Samuel Rowser ’86 grew up on the south side of Syracuse where he attended Central Tech before it closed after his sophomore year. He would finish high school at Corcoran and then enlist into the Marine Corps. His home life was solid as he quantifies himself as a SOP (Son of Preacher) so faith, hard work and the requirement to help others were instilled in him and his six siblings at an early age. He was released from the Marine Corps on an honorable discharge three years later and it wasn’t long after that a series of bad decisions left him incarcerated for the next two years. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do and it was during that search for purpose I took a couple of wrong turns,” Rowser said.
When he was released, Rowser would eventually find his home and purpose at Onondaga Community College (OCC) a year later in 1984. “OCC was an exciting time for me right from the start,” Rowser said, “in my first semester I was persuaded to join the JAMAA Club and everything started to fall in place from there.” In his first meeting with JAMAA (a term that means “family” in Swahili) Rowser was elected as treasurer of the group and by March, he was also named president and vice president of the club. Thinking back on this Rowser cannot help but laugh, “going in [to the first meeting], me and my buddy had no idea what the group did,” Rowser said smiling, “and by the end of the meeting we were leading the group!”
However, little did he know at the time, but this experience with JAMAA would introduce Rowser to a world where he would find his passion and calling. The first step in his journey was being able to work directly with the Clubs’ advisor, Jim Martin, who would quickly become someone Rowser would admire greatly. “Jim was more than an advisor,” he said, “ he was my mentor and friend and I feel so fortunate that he took the time he did with me.” The second part was the feeling he got by serving as a key ingredient in making some of the interests of the Club a reality. “Before I got there, the Club carried this stigma that they couldn’t do any programming,” Rowser said, “however, I found the real reason was that they didn’t have a clear vision of what they wanted to do so once we cleared that up we started to hold some great events on campus and in the community.”
Seeing his work in JAMAA and with his background in the military, Martin would get Rowser involved with the recruitment of people completing their military duty through the College’s Veterans Office. In this role, he would walk returning veterans through the enrollment process and work with them on their program of study and getting settled. While serving in this work study role, he would expand on his knowledge of OCC because he was giving tours and working directly with incoming students. He excelled and shortly before he graduated in 1986, Martin would come calling once again to take him under his wing further and hire him full-time through a grant obtained by the Urban Extension Program. It was here where Rowser would become trained in the duties of admission, financial aid and other components of the registration process. “I was going all over town and in people’s homes,” Rowser said, “it was a great experience for me because I loved OCC so much it was an easy sell.”
When the grant ended in 1990, the College hired Rowser to be part of the full-time admission team due to the amount of work and results both he and Martin had achieved while working together. All continued to go well for the next seven years when he fell victim to drug addiction, which caused him to put his career and life on hold until he was incarcerated for a second time in 1999. “During those four years of drug use,” Rowser said, “I knew I was better than what I was doing, but I couldn’t break free and each time I used I would say ‘God you said in your word, if I believe in my heart and confess with my mouth, I will be saved. Save me Lord!’” It was through his incarceration that he would finally be able to break free and get clean because he was able to think rationally and clearly for the first time in four years without being in an environment that kept him from doing so.
Once released in 1999, he went to the Rescue Mission, where he completed a six-month program before he had to go to start looking for work again. It was while he was going through this program that he would see an old friend at a local store. Jesse Dowdell was a friend of his and ran the Southwest Community Center in Syracuse for many years before retiring in 2013. “Jesse saw me in an aisle and went out of his way to find out how I was doing,” Rowser said, “once I explained where I was at, he told me once I completed the program to come talk to him.” True to his word, once the program was completed Rowser called on Dowdell and by the following week he was working for him. “Jesse was tremendous,” he said, “he knew who I really was and looked at me in the here and now, instead of who I was, which is something I’ve tried to do myself with others to this day.
Good fortune would follow him for within a couple months of working there a student came in looking for Ginny Donohue – who had recently just started up On Point for College program, which was an initiative to help urban youth prepare and enter college – because he needed assistance with some financial aid forms. Knowing Donohue was not onsite yet, Dowdell sent the student down to see Rowser because he knew of his work at OCC. “The student came in and all the experience came back to me,” he said, “it was a great feeling and I was able to answer all his questions, assist him with his financial aid application and send him on his way.” When Donohue arrived the kid explained to her that he was all set and pointed to Rowser’s office as she was very interested in finding out who helped him with the financial aid paperwork.
Within the few months, Donohue had talked with Dowdell about transitioning Rowser from working at the Southwest Community Center to On Point. Shortly after, Donohue offered Rowser a job with her and together they would evolve the program from the trunks of their cars, to offices and additional staff at the Catholic Charities Building. “It was a great marriage,” Rowser said, “Ginny is great from running the business side and developing programming ideas, and I had the experience from the enrollment and registration side thanks to all of previous work at OCC.” While working at On Point, Rowser has gone on to get his bachelor’s degree in 2008, was able to meet President Barrack Obama when he visited Syracuse in 2013 and completed his master’s last year, which also coincided with On Point’s fifteen year anniversary. “That was a special moment,” he said, “I told students in attendance that this program not only saved their life, but it saved mine as well.”
Today, he and his wife Patrona, who he credits as an unwavering supporter and a wonderful blessing, are the proud parents of seven kids and are very active at Bethany Baptist Church, which is something Rowser will not lose sight of again. “I find that I am allergic to thinking I do not need God,” he said, “and when I do forget, I break out in handcuffs, so I stay close to God and it works for me just fine.” In addition, he is readying himself for when Donohue steps down as Executive Director in September, and will then begin another chapter in his life in a role of a lifetime. “Even though I was business major at OCC, when I started to help students I knew that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he said, “to come full circle now and to be able to help the children of the students I assisted at OCC is amazing. I am firm believer now that when you do the right things for the right reasons the next right thing will happen.” Each morning he celebrates his good fortune by thanking God for the gift of life and the opportunity to be a better person.