Mike Grant, M.S. ’77, is a pioneer and an explorer. No, he didn’t discover any unchartered lands or claim any new territories. Rather, he traveled the globe to take in its beauty, teach and learn from other people, and to discover more about himself.
Member of Adelphi University’s Profiles in Success program.
Retired Special Education Teacher
Mike Grant, M.S. ’77, is a pioneer and an explorer. No, he didn’t discover any unchartered lands or claim any new territories. Rather, he traveled the globe to take in its beauty, teach and learn from other people, and to discover more about himself. He also became a special education teacher at a time when the field was in its infancy and he transformed the lives of hundreds of young men and women with special needs.
Grant was raised in Hicksville as a first generation American whose parents hailed from Ireland. After graduating from Hicksville High School in the mid-1960s, he attended Rutgers University. At the time, he was unsure of what direction he wanted to go in his life. “I got to a point where I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he said. But then, he became interested the Peace Corps. “I thought the Peace Corps. would be a good opportunity to expose me to a lot of different things,” said Grant. So, after he graduated from Rutgers in the spring of 1970, Grant went into the Peace Corps.
Before being sent to his assignment on the east coast of Malaysia, Grant attended training sessions at the World Health Organization’s Malaria Eradication Center in Manila, Philippines where he learned about malaria eradication, the Malay language, and their customs. He spent the next two years working in Malaysia’s malaria eradication program.
In May of 1972, near the end of his initial service with the Peace Corps., Grant was involved in an accident on his motorcycle. “The Peace Corps’ helmet requirement kept me alive,” he said. As soon as he recovered from his injuries, Grant briefly traveled across Indonesia. But complications from his injuries forced him to return to the U.S.
Back home, Grant worked multiple night jobs to free up his days to focus on his burgeoning fascination with photography and another budding interest: volunteer work he was doing with a friend who was teaching physical education to students with special needs. Grant soon found that he not only had a passion but a talent for both photography and working with disabled kids. He decided to apply for a full-time job teaching physical education to children with special needs. The response he received changed the course of his life and put him on the path to Adelphi.
Grant received a rejection letter stating that the position he had applied for required certification. “I made the decision then to go back to school with the hope that I would get certified to teach special ed., phys. ed.,” he said. “I wanted to spread my education around and get certified in a lot of different areas.” Adelphi offered him that opportunity.
While studying to earn his master’s degree at Adelphi, Grant worked several jobs and continued with his photography and volunteer work. After saving up some money and graduating from Adelphi, he resumed his travels. This time, he decided to take in the sights and sounds of America.
After seeing a photo exhibit by one of his idol’s, Ansel Adams, Grant was inspired to go West in the summer of 1974. He camped and developed film in the same Volkswagen bus he struggled to fit into the narrow parking spots on Adelphi’s campus. He visited with friends and found work doing odd jobs like loading fish off boats into refrigerated trucks. He spent most of his time exploring the many wonders of the American West and taking pictures. “One particular photo that I took at that time was later entered in a California Fish and Game contest,” Grant said. “It earned an honorable mention, but more pleasing is the fact that Ansel Adams was one of the judges.”
Although he was offered a permanent position at a Long Island school district after he returned home, Grant decided to take a teaching position with the Catskill Association of Retarded Children (ARC), which at the time was responsible for educating the children that public schools were not required to educate. However, soon after, the education laws in the United States were changed and the ARC school was forced to close. Grant eventually found work in a district near West Point and the Hudson Highlands. The resource room position meant that Grant had to become familiar with varying levels of multiple subjects in short order. He had a caseload of 20 students with special needs that all needed to learn the curriculum and be prepared to take the Regents or competency exams. Grant not only succeeded in preparing the students for their exams, but he was successful in earning their trust and respect. “Transitioning from the traditional self-contained class to mainstreaming, what the district was doing was at the time, was all very new,” Grant said.
While researching various programs that could be potentially helpful for his students, Grant was introduced to Outward Bound, a program that integrates intensive experience and skill-building into the fabric of education. “I was reluctant to recommend it based on just reading their literature,” he said. “So, one summer I enrolled in a 28-day educational program at sea that was designed for teachers. Our classroom was a two mast ketch in a sailing environment off the coast of Maine.” Little did he know, that the skills he learned during the program would be put to good use. Since first being exposed to sailing, he has taken many of his students out on the water. Today, despite being retired, Grant can often be seen in the waters by his home in Florida where, as a volunteer with the United States Sailing Center of Martin County, he continues to teach young men and women with special needs how to sail.
Also, during his orientation in Outward Bound, Grant learned about the concept of useful exercise, which is the idea of incorporating exercise into everyday life and making activities such as commuting to work more productive. “This led to a return to bicycle riding for me,” Grant said. “Every day I started riding my bike about 11 miles to work.” Several years later, he would spend a summer biking approximately 1,000 miles across his parents’ native country of Ireland. His passion for useful exercise also led to him becoming involved in extracurricular activities at his school. He discovered a love for skiing and became the school’s ski coach. Years later he succeeded in encouraging one of his team members who was a gifted athlete to qualify and represent herself and the school at the state championships in Lake Placid.
At the age of 39, Grant left his teaching position and reapplied to the Peace Corps. He was accepted into a technical program that required him to teach in French to students in Burundi, Africa. “I had to get out an atlas to find it on a map,” he quipped. “I didn’t know I was about to embark on one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”
He was one of only six volunteers going to Burundi to teach in technical schools located throughout the country. “Many of the students I was about to work with had never even ridden a bicycle,” Grant said. “But, as graduates of the program, they were supposed to be hired by the Burundi government to operate heavy equipment that would be used to build and maintain the country’s roads.” Grant then went on to say, “I had no curriculum. There was a garage that had some simple tools and a machine shop with metal working equipment, most of which I had no experience with. I was expected to prepare classroom lectures as well as lab work that would expose them to simple diagnostic and repair skills.”
