Students working in the arts at GPC.
‘GPC faculty believed in me’
by Jenn MasonMath never interested Hamilton Cunningham. Music was his passion, and playing the trumpet seemed much more exciting than hitting the books—a fact his high school academic record reflected. Cunningham, who lived in Atlanta, dropped out of school and floundered a bit before obtaining his GED and joining the U.S. Air Force. After working two years as an aircraft weapons loader, he left the military to pursue a college education. Because of his less-than-stellar high school record, he needed a place where he could clear the academic cobwebs. Cost also was a factor. He turned to Georgia Perimeter College. When Cunningham walked into his first college course at 8 a.m. on a Monday, he had not taken math in years. The course was Algebra. “For the first few weeks I was totally lost,” he said. “At one point I was begging to just get a D, and my professor was like, ‘Why shoot so low? Aim for an A.’” With his professor’s support, some extra tutoring and a lot of hard work, Cunningham pulled through. “I didn’t get an A, but I did get a B,” he said. “Now I’m studying economics, and that has a lot to do with my professors letting me know it was attainable.” It wasn’t long before success became the norm for Cunningham. A Music major at GPC, he received the Outstanding Freshman Music Student award and the Lewis Belcher Jr. Leadership Award. Inspired by the support he received at GPC, including assistance that came through his participation in GPC’s Leadership Academy, Cunningham began volunteering. He worked with Refugee Family Services, a Stone Mountain-based organization dedicated to helping refugee women and children attain self-sufficiency through education. In an ironic twist not lost on Cunningham, he became a math tutor for the organization. “In a lot of ways, the GPC faculty believed in me more than I did when I first got there,” he said. “I know how much it changed my life, and if I can be worked with, anyone can.” In 2007, Cunningham became the fifth GPC student to be awarded the prominent Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship. The $90,000 award is designed to help high-achieving community college students continue their studies at a fouryear college or university. Cunningham used the scholarship to transfer to Howard University in Washington, D.C. to pursue a bachelor’s degree in economics. Though he is busy with studies, Cunningham, who is now 25, continues to find time to give back. He serves as a mentor for the Washington, D.C. chapter of Concerned Black Men. He also continues to garner recognition for his achievements. Cunningham was named a 2009 Truman Scholar, a prestigious national award that provides up to $30,000 toward graduate school for students committed to working in public service. This year he was selected as a National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Champion. Cunningham earned his GED through the ChalleNGe program, a 22-week boot camp for at-risk youth. He followed that with military service and later enrolled in college. As a Champion, he was invited to speak at the program’s annual gala in February. Cunningham hopes to combine his love of music and studies in economics by pursuing a career in the non-profit sector, helping to alleviate the arts funding crunch. He will graduate from Howard in May, and to hear Cunningham tell the tale, his trumpet will be as excited about commencement as he will. “I’m in a rough spot in my relationship with music right now,” he said with a laugh. “She just wants more time than I can give while I focus on graduating.”