Education Professor Coggins Receives Guyana Award
Patrick Coggins saw a rich mixture of races and cultures while growing up in Guyana on the northern coast of South America.
His great grandmother was a native Carib Indian and married a Cuban sailor of Hispanic descent, who brought sugar and other goods to Guyana. Coggins’ father also was mixed race – of Portuguese and African lineage.
Coggins recalled his shock at coming to America to attend college in the 1960s as African-Americans marched for equal rights under the Constitution.
He has devoted his career to promoting cultural diversity and was recognized this month as one of Florida’s Most Influential Guyanese with the Kaieteur Falls Award in Education as part of the Guyana 50/50 Awards celebration, which coincides with the country’s 50th year of independence.
“Everybody wonders how I got into this whole field of multiculturalism and it’s because in Guyana, race wasn’t an issue,” said Coggins, Ph.D., a Stetson University Professor of Education and Multicultural Education. “People were free to marry, inter-marry, associate and work with, so we had intermingling of the races very freely.”
Coggins was the middle of five children, and his father, a tailor, died when he was 10, likely due to complications from diabetes, he said. His mother was a seamstress with an eighth-grade education who worked from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. and always emphasized the importance of education to her children.
“Except for my mother, everybody else felt – my teachers and others – felt I wouldn’t be successful because they thought I was too radical,” he said, adding that he protested against British rule as a teenager before Guyana gained its independence on May 26, 1966. “They thought I wasn’t focused academically. But interestingly in my family, I was the first to get a doctorate degree, the first person to get a bachelor’s degree and the first person to get a master’s degree. … My mother pushing education, that made a big, big difference.”
A good student who scored at the top of his high school class on one test, Coggins left his home in Georgetown, Guyana, in 1963 with a scholarship from the Institute for International Education. He earned a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Community Development from Springfield College in Massachusetts. He then went on to earn a master’s degree in Urban Studies from Southern Connecticut State University, and eventually a law degree and doctorate of Philosophy from the University of Connecticut.
In 1991, he became the Jessie Ball duPont Endowed Chair Professor of Multicultural Education and ESL (English as a Second Language) at Stetson – the first Guyanese to hold an endowed chair at a university in Florida. He lobbied Congress to recognize June as Caribbean American Heritage Month in 2006. And he helped to push the Florida Legislature in the early 1990s to require African and African-American history to be taught in public schools, including information about the African diaspora that encompasses Caribbean history and culture.
At Stetson, he founded the Multicultural Education Institute and Caribbean Student Association about 10 years ago. He continues to serve as the group’s faculty advisor, mentoring and helping Caribbean students. His commitment to students played a large part in receiving the recent award, said Samuel Roberts, publisher of the Caribbean American Passport News Magazine, which presented the awards on Nov. 5 in Orlando.
“They (the award selection committee members) looked at his academic achievement and his commitment to giving back to the students,” Roberts said. “His involvement in student guidance, student counseling, working with Caribbean students, his commitment outside the classroom to students and the Caribbean associations in Florida and nationally — based on that, they selected him for the award.”
Coggins presently serves as chair of the Faculty Senate at Stetson and is a member of the President’s Cabinet. He teaches “Cultural Diversity in Education,” engaging students in the knowledge of different cultures, including those of the Caribbean and Latin America.
He says race continues to divide America today, even more than when he arrived in 1963. The challenge remains for many Americans to value and respect multiracial, multicultural and multi-religious differences. America should continue to be the country that welcomes diverse immigrants and people from around the world, he said.
“The sheer numbers of African-descent, Hispanic-descent, Asian-descent individuals are changing the landscape,” Coggins said. “It’s what I call the browning of America and some people of European descent are very uncomfortable with that. Some of my European-descent friends often say, ‘We want to take back our country.’ In other words, we want to go back to whites’ predominance. And that’s not going to happen because the real America was built and continues to be nurtured by over 150 ethnic and racially diverse groups. Thus, in this regard, we are truly a diverse nation.
“One of the challenges we have, not only on our campus, is to build an inclusive community – the community we talked about in the 1960s,” he said, adding that the United States of America remains the only diverse country of the world with citizens from all nations.