Colin Powell’s life, legacy and enduring connection to higher education

'His school' at the City College of New York gives students the opportunities to follow his path to success, serving the public while being good citizens.
By: | October 18, 2021
Photos courtesy of City College of New York

The death of Colin Powell—distinguished National Security Adviser, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and four-star general—from COVID-19 at age 84 on Monday had a far-reaching impact.

Leaders from across the globe shared their condolences and recollections of the man who became a symbol of strength and diplomacy, even as the America he helped protect and serve became more fractured over the past four decades.

Powell is being fondly remembered as a military man who served the nation for 35 years in many conflicts, including the Vietnam War, as well as his stewardship of Operation Desert Storm and the Persian Gulf War. But he is also being commended for his extraordinary public service work, his ascension to become the first Black Secretary of State and the example he set for others.

“He was such a favorite of Presidents that he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom—twice,” former President George W. Bush said in a statement. “He was highly respected at home and abroad. And most important, Colin was a family man and a friend. Laura and I send Alma and their children our sincere condolences as they remember the life of a great man.”

Those friendships and his unmatched legacy extend to higher education, especially near the area where he was born and raised in Harlem and the South Bronx.

One of Powell’s enduring achievements is the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at the City College of New York, an institution he attended and the place where his journey to serve the country began as a member of its ROTC program. He once said, “I not only liked it, but I was pretty good at it. That’s what you really have to look for in life, something that you like, and something that you think you’re pretty good at.”

The loss hit especially hard for that community, where Powell had remained an active mentor.

“No words seem adequate at this moment. This school is his. He was our leader and our friend. His pride in this place gave all of us strength, and we are heartbroken,” Andrew Rich, Dean of the school that bears Powell’s name, said in a letter to the community. “General Powell never missed a Colin Powell School graduation, and he took the time to shake the hand of every student earning a degree. It’s hard to imagine graduation without him. But this school remains his, and every graduate of the Colin Powell School is a part of his legacy. He was proud of this place, and we are even prouder to have had him as our leader.”

Rich shared that two of Powell’s best traits were his punctuality – “he would show up early to meetings on campus so that he could stand in front of Shepard Hall and meet students as they walked by”—and his ability to engage with them, reminding them that “they’re just like I was.”

Humble beginnings, grand career

His career is perhaps the ultimate example of how a young person can rise to greatness from modest beginnings through higher education. Powell was born in 1937 to Jamaican immigrants and worked his way through the New York City school system and “wasn’t the best student. All you guys out here who got Cs, there’s hope,” he once said.

But he landed at CCNY, studied geology, and his affinity for that ROTC club led him to become its cadet colonel. After graduating, he entered the Army, becoming a platoon leader and eventually serving two tours in Vietnam, where he rescued two fellow soldiers after a helicopter crash that he survived.

When he returned, he attended Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, where he earned his MBA. He said that set him up for a career outside the military as a manager, showing him that “leadership and followership are completely enmeshed and that leaders aren’t the true linchpins of success of any team or organization but that “it’s the troops who get it done.”

After his prowess as one of the nation’s top leaders under Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bush and Bill Clinton, during which he earned the Congressional Gold Medal, he became highly active as both an outspoken voice on political and military matters and as a speaker at colleges and universities (a history of interviews of Powell and other leaders discussing his career can be viewed through the  University of Virginia’s Miller Center and here in a video provided by CCNY). He encouraged young students to embrace technology and become civically engaged. He also continued to be a champion for diversity and inclusion—a hallmark of the neighborhood he grew up in—and his backing of candidate Barack Obama is said to have had a major influence on him becoming president.

A longtime Republican, he grew disenchanted with its leadership and policies especially under Donald Trump and left the party after the Jan. 6 Insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Though he was fully vaccinated, he had a breakthrough case of the virus. He also was being treated for blood cancer when he passed away in Bethesda, Md.

The Powell School was founded in 1997 and established in 2013, rising from a co-curricular program that assisted students on public service paths to becoming enmeshed with its social sciences program. In addition to pursuing research, its mission is “to be a leading center for social, political and economic research and education with a particular emphasis on addressing problems that impede equity, diversity, prosperity, stability, and peace in our society and across the world.”

Perhaps no other recent modern leader embodied those ideals like Powell.

“General Powell will be remembered as a man of extraordinary accomplishment: a trailblazer, a role model and an inspiration,” Rich said. “The Colin Powell School reflects his vision, his passion, and his never-ending belief in the essential nature of this place. General Powell committed himself to every student who walked through our doors. He loved this place, and loved meeting every one of them.”

In an interview from 2013 shared by Rich, Powell said fittingly, “My life has been blessed because I have had a chance to serve my country, and I’ve had a chance to do things that have benefited my country. And when it’s all over, I just hope that they say, he was a good soldier, he raised a good family, and God bless him. That’s all I ask for.”