Xavier University of Louisiana x
In May 1975, Clarence Becknell, Sr., crossed the stage to proudly accept his bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from Xavier University of Louisiana. A veteran of the then-recent Vietnam War, Becknell was a member of an experimental Career Opportunities Program (COP) for veterans at Xavier that sought to bring more Black men into teaching. He would later return to the nation’s only historically Black and Catholic institution to receive his master’s in 1988, and now, 47 years after he received his first degree from Xavier, Becknell has again returned, this time as “doctor,” after earning his Doctorate in Educational Leadership.
“Xavier has a great legacy of educating the next leaders of this nation,” said Dr. Reynold Verret, President of Xavier University of Louisiana. “Dr. Becknell is a true example of the gift that Xavier presents to the world through graduates who are instilled with the calling to serve and to create a more just and humane society as envisioned by our founder.”
St. Katharine Drexel and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament established Xavier’s College of Arts and Sciences in 1925 in pursuit of educational equity, particularly for those who had little to no access to higher education due to the sin of racism. Quickly approaching its historic centennial, Xavier University of Louisiana has long sought a better future for all and was built on the foundation of what was originally a school for teachers. Though the university faced hardship and prejudice, it has remained committed to the mission gifted by its foundresses and values the education of its students and the youth as the cornerstone of justice and advancement for all.
In 1972, Xavier was, according to Dr. Becknell, the hub of social programs designed to advance those who were marginalized and underserved. Dr. Becknell shared that he was a member of an entering class of between 90-100 students, many of whom were also veterans.
Dr. Becknell shared his gratitude for his fellow Xavier-alum turned advisor Dr. Ramona Perkins, the Educational Leadership Program Coordinator for the Master and Doctorate Programs at Xavier University of Louisiana. While he participated in the COP for veterans, Dr. Perkins tutored many veterans in the program.
“They would call us, ‘Dem Vets,’” said Dr. Becknell, who detailed that, at a time when Vietnam veterans found themselves unjustly treated, Dr. Becknell claims that then-university President Dr. Norman C. Francis was a staunch advocate for better treatment of the vets on Xavier’s campus and beyond.
Retiring after 40 years of service in 2008, Dr. Becknell served in the United States Air Force from 1968-1972 and was also part of the Louisiana Air National Guard and the Louisiana Army Guard. He achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel-colonel. In 2009, the U.S. Army honored Dr. Becknell with a Freedom Team Salute Veteran Commendation during a special ceremony at the Essence Music Festival for his years of service with the Army National Guard.
During Dr. Becknell’s time as a student, Dr. Francis negotiated with Orleans Parish Public School Board to have participants in the Veteran COP intern at New Orleans schools. Born and raised in the Big Easy himself and known locally as the long-serving historian of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, Dr. Becknell fondly recalled when he and the other men in the program acted as mentors for the children.
After graduating from Xavier in 1975, Dr. Becknell observed classes taught by Dr. Perkin’s mother, Ms. Audrey O. Jean. As a probationary fifth-grade teacher, he observed her classrooms for a year. Dr. Becknell proclaims that he learned a lot from Ms. Jean and hails her as a great mentor in his life.
His work with the New Orleans Public School System began when he was a student in 1972 through the COP for Veterans and continued until 2005. During that thirty-year span, he worked in various positions and was even an acclaimed Principal of Morris Jeff Elementary School.
Dr. Becknell’s decision to return to get his doctorate was, as he puts it, not a lifelong dream but something he felt called to do. After receiving mail about continuing education and seeing a photograph of his old classmate Dr. Perkins at the height of the COVID-19 Pandemic, he decided to enroll in the entirely online Xavier Doctorate of Educational Leadership Program.
“The colonel deserves all the accolades for accomplishing so much personally and professionally,” said Dr. Perkins about her classmate, student, and peer. “He is going to make a difference in the support of veterans in higher education, just watch.”
The rigorous course called for three years of discipline and hard work, all of which built up to his dissertation reflecting who he is and what he has always felt inspired to do: prepare and instruct universities and other learning centers on properly engaging veteran students. Titled, “A Sacrifice for Their Country and a Commitment to the Community: A Phenomenological Study of Veterans and Their Transition from Soldier to Students,” his dissertation was dedicated to Dr. Francis, Dr. Perkins, Ms. Jean, as well as current military members, veterans, and deceased soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
“Thank you for your service to our country and for putting a downpayment on freedom for us,” Dr. Becknell wrote for the dedication.
Dr. Becknell’s successful defense of his dissertation, military and educational leadership experience, and unwavering commitment to being a voice for others have all culminated in Dr. Becknell receiving the title of “doctor.”
“It was worth it. It was very challenging, but it was well worth it,” said Dr. Becknell.
When asked about his decision to earn his doctorate at 74, Dr. Becknell stated it was never too late to achieve your aspirations.