Discover more from From Streets to Scholarship by Terence Lester
From Dropout to Graduation
One story of how I became the first in my family to earn a PhD
I remember the day I decided to drop out of high school. I was sixteen and a half years old, attending an alternative school named Frank McClarin High School, less than a mile from our Love Beyond Walls office in College Park, GA.
Having endured significant teenage traumas, I had lost all interest in school. One day, I recall pushing myself away from the desk, standing up, and walking out of the classroom—while the teacher was sitting in front of the classroom.
A few friends joined me, and we made our way to the front of the building.
Overwhelmed by my emotions, I told my friends, “I am done.” I think I was just at a breaking point and thought the only way to reconcile it all was to give up on school and myself.
How could I concentrate on school while shouldering the immense stress from home?
As we distanced ourselves from the school, approximately forty yards away, a man experiencing homelessness called out to our group (it was four of us).
Curiously, I was the only one to respond in the group. I walked away from my friends and approached him, noticing his tattered clothing and unkempt beard adorned with bits of trash. His appearance did not bother me, and neither did his housing status; I guess I just needed someone to say something to me in the state I was in that was uplifting.
The man stumbled toward me like he had been drinking as he pointed towards the school I had just walked away from and asked, “Is that your school back there?” I affirmed his query, and he held his head down. I’ll never forget his face reflecting a shame that remains etched in my memory.
But, in that brief moment, he said the words I needed to hear, "Whatever you do, do not stop getting your education, or you will find yourself in a situation like mine... One day, you will become a leader..."
This was one of the earliest times I was acknowledged as a leader.
It didn’t come from a teacher, principal, or even my family; instead, it came from a complete stranger who just so happened not to have a home—right in front of the school I was walking away from.
That conversation impacted me deeply, and I heard a message that I could go beyond what I had gone through and experienced at that moment in my life. Although I stopped going to school for several months (dropping out), the seeds of that conversation had been planted within me and nurtured by others.
I will never forget one day sitting in a park in tears, where I recalled this gentleman’s words and decided that I would go back to school. I mustered the courage to approach my mother and ask her if she would advocate for the possibility of my returning to the high school I had failed to graduate from on time.
My mother did everything she could to reach out to the school to see if it were possible, and the principal gave me special permission to return as a fifth-year senior.
It was one of the most humbling moments of my life. That transformative conversation outside the alternative school and the support of my friends' fathers, Mr. Moore and Mr. Shaw, I discovered the strength and determination to see my education through to the end.
Now, after years of perseverance, I stand on the brink of something I never thought was possible—I am mere hours away from physically walking across the stage to receive my Ph.D. and writing this blog in real time.
While it may not seem extraordinary to some, where I come from, few people attain a Ph.D.
Poverty, limited opportunities, and unfair systems make it hard for many Black people and people of color to overcome challenges and access higher education.
Despite my hardships, I’m proud of what God has done in my life and that I get to inspire my children and others to overcome their obstacles. People often ask why I’m dedicated to helping unhoused people and advocating for people experiencing poverty.
It comes from my own experiences of feeling ignored and struggling. Growing up in a single-parent household, seeing violence and poverty, I always hoped to help others in similar situations someday.
As I get ready to receive my Ph.D., I carry the hopes and dreams of my community with me. I want to use my education and platform to give voice to their stories, fight for justice, love people for God, and create positive change because so many people are struggling to be seen as I was by someone society looks down on because of housing status.
I’m committed to making a difference using my knowledge and experiences in this next chapter of my life as I lead Love Beyond Walls and continue advocating for invisible and overlooked people.
I’ll continue serving, writing, speaking up, and standing for those left behind.
Because I believe that we all can challenge the unfairness in society and create a future where everyone has a chance to reach their God-given potential, no matter their background.
Today, I’m grateful for every step, every obstacle overcome, and everyone who has supported me along the way in becoming the first Ph.D. in my family.
Attend the next book signing at 44th and 3rd and join the discussion between Sam Collier and Terence this Thursday. Register here.
Attend the film screening of “Homesick” at The King Center this coming Friday by registering here.
If you want to explore homelessness in the U.S., please consider checking out the book“I See You: How Love Opens Our Eyes to Invisible People.”
Explore my book “When We Stand: The Power of Seeking Justice Together” to delve into the profound impact of community involvement and collective action for social change.
Discover “All God’s Children: How Confronting Buried History Can Build Racial Solidarity” to gain insight into the significance of understanding the historical narratives that shape individuals and foster racial solidarity.
Or, subscribe to the Love Beyond Walls Newsletter—visit the site and sign up.