Student Engagement Administrator Finishes his Doctorate

Karen Clos
January 22, 2024

Student Engagement Administrator Finishes his Doctorate
Above: Dr. Paul York, Associate Dean of Student Affairs

A few weeks before the Christmas holidays, Paul York, associate dean of student engagement at A&M-Central Texas, was preparing to take one last road trip from Killeen to College Station.

Although he might have enjoyed it, he was not returning to Texas A&M University for a football game, a ring ceremony, or a graduation. What his day would reveal would be the culmination of nine long years of work.

So, on that crisp autumn morning, he followed his normal routine – this time trying to dismiss the butterflies in his stomach, and he, his spouse, and daughter, piled into the family car and made their way toward the Brazos Valley.

As was appropriate for the day’s activities ahead of him, he was conservatively dressed: a navy-blue suit, a crisp white cotton button down shirt, a tasteful pocket square, and matching camel belt and shoes.

But there was one more thing. Something few people even knew were there or even noticed. But to him, this addition to his wardrobe, while unseen, was significant indeed.

Had a casual observer seen them, they may have wondered what they were seeing. Beneath the legs of his otherwise conservative suit, York was wearing a pair of vivid crimson red and white socks.

They were not a part of his regular conservative wardrobe. These socks were special. They were loud and proud.

They had one-inch red and white horizontal stripes from toe to shin and were emblazoned with the name of the university at the top. Had anyone caught a glimpse of them or expressed curiosity about why such comical socks on such a serious day, York would have happily, but politely, told them about Indiana University.

He was wearing them that day – that soon to be eventful day – because what he was doing that day, who he was with, and where he was going all began at Indiana University, and he wanted to show his pride and gratitude for the place, he said, that accepted, harbored, nourished, and inspired an otherwise “confused, invisible kid.” The place, he said, where he was introduced to the power of his own potential.

York had grown up in rural south-central Indiana. His dad, he says, was a die-hard Hoosier fan, and it was that interest that made him curious about where he might go to college.

“When I looked into going to IU, I was impressed by how much support they offered,” he said. “They were very purposeful about making sure applicants from lower- and middle-class families and their incomes were not excluded based on their financial need or their status as a first-generation student.”

His parents, he said, were of modest means – his father a former non-commissioned officer in the Air Force now medically discharged and his mother was an ambulance driver, an emergency medical technician, and a hospital registration assistant in the ER.

Few people understand the angst that first generation students face when they make the decision to pursue college. He had done well in high school, excelling in social studies, languages, and English. But he harbored doubts that he belonged there. But, as things sometimes do, he was about to learn more than the subjects he had enrolled in would teach him. He was about to learn the life altering power of acceptance, affirmation, and encouragement.

“I mean, I was this kid from rural Indiana, and I was pretty sure that I was just going to exist ‘sight unseen’ there,” he laughed. “I was a confused gay kid, completely mystified by everything I had to learn to become what I thought I wanted.”

But rather than becoming overwhelmed in the new environment, York allowed himself to relax a bit – not on his studies of course – although he did change majors seven or eight times by the time he graduated.

He let himself relax into the quintessential environment: the campus, the students that surrounded him, the professors who engaged him as if he mattered, and offered him opportunities to grow.

“The students there were so friendly that it was impossible to walk from one building to another without someone saying hi and really smiling at you like they were glad you were there,” he said. “I had heard the term “midwestern nice” my whole life and had taken it for granted maybe, or thought in a bigger part of the state, it would not be like that, but it was.”

Even now, when asked about his years as a Hoosier, York becomes notably moved, remembering the people and the place who did more than just their jobs. They were more than professors and colleagues, he says. They became a kind of second family of mentors who were always there.

He still remembers his most frequented places, including Woodburn Hall, where he lived, the Herman Blocks Main Library, where he lived when he was not in class, and the Indiana Memorial Union where he lived on whoppers from Burger King.

By the time his final semester rolled around, he had done well. He had landed on and stuck with political science as a major, thinking that he may want to pursue law school.

For some reason, though, he added, he was not as excited about law school as he once had been – a fact that he carefully revealed to one of his mentors, Doug Bowder.

Without missing a beat, York says, his mentor opened a door to his future that was so obviously before him that he can hardly believe how close he came to simply overlooking it. Someone he admired greatly was encouraging him to pursue his graduate degree in higher education and pursue a career as a student affairs leader.

It made sense, he thought, once he paused to reflect on his mentor’s encouragement. During his time at IU, he had been closely connected to student life administrators and their programs – even back then – serving as a resident assistant, a member of the peer judicial board, campus recreation, and orientation.

So, on that morning, York wore those stiped red and white socks with equal parts of pride, gratitude, and nostalgia. A big day – a life-changing day – was ahead of him. The young man who had taken his mentor’s advice and pursued a graduate degree in higher education from IU was on his way to Texas A&M University in College Station where he would stand before a dissertation defense committee and demonstrate himself worthy of being called “Dr. Paul York.”

By his own count – and yes, in fact, he had kept a record – York had made a total of 256 round trips from his home with his partner, Justin, in Georgetown to the A&M-Central Texas campus in Killeen where he worked to the place where he took in-person classes on campus.

From his first class to the day of his defense, York had driven a total of 76,800 miles, clocked thousands of hours of windshield time, worn out not one, but two, family cars, and even changed a flat tired in a late afternoon thunderstorm to get where he was on that morning.

“Yea, that 2006 silver Scion xA and its successor, a 2015 olive Subaru Outback, gave it their all,” he said. “But I would not take back a moment of it. Not for anything in the world.”

There was another reason for York to be grateful that day. And this time it was a tribute to the generosity of the Texas A&M University System. He had, in the last year and a half of his program, been the recipient of full tuition assistance for A&M System employees.

When he began in 2014, he had been paying his own tuition every semester, and by 2020, his tuition and fees had added up to $40,000. But when the Texas A&M University System passed a policy approving tuition and fees benefits for first-time doctoral students employed within one of the universities, York finally had some financial room to breathe.

And as significant as the benefit of that policy was to him and his family, it would become even more significant in a very, very important way: York and his partner, Justin, had been yearning to be parents, and the savings allowed them to act on their dream of having a child via surrogate.

So, on that crisp December morning, York, his spouse, and their daughter, Quinlan all traveled together to be among the first to congratulate the young man who once thought of himself as a “lost kid” and watch him realize the rewards of his many sacrifices.

And there was one more significant event that day; one more thing that made his successful defense even more meaningful. And, as fate would have it, this one thing was not a pair of red and white striped IU alumni socks.

It was the presence of Glenda Musoba, Ph.D., his dissertation committee chair and associate professor and program chair – also a fellow IU alumnus.

So, when he was officially told that he had passed the defense that morning, he stood with Musoba and Quinn while his husband took a photo to accompany the news they were about to post to social media.

He had already written the words he was going to use to mark the event once before. In the acknowledgements section of his dissertation, he expressed his gratitude for Indiana University for everything they did to transform his life – both back then and now.

“They welcomed a gay, confused, introverted, first-generation college student and turned him into a university administrator who has a passion for working hard doing what they made look so easy.”

As for his newly-minted doctorate from Texas A&M University – and the tuition assistance he gratefully received from the Texas A&M University System – York happily acknowledges that he plans to add maroon and white his sock collection in the very near future. And wear them with as much pride as he will always have for both universities that made success possible.

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