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Keith Champagne Uncorked

Santos Herrera, News Editor - February 6, 2013

Some students may not personally know Keith Champagne, or that he is the associate dean for student life. However, students may have seen a tall, man dressed in a neatly pressed, pinstripe suit walking throughout campus.

“The suit is just a uniform,” Champagne said. “The suit is just an armor I wear to work in this higher education environment. I think being an African-American male, being a man of color, image is very important for how people see us.”

Champagne believes that if he were to walk around in a t-shirt and shorts all of the time, people would say “Who is that guy? Is he not serious about his job? What kind of mentor or role model is he trying to be? He doesn’t even come to work like he’s a professional.”

“One of the things I’ve tried to do is be an inspiration and a positive impact, not only for the students of color, but every student I come in contact with on this campus,” Champagne said. “We [professionals] have a responsibility to and for the students who attend this institution.”

One of the students who Champagne impacted in a positive way is Andre Dickerson.

Dickerson is a Central alum who is currently working as an admissions recruiter.

“I would always see Keith around campus and he would make it a thing to walk up to students and welcome them,” Dickerson said. “He does so much for people and never expects anything back other than asking the person to pay it forward and help someone else.”

When Dickerson was a student, he was experienced discrimination from one of his professors.

“I had just decided I wanted to become a medical doctor,” Dickerson said. “I had a plan I was going to follow.”

The discrimination became intolerable and Dickerson withdrew from the class to avoid further issues.

Unfortunately, withdrawing from the class ruined Dickerson’s entire college plan because he was going to have to retake the class, and, as a result, put off other classes. Dickerson began to second guess whether or not he wanted to be a doctor.

“Keith came to my defense,” Dickerson said. “He worked with the department to straighten things out.”

Champagne bought Dickerson a book on Dr. Ben Carson, an African-American neurosurgeon, and told him that he had to keep pursuing his goals despite all opposition.

Dickerson is now on track to pursuer further studies in medical school, and he considers both Champagne and Dr. Carson to be his biggest inspirations.

Champagne attributes the need to help students become successful to the way he grew up and to the environment he grew up in.

Champagne was born and raised in New Orleans.

He attended Hahnville High School, which is located 30 minutes outside of New Orleans.

Champagne grew up in a single parent home in the projects, and his family lived on food stamps and welfare.

Champagne said that when a person comes from such an environment, there aren’t very many positive expectations for you.

But his mother and his aunt Bobby Cummings, a Central professor and coordinator of the English education program, were big inspirations for him to receive an education.

Champagne attended Loyola University in New Orleans and received a degree in communications, with an emphasis in public relations. Champagne then received a master’s degree in public relations and media management from the Clarion University of Pennsylvania. Champagne began working at Central in the 1990 – 91 academic year. He came to Ellensburg where Cummings was teaching.

Champagne got a job as assistant director of student activities, working with Scott Drummond and John Drinkwater.

From there, he moved up to the position of assistant vice president of leadership and diversity.

Champagne is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Washington in higher education administration.

“People see me in this suit and think ‘this guy is out of touch,’” Champagne said. “But they don’t know my background. I grew up in the hood.”

When Champagne was in fourth or fifth grade, Champagne had shoes that were starting to come apart.

He had to try to hold on to those shoes for as long as possible until his mom got paid.

Champagne placed a piece of cardboard in the shoe and taped it shut.

He also used shoe polish to hold them together, but then it rained and the shoes came loose.

“I thought ‘I can’t go to school,’ knowing how terrible kids are,” Champagne said.

Champagne knew that if he went to school with torn shoes that he would be made fun of.

“They’re going to say ‘look at Champagne with those raggedy shoes,” Champagne said. “So what I did was put on about five or six pairs of those tube socks and kind of limped around like I had a bad foot.”

Champagne said when kids asked about his foot, he would tell them that he cut it on glass or stepped on a nail.

So instead of being teased, kids were sympathetic.

“My mother said to me, ‘Just stay in school, work hard, and one day, when you grow up and have a college degree, you’ll be able to buy your own shoes,” Champagne said. “So I always have nice shoes now.”

Growing up in the projects allows Champagne to understand and connect with today’s college students who come from the inner city, projects, or the barrio.

“When you come from the projects, the education you are getting is not just for you. It is for the people that come behind you too,” Champagne said.

Given the many things that he has accomplished, Champagne said he is very proud of two things.

“The proudest thing for me, being an African American male in America and where I grew up and where I came from, was reaching my 24th birthday,” Champagne said. “There were so many people I knew that by the time they reached their 24th birthday, they were in prison or dead.”

The second thing Champagne is most proud of is having graduated college. Champagne’s colleagues are also proud of his accomplishments and have also been impacted by his kind heart.

Teresa Francis, associate professor of law and justice, met Champagne when she arrived at Central seven years ago.

“He [Champagne] opened his doors and his heart to me,” Francis said. “He has been kind. He has been available to help me at any time.”

Francis said that she and Champagne have shared a great friendship that is not easy to come by.
“He has kept my secrets,” Francis said, “and I have kept his.”

Francis’ favorite memory of Champagne is him, with the help of others, starting the Extraordinary Men Pursuing Intellectual Readiness through Education organization (E.M.P.I.R.E).

“It’s beautiful to watch him develop the E.M.P.I.R.E. organization,” Francis said. “The young men are growing as people every day.”

Francis said that the organization is far from an easy ride. Champagne holds every member accountable for their actions and instills in them that they can be successful only if they do the right thing.

Champagne said he owes a lot to his mother and to Cummings, for instilling the values of treating people with human dignity and respect and for developing a love and thirst for education.

“I tell people I’m from the projects, but I’m not of the projects,” Champagne said.

By that, Champagne means that he knows where he came from, but he does not let that define him.
“It’s not about where you start,” Champagne said. “It’s about where you end up.”

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