He had no passport, no birth certificate and no way of getting to the Dominican Republic.

But when Elon University Physical Plant employee Anthony Totten arrived to work one chilly morning in January, he received a life-changing call. With less than six hours until his flight was scheduled to depart, the university informed him it had procured a travel document in the nick of time. 

“All these things that happen are supposed to happen,” Totten said. “If they don’t, God is a lie.”

Finding a rare opportunity

Totten gets out of bed at 4 a.m. and makes the 30-minute commute to Elon each morning, arriving well ahead of his co-workers. While meandering through campus during his 5 a.m. cleanup route, he often sees the worst of students.

“I was looking at all students the same, and that was wrong of me,” Totten said.

He has cleaned up vomit, witnessed drunk couples fighting and picked up countless shattered glass bottles. But his dedication to his job for more than two decades and his willingness to do the dirty work around campus landed him the 2008 Physical Plant Staff Member of the Year award.

In 2014, Elon’s Staff Advisory Council compiled a list a previous award recipients in the administrative, office support and physical plant staff categories for the opportunity to travel on one of the Winter Term study abroad trips. Once that list was complete, the council pulled names out of a hat — one of those was Totten.

Woody Pelton, dean of global education, helped launch the initiative and coordinate details with the Staff Advisory Council. 

“There had been a discussion for a number of years on campus about how we might be able to get more staff people to go abroad,” Pelton said. “Working with the staff council and with the provost’s office, we came up with a model where we could get three staff members to join three different programs that we send out in January.”

Totten was thrilled the moment he was invited to go to the “Dominican Republic: Baseball and the Tourism Industry” Winter Term study abroad course. But problems quickly emerged as Pelton and the Global Education Center worked to get him a passport.

Securing travel documents

Totten was born at home in rural South Carolina, so he never had a birth certificate. This forced Emma Burress, then assistant director of study abroad, to make several phone calls in an effort to obtain a travel document. 

“As a result of his divorce process, he needed a birth certificate,” Burress said. “He got what was a birth certificate card from the South Carolina government, but it was obviously issued way down in his life. And when we went to try and procure a passport for him, that wasn’t considered proof of American citizenship enough for the state department.”

After much struggle, Pelton and Burress learned Totten’s family in South Carolina still had a family Bible with every member of the family’s date of birth written in it. One of Totten’s relatives emailed Pelton a blurry photo with Totten’s date of birth and signature.

More work needed to be done.

Realizing a photo would probably not be a valid form of identification for an airline, Pelton worked with Elon University President Leo Lambert to vouch for Totten’s character. Lambert and Pelton submitted two affidavits stating they knew him Totten well and that he was a responsible United States citizen.

“What we were trying to do was give staff members the opportunity to access this kind of experience,” Burress said. “Anthony wasn’t the kind of person who could access it by himself, so we had to do everything we could.”

Taking flight

Between proof of South Carolina citizenship, a photo from a family Bible and two affidavits, Totten was still not granted a passport. Instead, he was given a one-year travel document.

But anxiety emerged after the travel document was issued the same week as the flight to the Dominican Republic.

If all went according to plan, the document would arrive the day of the flight via FedEx overnight shipping.

“We had it delivered to my house because my wife was able to be at home and just call me when it came,” Pelton said. “We were confident that my wife would get it to me quicker than if it came to the university.”

When the package arrived in the morning, the flight was just a few hours away from its scheduled departure.

Mark Cryan, assistant professor in sport and event management and faculty adviser on the trip, picked up the travel document from Pelton’s house and told Totten to meet him at Physical Plant. 

Totten gathered his belongings, and along with Cryan, made the hour-long drive to Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

As Cryan walked through airport security, he noticed Totten standing close alongside him.

“He didn’t initially know what to expect,” Cryan said. “I think it was a little overwhelming for him.”

It was his first trip on a plane. The airport security was intimidating. Totten was in an unfamiliar world.

Junior Alex Simon, sports editor at The Pendulum and a participant in the study abroad course, noticed a nervous Totten upon arrival. 

“He was a shy guy and didn’t want to take away from anybody’s trip,” Simon said. “He didn’t necessarily seem like he was included. He just felt like he was coming along for the ride.”

After word reached campus that Totten had arrived safely in the Dominican Republic, a temporary sense of relief swept through the Global Education Center.

“We were sort of thinking, ‘Well, this worked, and we got him out the door. I hope it ends up being successful because he has never traveled before,’” Pelton said. “You kind of keep your fingers crossed that this all works smoothly for Anthony.”

Being an undercover Dominican

Because of the color of his skin and his casual attire, Totten often got mistaken as a native of the country. There was a running joke between Totten and the students that he was secretly an undercover Dominican. 

