By Tammi Sutton, Executive Director, KIPP Gaston
Two weeks ago I was able to attend Myles Nicholson’s graduation from Morehouse College with Myles’ mother, grandparents, and sisters (Kayla Jackson – Pride of 2015*, Maya Jackson – Pride of 2018 and Randi Jackson – Pride of 2020).
Remove the pouring rain, our drenched clothing and the thunder and rain that punctuated President Obama’s commencement speech, and the Morehouse graduation was still unlike any other. The beautiful way in which a rich history and legacy of tradition is interwoven with a charge for social change makes a Morehouse graduation one that I wish everyone could witness.
Seeing 500 African-American men earn their college degrees in a city that had such a powerful role in the Civil Rights Movement is indescribable. I felt so honored to sit between Myles’ grandmother and mother and feel their immense pride and joy as Myles Nicholson graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in Computer Science. Understanding that almost 25 years ago Ms. Jackson was forced to leave Spelman after a successful freshman year of college because of financial constraints and knowing the tremendous sacrifices and life choices she has made so that her children would be able to earn their college degrees is such a testament to the power of a high-quality education.
Being able to witness a mother’s dream deferred to become her son’s reality is what all of this work is about. Myles, now a Morehouse Man, will continue his education as he pursues his PhD at Ohio State (after spending the summer working at KIPP Gaston), continue to follow his passions, and continue his mother’s strong legacy of strength, commitment and purpose.
Before Morehouse, I was able to travel to the University of Pennsylvania to attend Chevon Boone and Katrese Hale’s graduation.
Sitting in the Franklin Field with Vice President Biden and Denzel Washington (his son was graduating); I was most amazed by Brooke, Chevon’s eight-month-old niece. Stancheka, Brooke’s mother and Chevon’s sister, was a student in my first class at Gaston Middle School 16 years ago. Chevon has three more siblings – all of whom I have now worked with – either at Gaston Middle School or on our campus at KIPP. Holding Brooke during Chevon’s graduation, it was so crystal clear the generational, transformational change that a high-quality education is causing in the Boone family (and so many of our families).
The first three Boones have now graduated from college: North Carolina A&T State University, Morehouse College and now Chevon with a degree from Penn. Ebony and Shannon, her younger sisters, will soon follow. For all five kids who struggled growing up in a single wide trailer in rural North Carolina, their lives and the lives of their children, starting with Brooke will be so different.
Walking around Penn with Chevon, I was struck over and over by the ways she has left a mark on her campus – whether it be with the dozens of younger students who found her to say thanks for being such a powerful mentor or the fact that she knew the cafeteria workers and security guards by name and stopped to thank them and hug them for adding such value to her four years. Two of the guards asked me to take a photo of them with Chevon and with tears in their eyes made it very clear that she was one of the few students who greeted them by name, asked about their day, and found time to tutor anyone interested in improving their own education.
Spending the day with Chevon, I was reminded so many times of how she just embodies KIPP’s mission – she has succeeded at one of the top universities in our country, she has continuously strengthened our peanut field**, the Penn campus, the larger Philly community, and as a 2013 Teach for America Corp member, she will spread her gifts to her own middle school students this fall. Chevon is amazing, but, I was most proud of the ways she has remained grounded, humble and grateful.
Graduating with Chevon was Katrese, another member of our founding class. Katrese in so many ways has modeled growth, and while there are many stories that illustrate this, I’ll choose a seemingly “small” one. One quick bit of context: during her junior year in high school, Katrese and I had the opportunity to travel to India to visit schools and provide professional development to educators. For both of us it was our first time in a developing country, and we had some struggles acclimating to a new environment. While there were many challenges, Katrese’s biggest was trying new food, and I am not exaggerating when I say that she was sustained for almost 10 days with only ice-cream sundaes, which she could locate in almost every place we visited.
Now, fast forward to 2013. After her graduation, I took her out to lunch and asked her to pick the spot. What did Katrese want? Yep, Indian. She quickly explained that the best Indian restaurant was closed on Mondays so we would have to go her second favorite place. Then later that night at the airport what did she choose? Yep, Japanese. All of this from a kid who would only eat chicken fingers – even as a college freshman. While Katrese wouldn’t try my sushi (YET), in so many ways, these “small” events represented so much about how college can change everything. In fact, this once reluctant traveler spent her spring semester enrolled in African language classes so that she could spend time with one of her college friends in Ghana after college.
I could keep going because seeing the growth of our students over time is amazing in so many ways. As a first-generation college graduate I know how transformational the degree is, not just because of the diploma and not just because we can have the career of our choice, but because it changes everything about our world. Having the opportunity to work with KIPP for the last 12 years and seeing the lives of our alum transform is beautiful.
* At KIPP Gaston, we reference all cohorts of students by the year they will start college. Instead of calling them the Class of 2013 we call them the Pride of 2013 in reference to our school slogan: The strength of the pride is the lion. The strength of the lion is the pride.
** The KIPP Gaston campus is located on a former peanut field in rural Northeastern North Carolina.
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