‘I felt like I lived his legacy’

Dr. Gillian McKnight-Tutein, assistant vice president of distant learning and academic affairs, speaks at the Martin Luther King day celebration at Colorado Mesa University on Monday. “I wasn’t alive during Dr. King, but I felt like I lived his legacy,” she said. “By not sitting and blaming, by not sitting and stewing. Everyone has an opportunity to do this. Everyone has a say.”

Dr. Gillian McKnight-Tutein’s mother only finished eighth grade. Her father finished 12th grade. Her grandmother, an indentured servant, could not speak English.

Now an administrator at Colorado Mesa University, the assistant vice president for academic affairs and director of distance education shared her story Monday during a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration sponsored by the Black Student Alliance.

“I wasn’t alive during Dr. King, but I felt like I lived his legacy,” she said. “By not sitting and blaming, by not sitting and stewing. Everyone has an opportunity to do this. Everyone has a say.”

Growing up on the island of St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, a young Gillian was determined to find life away from the 84-square-mile island. Her mother paid to send her to a private Catholic grade school and Gillian left the island for college in Florida at age 16.

“My mother worked three jobs. She knew that I needed an education,” Tutein said. “She sacrificed everything so I could get out of there.”

CMU generally hosts a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration to commemorate the birthday of the civil rights leader.

This year’s celebration included input on how to celebrate it from a number of community members, not just student leaders, said Danny Sandoval, the director of student diversity, advocacy and health.

A new component this year was offering a Dream Award to a black middle or high school student who has “displayed leadership and courage in the face of opposition.”

The award went to Grand Junction High School senior River Adams, although the student was not present Monday.

Sandoval said Adams faced some learning challenges but now is a part of a scholarship program and taking college credit courses. Sandoval said Adams plans to attend CMU in the fall.

“We’re very excited to have a student like that,” Sandoval said.

Tutein said she’s been at CMU for nearly a year, and initially was discouraged by the area’s lack of diversity. That is changing slowing, and it’s being helped along precisely by work by the Cultural Advisory Committee and the university to attract more students of color.

“As an employee here, I’d like to see a more diverse faculty,” she said. “The town has to purposefully attract it.”

Born on Jan. 15, 1929, King advanced the legal rights of African Americans using nonviolent tactics. He is perhaps best known for organizing the March on Washington in 1963 in which he delivered the famous “I Have a Dream” speech. King received the Nobel Peace Prize the following year.

King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn., as he was planning a national occupation of Washington D.C., which would have been called the Poor People’s Campaign.


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