In 2001, Crystal Perkins-Carter was faced with a challenge: how to continue helping her students without wearing her family financially thin.
Perkins-Carter was working as an adviser at Langston University when she and her husband had a conversation about how the personal money she was giving students to help them pay for tuition and books, among other things, was unsustainable.
So she sold her car, used her tax return and began writing novels with the hope that she could provide financial assistance or scholarships to students who desperately needed someone to believe in them.
“I’m sitting in this office telling my kids, ‘I believe in you, I believe in you, I believe in you,’” Perkins-Carter said. “‘But if I only believe in you when the university can put up their funds to help you, do I really believe in you? If I really believe in you, I am willing to make a sacrifice for you.’”
Many years and published books later, Perkins-Carter is on a different campus, but her mission is still to invest in the lives of her students.
Perkins-Carter is the assistant director and an adviser for OU’s Project Threshold, a federally funded program designed to help first generation college students, the economically disadvantaged or those with disabilities, according to its website.
On any given day, the Project Threshold counselor and assistant director’s office can be found overflowing with students who consider her a surrogate mother on campus. Since coming to OU in the early 2000s, Perkins-Carter has paid tuition, fees, bought class rings and supported students in times of crisis or celebration, among many other things.
Above all, Perkins-Carter has given hope to the hopeless, passion to the defeated and direction to the lost, according to many of her past and present students.
“There are so many students she has kept in school who were on the verge of dropping out, me being one of them,” said BerThaddaeus Bailey, a previous Project Threshold student and current policy analyst for the state of Oklahoma.
“Words can’t even express what she has done. This isn’t book stuff. They don’t teach this stuff. I hope I have expressed all she means to me and so many others.”
As a daughter of teen parents and an absentee father, Perkins-Carter credits her mother, Karolyn Lewis, and her faith in God for her desire to serve so willingly.
“It was really by the grace of God my mom decided that even though she made a mistake (by getting pregnant so young), she was going to do something dynamic and powerful out of the decision she made and make sure her kid didn’t repeat her mistake,” Perkins-Carter said. “My mom made sure I didn’t get lost in the shuffle of what was happening in the streets of Detroit, and so I grew up in church and was taught to love the Lord.”
Throughout Perkins-Carter’s childhood and into young adulthood, she had people she admired whom she considered servants and givers in addition to her mother. This included her godparents who helped fund her college education and her stepfather who moved their family from Detroit to Oklahoma and supported her and her half-siblings.
Not only did Perkins-Carter’s mom love her well, but she loved others and served them well also. While Perkins-Carter was growing up, Lewis took in cousins, nieces, nephews, the neighbors and her brother’s classmate who lost his family. Anyone who was in need of a place to stay or someone to be there for them had that with Perkins-Carter’s family.
Perkins-Carter said it taught her to live a life of gratitude, hard work and service to model the love and selflessness of those she grew up around and positioned her where she is now, a first-generation college graduate able to make a difference in her students’ and three children’s lives.
“Even in her struggle, (my mom) was a servant to me,” Perkins-Carter said. “I pray that if anything were to ever happen to me, somebody would show my kids the same kind of compassion that I show to the students that I serve … I know that has everything to do with the seeds that my mother planted in my life.”
While Perkins-Carter leaned on her mother for guidance, Lewis relied on her daughter as well. Not only did their relationship lead Perkins-Carter to generosity and gratitude, but it led her to creativity and confidence, according to her mother.
“She wanted to grow up and take care of the needy and the poor,” Lewis said. “She was always a leader — responsible, mature, creative and outgoing. In a way, we grew up together. In a way, she kept me grounded.”
Initially, Perkins-Carter went to college at Langston University with the “strange” desire of being a mortician but quickly changed her mind and set her hopes on attending law school after graduation. But after completing her undergrad, Perkins-Carter began working within the juvenile justice program and was exposed to kids who had experienced abuse, were impregnated by adults, were neglected or who felt lost in their mistakes.
And suddenly, her passion changed again.
“I just felt like, ‘God, I can make a difference,’” Perkins-Carter said. “‘Use me.’”
The kids she worked with inspired Perkins-Carter to get her master’s in human relations with an emphasis in clinical counseling from OU so she would be able to more closely work with at-risk youth and troubled families. For the first time, she felt certain about her calling in life.
