said. “High school graduation rates among African-American males tend to be low. I think it is probably at least partially a societal issue. African-American males tend to be labeled a certain way, and unfortunately, many fall into the trap of actually fulfilling that role that has been laid upon them. In psychology, you might call it a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you are told that you are this and you’re told that you act this way, eventually you start to believe it and you’ll act out that way.”
Fitzpatrick said another factor is a lack of mentoring.
“There are not a lot of African-American males that are professors that teach at universities, so I think if one is looking for a role model, it can be very difficult to find someone to model yourself after,” he said. “I think that has probably been my biggest challenge throughout my entire educational experience, both as a student and now as a professor.”
The number of African-American males pursuing higher education degrees beyond a bachelor’s is decreasing, according to Fitzpatrick.
“I think part of it is the fact that economically, many individuals have to go to work right away to support families, and going to school is kind of viewed as self-forced poverty,” he said. “You’ve made the decision not to go into a workforce. You’ve decided to put off making real money until you get out of school, and I think for a lot of people, that’s a difficult thing to do, especially if you have responsibilities that require you to bring some kind of income into a family.”
Deciding to forgo the workforce and pursue higher education was not a difficult decision for Fitzpatrick, however.
“Really the decision of going to college starts around age 7 or 8,” he said. “If you don’t plant those seeds then by making that a priority, then it’s really too late. It was just understood in my family, growing up, that you go to college. It was never a question in my mind as to whether I was going to pursue higher education — it was really just an expectation.”
Fitzpatrick, who grew up in a blue-collar area of Ohio, said his father, Oney Fitzpatrick Sr., held a white-collar job and was a great inspiration to him.
“Where I grew up in Northern Ohio, the steel industry was really big at the time,” he said. “We had three auto assembly plants within 30 miles of where I lived. It was kind of assumed that when you grew up you would either go work in one of several steel mills, the shipyard or one of the auto assembly places. I didn’t want to do that. I saw (my father) get up. He got dressed, had the suit and all that kind of stuff. I said, ‘I don’t know exactly what he does, but I would much rather go to work that way then have to come back covered with dirt.’”
Fitzpatrick attended Wooster College in Wooster, Ohio, and started out with majoring in chemistry, but changed his major after two years of study.
“I was bored out of my mind,” he said. “You had to build these contraptions to boil stuff, and then you’d get a beaker at the end that would give you some precipitant. You spent an hour and a half building this thing, and then you put all these chemicals together. Then you have to watch it for four hours, and I was just like, ‘I can’t do this.’”
Fitzpatrick fell in love with the social science after only a couple of classes, he said.
“I guess it was my destiny,” he said. “I had a psychology professor that just blew me away. I played football in school, and he related sports to psychology. It just clicked.”
After graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Wooster in 1980, Fitzpatrick earned a Master of Science in Developmental Psychology from the University of Dayton in 1985 and a Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from the University of Houston in 1989.
After a two-year stint at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Fitzpatrick came to Lamar in 1991 as an assistant professor of psychology and was named Professor of the Year in his first year.
“When you come to a new location, you wonder if you’ve made the right move, and with that it cemented in my mind that this is the place I need to be,” he said.
Lamar has afforded him great opportunity for advancement, Fitzpatrick said.
“I’ve been able to move through the ranks here,” he said. “I started as a psychology professor and have been able to move up. Sometimes it’s very difficult to move up within an institution.”
While there have been several fond memories of flourishing growth and accomplishment, there have also been a few memories Fitzpatrick said he would just as soon forget.
“Following 9/11, a lot of the Muslim students caught a lot of grief because people have a tendency to lump everybody together,” he said. “I saw a lot of students walk around almost in fear because they didn’t know if they were going to be attacked by Americans who were mad at Muslims.”
Two years before the attack on the twin towers, Fitzpatrick traveled to Morocco, which is 99.9 percent Muslim, during a sabbatical.
“My whole perspective on Islam had really changed because I actually lived in that environment,” he said. “There were so many students and people I had contact with over there sending me e-mails (after 9/11) expressing their sorrows and concerns. There are bad people that are Muslim, but there are bad Christians, too. You just have to evaluate people for who they are and not lump them all together.”
In a 2006 article by Fitzpatrick, he exposed some of the attitudes and prejudices of everyday Lamar students toward the religion.
