Jan. 9 2013 12:00 AM

At 50, MSU grad Rose Cooper brings hope to slackers everywhere


Inspiration can be a drag. Take the guilt-inducing paragons who taunt us on the interstate: “Climbed Everest. Blind.” Desmond Tutu, Steve Jobs, Jackie Robinson. Sure, we can relate.

Thank God, millions of mortal screw-ups have Lansing’s Rose Jangmi Cooper, the singing motorcycle dreadlock woman, to look up to.

On Dec. 15, 30 years after her first stab at college, Cooper graduated from MSU with her first degree, in the Korean language. She spoke to grads at the winter commencement and took MSU President Lou Anna Simon for a spin on her Harley for a victory lap.

“What you see standing before you is a failure,” Cooper announced on the podium.

Her simple story — she kept on screwing things up and blowing things off until she stopped — is striking a chord with a lot of people. The MSU speech, the chopper ride with Simon and a poetry reading at TedxLansing last year are spreading her fame via YouTube. People are collaring her every day to tell her how inspiring she is. She’s proud but a little abashed. 

“I’m an ordinary woman living an extraordinary life,” she said. “A lot of people think, ‘She never gave up.’ Not true. For a while I did give up.”

Cooper got a big smile from an MSU staffer while scheduling her commencement speech last month. Recent addresses on campus from the likes of Bishop Tutu and Magic Johnson “made her feel bad and stupid because she couldn’t be that great,” Cooper said. “I have the Everyman story.”

Cooper was the first person in her family to make it to college, but MSU was a culture shock for her in 1982. Rose and her seven sisters grew up poor, in the northwest corner of Detroit, raised by a single mom. She showed a lot of promise in school, especially in math and science, and family expectations weighed her down.

“I went to college for all the wrong reasons,” she said. “ I didn’t have a focus, no structure, no guidance. I changed majors depending on the time of year.”

Love was a big distraction. She hunkered down in northwest Lansing with her boyfriend, Michael Cooper (now her husband of 26 years) and didn’t make it to class much. When her GPA sunk below 1.9, she was kicked out of MSU in summer 1984. She didn’t tell her parents about the expulsion until last month’s graduation ceremony. (They thought she left because she was bored.)

After a four-month stint at the Okemos Taco Bell, Cooper came back to campus as a full-time secretary. She returned to classes part time in 1988, but still didn’t get it right. She copied her major, criminal justice, from a friend. Going back into the classroom felt like returning to a crime scene.

“I started having horrible, horrible anxiety attacks from feeling I was going to fail again,” she said. “It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.” In summer 1990, she pulled out again, “on my own terms, before they could kick me out.”

She began to think that school wasn’t for her. She moved up to a tech job at the computer center, kept busy raising two sons, and co-wrote a book, “Three Black Chicks Review Flicks,” with co-contributors from New Orleans and Seattle. 

“I’m not ashamed of it, but it was heavily edited toward being a ‘black’ book, very sassy, and most of it is not even in my voice,” she said. “If nothing else, it let me buy a motorcycle and go to Tahiti.”

Every autumn, she fell into a funk. It took her a couple of years to realize she was feeling the tug of school, and of unfinished business.

In 1999, Cooper’s oldest son, Jumbe, now 33, was stationed in Korea. Rose and Michael came to visit. “The second I got off the plane, I fell in love with Korea,” Cooper said. “It was one of those epiphanies.”

Mother and son visited a fish market in a remote area where most Koreans didn’t know English. To Rose’s surprise, Jumbe didn’t know how to ask for fish. On a whim, she casually boasted that the next time they got together, she would speak better Korean than he did.

“That critical moment changed everything,” she said. Less than two weeks later, she was enrolled in Korean 101 at MSU.

This time, she stuck with the program. What made the difference? “It was totally me,” she said. “I didn’t do it because I was embarrassed, or somebody wanted me to.”

She loves to tell chronic screw-ups, with authority, never to say “never.” 

“I wasn’t ready for 20 years,” she said. “I had to bake.”

With classes in hand, long-dormant aspirations began to bubble up. She won third place in an MSU poetry contest. Friends urged her to perform at TedX Lansing in 2011, where she wept through a bittersweet poem about liberation: “Some of us finally escaped limbo/Some of us learned to smile for our own damn selves.”

She got used to stepping way out of her comfort zone, swapping her black Baptist upbringing for membership in a Korean Presbyterian church. In April 2011, she entered the fourth annual Gayoje, a Korean singing contest, and won it with a tear-jerker called “Bogo Sipda” (“I Miss You”). “K-Pop is great for kids, but I like ballads,” she shrugged.

“Whenever somebody tells me, ‘Black people don’t do that,’ I want to do it more,” she said. “‘Black people don’t skydive.’ Well, I was up in the air and I came down. Black people skydive, at least that day.”

The experience of being Rose Cooper reached a surreal peak on Nov. 15 when President Simon charged out of the Administration Building in a helmet, gave Cooper a hug and jumped on her bike. On the road, they sang the MSU fight song, which Cooper had only recently learned. Simon was reluctant to sing, but everyone sings when they ride on Rose Cooper’s bike.

“My bike, my rules,” Cooper told Simon.

With all of this recent attention, Cooper is more worried about overexposure than exploitation. But exploitation can work two ways. Last year, Cooper learned that a former co-worker at the Computer Center, a student, committed suicide because he felt he was screwing up at school. That’s the kind of person Cooper wants to reach. She hopes her next job at MSU will be an academic adviser, helping non-traditional students like herself. In the meantime, a podium at commencement and a ride with the president aren’t bad platforms.

“I’m sincere, and I’m doing this on my own terms,” she said. “Whether I’m being exploited, or I’m exploiting my situation, there are a lot worse things to exploit.”

That leaves only one drawback to Cooper’s growing fame.

“Now I can’t do dirt in this town,” she said. “If I ever stole from somebody or hit somebody, there is no way I could get away with it.”