In a letter of nomination for the top student award given to a senior, professor Steve Yao writes “More than any other student that I have known in my 15 years of teaching at Hamilton, Marquis has the best chance to change the world.” Listen to the eloquent speech Marquis Palmer ’18 delivered.
A Changemaker in the Making
Very late in the college application season, after Colgate University’s admission office told him no thanks, Marquis Palmer ’18 took it upon himself to email Hamilton’s Opportunity Programs. Someone he’d met suggested he consider Hamilton, another private liberal arts institution near, and yet a world away, from his home in Utica, N.Y.
As a high school sophomore, Palmer had decided, for the first time, that he would get himself to college. At that point circumstances had prompted him to confront the reality of his life and where he seemed to be headed. His family situation had taken a difficult turn. His father, who had been incarcerated for almost all of Palmer’s life, had just returned to prison. His stepfather, an undocumented immigrant, was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “That plunged my family into even more severe financial troubles, and I say more severe, [because] we always struggled financially. All these events happening at the end of my 10th-grade year in high school led me to question my life’s trajectory,” Palmer says.
He considered whether his future would be similar to the lives of those around him — minimum wage jobs, unemployment, incarceration, drug addiction. “I asked myself, do I want to end up in the same situations? I think anyone would answer similarly — of course not. So I turned to common wisdom, which had it that if you want to change your life, education is the way to do so,” Palmer recalls.
Over summer vacation, Palmer turned to reading. One of the first books he picked up was The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Struck by how the jailed Malcolm, through reading and self-education, came to recognize his duty not only to transform himself, but his community, Palmer was inspired. “That’s when I decided to commit myself to my studies and also my community,” he says.
Enrolling in a Colgate seminar for high school students, he became the most eager participant of the whole eager bunch in a poetry class taught by Colgate Professor of English Michael Coyle. The professor noticed Palmer’s abilities and asked if he’d thought about college. Yes, that was the plan, Palmer said. He remembers Coyle looking unimpressed at the schools he was considering. The professor wanted to know if he’d thought of a place like Colgate, which might be a better intellectual fit.
Palmer laughed that off, telling Coyle he didn’t have the background for a school like that. “And he said, ‘What do you mean?’ So I told him a bit about my story,” Palmer says. That included how he’d been kicked out of every school he’d ever attended not because he was a bad kid but because of issues at home. After Coyle convinced him that he could, indeed, make it at a school like Colgate, Palmer decided to give it a try, with Coyle as an ally.
When his application was rejected, the blow hit him hard but didn’t knock him off course for college, and Coyle continued his support. It was a contact of Coyle’s who suggested that Palmer try Hamilton, late in the game though it was. Palmer looked up the Opportunity Programs online, emailed Director Phyllis Breland ’80, and convinced her to meet with him the next day. The upshot: Breland thought he was Hamilton material, and so did Hamilton’s Admission Office. Hamilton, says Palmer, listened to his story.
A short time later, Palmer began his studies on College Hill. He majored in philosophy and studied at Oxford University during his junior year. A tutor at the Writing Center, he worked as a teaching assistant in the Philosophy and Literature departments, was a member of Student Assembly, pursued two Emerson research projects, founded a scholarship for local high school students, and received a Fulbright teaching assistantship to the Czech Republic.
Senior year, Palmer was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and earned a prestigious Watson Fellowship to do a year’s worth of research on his own project — looking at skateboarding communities in four countries. He also received one of Hamilton’s top honors. The faculty awarded him the James Soper Merrill Prize, which goes to a student “who, in character and influence, has best typified the highest ideals of the College.” When Steven Yao, the Edmund A. Lefevre Professor of Literature, nominated Palmer for the award, he said that in his 15 years at Hamilton, Palmer is the student most likely to change the world.
He does want to change the world, in particular his community and places like it: “Low-income, predominantly black and Latinx communities that are traditionally marginalized,” he says.
At some point after his Watson Fellowship, Palmer is bound for law school. “I’m not sure if that means becoming a practicing attorney, legal scholar, legal consultant, or what have you, but I know I want to go to law school and wield my legal and my philosophical education in the fight toward criminal justice reform,” he says.