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BMCC's Cinderella Man

March 29, 2011

At 31, Michael Hattem was supporting his wife and their infant son by working at whatever menial jobs he could find. Although he’d always been an avid reader, he’d spent little time in high school. For a while, he and his family lived on public assistance. The future wasn’t bright.

That was four years ago. Fast forward to the present: Hattem will graduate from CUNY’s Baccalaureate Program for Unique and Interdisciplinary Studies this June with a Bachelors degree in History and an impressive string of academic awards and honors. He’ll then begin graduate studies at Yale University, where he’s been awarded a five-year tuition-free fellowship plus a $26,500-a-year stipend for living expenses.

“I still find myself skipping down the street sometimes,” Hattem says. “Life doesn’t get much better than this.”

Who would have thought?

Back to school—and a second chance

“It was 2007 and our son Lucien had just been born,” Hattem recalls. “I realized I had to provide a better future for him and going back to school seemed the best way to accomplish that.” So Hattem enrolled in BMCC that fall, not altogether sure where his studies would take him. Philosophy and history seemed likely options.

In his first year at BMCC, Hattem took Professor Jacob Kramer’s course in early American history. “Michael’s level of comprehension, analytical abilities and intellectual sophistication clearly stood out,” Kramer says. “He was always keyed into class discussions and always prepared to comment.”

Hattem earned an A and enrolled in Kramer’s modern American history course the following semester. “He was particularly interested in the history of the American labor movement and asked me if he could do an honors project,” Kramer recalls. It turned out that Hattem didn’t have enough credits to qualify for an honors project—but that didn’t dissuade him. “He really wanted to do something above and beyond the scope and substance of our class assignments,” Kramer says.

A pivotal decision

Hattem’s paper examined a series of historic strikes in 1937 and drew extensively on newspaper coverage and historical texts. “It was a strong, thoughtful, well-researched piece of scholarship,” says Kramer. “Afterwards, he told me he was hoping to go on to a senior college and that he was interested in the CUNY Baccalaureate program.”

Hattem picks up the story: “It was the experience of writing that research paper that made me decide I wanted to be a historian and that it was something I could do well at,” he says. “From the beginning, Prof. Kramer encouraged me to aim as high as I could. I was accepted to the program largely thanks to his recommendation.”

The CUNY Baccalaureate program allows students to design their own curricula. Hattem took classes at seven different schools, majoring in history with a focus on colonial America. As his studies progressed, he began thinking ahead to graduate school, garnering awards and cultivating mentorial relationships with his professors. “Like Prof. Kramer, they encouraged me to apply to the best schools around,” he says.

Taking his mentors’ advice, Hattem aimed high, sending off applications to graduate programs at Yale, Harvard and the University of Virginia among others. On a Monday morning in February, an email from a professor at Yale landed in his in-box.

“It was a heads-up that the history department would be making an offer of admission,” Hattem says. “I still remember the feeling—it was like a bomb going off in my mind.” The formal offer arrived in the mail a few days later: full tuition remission plus an annual $26,500 living stipend for the next five years and possibly a sixth. The package also included full healthcare coverage for Hattem, his wife, and their two young sons.

A big boost from mentors

“I’m not naturally a confident person,” says Hattem. “But the feeling that I could do this has been slowly building for a while. Of course, if it hadn’t been for mentors like Prof. Kramer, I wouldn’t even have applied to these places; I’d have never even considered getting accepted a possibility. They boosted my confidence in myself and took time to help me outside of class—meeting me for coffee, inviting me to their homes, writing letters on my behalf.” From where Kramer sits, the credit belongs entirely to Hattem.

“I’m not surprised that Yale offered him a fellowship,” he says. “There are some people who are just good at historical research. Michael is one of them.”

For Hattem, the possibilities seem infinite—hopefully a tenure track university faculty position and an opportunity to make a contribution to the field of early American history. But he is not one to downplay the challenge ahead of him.

“It’s up to me and how hard I work and how good my work is,” he says. For now, he is taking pleasure in the fact that “for the next five years I can support my family without public assistance.”

A major factor in Hattem’s remarkable success has been the support of his wife.

“None of this would have happened without her,” he says. “I struggled to get through my undergraduate studies and had to quit work for the last several semesters in order to focus on school. So we agreed we would make the sacrifice in the hope that it would pay off in the end. She always knew I could do it—probably more than I did.”

 

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STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • Soars from academic limbo to prominence in four years
  • Receives a five-year fellowship from Yale with full tuition remission
  • Credits Prof. Jacob Kramer and others with helping him at every step of the way

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