Op-Ed: Overcoming Tragedy and Celebrating Life Again
— By Peire Wilson —
— LaGuardia Community College–
Of the more than 330,000 U.S. students studying abroad, only 6.1 percent are African American and 10.1 percent are Latino. This is one in a series of articles by students of color who are breaking down barriers by studying abroad thanks to the Frederick Douglass Global Fellows program, which awards 10 full scholarships a year to students at Minority Serving Institutions. These students will periodically share their stories, hopefully inspiring others to apply. Join our social media campaign, #CIEEmpowered #MSInspirational #FrederickDouglassGlobalFellows that is celebrating these extraordinary students and their experiences studying abroad. Please view and share Peire’s video story at http://bit.ly/PeireWilson
Born in Norfolk, Va., and raised by a single mother, I felt a special responsibility to go to college but, at first, I failed at it – quite literally. But I turned my life around and see a pathway to success. Studying in London as a Frederick Douglass Global Fellow was instrumental in healing my wounds and making me whole again.
First enrolled as a college student at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., I left school my freshman year because it wasn’t a good fit for me. A year later, I transferred near home to a historically black college, Norfolk State University, but I abruptly left during my second semester when tragedy struck in a way that I could have never imagined.
In a scuffle on campus, one of my friends, Sean Williams, was tragically stabbed to death. Like me, Sean was a classically-trained vocalist. I was in such shock from his murder, I left school and didn’t even tell my teachers why.
I moved to Florida, where I fell in love and was blessed to have a son. I wanted to make a positive future for my son, but I really didn’t know how. I thought about it long and hard and decided I wanted to be a lawyer in arts and entertainment. I knew I needed to be in New York City. I knew I had to go back to school.
I got my transcripts. I put myself in a suit and put myself on a bus and, transcripts in hand, I went to the headquarters of City University of New York, CUNY.
The admissions counselor opened up my transcripts and said, “Uhhhh….”
I said, “I know.”
I had a 1.0 GPA.
“These are the grades I have,” I told him. “I’m willing to start completely over.”
He said, “It’s going to be competitive,” but handed me a list of schools and I returned to Florida.
But I came back and wanted to attend the first school on the list, LaGuardia Community College in Queens, N.Y.
I met with a counselor. She said, “These grades….”
I told her, “If I had known when I was just young what I know now, I would have done things differently. I just didn’t know. Unfortunately, this is what happened. I plan on being a lawyer.”
She asked: “You want to be a lawyer?”
I responded, “I will be a lawyer.”
She arched her eyebrows and said, “I like the way that you said that.”
She told me what I needed to do to be admitted: take a math and English entrance exam. I passed English, but failed math by two points. I took a remedial math course, passed and was admitted. I learned I loved math and started tutoring other students. I earned my associate’s degree in legal studies and received an invitation to join the President’s Society for students with excellent academic records. That’s right, I was invited. When I received the Frederick Douglass Fellowship, I called my mother to share the good news.
In London, though, as a Frederick Douglass Fellow, I felt like an outsider. I was older than the other students. I was a father. I came from a single-family household. But I realized something profound in London. During a workshop, a videographer asked us, “Tell us a time when you had to face your privilege?”
The image of my friend, Sean, came to me. He was the motivating factor in my life. When my turn to speak arrived, I told the Fellows around me, “I lost a friend who never got to see his full potential. The biggest privilege I have is just being alive. My friend died when he was 18.”
I broke down in tears. That was one of the first moments that my friend’s murder hit me. I told the Fellows: “You all just need to appreciate just being here. Just having breath in your lungs.”
We were all crying together. We were all celebrating life together. In that moment, I realized something beautiful and profound: our common humanity.
Ten college students at the more than 600 Minority Serving Institutions across the country can win full scholarships to study abroad next summer, and all qualified applicants are guaranteed $1500 grants toward select study abroad programs, according to the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) and the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions, which jointly sponsor the scholarship program. Online applications to study abroad as a Fellow next summer are due by February 14, 2019, and can be found HERE. The requirements are HERE. CIEE is the oldest and largest nonprofit study abroad and intercultural exchange organization in the U.S. Their mission is to transform lives and build bridges between people and nations. CIEE programs are at more than 60 international sites, including Berlin, Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Copenhagen, London, Madrid, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Rome, Santiago, Shanghai and Sydney. Last year alone CIEE provided more than $8 million in scholarships, grants, and financial aid.