Before Jamal Tate decided to be a college student, he took a diversion. He went to jail once. Then again. And finally, a third time.
“We had everybody praying—my coworkers, family members, friends, even people at the jail,” said his mother Erica Swinney, who raised Tate as a single parent. “Maybe a month after he was in jail the last time, he started talking differently. He had a more conscious awareness of black people in general and the state we are in and the choices he had made to get him where he was. I started thinking maybe he’s finally getting it.”
And he was.
“When I was in jail, I thought it was a waste of time to just do nothing. I started loving to do school work because I felt mentally bored,” said Tate, 19 and now a student at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, N.C., where he has a 3.75 GPA.
On the day of this interview, he and his mother are on their way home from church and Tate’s troubled past seems like another lifetime.
The problems began when the two moved to Charlotte from Las Vegas, where they had lived more than half his life. His new neighborhood was a little rougher than what he was used to. He wanted to fit in, so he changed in an attempt to make friends.
“The new neighborhood wasn’t the best or the worst neighborhood,” said Swinney, who works in customer service for U.S. Airways. “It was a lot of kids in a lot of apartments.”
It was the perfect storm: A new environment, mom working evenings and weekends; less of a support system and a boy who was 15 years old.
“I started experimenting with various drugs, hanging out in the 'hood with a different crowd of people,” said Tate.
“He stayed out late or overnight. He even tried to smoke weed in our household,” Swinney said.
Tate said he experimented with various drugs and sold weed. His grades fell. His behavior ruptured the bond he had with his mother.
Then he got arrested for possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia. The drug charge earned him one night in jail.
“I woke up, went to court, got an unsecured bond and went home,” he said. “To be honest, I didn’t really learn anything.”
He arrived home one day to find two police officers talking to his mom.
“They said they had a warrant and arrested me for armed robbery and second degree kidnapping.” said Tate, who was baffled by the charges.
He believes someone he had a dispute with concocted the allegations and police simply believed that person. Tate spent two weeks in jail before the charges were dismissed by a judge.
This time, Tate said, he changed “a little bit. I cut down on the hardcore drug use,” he said.
Still, the court deemed him a threat to his school population so he attended an alternative school and was under house arrest for a while.
Then he transferred to E.E. Waddell High School.
“I did better; a lot more teachers cared about me,” he said.
His grades improved. He said he stopped hanging with drug dealers, but still had friends “who did crazy stuff, fought a lot and were in gangs.”
He was a senior now. He played football and wrestled. Things were looking up even if the upward journey was slow. Then he got arrested a third time. This time the charge was breaking and entering and larceny after breaking and entering. And Tate, now 18, was charged as an adult.
In actuality, he said he was at the home of a friend who had stolen goods and when police came, they arrested everyone who was in the house. It was shortly before Christmas. He would spend the holidays and see a new year come while he was in a prison cell.
“I did two months this time,” said Tate. “This was the life-altering, changing time. I was charged as an adult and put in with adults.
“I will say one of the things that really made me think was after going to court I was talking to this man who had been convicted and was going to prison for eight years. He told me I had the chance and opportunity to change and I could control my life.”
His mom would not visit him in jail, though she talked to him by phone and showed up for his hearing. In court, the charges against Tate were dismissed.
“It was God who protected me,” he said. Although he had been arrested three times, he was never convicted of a single charge.
This time Tate changed—for real. He stopped hanging out with his old friends and talked to his mom again.
Through a program called Communities In Schools (CIS), he was able to keep up his class work. In jail, someone from CIS picked up his assignments for him and faxed them to the school. On June 13th of last year, Jamal Tate graduated from high school.
A week later he was in the Summer Bridge Program at CPCC, taking classes to help prepare him for his first fulltime semester in college. Since that time, he attributes much of his success to his mentor from the MANUP (Minority Male Mentoring) Program at the school, Armah Shiancoe, whose official title is Student Recruiter/Enrollment Specialist.
When Tate was struggling academically the first semester, earning just a 2.0 GPA, Shiancoe challenged him to sustain at least a 3.0. “I told him if he could do that his life would change in ways he won’t believe. He took the challenge has been a force. His 3.75 GPA was no surprise to me. He is a very intelligent young man.”
Tate credits Shiancoe with helping him to succeed. “I never had a father figure. I never had a steady, constant mentor before. I can talk to him man-to-man without him treating me as if he has authority over me. If I tell him I made a mistake, he says, ‘Let’s see what we can learn from this and do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.’”
The two spend time together at Shiancoe’s house watching documentaries and talking. “He’s like a little brother,” said Shiancoe. “My goal is to teach him things he won’t learn in the classroom. I’m here to be his support, his big brother, friend, whatever he needs. All I will ask is that he be the same for someone else.”
Tate has already started. He visits area high schools, telling his story, hoping to motivate students so they avoid the mistakes he has made. He has served as an officer in several on campus organizations. He has spoken before the county commissioners in support of Communities In Schools and he founded Communities In College, an on-campus organization to support the alum of CIS.
He’ll earn an Associate of Science degree at CPCC then plans to transfer to a four-year college to earn a degree in biotechnology and pharmacology His goal is to create a worldwide chain of herbal-based pharmaceutical labs.
Meanwhile, in his talks to other youths Tate often uses a quote he created: "Be careful when you hit the snooze button on life because you never know what you may wake up to."