By Chandler Wilson
No matter where Crystal Perkins-Carter has worked, she has given her all to better the lives of her students.
In 2001, Perkins-Carter and her husband found her efforts were wearing them financially thin. Following a conversation in which her husband addressed the funds she was giving to support her students at Langston University in Langston, OK, Perkins-Carter realized she had to do something more. The adviser couldn’t stop helping her students, but she couldn’t keep spending her family’s money either.
So she sold her car, used her tax return and decided to put her writing talent to action in hopes it could help her provide scholarships to students who desperately needed someone to believe in them.
“They’re here, and I’m sitting in this office telling my kids, ‘I believe in you, I believe in you, I believe in you,’” Perkins-Carter said. “‘But if I only believe in you when the university can put up their funds to help you, do I really believe in you? If I really believe in you, I am willing to make a sacrifice for you.’”
Many years and published books later, Perkins-Carter is on a different campus, but she is still using her resources to invest in the lives of her students.
Perkins-Carter is the assistant director and an adviser for OU’s Project Threshold. The federally funded program is designed to help first generation college students, the economically disadvantaged or those with disabilities. According to its website, it has provided students with numerous resources and guidance since established in 1970 but currently lacks a clear funding source due to campus wide budget cuts and being denied a federal grant.
On any given day, the Project Threshold counselor and assistant director’s office can be found overflowing with students who consider her a sort-of mother on campus. Since coming to OU in the early 2000’s, Perkins-Carter has served her students to the point of paying tuition fees, buying class rings or supporting them in times of crisis or celebration, among other things.
Above all, Perkins-Carter has given hope to the hopeless, passion to the defeated and direction to the lost, according to many of her past and present students.
“There are so many students she has kept in school who were on the verge of dropping out, me being one of them,” BertThaddaeus Bailey, a previous Project Threshold student, said. Bailey is now a policy analyst for the state of Oklahoma.
“Words can’t even express what she has done. This isn’t book stuff. They don’t teach this stuff. I hope I have expressed all she means to me and so many others.”
Perkins-Carter credits her mother and her faith in God for her desire to serve so willingly. As a daughter of teen parents and an absentee father, Perkins-Carter said her mother, Karolyn Lewis, gave everything to make sure Perkins-Carter didn’t repeat her mistakes and was raised in a way that broke the cycle and trend of street culture in Detroit.
“It was really by the grace of God my mom decided that even though she made a mistake she was going to do something dynamic and powerful out of the decision she made and make sure her kid didn’t repeat her mistake,” Perkins-Carter said. “My mom made sure I didn’t get lost in the shuffle of what was happening in the streets of Detroit, and so I grew up in church and was taught to love the Lord.”
Throughout Perkins-Carter’s childhood and into young adulthood, she had people she admired who she considered servants and givers. Years after she was born, her mother married her stepfather, and their family later moved from Detroit to Oklahoma to start a new General Motors location. While her stepfather and mother supported her and her younger half siblings, giving them everything they ever needed, she also had godparents who funded her college education outside of her scholarships.
It all taught Perkins-Carter to live a life of gratitude, hard work and service that modeled the love and selflessness of those she grew up around.
According to Perkins-Carter, the sacrifices her mother and family made set her up for the position she is in now, a first-generation college graduate who is able to make a difference in her student and her three children’s lives.
Not only did Perkins-Carter’s mom love her well, but she loved others and served them well also. Growing up, there were many occasions where Lewis took in other children, cousins, nieces, nephews, the neighbors, her brother’s classmate who lost his family and anyone who was in need of a place to stay or someone to be there for them.
“Even in her struggle, she was a servant to me,” Perkins-Carter said. “I pray that if anything were to ever happen to me, somebody would show my kids the same kind of compassion that I show to the students that I serve…I know that has everything to do with the seeds that my mother planted in my life.”
While Perkins-Carter leaned on her mother for guidance, Lewis relied on her daughter as well. Not only did their relationship lead her to generosity and gratitude, but it led her to creativity and confidence, according to her mother.
“As a kid, she used to walk up the streets preaching to people,” Lewis said. “She wanted to grow up and take care of the needy and the poor. She was always a leader, responsible, mature, creative and outgoing. In a way, we grew up together. In a way, she kept me grounded.”
While her love for serving others was instilled in her at a young age, Perkins-Carter was exposed to situations early in her career within the juvenile justice system that taught her more about compassion and turned her love for service into a passion for trying to change young adults’ lives.
Initially, Perkins-Carter went to college with the self-proclaimed strange desire of being a mortician but quickly changed her mind and set her hopes on law school. It wasn’t until she began working within the juvenile justice program that Perkins-Carter felt certain about her calling. Through her work, she was exposed to kids who had experienced abuse, were pregnant by adults, were neglected or who felt lost in their mistakes.
