Take Five with Mary Pattillo ’91

Mary Pattillo ’91 is the Harold Washington Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at Northwestern University. She is the author of two award-winning books, Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril among the Black Middle Class and Black on the Block: The Politics of Race and Class in the City. She is the proud aunt of a member of the Class of 2022.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I was very social and popular in high school and in my neighborhood and I remember arriving at Columbia thinking: “Nobody knows me here!” That was pretty scary and caused a nervousness that I hadn’t felt before. It didn’t last long. What I remember from orientation week was endless LINES. We stood in line to get IDs. We stood in line to sign up for meal plans. We stood in line to register for classes. We stood in line to pick up boxes. But instead of frustration, those lines were great places to meet people and make new friends. By the time classes started, I felt like I wasn’t so anonymous and everything would be fine.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

I lived in Carman. Oddly, I don’t remember what floor. But I very much remember the cinderblock. What kind of material is that for a dorm room? My roommate, Carina Guinto ’92, and I got along wonderfully. I will forever be indebted to her for introducing me to running. I think she must have run track or cross-country in high school. I remember her coming back to the room after running — she seemed energized and serene at the same time. Although I still laugh at myself for starting my running career in K-Swiss shoes that probably weren’t meant for exercise, I’m glad I stuck with it, thanks to Carina.

What class do you most remember and why?

“Introduction to African American Literature” with Professor Marcellus Blount. I didn’t know then that in taking his class, I was part of history. Blount was the first African-American scholar to teach literature at Columbia; His passing in May 2018 was a huge loss for the University. We read Zora Neale Hurston BC’28, GSAS’35’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. I remember reading the book on a hot spring semester day in my Carman room with no air conditioning, feeling about as hot as the Florida spring that Hurston described in the book. I felt utterly transported, as if I was alongside the protagonist, Janie, who “spent most of the day under a blossoming pear tree in the back-yard.” Professor Blount gave us the tools to put ourselves in the literature we read.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

Isn’t everyone’s favorite spot The Steps? As a very outgoing person, I spent a lot of time there myself. But I had another favorite spot as well: the Undergraduate Admissions Office, where I worked. My first job on campus was in the mailroom, which only lasted a few months. The Admissions Office was definitely a promotion. Best. Job. Ever. It is there where I made my best friends, both fellow students and admissions officers. James Minter ’73, GSAS’74; Diane McKoy TC’02; Char Smullyan GS’98; and the late Peter V. Johnson were the best bosses, the coolest adults and the greatest mentors. We relished sitting on their couches and listening to their wisdom.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

No question about it, I would have studied abroad. I get the sense that study abroad wasn’t as big then as it is now. I am a college professor and I would guess that at least half of today’s students go abroad at some time during college. I would have gone to a Spanish-speaking country in order to become fluent. I’ve since created my own study abroad experience — living for a year in Cartagena, Colombia — but my brain isn’t as porous and pliable now as it was in college, when language learning probably would have been easier.