Shirley Chisholm is recognized for being the first African American woman to be elected to Congress, as well as the first African American woman to campaign for the United States presidency. Born in Brooklyn, Chisholm began her career as a teacher and education consultant for New York City’s day-care division. In 1964, Chisholm entered the political arena when she was elected to the New York State Legislature. Four years later, she was elected to Congress, where she gained a reputation as a trailblazer for minorities in politics.

During her time in Washington, the distinguished congresswoman led expansion of food and nutrition programs for the poor and rose to party leadership. Admirers and foes alike dubbed her the "Pepperpot" because of her fondness for saying, "I breathe fire." In 1983, Chisholm retired from Congress and taught at Mount Holyoke College, while continuing her political organizing. In 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated Chisholm as the U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica, but the woman who had broken so many barriers declined due to her ill health. In 2015, Chisholm was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was also recognized by the U.S. Postal Service with the Shirley Chisholm Forever Stamp in 2014.

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Convinced that her vocation would be in early childhood education, Chisholm enrolled in the graduate program at Columbia University’s Teacher's College. Known for her work ethic, Chisholm worked at a day-care center during the day, attended night classes at Columbia, and then took the long subway ride home back to Brooklyn. Weekends were devoted to studying, for she was extraordinarily conscientious about her studies, and most of her free time was spent in the library or participating in a myriad of campus and extracurricular activities. The fruits of her efforts soon materialized and in 1951 Chisholm received her Master of Arts degree in elementary education from the Teachers College of Columbia University.

During her life, Chisholm always enjoyed a positive relationship with her alma mater.  In 1972 she returned to campus as a U.S. Representative in order to deliver her talk: "The Individual and His Environment: Implications for Education." A couple years later she was back at Columbia to discuss politics and race. "Much of the racism in the United States is caused because blacks and whites do not know each other," she explained, supported by loud applause and shouts of encouragement from a capacity crowd of about 150 in Columbia's Lehman Auditorium.

Since those days, Chisholm has been honored by her school at least twice. In 1985, she received a Distinguished Alumni Award from Teachers College. Even more, Columbia now offers The Shirley Chisholm Dissertation Award. Named after the history-making woman, the university award recognizes a scholar whose dissertation deepens understanding of the value and contributions of people of color in advancing the aims of democracy through racial and gender equality, immigrant rights, and access to improved education and healthcare in the United States.