FLUSHING, N.Y., December 15, 2005 – When Sean Talisman, 26, was a first-year music student at Queens College in 1997, he received an award as the most promising freshman in the department. But he changed course after a series of family tragedies and a stint as a poll monitor in the 2004 elections gave him a new sense of purpose.
With the help of a graduate scholarship from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, a highly competitive national award that gives him $50,000 a year for up to six years, Sean is today studying at Columbia Law School. His goal is to become a public interest lawyer and affect election reform in economically disadvantaged communities.
“Support for exceptional students, particularly those with financial need and a great drive to succeed, can have a profoundly positive effect on society,” said Dr. Matthew J. Quinn, executive director of the foundation. The 76 individuals who received the award—from an applicant pool of 1,290 at more than 600 colleges—all overcame tremendous obstacles.
For a while it seemed as though Sean, who was raised in Mineola, Long Island, would never graduate from college. In fact, he dropped out twice. A brilliant composition student at Queens College’s Aaron Copland School of Music, Sean was busy writing a string quartet when in 1999 his mother died of breast cancer. This alone would have been a major, life-altering event. But it was only one in a series of tragedies that took a toll on Sean and his family.
About a decade earlier Sean’s father, Stan Talisman, had been assaulted as he was leaving work. Thrust headfirst down a flight of concrete stairs, Stan lapsed into a coma. When he finally emerged from it, he was diagnosed with permanent vision loss and severe cognitive damage.
“My family was devastated,” recalls Sean. “Life during my father’s slow rehabilitation was stressful.”
Not long afterwards, Sean’s maternal grandmother died of lung cancer. “I watched with admiration as my mother tried to weather tragedy with grace and composure while raising two sons alone,” says Sean.
Stan’s condition ultimately improved. However, as Sean was about to enter high school, his mother received the cancer diagnosis. “During that time, my mother and I found in each other a constant source of strength and hope,” he says. “We defied the foreboding of a bleak future through our shared banter, laughter and a bond of unconditional love. We talked about everything from literature to philosophy to science and current events. My mother fought the brutality of cancer by savoring life. Looking back on it now, even though the cancer eventually killed her, it is my firm conviction that she won the battle.”
To share his mother’s last days, Sean lived at home and commuted to Queens College. When she died in 1999, Sean’s grief was so profound that he withdrew from all his classes. Although he returned to school that fall and earned straight A’s, he dropped out again around the time of the anniversary of her death.
Feeling lonely and longing for intellectual stimulation, Sean eventually re-enrolled. To broaden his scope, he began taking courses in the humanities and social sciences, where he was inspired by “unraveling sociological theory and lending insight to discussions on Tolstoy.”
“By the time my grandfather died two years later, I had learned to face sadness with strength,” he says. As evidence of this, Sean graduated magna cum laude/Phi Beta Kappa with a BA in Sociology in June 2003.
In November 2004, Sean had another life-altering experience. He was working as a poll monitor in a church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where his job was to reach out and protect the rights of voters in economically disadvantaged areas. In the course of that work, he learned that many eligible voters, primarily Spanish speaking, who had come to the church to cast their vote were being given provisional paper ballots.
“I decided to do everything in my power to prevent eligible voters from casting these ballots that might not be counted,” Sean recalls. “I turned toward the line of voters and announced in a loud voice, ‘Do not vote by provisional ballot unless you are certain you cannot vote by machine.’ Many more prospective voters came up to me then. If I were faced with that situation today, I would act exactly the same, even if only to help one additional person cast a vote that would be counted.”
After that incident Sean committed himself to becoming a lawyer who could affect public policy related to election reform. “I want to help preserve the sanctity of one of the most fundamental rights of a U.S. citizen and our most sublime form of political expression,” he says.
Sean applied to, and was accepted by, eight different law schools. After attending a Columbia Law School seminar called “Post 9/11: Legal Issues in the War on Terrorism,” Sean chose Columbia’s program and enrolled this September.
“I had witnessed the classroom transform into a think tank focused on reconciling legal philosophy with the reality of our legal system and devising public policy solutions,” he notes. “I left that afternoon satisfied I couldn’t ask for a more challenging, stimulating experience than an education from Columbia Law School.”
Thanks to the generous support of the Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship, Sean’s future path, and success, seem clear.
“I would do anything in my power if I could restore my family to its former state of well-being,” he says. “But I am much stronger and perhaps even better for the losses I sustained. I believe that my experiences attest to the fact that I can transcend whatever obstacles I may face and thrive both in law school and in life.”
For more about Queens College visit http://www.qc.cuny.edu/index.php
Contact: Phyllis Cohen Stevens
Deputy Director of News Services