It is 6:30am on a Monday at Flint Northwestern High School. The halls are empty, the sun is just rising and the students are not scheduled to flood the quiet halls for another hour. But at this hour, a light is on in a small corner office. And sitting at a paper-strewn desk is one Mary Stewart.
Stewart’s role at the high school is formally titled College and Career Advisor, but this title only covers one of her many roles, some of which go well beyond those typically filled by a school official. She is also a website administrator, a public relations representative and a care giver to all who need guidance. When a student roamed the halls this winter without a coat, too ashamed to admit that he didn’t own one, Stewart suited him with a coat, gloves and a scarf from the reserve she keeps tucked away for such needs. She marches faithfully to the cafeteria each afternoon to stock the small refrigerator in her office with fruit, milk and juice in order to supply students who participate in extracurricular activities with sustenance to get them through the evening hours. For some, this light snack is their last meal of the day.
This is what Mary does from 6:30am to 6:30pm, Monday through Friday. As the sun rises to greet her presence on campus, it sets on her just the same. Then comes the weekend. What is two days of rest for most is an opportunity for Stewart to manage all the things she cannot get to throughout the week. Her office for the weekend is a small table in the Starbucks Café at Barnes & Noble. Her table in the bookstore is just as flooded with papers as the desk in her office. She does not stop, checking away at her to-do list for the coming week.
Stewart is a proud product of Flint. She graduated from Flint Academy in 1986, in the same class with famous actor Terry Crews. She has worked as a para-professional, a court liaison, a behavioral specialist and a media specialist with various Flint schools and organizations. Two years ago, she was given the chance to fill a grant-funded position at Northwestern to assist students in preparing for graduation and college. As stated above, Stewart does so much more than the details of the job demand, but the great majority of her work is based in helping the students set clear goals for high school graduation and college acceptance, demystifying the challenging and confusing intricacies of college enrollment for teens who will be first-generation college students in their families.
College prep means bringing the real world within the walls of the high school so that students are not caught off guard once the public school system is no longer there to tell them where to go and what to do each hour of the day. Mary has people from the community come in to speak to students about everything from professionalism in the workplace to personal hygiene. She has vetted outside sources the likes of “The Three Doctors,” authors of the book The Pact, and she partners regularly with local professionals such as Phil Shaltz, John Rhymes, Brian Larkin and David McGhee who serve as shining examples of local talent while helping her to bring in talent from afar. After all of this preparation, and after all of the students have been introduced to college recruiters nationwide, Stewart tirelessly searches for scholarships for her graduates, work that often results in happy and proud reports from her students once they go off to school.
What drives someone like Stewart? In her view, the terrific demands on her are normal and expected. She cherishes the students who have been entrusted to her. Of her experiences in life, she says, “My parents did a lot, and if they did a lot for me, then this is my norm. It’s never been about me. It’s about the students. When I was growing up, we had a village, and today, we have the most resilient kids in our community, as long as you pour into them.”
It has been said that all good things must come to an end, thus it is troubling to know that the grant that gave the students of Northwestern hope in the form of Mary Stewart is already running out, and the likelihood of renewal is slim, despite the school having demonstrated that Stewart’s service is indispensable to them. But it’s just a funding thing. How often have we had to say that to one another in our community as we saw a good thing go away? Even in the face of a near certain end, Stewart’s commitment is unwavering. One week follows the next, and for now, the sun still rises to find Mary at her desk.
We all recognize that some service goes beyond simple charitable work. More than donating time or money or goods, it is the modern manifestation of kneeling down to wash the feet of those under your care. Mary Stewart has embraced this sort of service. It is her lifeblood and her being. My City Magazine would like to honor Mary for her years of service and commitment to her community – our community – and for standing by her personal maxim, “Our community simply will not thrive unless it is education-based.” Additionally, many students from Northwestern would like to honor Mary Stewart.
“She encouraged me to go to college and even to go into the service. Everything I needed, I came to her for. She helped me with recommendations, she helped me with scholarship letters, and she gave me advice. She has her moments if she doesn’t have her coffee! But I look at her like a second mom.” – P Andre Rucker
“I love Ms. Stewart! She pushes me like a parent would. She sometimes gets on my nerves but in the end, with the acceptance letters and the scholarships, it’s worth it. I really appreciate what she does.” – Moneka Meeks
“We didn’t get along last year. I didn’t think she liked me, but I made her like me. She has no choice now. She has to love me! My plan was not to go to college because I didn’t think I could do it, but now I know I can.” – Danario Green
“Ms. Stewart keeps me on task. I am the biggest procrastinator. She’ll text me and call me, ‘I need this and I need that.’ When I don’t want to do something, she drills me hard and I feel bad about not wanting to do it.” – Christa Hall
PHOTOS BY MICHAEL GLEASON