Alumni Spotlight: Karl Stewart ’91

It is rare to meet someone so passionate, unique and enthralling as Karl Stewart ’91. His sense of humor and vibrant smile are difficult to capture in writing, but upon a first encounter, you can sense his enthusiasm and ardor for doing what makes him happy. As a graduate and now as an active member of the Alumni Board, Stewart embodies the traditions of this University and is a true testament to the spirit that is Colgate.

Hailing from Jamaica, Stewart was sent to live with his grandmother in the United States at the age of 15. He attended elite schools here in the U.S. and did incredibly well on his SATs, yet turned down top Ivy institutions because Colgate “just felt like home.” Fifteen years later he stands by his decision and is thankful for all of the friends, professors and classes that continue to inspire and impact him on a daily basis. A Mathematics major and a Theater minor, Stewart learned to think critically and creatively as he developed a “great balance between the structure of math and the amorphous world of theater.” Right out of college he took a job as an actuary “first for the money, then for the security and guaranteed advancement,” but quit after one year.

“I couldn’t do it; I ran!” Stewart said. “I said, ‘I gotta get outta here!'”

To the somewhat disdain of his parents, Stewart left his Wall Street post and went to work for a psychotherapist in New York City.

“This job just felt better; it was very worthwhile work,” Stewart said. “I realized I connected with what I was doing, it made sense to me and it mattered to me.”

But recalling the promise he made to himself in a class taught by William Henry Crawshaw Professor of English Margaret Mauer, he decided to quit this job and follow his real passion – acting.

“I said to myself: I’m going to follow my passion instead of the money,” Stewart said. So he dropped his desk job and headed for the stages of the city, working in public theaters and specializing in Shakespeare. He was doing exactly what he wanted, where he wanted, when his life was abruptly turned upside down.

Stewart was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1993.

“[This news] was so scary, it made me really make decisions. Seeing your life flash before you makes you push yourself in an emotional way,” Stewart said. “It was motivation to do the things that are most important to me, and I decided this meant acting. Once I was diagnosed, I knew I had no games left to play. So, I went to acting school and it was amazing.”

Stewart earned a Masters Degree in acting and proceeded to write, produce and star in a biographical one-man show titled “Innocence Lost.” It tells his story of living as a black, gay, HIV-positive man in America learning about life and love; a show Karl performed here at Colgate in 2003.

In his early stages of diagnosis, Karl’s fervor for being on stage gave him the energy and determination to live every day to the fullest, and his health steadily improved.

“It turned out I had more years to live, so I didn’t have to sign-off just yet,” Stewart remarked.

At 27 years-old, though, he understood that his acting jobs were not enough to provide financial security and stability. He turned once again to the corporate world, but this time, “I found a job that brings experiences I never would have expected,” Stewart said.

Inside the MTV Network studios in Times Square, you can find Stewart leading orientation programs for all new MTV employees.

“In a way I’m a ‘corporate actor,'” Stewart said. “This job connects acting and business, and every Monday I get to have fun and be ‘on stage’ as I lead employees through programs.”

Stewart’s high-energy persona is perfect for the fast-paced entertainment and media industry, which requires him to stay updated on daily news, events and company functions. When he’s not researching and studying in preparation for orientation programs, Stewart is earning his Masters Degree in organizational psychology at Columbia University’s Teacher College.

“I love learning,” Stewart commented. “And my job requires strategic and out-of-the-box thinking. I have to be an independent thinker, constantly thinking ahead and I need to network outside of my individual group.”

Being employed by a company in transition, Stewart has learned to frequently “reinvent” himself and find new ways to “stay in the flow of things.” He attributes such ease in adapting to new situations to his background in liberal arts education and to skills he’s learned through his theater training.

“As a human being your interests change and having a liberal arts degree gives you the flexibility to change course at any time,” Stewart said.

To help stay on track in the hustle of everyday life, Stewart says having mentors and close peers is “100 percent important.” He points to his mentors and says, “They have what I want, but how far am I willing to go to be number one?”

According to Stewart, determining your core values helps you maintain a critical sense of balance and identity, both key to gaining success in any field of work.

“Core values are things you really care about; things really important to you that won’t let you get swayed by your environment,” Stewart said. “You want to bring a core piece of yourself with you wherever you go, and carry it at all times. To find your core self you have to ask questions – often hard questions – to find what is most important.”

It is evident that Stewart has found his dominant core values, and one is definitely helping others. Whether he is facilitating advice panels at Real World 2006, passing along Colgate resumes to MTV recruiters or attending Alumni Board meetings, Karl constantly looks to better serve those around him.

“I love seeing others succeed,” Stewart said.

His advice to students looking for jobs is quite valuable, yet often overlooked by students hungry to reach the top: “Just remember whoever you step on on your way up the ladder, you’re bound to see them on the way back down,” Stewart said.

Stewart will be returning to campus on April 13 to give the keynote address at the Student Global AIDS Campaign banquet. His talk is sure to be inspiring, informative and an honor for all of us to hear. If you can, introduce yourself to Stewart and you’ll experience his positive aura and intriguing outlook on life.

You will probably appreciate very quickly how he embraces the simple joys in life and directs himself towards what means the most to him.

“I’m really happy, and that is what’s most important,” Stewart said.