Sheldon Fields is the youngest of six children born to a single mom in the 1970s in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Known at the time for poverty and violence, life in Brownsville was punctuated by arson and riots. Fields saw his siblings struggle with drug abuse, watched his older brothers go to prison and, at 17, was called home from his first semester at SUNY Binghamton for the funeral of his 19-year-old brother, who had been shot and killed. He’s been asked how he survived his childhood. “Me, my brother and my sister — the three youngest — would leave at the same time in the morning going the same way,” Fields says. “My sister would get two houses away, stop and go hang out with her friends. My brother would get to the corner, make a left and go to the arcade. I crossed the street, walked one more block and took myself to school. Along the way, everybody made a choice. I quickly realized life is about choices.” Blessed with intellect (“it was my gift from God, quite honestly”), a protective grandmother, an aunt who was his role model and influential teachers, Fields continued to make choices that led him to a Ph.D. in nursing from an Ivy League university at 30. Now, at 47, he is dean of the School of Health Professions at the New York Institute of Technology in Westbury, Long Island, overseeing five allied health-degree programs.
I grew up in a multigenerational household with lots of people around. School became my refuge. I attended PS 9 in Prospect Heights and PS 41 in Brownsville. I liked school and was good at it, but I got in trouble a lot until a teacher realized I was bored, not bad. I was incredibly fortunate that teachers looked beyond this poor biracial kid — I’m half black, half Puerto Rican — to see what I couldn’t see myself: I tested two grades ahead of my class and was put in the gifted and talented program.
Miss Shacter, my 4th-grade teacher at PS 9, was the first teacher to control my rambunctious behavior: She did it by giving me extra work. Then at PS 41, my 5th-grade teacher, Miss Lamberis, was incredibly supportive and Mr. Marasco, who I had in 6th grade, was my first memorable male teacher. Those three stand out.
One of my mother’s sisters was a cafeteria worker and a union shop steward. People then didn’t realize how hard it is to concentrate if you’re hungry. I would go to school early to eat breakfast and in all my schools my aunt’s network made sure I ate well.
Every holiday, we’d visit my mother’s oldest sister. She was the only one with a house; the rest of us lived in tenements. I asked her, “What do you do for a living?” She was a nurse.
As a child, I was in and out of hospitals after sustaining a serious burn. I got excellent care, and now I know it was mainly the nurses who were responsible. I also lived with my grandmother off and on and she had diabetes. By junior high — I attended Walt Whitman in Flatbush — I was doing her finger sticks, checking her blood sugar, giving her shots.
Early on, I knew I wanted to work in the field so I went to Clara Barton HS for Health Professions. Mrs. Brown, my nursing instructor there, had been a military nurse. When she taught me to make a bed, you could bounce a quarter off it. Thanks to her, I flew through nursing fundamentals in college.
My friend’s mother, Patricia Blackwell, a teacher at PS 45 in Bushwick, told me, “Sheldon, you have so much potential.” She was the first person to say something like that to me. I was the first of my siblings to graduate from high school so I had no concept of scholarships. But with her help, I learned about SUNY’s Educational Opportunity Program and got a full ride to Binghamton. I started as pre-med but my heart wasn’t in it, so I transferred to nursing. It’s more about human caring than curing and a better fit with my personality.
My first job was at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where I developed my interest in HIV/AIDS research and prevention. Later, I got my master’s, trained as a nurse practitioner and got my doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania, one of the country’s top nursing programs.
I taught, did research, worked on health care reform with Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski. Then I realized I needed a seat at a larger table to make the impact I wanted to make — on things like educational programs and admissions policy — so I transitioned to administration.
There were a lot of helpful people along the way but none so much as my grandmother. When I got my bachelor’s degree, I gave her my diploma. It was as much hers as mine and it hung in her home until she died. My caring spirit came from her, but I had a village of people supporting me. Not until I was older did I realize that doesn’t happen to everyone.
— as told to reporter Suzanne Popadin