“You hear all these things that happen in the news and someone will say it was a Muslim, or it was a terrorist,” Fitzpatrick said. “I wanted to do an evaluation of college students and what they believed about Islam and Muslims, what they knew or thought they knew, and compare that to the reality of the religion.”
The results of the survey were undesirable, Fitzpatrick said.
“I expected them to have much more positive reactions and feelings than they did,” he said. “It was surprising how little people knew about Islam. My whole point was if we don’t know about something, then what we’ve done is build in a level of fear. If college students don’t get it, what does that say about the rest of society? Because college students are the ones that are supposed to be educated and have more of an open-mind.”
Fitzpatrick said that results showed that students knew very little about Muslims, and that the sources they got their information from were not always reliable.
“Here’s a group of individuals who are by definition smart and their knowledge about (Islam) is poor at best,” he said. “You’ve got all these Muslims out here and you don’t know anything about them. We’re creating this tension between us when maybe there’s a lot more overlap of what we believe in than what we don’t.”
When Fitzpatrick isn’t thinking about how to bring together students of differing cultural backgrounds or about how to solve the pressing issues of the university, he said he enjoys unwinding with a paintbrush.
“At one time I thought I wanted to go into commercial art,” he said. “When I get a chance, I like to draw and paint.”
Fitzpatrick said that he likes to paint sports pictures, landscapes, musicians or whatever comes to mind.
“It’s just relaxing,” he said. “It’s a way for me to create my own little world.”
Fitzpatrick also enjoys spending time with his wife, Cheryl Black-Fitzpatrick, who also works at Lamar as senior administrative associate in the communication department. Oney and Cheryl have been married for over four years but have known each other for more than 16.
“It’s been a great marriage,” Black-Fitzpatrick said. “I married my best friend. He is the most sensitive and attentive man I’ve ever met.”
While they do not have any children together, Oney has a 17-year-old daughter, Epiphany Fitzpatrick, studying chemistry at Pepperdine University in California, and Cheryl has a 31-year-old son, Marcus Black, and a 7-year old grandson, Jacob Black.
Oney’s heart is in teaching, and has had a lot of success at Lamar because he is a man of integrity, is favored by the students and loves what he does, Cheryl said.
“Student interaction is my favorite thing about teaching. I don’t get to teach as much as I used to because of my current position, but I get to teach one class a year,” he said. “(Students) are the reason that I am here. Students keep your mind active and force you to stay up on your field. It’s fascinating the questions that (students) come up with.”
Cheryl said that she once took a class from Oney while she was pursuing her degree and found his class to be rather challenging.
“I don’t think I got higher than a C in his class,” she said. “When he gave the first test, I didn’t think it was the right test for the class, so I tried to correct him. I said, ‘Excuse me, Professor Fitzpatrick. I don’t think this test is the right test.’ He said, ‘No, it’s the right test. This just tells me you haven’t applied the information I’ve taught.’”
Cheryl said that Oney is a believer in maximizing a student’s potential.
“He’s not going to push you, but if you seem even a little interested in information or knowledge, then he is available,” she said.
However, as close as the two may be, Oney said he hasn’t been able to convince Cheryl to let him to buy a dog yet.
“I grew up around dogs, but Cheryl is deathly afraid of dogs,” he said. “We’ve been negotiating over the last three or four years about getting a dog. She says there was only one dog in her existence that she ever got along with. Some people are just afraid, and (for her) that’s how it is when it comes to dogs.”
“I’m terrified of dogs, but it’s not a deal breaker,” Cheryl said. “We had an opportunity to get a puppy, but the litter died, so that was my sign.”
While Fitzpatrick might not own a dog anytime soon, he did say that there is no doubt he plans to remain at Lamar for a long time to come.
“I really like what I’m doing now. I’m involved with student retention efforts here at Lamar which to me is very important,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think that Lamar has done an outstanding job of attracting students. When I first got here, we had a little over 7,000 students, and now we are close to 14,000.”
Fitzpatrick said that while it is great that Lamar can attract so many students, his job is to find ways to keep them enrolled and to encourage them to reach their goal of graduating.
“Could I spend the rest of my days (at Lamar) doing this kind of thing? I think, yes,” he said. “Because I see it as that big of a problem and an issue for the university. Our growth is going to be dependent upon how we can get students in and get them through the system. There is a lot to be done.”