“For me, graduate school was one of the most important aspects of my life and success.” Some alumni find that sentiment centers on academic achievement or incredible mentoring from faculty. For Roz Abrams, celebrated television broadcaster and award winning journalist, her primary takeaway from graduate school revolved around failure. She candidly shares, “I had a situation that happened in graduate school that shaped me consciously and unconsciously. I realize it set me up for greater things.”
Roz explains she had a class assignment to direct a portion of a play. She selected scenes that took place in an alley at night in an inner city ghetto and included a dramatic conversation between three black teenagers who were angrily lamenting that they wouldn’t make it to adulthood if things didn’t change. As part of the production, you hear a police siren, see lights off stage, and the youth run off stage to meet their destiny, while the audience is left to assume they get hurt.
It didn’t go well. “As director, I set a dimly lit stage for the dark alley, African American actors in black t-shirts and black jeans and low lighting. You couldn’t see them – the actors were like grey ghosts on stage. My audience of peers, because they couldn’t see, began to talk among themselves. At the climax of the production, the audio for the police siren drowned out what actors were saying,” she recalls.
“For half a minute I believed this was the most embarrassing moment of my entire life. I thought I would be a joke to my instructor and friends. Then an amazing thing happened: my professor gave me a critique in front of everybody, correcting subtle mistakes I didn’t even see – some dialogue that had gotten away from me, interpretation of text that could have been better, and the importance of testing audio during rehearsals.
“Gathering up his stuff to leave, almost as a throw-away line, he looked at me and said ‘and don’t leave this institution without taking a lighting class.’ We all laughed, and all of a sudden, it was all ok. I learned that failure in the right hands is a fantastic learning experience. I never cease to be amazed by the number of times failure has put me on the road to success. This one embarrassment was just part of the journey. His suggestion to take a lighting class became a metaphor in my life to see situations for how they really are and try to see the life lesson buried in the trauma and drama.”
Over decades of broadcasts, Roz claims to have made mistakes many, many times. Given her job, those mistakes played out in front of huge television audiences. She stands by her memorable graduate school experience with each one: “No matter how many times I cried, ‘I’m so stupid,’ because of what happened to me the first time being so embarrassed at Rackham in front of my peers, that situation became a very important life lesson. I was a better television journalist because I could handle failure, defeat, and my own stupidity. That situation humanized me and is still with me today. At 68, I remember vividly what happened to me at 22.”
While her graduate program was only 18 months long, Roz was on campus for a pivotal time in history and in her own life. She recalls, “We were the children of the civil rights movements. I was astounded at the number of African American students in all schools across campus. I had an African American peer group and that really helped to sustain me. We were all kids of factory workers. We were the first generation to graduate from college, much less from grad school, and we talked about the fact that having a peer group gave us a comfort level. I had support. I had men and women who knew what they were about. Beyond support, I had shared experiences. I have white friends from U-M that I’m still friends with today, but my experience wouldn’t have been as rich and good if I hadn’t had black friends who knew where I was coming from.”
For 30 years, career and work were one and the same for Roz but her love for learning and growing, honed in graduate school, continued. She recalls a powerful moment when she was living and working in Atlanta. Roz was sitting in the courtyard of Martin Luther King Jr.’s childhood church, talking with none other than his father. “We were sitting and chatting, and I don’t remember a word he said, but while he was talking, I could only think about the sacrifice of his son. I was a well-paid black journalist in the South where The Klan was still active, and I began to think that I have to remember that I am standing on the shoulders of giants. Not just because of my parents, but because of Martin and all the millions of people under him. That has influenced everything for me. I still try to give back in small and big ways; I’m still on the shoulders of giants. I’m living the American dream and have been all my life.”
Roz continues to live that legacy and make it possible for others to join her. Knowing her formative experience at U-M can be a bridge for others as well, Roz gave $1 million to the Rackham Graduate School to support the highest needs of graduate students. On this generous gift, she comments, “I didn’t get here because I was a nice lady. It is the obligation, duty, and honor of all people in this society who do well to give back. If it’s a question of money, that’s the least you can do out of the hope that any of the recipients live great lives and become good American citizens. I can help some people. I’m trying to brace myself because I have a place on the pyramid for others to stand on.”
10 years into retirement, Roz started taking acting and playwriting classes and plans to pursue acting and film. “And once again, I’m back in graduate school – I don’t know if it is muscle memory or what, but it has opened me up again, the whole process of knowing who I am today. I know myself now as an older person.”
As for what’s next for Roz Abrams, get ready. She says, “I’m still reaching, I’m still growing.”
Roz Abrams Press Release, Date: January 6, 2017, Author: Sheila Waterhouse, Rackham Graduate School
The Rackham Graduate School announces a $1million gift for initiatives identified by the dean that will support graduate students across campus. The gift comes from Rackham alumnae Roz Abrams who received her Master’s degree in Speech from U-M in 1971 and considers her years in graduate school as one of the most important aspects of her life and success.
On this generous gift, she comments, “It is the obligation, duty, and honor of all people in this society who do well to give back. If it’s a question of money, that’s the least you can do out of the hope that any of the recipients live great lives and become good American citizens. I can help some people. I’m trying to brace myself because I have a place on the pyramid for others to stand on.”
Abrams has had a distinguished career as a broadcast journalist, working as a reporter and anchor in Lansing, Atlanta, San Francisco and New York City. She was the first African American female journalist to join WABC-TV in New York and the second anchorwoman of color in the New York City market.
She retired from journalism in 2010.
Abrams received a New York Association of Black Journalists Award for the special “The Sounds of Harlem” and received the Ed Bradley Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008. She won a local Emmy Award in 2004 and a Gracie Award in 2006. In 2013, she received the Elinor Guggenheimer Lifetime Achievement Award from the New York Women’s Agenda.
Carol A. Fierke, the Jerome and Isabella Karle Distinguished University Professor of Chemistry and dean of the Rackham Graduate School, commented, “This wonderful gift from Roz Abrams will provide support for graduate students for years to come and have a transformative effect on their lives and careers. The willingness of Roz and other alumni to give back to U-M and help other students move forward in their careers is important for building the future thought leaders in the nation. We are inspired by and grateful for this gift.”
This gift is part of the university’s ongoing $4 billion Victors for Michigan campaign that includes a goal of raising $1 billion for student support. Roz’ gift contributes to the U-M’s goal for student support. For more information about the campaign, visit the Leaders and Best website.
Rackham Graduate School’s primary goal during the Victors for Michigan campaign is to provide funding for students through fellowships, conference travel grants, research awards, or summer stipends. Support from donors also helps provide innovative programs, services, activities and community-building social events that support graduate student achievement and professional development.