College Guide - Local alums reminisce about their glory days

Killer Mike, TCM's Millie De Chirico, MailChimp's Ben Chestnut, and artist Fahamu Pecou remember

Grammy-winning rapper Killer Mike went to Morehouse College on a dare. In 1994 the Frederick Douglass High School senior already had an art scholarship to Morris Brown, but his homeroom teacher offered to buy his books if the smart, rebellious teen could get accepted into the teacher's alma mater. Killer Mike calls his year at Morehouse "the most valuable experience" of his life.

You get to college and think you're an adult. I remember telling the Dean I didn't feel like we should have to wear coats to chapel. Like, first of all, why the fuck are we even going to chapel? Everybody ain't Christian! He said, "Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. attended Morehouse. Dr. Benjamin E. Mays was a leader of this great institution." Then he said something to me I'll never forget: "Those two men were close to chapel. Who are you not to be?" That's when I realized that the individualism I praised was cool, but I was lucky enough to become part of a select group of men who attended Morehouse, and that I was as responsible for holding those traditions tried and true as any other Morehouse man. It really gave me proper perspective on honoring legacy.

I was a college dropout, so it's funny to me that I get asked to go back and speak. People are like, why should a guy who didn't even graduate get to speak? The answer is simple: because he had the balls to go out and be a trailblazer. I got a girl pregnant my first year. I had to get out and make it happen. The first time I got asked to come back to Morehouse I was so nervous I went to talk to Dean Sterling Hudson III, who helped me get a scholarship. He told me to calm down and that I deserved to be there. ... I like meeting the young guys, talking to them and encouraging them. Being asked to come back to Morehouse is special to me because at that school you're not official till you walk across that stage and graduate. The fact that I made them proud by not graduating and doing this has always meant a lot to me, because I know did the unpopular thing.

— As told to Gavin Godfrey

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Millie De Chirico graduated from Georgia State University in 2002 with a BA in Film and Video. De Chirico now works as Manager of Programming at Turner Classic Movies. She's part of a team that's responsible for curating Underground TCM — the cult classics and atomic scare short films you're most likely to stumble upon when you get home from the bar. If you're flipping through the channels between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. on a Saturday and come across Blue Velvet, Dolemite, or an Ed Wood or Dario Argento film, chances are good that she booked it. She's also in charge of the silent and import films TCM airs Sundays after 2 a.m. De Chirico took a few minutes out of her day of scheduling films for night owls to reflect on her days of scavenging for groceries at Kroger, and making her way as a GSU undergrad.

I was at Georgia State University from about 1997 until 2002. Strangely enough, I'm back there for a graduate program now. I went to high school in Marietta, and I was really into ska music in those days. I would listen to WRAS' ska show, "One Step Beyond," and I wanted to take the host's job so bad! Eventually I did get to do it.

High school in Marietta was pretty miserable. I had a small group of friends, and we always talked about how one day we would escape Marietta. But where would we go that's not where everybody else was going? Georgia State was that place for people who didn't want the traditional college experience: They wanted to go to a city college with art programs, and where they didn't have to be involved with college sports. Much of GSU's greatness was because of places like Album 88 and Cinefest. That's why I went there.

Both the Album 88 experience and being in the film department put me around a really cool crew of interesting people — some of them now have careers in film and television, editing Spike Jonze's films, or working for "The Walking Dead."

During my freshman year I lived in the dorms right after they were built at 10th Street and the freeway. It was a year after the Olympics, and I have a lot of great memories of making student films, climbing through people's windows in the middle of the night.

My roommates at the GSU dorms and I would go on what we used to call "date shopping" for groceries. Back in the day, Kroger used to have a policy that if you found something expired on their shelves and pulled it for them, you could get the same non-expired item for free. They have since stopped doing this because eventually lots of people figured it out.

We used to hit up multiple Krogers a night doing this so we would never have to pay for groceries. And we figured out that going at midnight was the best time to get the most recently expired food, so we'd stay up all night, then pile like five or six of us into one car and go shopping. The funny thing is most expired food is usually dairy and seafood and, for some reason, those powdered donuts you get in the bread section. So basically, our hauls would be like 20 pounds of crab legs, gallons of milk, and powdered donuts. So gross.

