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Christopher Etienne finds success at university after troubled adolescence that led to time in prison

Christopher Etienne was able to give up his job organizing weddings when he found out he earned the Flip Wilson Memorial Scholarship. 
Photo: Lisa Marie Segarra

"I had no family I could turn to for support, no loved ones I could ask to help me through this process. I just knew I had to be resilient, I had to find a way to make the best out of a negative situation."
– Christopher Etienne

Christopher Etienne, a journalism and media studies and Africana studies major, is having a busy senior year. He is the editor-in-chief of the Rutgers chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists, mentors at-risk youth and works with inmates trying to further their education.

One thing Etienne won’t be busy with anymore is working as a wedding organizer. He gave up that job – which paid his way through school – when he learned at the start of the semester he received the Flip Wilson Memorial Scholarship. The late comedian Flip Wilson, who died of liver cancer at the age of 64 in 1998, endowed the $25,000 scholarship to five journalism programs, including Rutgers, and requested that preference be given to students of African-American descent.

“I applied because people encouraged me,” said Etienne, who heard about the scholarship through deans at Rutgers’ School of Communication and Information and the university’s Education Opportunity Fund, a program that provides financial assistance and support services to students from educationally and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. “I felt I was competing with people that are better writers, but then I got it. It felt surreal.”

His winning essay exploring the life of an African-American celebrity who died when Etienne was just 13 complemented his educational focus at Rutgers, which includes social justice as well as “informing and galvanizing the black community.”

To find inspiration for his essay, Etienne went beyond the funny videos to investigate the controversy that surrounded Wilson’s success, which came at a time when civil rights conflicts pervaded the nation. Some critics have said that as a successful black entertainer, Wilson should have played more of a role in civil rights activism. But Etienne argued that despite Wilson’s inclination to stay on the sidelines, the comedian still played an important role in supporting the advancement of African Americans.

Etienne began his research by watching video footage from Wilson’s beginning during the 1960s to his career peak in the 1970s. Born in Jersey City, Wilson spent his youth in the foster care system before lying about his age to join the Air Force at 17. There, he was noticed for his outgoing personality and humor. He was asked to tour military bases to improve morale. Soon after his service, he hit it big in New York as a regular at the Apollo Theatre and a frequent guest on late night comedy shows, launching his own variety show, The Flip Wilson Show, in 1970.

“Flip Wilson helped to integrate the NBC lineup,” Etienne said. “He used his success to help others, to help pave the way for more successful black comedians – people like Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock.”.

Throughout his research, Etienne was struck by the parallels between his life and Wilson’s – both defined by chaotic childhoods. Etienne’s trouble began in adolescence with his parents’ martial difficulties and then bitter separation. At 15, he left home, moving from one friend’s place to another’s. He sold drugs to support himself until his arrest at 19 that resulted in a prison sentence of almost five years.

“I had no family I could turn to for support, no loved ones I could ask to help me through this process,” said Etienne. “I just knew I had to be resilient, I had to find a way to make the best out of a negative situation.”

Before his teenage troubles, Etienne had been a curious student. At his Asbury Park middle school, he was known as the boy who liked to read. He devoured horror and thriller books and enthusiastically followed the Goosebumps series.

While jail could be the end for some, for Etienne it marked a reawakening of sorts.

Inspired by the Mountain View Project, a program started by Rutgers veteran history professor Donald Roden in 2004 to help inmates interested in pursuing higher education, Etienne returned to the passions and scholarly interests of his youth.

“I started reading and writing again and began following news and politics,” Etienne said. “I began to think more about the poverty and disenfranchisement in our communities, why so many people like me were in jail.”

The Mountainview program helped Etienne realize what he wanted: a career in journalism, a field that would allow him to ask questions about people like him whose lives had derailed and then highlight their stories to help others avoid similar paths.

While in prison, Etienne got his GED and began taking college courses. Following his release in 2010, he enrolled in Essex Community College and attended Brookdale Community College before being accepted at Rutgers University. For two years, he lived with his older sister who was now working and living on her own and could help support his pursuit of education.  “She paid for my train fare to get to class every morning,” he said. “I owe everything to her.”

Since he began attending Rutgers in 2011, Etienne has excelled. He continued pursuing his passion for journalism and brought back a dormant chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists. He stayed in touch with Professor Roden and helped mentor students in the Moutainview Project, and recently he was accepted into the Africana studies honors program, for which he is writing a thesis focused on the history of public education.

His dream is to attend graduate school and become a documentary filmmaker. “I feel investigative journalism has evolved away from print into real-life narratives using film and video,” said Etienne, who hopes to use film to tell stories about African-American communities and social justice.

Steve Miller, an instructor in the School of Communication and Information who both taught and mentored Etienne, believes he has a promising future ahead.

“His willingness to gain experience, pursue knowledge and accept responsibility when he’s wrong will help Chris succeed,” Miller said. “He is a dynamic force in the classroom – exactly the type of student we want coming out of the journalism department.”