By Kimmie Collins
Oct 9, 2020
For Chris Barlow, the solar-powered, airy hallways of the Indianapolis International Airport feel like home. He doesn’t scurry toward the terminal, dragging his suitcase behind him, hoping he doesn’t miss his flight. Instead, he hovers in the offices of the skywalk, absorbing the airport’s behind-the-scenes action, patiently waiting for the day that people scurry to the plane he is about to ease off the runway.
Barlow, an Indiana State University senior, has dreamt about flying for as long as he can remember. His father, a retired Army Blackhawk medevac pilot, took Barlow for a flight in an airplane and in a helicopter when he was around six years old. When the aircraft landed, Barlow didn’t want to get off. “I was in the cockpit, touching everything, making things make sounds,” he grinned. “I started crying when it was time to get off. Ever since that day, this has been what I wanted to do.”
From developing a mentorship on campus to an internship with the Indianapolis Airport Authority, every action Barlow has taken in his collegiate experiences has led him closer to his destination. The aviation management and unmanned systems double major soared to new heights with the help of the Charles E. Brown African-American Cultural Center (AACC). “If it weren’t for the African-American Cultural Center, I probably wouldn’t even be here,” he admitted. “I’ve had some great mentors, and they’ve given me opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise had.”
Barlow’s freshman advisor and former interim director of the AACC, Sumalayo Jackson, steered Barlow toward B.O.M.B. – Black Optimistic Men and Brothers – and his first interaction with the AACC. He was greeted warmly by the students in the building. “They were like, ‘Black men of Indiana State – we’re all a team,’” he remembered, and accepted their invitation into the organization. Together, the men of B.O.M.B. served at the 14th and Chestnut Community Center, providing positive role models and mentors for local teenagers.
“I wanted to get more in-depth into Black organizations and taking a little more action,” Barlow explained. “When I was in high school and when I came to college, I always wanted to be a little more involved with the Black Lives Matter movement.”
He dove into one organization after another, including Black Student Union. “We’re promoting not just the dialogue, not just the movement, but initiatives about how we can succeed at our institution,” Barlow explained. “Anybody can be a part of the issue to promote Black or minority organizations on campus in order to better ourselves, to create higher standards for ourselves, and to promote community outreach as well.”
Barlow was drawn to Black Student Union because, in addition to the community it fosters, it provides Sycamores a place to be heard. “Town hall meetings give anybody and everybody the opportunity to come out and speak about anything that they feel that has been going on campus that isn’t right,” he said. “Sometimes there’s an official from the university. I really enjoy that they actually come and they actually see that Black Student Union is like one body. There’s not really anything that separates us. I like when we do those town hall meetings because we have a voice and it represents that they are listening to us, that they take time to come out.”
Learning from others and improving the world around him became a key motivator for Barlow. Following in the footsteps of beloved family members, Barlow sought out a brotherhood and found the Alpha Zeta chapter of the historically Black fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi, where his professional growth began to take flight. The fraternity, chartered at Indiana State in 1928, set high expectations for its members, and Barlow was determined to make his brothers proud, first as intake chairman and now as vice-polemarch. “Even that ‘small’ position [of intake chairman] showed me that you really have to work with time management and building yourself,” he remarked. “The leadership skills that I took from that small little role I just applied to my everyday life. I just want to grow and do the most that I can in the little time that I’m here so I can prosper when I get out of college.”
Once the doors of the AACC were opened for Barlow through his fraternity and his other organizations, he wanted to prop the doors of opportunity open for others to enter as well. He serves as a mentor for ISUcceed, a program through the AACC designed to ease the transition from high school to college for incoming students. Barlow meets with his mentees on a bi-weekly basis, providing them with tips to enhance their performances in the classroom. “Mentoring, to me, means assisting someone to bring out their full potential,” he said. “You’re giving information that someone gave you to your mentees so that they can succeed as well.”
Barlow is well-acquainted with the wisdom granted by a mentor. At the recommendation of his fraternity brothers, he joined the AACC’s Mentoring Assistance for Prospective Scholars (MAPS) program, where he connected with a mentor of his own. The program helped Barlow establish a relationship with instructor Christopher Colbert, and in exchange for his mentorship, Barlow served as an assistant to Colbert. “He gave me the power to keep going, to know that whatever I’m doing, it’ll come,” Barlow said. “He gave me the truth about how the industry works and how I can better myself each and every day and get closer to my dream.”
“We’re always learning, regardless of where you are in life,” Barlow observed. “It doesn’t matter your tax bracket, what you’re doing in your career field, or how old you are. You always need a mentor. My mentor is always teaching me things, and there is endless room to grow.”
With the help of another mentor, Frank Manderino, Barlow landed his dream internship with the Indianapolis Airport Authority, where he learned the ins and outs of managing an airport. From human resources to marketing to finance, Barlow saw a side of the airport passengers never get to see. The most valuable part of the experience for him, though, was finding another role model. “My favorite part was watching the executive director run the airport on such a smooth level. It was something I really needed to see,” Barlow reflected.
Although grateful for everything he learned from the internship, Barlow doesn’t want to be confined to an office long-term. “I want to fly because I want to be different,” he said. “The percentage of minorities in aviation is really low.”
“We need to stop racial injustices,” he said. “Since everything’s been going on in the news and stuff, I wish the world were better. I wish the world would take heed and just give everybody an equal opportunity, stop racial injustices, and move forward as best as we know how. We’re not going to progress as a country and we’re not going to progress as people if we don’t move on.”
“There’s not enough Black men and women in the field,” he said. “My adversity has helped me push through, be another light that shines.”
Barlow’s light will continue to shine and to inspire others as the Sycamore takes off in pursuit of his dream. “Flying is a feeling that is unexplainable,” he beamed. “It’s you, endless air, and God’s creations. Flying is something so unique because a mile of road can take you one mile, but a mile of runway can take you anywhere. I feel so at peace in the sky, and it’s a blessing to be able to fulfill the dream that I have had since I was six.”