Brian Purnell, FCRh '00
Brian Purnell, Ph.D., is a 2000 alumnus of Fordham College at Rose Hill.
In difficult times, Brian Purnell, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of African and African American Studies at Fordham, has gained strength and guidance from a statement by the antislavery champion Frederick Douglass: "If there is no struggle, there is no progress."
"I have tried to go back to those words whenever things seem like they are getting too hard for me," says Purnell. "When graduate school seemed impossible, I thought about Douglass and those words. When my dissertation seemed insurmountable, I turned to Douglass and those words. I even wrote them on a piece of paper and taped them to my old laptop."
He returns to those words still, given his many responsibilities: teaching, writing, research, administrative work, working with students and tending to his duties as a husband and father. Douglass' words continue to give him strength.
"Nothing that truly matters comes without work," he says.
He stays busy with teaching duties and his role as research director of the Bronx African American History Project. Meanwhile, he is writing a book, A Movement Grows in Brooklyn, focused on the civil rights and black power movements in Brooklyn, N.Y. The book began as his doctoral dissertation at New York University, where he studied after graduating from Fordham College at Rose Hill in 2000.
It was his undergraduate experience at Fordham that helped cement his other source of strength: his religious faith. It was instilled by his mother and drawn forth from him by the educational approach of the Jesuits and his friendship with several members of the Society of Jesus.
"Faith is a reminder that we are not alone in the struggle," he says. "Indeed, Faith is that belief that we are more than the sum total of our struggles, that we are part of, and loved by something bigger than ourselves and our immediate concerns."
His teaching is informed by his religious faith, and by the Jesuit emphasis on self-exploration and discerning one's purpose.
"I try to guide students who are struggling by practicing three principles: questioning, listening and discerning," he says. "I ask students questions—not just to find out if they have read an assignment, but to draw them into contemplation of how the assignment applies to their lives. I listen to their answers in class, or in conversations with me. Those conversations may begin with the assignment at hand, but reveal their deeper concerns about life, careers, family or God.
"Finally, I try to help them to discern the root cause of what concerns them. When students are struggling, they can be tempted to give up. I try to guide them to realize that persevering pays dividends in the long run. Perseverance in the face of adversity is God's way of helping us to grow," he says.