Michael Long is a whirling dervish who travels from class to class on the campus of New College in Sarasota, as well as from meeting to meeting, activity to activity around Florida.
To call him high-achieving is like calling Albert Einstein sort of smart.
The 20-year-old college sophomore is both president and president-elect of the New College
student body and captain of the school’s sailing team. He has his own sail boat, a 30-foot, 1976 Santana that he obtained in a trade for his first car.
He arranges all team practices and coordinates regatta competitions around the Eastern seaboard, including a recent trip to nationals.
He's also a recent graduate of College Leadership Florida
, a junior version of Leadership Florida; chairman of the 330,000-member Florida Student Association
and the student representative -- the only one and the youngest ever -- of the Florida Board of Governors
, which oversees the state university system.
Meeting him today, it's hard to imagine that he came from a hardscrabble background that could have led him in a different direction entirely if it weren't for AMI Kids.
Giving Back To AMI Kids
He credits AMI Kids
with helping him turn his life around for the better and shows his appreciation by giving back to the national nonprofit agency based in Tampa that works with troubled kids by volunteering, speaking on the agency's behalf around the state and assisting the administration in any way he can.
He's come a long way, indeed. So in many ways it's no surprise that he became a media darling on Nov. 9 for his public confrontation with one of the state’s most powerful politicians, state Sen. J.D. Alexander
, R-Lake Wales. Long was attending a Board meeting and up to his blue eyes in the turbulent waters of Florida’s higher-education politics.
First came television interviews the night of the Florida Board of Governors meeting in Boca Raton.
The next day it was a mention in a St. Petersburg Times editorial. Then a story
in the Times and a column
, as well. Then letters to the editor from new-found fans who say they would vote for him if he ran for office.
The reason for all the attention? Alexander has been pushing hard -- some say strong-arming folks -- to turn the University of South Florida’s Lakeland campus into a stand-alone school, USF Polytechnic
Critics of the Alexander’s plan are numerous and cross the spectrum from USF President Judy Genshaft
to faculty members, students and community leaders.
Long did his due diligence before the meeting. He had conversations with people around the state who oppose the measure. He even spent a tense few minutes with Alexander during which he says Alexander, who is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, implied that in the past when things didn’t go his way, money for other universities was impacted.
But at the meeting, the only member of the board of governors in attendance who publicly defied Alexander was Long.
He was the David, as the St. Petersburg Times called him, to Alexander’s Goliath.
Leaving Juvenile Deliquency Behind
The week before the meeting, 83 Degrees Media
interviewed him about his AMI Kids connection. He was an engaging college student, not a brash challenger of power. Physically fit, comfortable in shorts, a T-shirt and sandals, he blushes easily and seems uncomfortable talking about himself or fielding compliments, although he understands why people keep asking questions and tossing kudos his way.
Long’s journey to the heady circles in which he now travels began with trouble at Sarasota's Riverview High School.
"I guess I was the leader of the bad kids,'' says Long, who after two years of acting out was adjudicated to the Sarasota Campus of AMI Kids, a nonprofit organization that operates 50 sites in 10 states around the country for juvenile offenders.
Long says it took him only two weeks at AMI to realize a life of dysfunction and incarceration wasn’t for him. He credits the program with teaching him the skills to lead a productive life.
He was forced to look honestly at his peers and accept that he was like them and that the world viewed him as a juvenile delinquent with sloppy blond dreadlocks, an arrogant smile and glassy eyes.
"I was there for committing crimes and hurting other people, and AMI Kids helped create a mirror of sorts that let me see into myself and identify the things I needed to change,'' he says.
Long finished the four-month program at AMI full of resolve. To get away from the bad influences in Sarasota, where he lived with his mom, he went to live with his father in Myakka City and enrolled at Lakewood Ranch High
He had another epiphany there: His grades at Riverview would drag down the good work he would do at the new school.
So he ended up taking advance placement and honors courses as a junior and senior and concurrently retaking his freshman and sophomore years. As a senior, he was dually enrolled in high school and college.
Oh, he also worked fulltime and part-time.
Finding The Right Environment
"Michael is special,'' says O.B. Stander, president and CEO of AMI Kids. "He is extremely intelligent, self-confident, has unlimited energy and is driven to make a positive impact on this world.''
To that end, Long knew he wanted to go to college, but he didn’t want to go to a school where the primary focus was parties.
"I actually wanted to leave Sarasota to find something that was different and offered me that environment, and I still find it quite ironic that I found it in my own back yard.''
What he hasn’t found is the answer to the question that he’s been asked multiple times in multiple ways.
What is the secret ingredient in his amazing transformation?
Emotional intelligence, self-awareness, the ability to look into the future?
He’s thought about that a lot, he says. He’d love to know for himself and so he could share the secret with other kids who can’t find their way to the right path.
But he says he really has no idea. That’s another task he says he needs to work on.
What’s he going to do with the rest of his life?
He’s very interested in fisheries and environmental awareness and he has a growing interest in politics.
"Maybe I can find a combination of both.''
As for the ongoing interest in him by the media, he says he’s surprised it’s still going on.
Judy Hill, an experienced writer and former columnist for The Tampa Tribune, lives in St. Petersburg where she enjoys nothing more than doting over her grandchildren. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.