Suddenly, her passion changed.
“I just felt like, ‘God, I can make a difference,’” Perkins-Carter said. “‘Use me.’”
This work inspired Perkins-Carter to get her masters in human relations with an emphasis in clinical counseling from OU so she would be able to more closely work with at-risk youth and troubled families. It was this passion and drive that later encouraged her to start writing.
Once Perkins-Carter started working with college students at Langston University, she realized she wanted to do for students what many of them couldn’t do for themselves.
“She does so much for her students,” Lewis said. “She gives scholarships when they have needs, and if they are sincere in what they are doing, she gives to them. That’s why she wrote a book. She started putting her thoughts to paper. She sold her BMW to finance her first book.”
Perkins-Carter never expected what happened next. Her second book, “Hood Rich: Sex, Status, and a Baller’s Confession,” which came out in 2005, quickly affirmed that Perkins-Carter had made the right decision to sell her car and use her tax return to kickstart her writing career. The novel ended up on Essence Magazine top-sellers list, and her writing has since been mentioned in Publishers Weekly and The New York Times.
Though her books have received a lot of attention, eventually leading her to need an agent, start her own publishing company and do book tours, her purpose never changed. She began writing to help kids, and no matter how much she achieved, her profits continued to go toward scholarships and bettering the lives of her students.
“It blessed me to bless my students in the manner in which I wanted to,” Perkins-Carter said. “To be a servant to somebody else is the greatest reward ever.”
Years later, Perkins-Carter continues to invest in the lives of her students at OU.
As the future of Project Threshold remains uncertain, the students look to Perkins-Carter for guidance and comfort. According to OU President Jim Gallogly, the program was denied a federal grant it applied for and will be out of funding by late October, forcing the university to take over expenses. While he assures the program will continue, students and faculty worry restructuring could lead to the dismissal of one or all of the counselors, among other things.
Even still, Perkins-Carter plans to be there for her students no matter what happens. According to her, the students have become her family and she loves them in the same way she loves her three daughters and three younger siblings.
Countless students have been changed by all that Perkins-Carter has done for them, Project Threshold director Deborah Binkley-Jackson said.
“She just has a way about her when it comes to interacting with people,” Binkley-Jackson said. “The way she talks about her students, and the way they have come in and there has been a turnaround…it just engages people. Her community is just thankful and grateful in every way for the services she provides them. She is a human service asset.”
While Perkins-Carter has created change in people through mentorship, she has also kept students in school and provided them the means to achieve their goals as well. Bailey is one of these students.
During the first few weeks of Bailey’s freshman year at OU, he was debating dropping out due to the difficulty of his classes compared to his prior education and because of financial difficulties. In seeking out the guidance of Perkins-Carter, she set higher expectations for Bailey than he had ever been held to before, which led him to believe in himself and eventually propelled him to his current career as a policy analyst, Bailey said.
“Miss Carter was so intentional about going beyond a normal adviser,” Bailey said. “I came to her not just for counseling or to get advised for my courses, but I came to her for a lot of issues that really had nothing to do with me being in college. She even kept my money in her savings for me when I was looking to buy a ring to propose to my (then) girlfriend, and she did all the decorating for my engagement party. She said she wanted to do it out of love and never mentioned it again. That just shows her character.”
According to Perkins-Carter, she knows what she does is not an obligation, but her upbringing and faith have taught her that if her students are in need, and she is able to help, she should give to them.
“I can’t even say how many students tuitions I have personally paid for myself,” Perkins-Carter said. “I can’t just sit on my funds and think it’s all my money and be like, ‘You’re in need, but I’m not going to help you.’
“I help them because I care about them.”
Bailey is just one example of a student who came onto campus as one person and left completely changed because of Perkins-Carter’s generosity and love. She never lets her students miss a class, and she gets to know each of them well enough to understand what courses they should take, according to Bailey. While she does this because she cares about their success in the classroom, it is more so because she cares about their minds and character.
Perkins-Carter knows many of her students will never be able to pay her back for what she gives them, but she doesn’t want them to. Instead, she hopes they pay it forward because she believes helping someone like she does is an opportunity to not only change their life, but the lives of their children and their grandchildren’s lives as well.
No matter what happens to Project Threshold and her job as an adviser and assistant director, Perkins-Carter will never stop being a servant to those in need. Everything she has accomplished has been to support her family and students, and that is not congruent on whether she works at Project Threshold. Rather, it is a part of who she is and what her mother instilled in her, Perkins-Carter said.
“I would not be half the person I am today if I hadn’t met Miss Carter,” Bailey said. “I wouldn’t have the job, I wouldn’t have my degrees, and I wouldn’t even be married.
“I would say Miss Carter completely changed my life.”