On Friday, Andrew Alston graduated. He shared his own journey on Facebook, but I want to acknowledge him, celebrate him, and recognize him.
His story in his own words on Facebook is below:
WE DID IT. 2020 Virginia Tech & New River Community College graduate. Wow. So grateful for everyone who has taken time to send text messages, post Facebook statuses, and etc.
No one will ever fully understand why this accomplishment means so much to me… 10 years ago I started this journey… with what seemed like everything I needed to finish. I had God in my corner. I had the upmost support of family and friends. I had resources in the form of a scholarship. But I didn’t finish. Yet, I’m so grateful for a second chance. These past few years I have balanced full-time work, multiple part-time jobs, and 18, 24, 22, and 16 credits from both VT & NRCC. I graduate with a 4.0 from NRCC and finish my last two years at Virginia Tech with all A’s and only one B (grr lol). I had something to prove. To myself. To everyone I let down. To those that counted me out.. For years, I have imagined walking across the stage to the cheers of family and friends, and even used that image as motivation to finish well. And even though I was not able to see a traditional graduation, your messages and kind words have meant so much 😊😊😊 The odds were against us, but WE did it! THANK YOU!
I am in the process of finishing and sending out graduation notes. If you would like one, please text me or private message me an address where I can send you your note 🙂
Photo cred: @carolineee99 @ Virginia Tech
I love that he said, “We.” He is so gracious and kind and thoughtful. He is a generous spirit. This video about his commitment to Ut Prosim (that I may serve) exemplifies this amazing individual.
He works in the Office for Inclusion and Diversity. I met him 2 years ago. He attended a professional development program for staff employees. At the end of the program, he came up to me, shared that another African-American male who worked in my officeat the time – Leemar Thorpe (another amazing and incredible and inspirational leader), had encourage him to talk to me.
We set up a time to meet. I shared about our office’s work. We talked about the Black College Institute. A three week summer residential program for rising high school juniors and seniors. It is designed to increase the pipeline to Virginia Tech for students interested in the African-American experience.
He was working full-time in another unit. He volunteered to work the Black College Institute—unpaid. To use his vacation time, to stay in the residence hall as needed. So, he worked his full-time job, in another unit, and then came to work BCI. When one of our senior staff members became ill, it was Andrew who stayed with him in the hospital—all night. He was a calm steady presence over those three weeks.
When an opportunity came for him to work in the Office for Inclusion and Diversity, he transferred. I began to learn more about him. He came from a family of 10 children in the 757 area code (the use of area codes is big Virginia – the Hampton area). I had the privilege of meeting his parents when they came to visit. I’m honored to have met them—just beautiful and amazing Black parents. Andrew had started his college journey many years ago, on a full scholarship in the Corps of Cadets in biochemistry. A brilliant and disciplined student. A series of unfortunate circumstances did not allow him to finish. He had to drop out.
Many Black and Brown students – men and women — have these unfortunate circumstances and do not finish at all higher education institutions. But, Black males have the lowest graduation rate for all students at almost every higher education institution. My own son, Emmanuel, could have very easily been one of those students who didn’t make it. Universities have to do better by these students. But, rather than belabor the impact of race and gender, I want to talk about Andrew.
Andrew found a way, over many years, to persist. I started learning how he was working multiple jobs, Uber in addition to his full time job. He was also going to social and educational programs on campus to quietly support other students that he kept introducing to me. He was working to get his tuition money because he had exhausted financial aid. He was working to get money to study abroad, because that was part of his minor in Spanish. He was always working. I was flying out one morning to Roanoke, and I saw Andrew at the airport. I was surprised to see him. He was surprised to see me. He had driven someone from Blacksburg to Roanoke for an early morning flight at 430 am.
And, as he said in his own words, he was taking 21, 22, 18, 20 hours, trying to get the associate’s degree, and his bachelor’s degree in Psychology. He was his own advisor. And he was getting A’s. GETTING A’s. He don’t think her ever slept.
When I was a child, my grandmother sent me a handwritten note with a poem that said, “The heights that great men reached and kept were not obtained by sudden flight, but they while their companions slept were toiling upwards through the night.” A Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem that my grandmother with only a sixth grade education knew. And that poem symbolizes Andrew.
He is destined for greatness. I’m excited to see where his path goes.
Andrew, you are my hero.
But, it is not only Andrew that works in SOAR and the Office for Inclusion and Diversity. Duston Scarborough is another Black male – from the 757 area code. A Hokie graduate in Marketing, in the College of Business, several years ago. I met him through the Black College Institute about 3 years ago. He, too, would use his vacation time from another job to work the Black College Institute. He would stay in the residence hall with the students and encourage them with his own journey. When an opportunity came open at Virginia Tech, he joined the SOAR team. His genuine and authentic compassion for students and the struggle that is necessary is inspiring. From single mother, and grandmother, and great-grandmother, a long line of women have raised a remarkable man. He introduced me to his mother when she visited and I was thrilled to meet her.
You can learn more about Duston’s story below:
But not only Duston. Jamelle Simmons, another Black man, graduated from Virginia Tech last year with a PhD in Biomedical Engineering.
I met him also through the Black College Institute (BCI). Brilliant, beyond brilliant. He worked BCI as a graduate student in the summer. Unable to receive funding from his program, he stayed in the residence halls, navigating a million details and logistics. Often choosing to remain behind the scenes, he was an essential rock for the program, to allow for a smooth sailing of the program. Navigating his doctoral program, often without mentors, he was looking for guidance when he finished. A one-year post-doctoral internship in the Office for Inclusion and Diversity allowed him to continue to support students through SOAR. He is moving on to a post-doctoral program in biomedical engineering. I’m thrilled for him.
And, not only Jamelle, but Linwood Moore. I met Linwood three years ago. He is also from the 757 area code. He had finished his bachelor’s degree in statistics. Our office was creating a one-year post-baccalaurate program—an InclusiveVT Student Fellowship program. He was interviewed and he was hired. It has been three years, as he has moved into a full-time permanent position supporting data and technology needs in SOAR and OID. I also got to meet his parents when they visited. I was just honored.
And not only Linwood, but Ellington. Ellington got his master’s degree here, and has been at Tech for almost 20 years. He leads the Africana Studies Program and SOAR, and the community and cultural centers.
There’s another Black man I want to recognized who also took vacation time to work the Black College Institute. Reggie Stroble, a Hokie, who just got his PhD at Virginia Commonwealth University. His dissertation explores this issue of African-American male success in higher education. Congratulations, Reggie.
And, there are two others, I want to mention. They are Black male faculty at Virginia Tech faculty who have worked closely with Black students in SOAR and the BCC.
CL has worked the Black College Institute since its inception. Finding time each summer to teach the students about drawing and landscape architecture. He also runs a social justice living learning community, exemplifying the spirit of service.
Kwame has worked as a Faculty Fellow for the past two years with the Black Cultural Center. A steady and steadfast presence, he has supported students in Ujima Living Learning Community, and supported colleagues in sociology and Africana Studies in deep and genuine ways. And, then, there’s Prof. Sylvester Johnson.
A phenomenal scolar and advocate. He has supported the work of inlcusion and diversity in phenomenal ways. There are more. Many more Black men at Virginia Tech that I could recognize. But, I share these stories and images. because we often see only the sad and the shot images. But, these are Black men who are part of Virginia Tech, who are soaring and making a difference in the world. I am thrilled to see them soar.