MET 121819 Rob Lowe Wide

Rob Lowe gives the alumni speech about his time in college during Indiana State University’s winter commencement on Saturday, Dec. 14, in Hulman Center.

Growing up in Indianapolis and through his young adult years, Rob Lowe faced challenging circumstances, limited means and on more than one occasion, homelessness.

At age 6, he saw his stepfather get killed, and six months later, his mom died from cancer. He and his two older sisters were raised by grandparents.

His first semester in college, he flunked out. “It was a new world to me,” said Lowe, a first-generation college student.

Through persistence, and second chances, Lowe eventually graduated from college and later earned a master’s degree. Today, he is vice president of human resources and corporate talent acquisition for JBT Aerotech based in Orlando; the company has operations in North America, Europe and Asia.

He credits much of his success to his alma mater, Indiana State University, where he obtained his bachelor’s in business management in 1992 and his master’s in human resource development in 1997.

The road to success didn’t come easy, but at ISU, the opportunities and second chances helped pave the way.

“What Indiana State gave me laid the foundation for who I am today,” said Lowe, who was the ISU alumni speaker at its Dec. 14 commencement.

ISU ranks tops for social mobility

ISU is gaining a reputation for helping disadvantaged students graduate and find success, and Lowe is among those who have benefited through the years.

For the second year in a row, Indiana State ranks first in the state on the CollegeNet Social Mobility Index. The index measures “the extent to which a college or university educates more economically disadvantaged students [with family incomes below the national median] at lower tuition and graduates them into good paying jobs.”

This is also the fifth time in the past six years that ISU ranked best among Indiana’s public institutions.

Social mobility is about “improving lives,” said ISU president Deborah Curtis.

Half of Indiana State’s current freshman class is Pell grant eligible. Half of the class is also first-generation college students.

According to CollegeNet, “Our focus in developing the Social Mobility Index is to comparatively assess the role of our higher education system in providing a conduit for economic and social advancement.”

The SMI looks at “the extent to which colleges and universities contribute to solving the problem of economic divergence in our country.”

In 2019, ISU’s national ranking was 246 out of 1,458 schools surveyed, or the top 16.8 percent. Last year, it ranked 194 nationally out of 1,380 schools surveyed, or the top 14 percent.

Other Indiana college national rankings for 2019 are as follows: Ball State ranked 297; IU Southeast, 309; IU Kokomo 387; University of Southern Indiana, 428; IU South Bend, 486; IUPUI, 689; Rose-Hulman, 773; Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, 804; IU Bloomington, 909; Purdue, main campus, 1084; Anderson University, 1129; and DePauw University, 1134.

For a complete list, go to socialmobilityindex.org, click on “rankings” and filter by state.

ISU president on why it’s important

ISU has many first generation college goers and quite a few students with exceptional financial need, Curtis said. Helping them advance socially and economically once they graduate is important not only for the students but also in meeting the workforce needs of the state.

In Indiana, as well as across the country, “We’ve seen a bit of shrinking of the middle class,” and ISU’s strong placement in the social mobility index shows its ability “to contribute to refilling the middle class,” she said.

The governor wants to bring more business and industry to Indiana, and ISU’s success in working with disadvantaged students “contributes tremendously to that need of the state in being able to develop its talent pool,” she said.

Jill Thacker, CollegeNet associate vice president for corporate communications, said the Social Mobility Index identifies schools that are doing the best job of improving access, affordability and academic success for all students.

“Our methodology considers schools’ tuition, the percentage of students from low-income families each school admits; the portion of the school’s endowment that goes to support these students; and the number of these students that graduate and go on to well-paying jobs. These are the indicators of how well a school is contributing to social mobility,” Thacker said.

Returning to ISU to give, not receive

Lowe recalled at least two times where ISU opened doors for him.

When he was an undergraduate, Rex Kendall, who had worked in residential life, gave him the opportunity to be a resident assistant, where Lowe learned leadership skills; later, when he wanted to attend graduate school — but had no money — ISU worked with him to find a way to make it happen.Kendall, now ISU’s alumni association executive director, recalled that Lowe “was one of those guys you knew had the personality and temperament to be a good RA. He was upbeat and energetic, and that stood out with me.”

Lowe didn’t participate in his graduation ceremony in December 1997 to receive his master’s degree, although his fiancee, and now wife, did walk across the stage.

Instead, Lowe sat in the bleachers. He had completed his master’s in July but had been unable to find a job. “My life had so many setbacks and so much rejection and so much heartache, I didn’t think it would matter anyway,” Lowe said. He feared, “There was no way my life would take off.”

He kept applying for jobs in Dallas, where he hoped to re-locate. Finally, in January 1998, he landed a job with what was then called Andersen Consulting, where his career did begin to take off. He later served as the senior human resources director for The Nature’s Bounty Company based in Boca Raton, Fla.

Late this year, Kendall invited Lowe to return to ISU to be the winter commencement alumni speaker.

While Lowe didn’t walk across the stage for his master’s in 1997, “Here I am 22 years later, coming back on that stage, not to walk or receive but to give. That’s the power of God, and the power of Indiana State ... It all comes full circle.”

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or at sue.loughlin@tribstar.com

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