In one of Totten’s early experiences in the Dominican Republic, a couple of kids seeking spare change walked up to him asking if they could shine his tennis shoes. Though Totten wanted to tell the kids ‘no’ — Totten seldom carried any money on hand — he could not speak a lick of Spanish.

The kids shined the shoes.

As the trip progressed and the frequency of mistaken identity increased, Cryan and Simon taught Totten how to inform natives he did not speak Spanish.

“It got to be a big running joke within the study abroad group that Anthony was a native of the country,” Simon said. “It happened so many times, often once or twice a day without fail.”

Totten’s reserved personality quickly transformed as he grew more comfortable speaking with the students.

“What surprised me was those students,” Totten said. “They were wonderful to me.”

Cryan said one of the most memorable moments of the trip occurred when he and his class came across a parade honoring former Boston Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez.

A day or two after Martinez has elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Martinez paraded through the city of Santiago, waving to his fans through the sunroof of a gold Hummer. That parade coincided with the Elon Winter Term class’s visit to the city.

“We go over to the side of the street so we could get closer to where the motorcade is,” Cryan said. “The motorcade was moving very slowly. But when our group was there, security guards saw some Red Sox hats and a bunch of Americans. They literally stopped the parade.”

Security personnel waved in Cryan’s class, and students began chatting with Martinez for couple of minutes, requesting autographs.

“At some point in the middle of the motorcade, I had a Dominican police officer tap me on the shoulder, and I thought he was telling me to get out of the way,” Cryan said. “He was in fact stopping me to let me know through pantomime that if I wanted to go over there, he would take my picture.”

Without hesitation, Cryan accepted the offer. But before Cryan could walk past security with Totten at his side, he noticed a guard’s hand reach out to stop Totten from passing through.

“The security guard’s arm goes out and they stop Anthony,” Cryan said. “They say ‘He’s Dominican. He’s not part of this group.’ So he was mistaken for Dominican. I said, ‘No, no. Americano con nosotros. He’s with us!’ And they say, ‘Oh, oh. OK.’ So then they waved him through.”

Cryan believes the incident speaks volumes to how privileged U.S. visitors are treated and how much of a cultural shock it was for Totten to experience what it was like being a Dominican.

It also showed the mutual concern Totten, Cryan and the students had for each other’s well-being.

Forming lasting relationships

“Alex Simon got a phone call that he lost a very close friend,” Totten said. “When some people get really depressed, they think about committing suicide. I only could tell him my testimonies.” 

Simon, who has depression, needed someone to comfort him. Totten feeling as though he had a calling from God to provide help decided to sit down with the student for lunch to talk about life.

“Some people don’t take the time to listen to others,” Totten said. “That minute could make a world of difference.”

Simon and Totten talked for two hours, discussing a wide range of topics including faith, spirituality and overcoming obstacles.

Totten shared some of the challenges life has thrown his way.

He was divorced by a woman who loved him only for his money. He seldom saw his six children. He was jailed twice for driving under the influence.

One of the biggest obstacles he faced occurred when he was the first African-American in his hometown to go to an all-white school in 1969. Totten often was picked on and bullied by the other kids, and forced himself not to engage in fights.

But one day changed everything.

When Totten was in the third or fourth grade, he got hurt on the playground. Another student saw what had happened, picked Totten up and carried him to the principal’s office to make sure he was looked after.

This was the first time someone at school stood up for him. It showed him that light can be found in the darkest of situations.

“There’s a good and a bad in every person,” Totten said. “We all need to get along and try to make this world a better place.”

Simon said his lunch with Totten helped him gain a greater appreciation for life.

“It made a huge difference,” Simon said. “It actually is something I look at as being a big part of what helped me to be where I am today and really get me back on a track that I’m proud to be back on. I’m forever indebted to Anthony whether he knows it or not.”

Returning to Elon

Totten returned to campus with a newfound appreciation for students.

He talks with Simon whenever he sees him and is more talkative to the student body as a whole. But that open communication is not often reciprocated.

At 7:55 a.m. on a Friday morning, Totten is sitting inside a golf cart roaming from garbage can to garbage can. As he waits for students to pass by, he notices none of them looking at him. A student glances up momentarily in Totten’s direction but quickly diverts his attention back to the brick walkway.

Like a fish inside an aquarium, Totten describes himself as seen yet unnoticed.

A man who has overcome so much adversity and has so much experience he’s dying to share with others rests in the middle of a walkway just waiting for someone approach him. Totten says a simple hello, but the students do not engage.

“Some people don’t take the time to listen to others,” Totten said. “That minute could make a world of difference.”