When Grant wasn’t teaching, he was educating himself and preparing his lessons. “Long after the lights went out across the school grounds, where both the students and faculty lived, I could be found in the shop,” he said. “While I was teaching students the use of hand tools or simple repairs of an engine, I was teaching myself how to use the lathe, milling machine, and other equipment and translating that information into French.” He also found a secondary project: helping out at a hospital run by the American physician, Dr. Frank Ogden. “The hospital was located about 25 miles away and I would bike the distance,” Grant said. “Sometimes, I’d stay overnight to help and then ride back the next day.”
Of course, Grant did some traveling in the region as well. During his summer vacations, he visited game parks in Kenya and Tanzania. He saw the Serengeti, Ngorogoro Crater, the Amboseli National Parks, and he and a fellow Peace Corps. volunteer climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to the rim.
“I was extremely happy with both the work I was doing and the life I was living in Africa,” said Grant who longed to extend his experience for a third year. However, it was not to be. The World Bank pulled its funding and Grant’s days of teaching the students in Burundi, who he loved working with, were over. But, he wasn’t ready to return home yet. “I remembered my limited travel after Malaysia,” he said. “I didn’t want to visit only one other country and then return home.” So, he hatched a plan. “My plan was to cycle to the tip of Africa, get on a boat to Argentina and then bike through South America, Central America, and back to the U.S. It didn’t happen exactly that way though, “said Grant who did however visit parts of Tanzania, Malawi, and traveled across Mozambique in the back of a truck trying to avoid the violent turmoil that was plaguing the area. “Though bombed out shells of vehicles could be found along the sides of the Mozambique roads, I never felt in any danger,” he said.
Along his travels, his came across an elderly man at a refugee camp who was very ill and needed malaria pills. Grant counted the pills he had. He kept what he thought he needed and gave the rest to the man.
Eventually, Grant found passage to Zimbabwe. “Zimbabwe in 1990 was a traveler’s dream,” he said. “Living was cheap and almost everything could be had.” Grant spent his days in Zimbabwe doing activities like rafting the Zambezi, riding across the majestic landscape in steam locomotives, and visiting Victoria Falls. “After visiting Victoria Falls, I biked back to Hwange National Park,” he said. “Just outside the park boundary near a private safari lounge named Touch the Wild, I came across a herd of zebra who were grazing near the road. I was stuck by the opportunity. I had to touch the wild.” As he approached, the zebras started to run away. Grant pedaled furiously on his bike until he found himself gliding alongside the herd of charging zebras. Days later he would find himself snapping pictures only several feet away from a herd of elephants. This was Grant’s fourth encounter with dangerous but enchanting wildlife. He had encountered elephants before and had previously gotten up close to a family of guerrillas who nearly assaulted him. It was is if he was living in a fantasy world where he could reach out and touch all the wildlife he had ever dreamed of. But his dream world would briefly turn into a nightmare when he discovered that he had contracted malaria.
Grant returned to the U.S. for a six-week hiatus. “At Christmas dinner, I surprised my mother. It was priceless to see her eyes widen and her knees go weak. I had to grab her to keep her from falling,” he said. Grant visited with friends and family and recovered from his illness. After procuring spare bike parts, backup cameras, and other equipment, Grant headed back to Zimbabwe to finish what he started. Almost immediately after his return, tragedy struck again.
While riding his bike in the early morning towards the Eastern Highlands, Grant was struck by a truck. He lost consciousness and woke up in a hospital bed with bandages covering his body. He was later told that was given two units of blood. Still, Grant’s will was not broken. After recovering for several weeks, he went back out on the road.
About two months after Nelson Mandela was released from prison, Grant crossed into South Africa. “It was a very upbeat, optimistic time to be in the country,” he said. “But, there were still visible vestiges of the apartheid period of the country’s history present.”
His travels then took him through Swaziland, Lesotho, down to the Indian Ocean coastline at Port Elizabeth, and continuing to Jeffrey’s Bay where he witnessed a Billabong Surf Contest that showcased some of the best surfers and waves in the world. “There were times when I saw dolphins riding alongside the surfers,” he recalled. He then made his way to Capetown where he found work on a freighter that took him across the Atlantic to Montreal, Canada. After a 13 day journey, Grant arrived in Canada, hopped back on his bike, and rode towards his home in Newburgh, N.Y.
After teaching the next school year, Grant got back on his bike and again traveled through Western America. “After seeing other parts of the world, I thought I should go to the parts of America I hadn’t seen yet,” he said. He biked approximately 1800 miles through the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone, up through the Canadian Rockies and returned to Glacier National Park. “The U.S. gave the world national parks and that needs to be applauded big time,” said Grant.
Grant, who now resides in Florida, still rides his bike frequently and he continues to develop his skills as a photographer. He also still works with children who have special needs. About his current role as a volunteer instructor at The United States Sailing Center Grant said, “The kids can control at least one aspect of their life. They are out on a boat and make decisions and face the consequences of those decisions.” This summer Grant will return to New River National Gorge, in West Virginia for his sixth season as a Volunteer in the Park.
Grants advice to current students and recent graduates is, “Take every internship opportunity you can. Somehow follow your passion and see if a career can be built into it. I really enjoyed my teaching career. Every day was different with new problems to solve. Adelphi enabled me to enter a field I was passionate about and I’m grateful for that.”
Published May 2017
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