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Orlando Sentinel article on Sunday January 9, 2010

 

From Orange to UF to Afghanistan and back: Jamal Sowell will return to Gainesville as school president's assistant
He starts a job Monday at his alma mater as the executive assistant to University of Florida President Bernie Machen.

 

Several times during the course of 1st Lt. Jamal Sowell's seven-month tour in Afghanistan's notoriously unwelcoming Helmand Province, he was asked the same question: "Are you Obama?"

 

The Marine from Pine Hills would smile and shake his head.

 

It was a good ice-breaker with the Afghan locals, but the similarities may be a stretch — for now — for Sowell, 28, who will start a new job Monday at his alma mater as the executive assistant to University of Florida President Bernie Machen.

Friends, family, former teachers and fellow students, however, all speak of Sowell's leadership, including mentoring, turning rivalries into friendships and an ability to inspire confidence.

 

After serving as class president at his private west Orange County high school, in 2004 Sowell went on to be the fourth black student-body president in UF's history. As an officer in the Marine Corps, he helped coordinate counterinsurgency measures in Afghanistan. As Machen's assistant, Sowell will work with the board of trustees on activities, requests and projects and learn firsthand how an enormous university is run.

 

Sowell would be the first to admit that leadership didn't come naturally to him. He was the youngest of three boys and a girl growing up in Pine Hills, in a two-story house behind Hiawassee Elementary School. At Dr. Phillips High School, he was a shy, self-described nerd who suffered occasional bullying. Things changed dramatically his senior year when he transferred to a private Christian school in Ocoee, West Oaks Academy. He went from a school with a couple of thousand students to one with a couple of dozen.

"Going to that small private school allowed me to come out of my shell," Sowell recalled. For the first time, he participated in discussions in English class, and he became a star on the basketball team. He struggled with public speaking, so he took elocution classes to be a better communicator. After less than a year, he was voted class president.

 

Once at UF, Sowell discovered that his new skills could also be applied at a school with about 48,000 undergraduates. Through his religion major, he became interested in Judaism and befriended people outside his social circle at UF's Hillel, a Jewish organization on many college campuses. He joined a fraternity and connected with other students through classes and church.

 

State Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, a longtime family friend and Sowell's godmother, recently witnessed the transformation when Sowell accompanied her to Florida Gov. Rick Scott's inauguration. Sowell attended a prayer breakfast with Thompson and afterward, she watched as he effusively greeted people while also acting as part-escort, part-media relations man.

 

"To look at the difference now, he's so gregarious."

Military service is expected in the Sowell family. Jamal's grandfather fought overseas during World War II, one of thousands of African-American soldiers in segregated combat units. His father served in Vietnam, and decades later Sowell's older brother fought in Iraq during the early stages of the invasion.

 

Sowell's decision to enlist in 2006 was influenced by a friend at UF who chose to fight for the Israeli Defense Forces, despite being exempt from his home country's compulsory military service. Sowell was impressed by his friend's commitment to his country and decided to follow suit for his own.

 

As part of the Marine Corps' Third Low Altitude Air Defense Battalion, Sowell left for Afghanistan on Feb. 17. He won a service award for helping to coordinate and plan counterinsurgency operations with the Afghan National Army and a host of nationalities: Danes, Bahrainis, Brits. He returned from Afghanistan in the fall and shifts into reserve duty Feb 1.

 

Sgt. Desni Davis of Houston, 24, who served under Sowell in Afghanistan, said he was impressed by his unflappability in wartime.

 

"A lot of things that you do in a training environment and a combat environment are very repetitive. When things keep repeating themselves, we're tired, and everyone's hungry. We knew he was tired, we knew he was hungry. We knew he was cold and everything, but he never showed it."

During his downtime, Sowell read memoirs and biographies about men who led unique lives, including Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American member of the U.S. Supreme Court. He recalls carrying around "Breaking with Moscow," the firsthand account by the highest-ranking Soviet defector to the U.S., Arkady N. Shevchenko.

 

The Gainesville university that made so much of Sowell — and the site of his next endeavor — wasn't his first choice for college. He had his eye on West Point or Morehouse. But his mother, Lutricia, who died in 2006 from lung and kidney complications, essentially ordered him to go where his brother had gone, just as she had insisted he take saxophone, tap dance and ballet lessons as a kid.

 

Fred Leonhardt, the politically connected Orlando attorney and Republican fundraiser, became Sowell's mentor at a UF program for student government leaders. He called Sowell one of "the more promising and exciting leaders that I've had the privilege of working with" in 15 years of mentoring.

 

Asked about Sowell's future potential, Leonhardt took the long view.

 

"I view the UF position he's taking as an interlude," he said. "He's a rock star. ... We will see him in some higher position."

http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/local/orange/os-jamal-sowell-marine-20110108,0,6868736.story

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