Thursday, April 18, 2024

Grad student immerses self in social issues

He sits quietly, with confident posture. A strong shell on the outside with a gentle core and quite the funny streak. Aaron J. Schwartz is passionate, calm and articulate, sitting across the table — a patient pillar in a campus of chaos.

Schwartz came to Plattsburgh State as an undergraduate psychology student in 2006. Within a week, he realized his calling was actually cultural anthropology.

He attributes his revelation to Professor of Anthropology and Director of the PSUC Honors Program James Armstrong, who served as Schwartz’s adviser, professor and mentor.

Serving as a mentor for Schwartz, Armstrong would help select classes he thought would suit him best.

“He knew my learning style, he really had a deep appreciation for who I was as a person and how I learned academically,” Schwartz said. “This is one of the reasons he is one of the best professors on-campus.”

Armstrong said Schwartz is an interesting character with a good sense of humor.

“He wasn’t always focused when he first got here, but over time he has developed more and more,” Armstrong said.

He said Schwartz wasn’t always his best student academically, but was always the student asking the most interesting questions.

“He’s really developed an interest in human differences, race, class, gender, wealth and inequality,” he said. “He questions authority.”

Now a PSUC graduate student in the Leadership program, Schwartz said he realized he is going through his program a bit backward compared to his peers. While his fellow graduate peers enter the program to enhance their skills to become leaders in a certain field, he did the opposite.

“I had no idea what I wanted to do. I knew I loved cultural anthropology, but I also knew I wouldn’t make a good cultural anthropologist,” he said.

Schwartz met one of his most influential mentors, Director of the Center for Diversity, Pluralism and Inclusion and Lecturer J.W. Wiley, in Wiley’s Examining Diversity Through Film class.

After doing “all right” in the class, where he was always contributing to discussion, Wiley suggested Schwartz take another course with him. During that class, with the help of Wiley pointing out his lack of proofreading, Schwartz was able to get a better grip on his dyslexia and his written communication, which led to a sharp increase in his grades.

“I learned that you need to not be afraid to speak your mind, because no one is going to speak your mind for you, effectively,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz’s relationship with Wiley continued as he became Wiley’s teaching assistant. He served as Wiley’s T.A. for four different courses, multiple times. He was even able to make T.A.-ing with Wiley part of his graduate internship for his masters program.

Schwartz said Wiley has been one of the most influential mentors he’s had because he’s taken the time to help Schwartz improve academically and personally.

Wiley described his mentee as “intellectually cool” with “natural rhythm and swag.” He said he has seen Schwartz grow into his own.

“Aaron is very, very confident in his voice and you get that way by either being fool-hearted, you really ain’t saying s—, but you think you’re saying something, which is not him, or you get that way by practicing conversations and being considerate and listening,” Wiley said.

Schwartz continued his work with his mentor by attending conferences and seminars in New Orleans and Indiana to engage in conversation in regards to Wiley’s novel. They also actively work to facilitate important conversation with on-campus departments such as the athletic department and custodial staff.

Wiley said Schwartz’s future is unlimited. He expects him to be doing great things 10 years from now.

“He could be a senator, an attorney if he decided to go to law school, he could knock it out quick; he could easily be a governor, a mayor — I see him as a change agent. I can’t see him not in a leadership position doing something significant for society.”

During his freshman year, Schwartz joined Phi Mu Delta Fraternity where he learned about leadership methodology and practices and enhancing his capacity for communication, both verbal and written.

Fraternity brother and friend Kevin Lewis said Schwartz is the type of guy who will give the shirt off his back.

“He is truly unique in every sense, as well as kind and compassionate, he cares about what he does. His actions definitively speak to his compassion,” Lewis said.

He said that Schwartz is known for telling you when you’re wrong, in the nicest way possible.

“He does it so passionately with such compassion that you’re forced to change your perspective,” Lewis said.

Working as a floor man for the Monopole, Schwartz was able to see his interest in social justice at work through distressing rants based around young men and women. Working on the floor, he often hears remarks about gender, race and those in the LGBTQ community.

“It makes me feel bad as a human being to hear that kind of thing,” he said. Schwartz said he uses the Socratic method, the method of breaking down conversations by asking “Why?” and “How?”

“It’s this idea of picking and choosing your spots because I know not everyone is going to hear me,” Schwartz said.

In regards to the future, Schwartz has applied to the University of Vermont for the position of Professional Development Coordinator and Trainer.

“Aaron has the ability to pull together a lot of very different people into some really amazing conversation,” Wiley said.

Email Brittany Shew at

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