It’s graduation season and time to salute students moving on to another phase of life.
Over the years, I can’t even count how many commencement ceremonies I’ve participated in. The idea, of course, is to provide words of encouragement and even to give the students what’s called a charge — a responsibility, a duty or an obligation to carry out. Well, this year, I’m the one who had something to learn from three very special graduates.
Our first recipient of the Tom Joyner Full-Ride Scholar Award, Britney Wilson, graduated last week from Howard University in D.C. The English major is heading to law school with a 4.0 grade point average. Britney describes herself as black, female and disabled — and she hasn’t let either of those three labels hold her back. In fact, she says, “You have to know that you can do anything you can put your mind to.”
There are so many excuses for not being successful, and people like Britney prove that if there’s a will, there’s a way. She didn’t accept an all-expenses-paid, four-year-college education and do the minimum to get by. In fact, she went beyond what many might have done in her position. Born with cerebral palsy, Britney walks assisted with arm braces and sometimes travelled around campus in a Hoveround. She had every reason in the world to miss class. If you’ve ever been on Howard’s campus, you know that it’s not easy to get around if you’re without physical challenges, so imagine how difficult it had to be at times for Britney. Not only was she a stellar student; she was president of the English society, a columnist for the campus newspaper and an advocate for the school’s physically challenged. She let her creative side shine through as a writer and poet and even was featured on the HBO series “Russell Simmons Presents: Brave New Voices.”
When Britney was chosen as a full-ride scholarship winner, we had no idea that she would make us as proud as she did. She has set the bar, not just for other students, but for everyone, including me. We should never allow our circumstances to define us or our abilities. We should wake up every morning not worrying about what we can’t do, but dreaming of new ways to accomplish what we can do.
My grand-daughter Griffen walked across the kindergarten stage this month and is on her way to first grade. She has her whole life in front of her, and we do too, no matter what age we are. Already, she works hard and plays harder. Her mind is wide open to new things, and she meets every challenge with enthusiasm. If we all approached life like Griffen does, we’d be better parents, employees, spouses, bosses, church members, etc. We should look at every day as an adventure and take it on with all we’ve got.
And finally, I may have learned the most from Genarlow Wilson. This young man, as a teen, met with a major obstacle that could have sent his life spiraling downward. Instead, he accepted an opportunity afforded to him by our foundation, and more specifically, my son Thomas Jr., president of the Tom Joyner Foundation. Thomas Jr. worked hard to find a college willing to give Genarlow a second chance, and when he was finally accepted to Morehouse University, my son walked him through the entire process.
Genarlow was hoping to get his diploma last week, and I was excited and proud to be one of the speakers at the commencement ceremony. But, as life would have it, personal and academic challenges arose. Like thousands of other college seniors, Genarlow was short of the number of credits necessary to graduate with his class. And like the Morehouse Man that institution groomed him to become, he accepted the responsibility for his setback.
Even though he was disappointed, Genarlow has vowed to do what it takes to finish his courses and be part of next year’s graduating class. He says he wouldn’t dream of throwing away his opportunity to become a college graduate because of the speed bump that has slowed him down. He says he’ll keep moving forward because he, more than most, understands that second chances don’t come around that often. I know he’ll make it, and I’ll be there at Morehouse next year cheering when he finally gets that diploma. Like Genarlow, I get all too well how much sweeter a victory is when you’ve really had to work hard for it.
If you have an opportunity to offer a second chance to someone in your school, on your job or in your life, do it. It’s the best gift you can give. And it’s recyclable, too!