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His Path to Possibilities Led to a Stellar Career in Behavioral Research

James Butler
James Butler, Dr.P.H.

James Butler, Dr.P.H., has come a long way since he attended evening classes at the College in the mid-1980s. His path to possibilities led him from 17th and Spring Garden streets to Gwynedd Mercy College for his bachelor’s degree, to Temple University for his master’s degree in Education and to the University of Pittsburgh for his doctorate in Public Health.

Now, he is part of an internationally known research team that has left the University of Pittsburgh and joined the University of Maryland to open a new Center for Health Equity at the University of Maryland, according to the university. The center will serve as a base for extensive community-level research and outreach focused on reducing disparities in health care. Maryland has the fourth largest concentration of medically underserved racial and ethnic minorities in the nation. The team, led by Stephen B. Thomas, Ph.D., accepted tenure-track teaching and research positions at the University of Maryland’s College Park campus.

Butler researches tobacco-related health disparities among residents of public housing, and the social and environmental influences on motivating lifestyle changes to reduce the risk of cancer, obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

A Philadelphia native, Butler, 56, vividly remembers his years as a Community College of Philadelphia student. He enrolled when he was 26, married with three children and had a full-time job as a lab technician. He and his wife, Sheila, attended evening classes on alternate nights so that one of them would always be available to watch the children.

Community College of Philadelphia was not his first attempt at college. After graduating from Olney High School, Butler briefly attended La Salle University. "I was bored, so I ended up quitting and going to Franklin School of Science and Arts to get my certificate in Medical Laboratory Technology," he said. Then, he went to work.

Later, he decided to give college another try and enrolled at Community College of Philadelphia. "I always knew I would go back to college, and by then I was ready," he said.

He has fond memories of the College, especially of Martha Chavis, an adjunct instructor who teaches evening classes in Psychology. Chavis recalled that Butler initially planned to become a physical therapist. She persuaded him to focus on a new direction. "I said, ‘Nope. You need to major in Science, get your bachelor’s degree and then go after a Master of Science’," Chavis said. He took her advice, and the two have remained friends over the years. Butler invited her to Pittsburgh when he received his doctoral degree, but she was unable to attend. "But I was very, very proud of his accomplishment," she said.

A Summer to Remember for College-Bound Teens

Male Engagement's
High school students participate in an activity under the direction of David L. Greene, the College’s director of Student Programming, during the Center for Male Engagement’s Summer Enrichment program.
camp chemistry
High school girls participate in the College’s summer science camp.
High school boys and girls participate in the College’s summer science camp.

Anyone visiting the Main Campus in July might have wondered about the unusual number of lively teens hanging out during lunch in the Bonnell cafeteria or in the Coffeehouse in the Winnet Building. Some looked too young to be college students.

Sixty of the teens—all African-American males—were high school graduates slated to start their freshman year at the College in September. They were attending the Center for Male Engagement’s four-week summer enrichment program, July 12–Aug. 5, to prepare themselves for the rigors of higher education.

Another 32 teens, a coed mix of high school students entering their junior and senior years, participated in a July 12-16 science camp organized by the College’s Center for Science and Engineering Education with the help of a grant from the Motorola Foundation. The camp offered a forensics program for females and an engineering program for males and females. 

Kathleen Harter, program organizer, associate professor of Chemistry and head of the College’s Chemistry Department, said the one-week science camp was designed to foster and nurture an interest in science and engineering careers among college-bound high school students, especially girls.

Fewer U.S. students pursue science and engineering degrees than students in other countries, according to the National Academy of Sciences. The result is a shortage of American workers with the necessary skills and knowledge to fill job openings in the science and engineering fields, especially in the Philadelphia region, which has the largest concentration of bioscience/life science workers in the nation, according to a May 2009 by the Milken Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, economic think tank based in Santa Monica, California.

“We want to provide a pathway for students to get where they want to be, and often that path leads them to Community College of Philadelphia, though students may not know that,” said Randy Libros, an associate professor of Physics who helped Harter organize the science camp programs.

Saybah Narmah, one of 12 girls participating in the forensics program, already is sold on a science career. The 16-year-old Franklin Towne Charter High School student is addicted to crime scene investigation dramas on TV and dreams of a career as a sharp-eyed sleuth armed with a microscope and a gas spectrometer. "I am really curious, so I like the forensics. They help you learn how something happened," Narmah said.

While the science camp students were busy with their chemistry experiments and engineering projects, the Center for Male Engagement (CME) participants were beginning to learn what will be expected of them when they start freshman classes at the College.
The summer enrichment program—a combination of college orientation and personal development—covered everything from study habits and time management to physical fitness and how to dress for success. The CME has a one-year, $600,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Participants who completed the CME’s summer enrichment program received a $500 scholarship.

According to CME director Michael Robinson, too many minority students arrive at the College from inner-city schools that have left them woefully unprepared for the academic demands of college professors. Their reading, writing and study skills are not the only areas that need work.

“These young men bring some heavy issues to the table. You have people dealing with homelessness, some are ex-offenders, issues of domestic abuse," Robinson said. "It's hard to keep your head above water while struggling with these issues."

The fall-to-fall persistence rate for African-American males is considerably lower than the rates for other males. The College's Office of Institutional Research reports that on average, 36 percent of first-time, African-American male students return to the College the following fall, compared to 43 percent of first-time students overall.

Robinson believes the summer enrichment program will improve those odds. A California consulting firm will track students served by CME through spring 2011 to determine how many persist in their enrollment.

Lee Datts, 17, a graduate of Cardinal Dougherty High School, said the back-to-back presentations were helpful. "Every day is something different, and they are working on things that I need to work on," Datts said.  "I've learned that it isn't enough to set goals without a strategy on how to achieve them. Just dreaming isn’t enough."