After Perkins-Carter started working with college students at Langston University in the late 1990s, she realized many of her students were struggling financially, and she wanted to help them. It was this passion and drive that encouraged her to start writing.
“She does so much for her students,” Lewis said. “She gives scholarships when they have needs, and if they are sincere in what they are doing, she gives to them. That’s why she wrote a book. She started putting her thoughts to paper. She sold her BMW to finance her first book.”
Perkins-Carter said she never expected what happened next.
Her second book, “Hood Rich: Sex, Status, and a Baller’s Confession,” which came out in 2005, tells the story of a young man whose life was influenced by growing up on the streets of inner-city Michigan. “Hood Rich” quickly affirmed that Perkins-Carter had made the right decision to sell her car and use her tax return to kick start her writing career.
The novel ended up on Essence Magazine’s top-sellers list, and her writing has since been mentioned in Publishers Weekly and The New York Times.
Though her 20-plus books have received much attention, eventually leading her to need an agent, start her own publishing company and do book tours, her purpose never changed. She began writing to help kids, and no matter how much she achieved, her profits continued to go toward scholarships and bettering the lives of her students.
“It blessed me to bless my students in the manner in which I wanted to,” Perkins-Carter said. “To be a servant to somebody else is the greatest reward ever.”
Now, Perkins-Carter continues to invest in the lives of her students at OU through Project Threshold.
And even though the future of Project Threshold is uncertain because the program currently lacks a clear funding source due to campus-wide budget cuts and a federal grant being denied, the students look to Perkins-Carter for guidance and comfort.
According to OU President James Gallogly, the program was out of funding by last October, forcing the university to take over expenses. While he assured students the program will continue, students and faculty worry restructuring could lead to the dismissal of one or all of the counselors, among other things.
But Perkins-Carter said she plans to be there for her students no matter what happens. According to her, the students have become her family and she loves them in the same way she loves her three daughters and her three siblings.
Because of that love, countless students have been changed by all that Perkins-Carter has done for them, Project Threshold director Deborah Binkley-Jackson said.
“She just has a way about her when it comes to interacting with people,” Binkley-Jackson said. “Her community is just thankful and grateful in every way for the services she provides them.”
During the first few weeks of BerThaddaeus Bailey’s freshman year at OU, he was debating dropping out because of financial struggles and the difficulty of his classes compared to his prior education. After a friend encouraged Bailey to seek guidance at Project Threshold, Perkins-Carter became his counselor. She set higher expectations for Bailey than he had ever been held to before, which led him to believe in himself and eventually propelled him to his current career as a policy analyst, Bailey said.
Perkins-Carter never lets her students miss a class, and she gets to know each of them well enough to understand what courses they should take, according to Bailey. While she does this because she cares about their success in the classroom, it is more so because she cares about their minds and character.
“Miss Carter was so intentional about going beyond a normal adviser,” Bailey said. “I came to her not just for counseling or to get advised for my courses, but I came to her for a lot of issues that really had nothing to do with me being in college. She even kept my money in her savings for me when I was looking to buy a ring to propose to my (then) girlfriend, and she did all the decorating for my engagement party. She said she wanted to do it out of love and never mentioned it again. That just shows her character.”
Perkins-Carter said she knows what she does is not an obligation, but her upbringing and faith have taught her that if others are in need and she is able to help, she should give to them.
“I can’t even say how many students tuitions I have personally paid for myself,” Perkins-Carter said. “I can’t just sit on my funds and think it’s all my money and be like, ‘You’re in need, but I’m not going to help you.’ I help them because I care about them.”
Perkins-Carter knows many of her students will never be able to pay her back for what she gives them, but she doesn’t want them to. Instead, she hopes they pay it forward because she believes helping someone like she does is an opportunity to not only change their life, but the lives of their children and their grandchildren’s lives as well.
No matter what happens to Project Threshold and her job as an adviser and assistant director, Perkins-Carter will never stop being a servant to those in need. Everything she has accomplished has been to support her family and students, and that is not congruent on whether she works at Project Threshold. Rather, it is a part of who she is and what her mother instilled in her, Perkins-Carter said.
“I would not be half the person I am today if I hadn’t met Miss Carter,” Bailey said. “I wouldn’t have the job, I wouldn’t have my degrees, and I wouldn’t even be married.
“I would say Miss Carter completely changed my life.”