Notable Binghamton University alumni have pursued careers in as many fields as there are potholes on Riverside Drive. Only one, however, has gone on to represent the Americans in Congress.
Brooklyn native Hakeem Jeffries graduated from Binghamton University in 1992 with a degree in political science. He has served in the House of Representatives since 2012, having served six prior years in the New York State Assembly. In celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Master of Public Affairs (MPA) program at BU, he shared the story of his road to public service on Capitol Hill.
On Saturday in the University Downtown Center, which he noted wasn’t there when he attended school, he described his journey which began in Old Dickinson’s Whitney Hall in 1988.
“I was so excited on my first day, the independence that you have,” he said. “I had a 13-inch television. Color TV. I thought I was something. Then I realized there were only three channels, and two of them never worked. So to see the flat-screen TVs and the cable and everything, Binghamton has come a long way.”
After graduating with honors, he obtained a law degree from New York University, a master’s degree in public policy from Georgetown University and worked in corporate law for companies such as CBS and Viacom. But when he decided to enter politics in 2000, he encountered some obstacles.
“I ran for the New York State Assembly twice, and I lost,” he said. “Twice. I was knocked down, on the ground.”
It is this type of adversity that builds character, he said, and he ended up winning in 2006.
“Sometimes you find yourself in the midst of a difficult situation, you’re trying to get out of adversity, but it’s self-doubt,” Jeffries explained. “It’s self-doubt that keeps you trapped in your circumstances.”
In 2012, he decided to run for the eighth congressional district of New York, which includes a diverse group of neighborhoods such as Bedford-Stuyvesant, Clinton Hill, Fort Greene and Coney Island. In January 2013 he was sworn in, attendees to the ceremony including Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, House Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Paul Ryan.
“And then in close proximity to those three, was Jay-Z and Beyonce,” he said. “Only in America! What a great country that is emblematic of the gorgeous mosaic that exists in this country.”
He reminisced on the swearing-in, where he said he remembered the importance of his job as a public servant.
“The wonderful opportunity, even in the midst of the chaos that exists in the House of Representatives right now, is to serve in the people’s house — the institution that’s first mentioned in the Constitution and designed to be closest to the people in our federal government,” he said.
Jeffries noted similarities between Binghamton and Brooklyn, and said it was important to make sure the community wasn’t neglected.
“Hopefully you’re going to see the City of Binghamton further come to life with arts and cultural institutions, the presence of young people, professionals moving in,” he said. “The key is going to be as there’s economic transformation, it benefits everyone. We’re going through that now in Brooklyn. There’s been tremendous economic development and socioeconomic gentrification that has improved the conditions in many communities. We need to make sure it’s inclusive and everybody benefits.”
David Campbell, the chair of public administration within the University’s College of Community and Public Affairs, said Jeffries was their choice for speaker because of his high-profile and high-caliber career in public service.
“So it’s the 20th anniversary of the MPA program, and we wanted him here because we wanted to celebrate careers in public service,” Campbell said. “It was really important for us to have someone working in public service that had a story that they could relate to, and not only relate to, but see how he got from being a Binghamton University undergraduate to becoming a member of the U.S. Congress.”
Hearing Jeffries’ story was inspiring to those looking to better their communities, both locally and globally, said Sarah Glose, a second-year graduate student studying public affairs.
“It shows the power of being someone who’s invested in public service, which is what MPAs are going to school to do,” she said. “It’s good to see a BU alumnus active in public service, and it’s also nice to see where our degrees can possibly take us someday.”