During my years as an educator I encountered so many young people. They kept me going in a profession that is not always kind. Whenever things became especially challenging my students reminded me why I had chosen a career so fraught with frustrations. There have been so many souls who sat in front of me, some of them seemingly lost and others filled with promise. Over the years there were certain individuals who stood out from their peers. They possessed certain qualities of intellect and determination that convinced me that they were destined for success. One of those people was Shaun Wilkins.
My instincts told me as soon as I met Shaun that he was an extraordinary young man. He possessed a look in his eyes that spoke of his intelligence and unyielding curiosity. He was a reflective soul who was unwilling to simply accept pronouncements on face value. Shaun demanded to know the truth, for he was a natural born critical thinker. I also noted that Shaun Wilkins was driven by an unwavering sense of justice as well as a strong faith in God that tempered the way he viewed the world. He was never content to simply walk away from situations that he believed were unfair. He was instead inclined to want to affect positive change in the world and to fight for what he thought to be right.
Shaun graduated from KIPP Houston High School in 2010. He was headed for Tufts University in Boston and filled with a sense of great excitement. I was not at all surprised that he had been accepted to such a prestigious school. It seemed a perfect fit for his interests and outstanding academic background but the good Lord had other plans in mind for him. During his freshman year events unfolded that required him to return to Houston to help with his family.
Shaun never complained about his fate. Instead he shouldered his responsibilities like the man that he is. He found a job and did what he knew that he must do. He reassessed his options and once his world calmed down enough he entered Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, an historically Black private school dating all the way back to the nineteenth century.
Once he had resumed his education there was no holding him back. With the support of his family, the grace of God and his own resolve, Shaun Wilkins graduated this past Saturday with a degree in Sociology. Photos of the event that he posted on Facebook show his profound happiness. I so wish that I had been there to celebrate with him. I make it a point to attend the commencement exercises of my former students whenever they invite me and Shaun had requested the presence of many of us who had been part of his academic journey. Unfortunately three prior commitments prevented me from being present to watch Shaun triumphantly walk across the stage. Nonetheless my thoughts and my love were with him all day long. I know how hard he worked to achieve his goal and how earnest he has always been in wanting to understand how our society works and how he might help to make the changes needed to make our world a more peaceful and just place in which to live.
I have little doubt that Shaun Wilkins will be a positive force in our midst. Shaun has not been shy about sharing the credit for his accomplishments with his beloved family He fully understands how much they have sacrificed to always support him in his efforts. He is also vocal about his gratitude to God who stood by him even when his road seemed dark and lonely. He has not forgotten the teachers, the friends and the many people who walked with him if only for a brief time as he triumphed over the obstacles that seemed to incessantly block his path. We all watched him overcome the odds so that he might show the world that he is indeed the gifted man that I always thought him to be. Shaun’s own words speak volumes. “I have always been proud of my heritage; but to become a black man with a degree in a world that says we’re less than is an honor all its own. I take none of this for granted and none of it for myself. I give all honor to God because if it were all on me, I would have been down and out 4 years ago. I’m thankful my limits as a man are not His.”
The speaker at Shaun’s ceremony told the graduates that they have the power to achieve their goals. “You don’t have to wait for your ship to come in. You can build your own ship.” These are fitting words for a young man who has never let any setback hold him down. Shaun is ready to sail away into adventure.
My heart is filled with joy for Shaun Wilkins. He has demonstrated that life is about persistence, flexibility and a willingness to make the best of disappointments. He is more than ready to assume his place in the world, and I will continue to watch his progress with great anticipation for it will no doubt be glorious. Congratulations, Shaun. This is only the beginning. I can’t wait to see your story unfold.