— As told to Chad Radford

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Ben Chestnut, co-founder and CEO of Atlanta-based email marketing service MailChimp, wanted nothing more than to get a real-world job during his college years. The Georgia Tech alumnus, a self-described C student who graduated in 1998, had to first make it through his prerequisite classes, one of which required him to make a wooden bowl. During a late-night scramble to finish the project, Chestnut set his project ablaze and, in the process, also missed a rare chance for him to smoke a bowl with one of his classmates.

In industrial design, we had to know about materials, fabrication, and engineering. So you have to take shop class. It's just like in high school except there are much larger machines and more serious kinds of products. One of the things they make you do, to learn about wood, is they make you create a bowl. You stick a chunk of wood on a lathe, it spins super fast, you hold a chisel, and you make a bowl. It was this beautiful chunk of this wood. You could get it from this place next to McDonald's on Northside Drive.

You take sandpaper, while it's still spinning, and you gently hold it onto the bowl and sand it a little bit smooth. I suck at sanding. I pressed too hard and the bowl started to catch on fire. It turned out it was decayed. The bowl deformed like all of my projects from back then! Just lopsided and deformed. I stopped the lathe, pulled the bowl off, and took it back to my workstation. This is really late at night. I'm pulling an all-nighter because I'm a horrible student.

I'm kind of nursing the bowl and trying to put the smoke out. There's another guy working really, really late. He looks like John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival. He finished his bowl, and was like, "Man, that was hard. Do you want to go smoke a bowl?" And I said, "Mine was smoking. It almost caught fire. No, thanks." He said that was cool, and he packed up his stuff and left. I had no idea what he meant.

After graduating college, somebody made a joke about smoking a bowl somewhere at work. I connected the dots and realized that I missed my one opportunity to experiment with drugs at Georgia Tech. And I turned it down. Damn! I just remember being the guy who was too uptight about work, wanting to get my schoolwork done, and get the hell out. That guy was, like, the cool guy. There he was inviting me. And I blew it. But I do still own that bowl!

— As told to Max Blau

This interview has been edited and condensed.

That out-of-water feeling that hits every fresh fish upon arriving on campus? Fahamu Pecou's been there. Twice. The acclaimed visual artist, who focuses on representations of black masculinity in hip-hop, recalls his first impressions of Atlanta College of Art in 1993, and the early learning curve he experienced in his current Ph.D. program at Emory University's Institute of Liberal Arts.

My collegiate experiences have been a series of culture shocks.

I came here from South Carolina, which is where I grew up mostly. My brother and some of his college friends brought me here to Atlanta. They were driving something like a Ford Probe that really was designed to seat four people, but there were, like, six of us in there. I was sandwiched in the middle.

I remember coming down I-85 and seeing the skyline for the first time and really being blown away. We finally got to the school and got on the elevator at the dorm. The elevator door opened for me to get off on my floor, and there was this white dude standing there with no shirt on, super tall with tattoos everywhere, a hot-pink Mohawk sticking straight up, and piercings in his nose and all over his face. My brother and his boys just kinda laughed at me, pushed me off the elevator, and said, "Welcome to art school!"

Even while at ACA, I started taking painting at Spelman College and experienced culture shock when I saw all of the black people at the AU Atlanta University Center. But my first few weeks at Emory — after having been out of school for 15-plus years — was really challenging.

I was coming up against that learning curve and trying to find my voice in the mix. Just being in a room full of people quoting Derrida and Foucault, and I'm like, who the hell are they? If I brought up a topic related to my own work or research, I would just get a bunch of blinks. They were looking at me just as perplexed as I was when they started talking. And I remember one of my advisors telling me, "Don't let that intimidate you. Part of the challenge for a lot of them is that's all they know. They haven't been anywhere else, they haven't experienced anything outside of academia, and they've learned to regurgitate this information back."

That helped me feel more comfortable. The knowledge base I have is relevant and maybe more relevant because it's based more in practice than theory. And that became the great equalizer for me in recognizing the value in my own personal knowledge base and how it related to the stuff that we were being taught in these courses.

— As told to Rodney Carmichael

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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