At the end of every college semester, I join thousands of people watching students with beaming smiles walk across a stage to get a diploma. It is a great sight as you watch them wave to parents, guardians, families and friends.
At many historically black colleges and universities, the occasion is kind of boisterous because, in many instances, the student receiving the diploma is the first in the family to get a college degree.
Seldom do we get to know what went on in that student’s life as he descends the steps with the diploma. A lot of them have had to deal with so many trials that failure or quitting would have been understandable.
I have interviewed several students like that in my current position. I am often surprised by the determination of young people. Just when you’re about to say, “What is going on with them?” you bump into a Lloyd Lewis.
Lewis is a native New Orleanian who speaks in uneven bursts. Sometimes, you get that slow “Nawlins” drag, and other times, it resembles the rapid pace of a French Quarter tap dancer.
Lewis was preparing to get his degree in nursing from Southern University. That he and a college degree shared the same spot is remarkable.
“I guess you can say the Lord worked with me,” Lewis said.
Here is a sketch of Lewis’ early life. His mother, who had been seeking a nursing degree, died when he was elementary school age. He and his two sisters went to live with an aunt in a low-income area of New Orleans.
Money was tight, so everyone worked as soon as they were old enough. Lewis worked mostly in the restaurant industry.
After high school, Lewis enrolled in pre-med at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux. He did fine for a few semesters, but then Hurricane Katrina came calling in August 2005, and his world was swept away.
“We lost everything,” he said. The family moved to Baton Rouge. At the urging of a friend, Lewis decided to enter Southern in 2006 and change his major to nursing.
Financially and emotionally stressed, he started to fail classes, eventually sitting out a couple semesters.
To make ends meet, he took a number of jobs, including card dealer at a casino, restaurant waiter and security worker.
If he was going to go to school, Lewis said, he was not going to look for handouts. “Our aunt taught us to take care of ourselves,” he said, reflecting on his aunt’s work as a domestic worker. “She did the best she could for us.”
While in school, Lewis said, he had some tough decisions to make. “You know, sometimes it came down to whether I should work to keep a roof over my head and keep the lights on, or studying to pass a test,” he said. Sometimes the roof and the lights won out.
“It (school) kicked my butt. It’s not that I couldn’t do the work. I just had a lot of other stuff to do to survive,” he said.
The years in nursing school were mounting, and Lewis’ situation wasn’t getting any better.
Then in 2012, it appeared that he was getting close to a graduation date when he was robbed at gunpoint. The assailant struck him in head with the gun and shot at him.
“Things got so bad sometimes I just wanted to scream,” he said.
But, Lewis continued to plug away.
About a week ago, Lewis took his comprehensive exam. “I passed that with flying colors,” he said. Now, at the age of 28, Lewis will finally complete one part of his journey. He still has to pass the licensure exam.
“Yes, I wished I had finished sooner. But I did the best I could given the circumstances I had to deal with,” he said.
You have to applaud his effort in the wake of everything he’s had to work through. He says he plans to be a nurse anesthetist.
“The good thing, is,” Lewis said, “God never gave up on me.”
Edward Pratt, a former Advocate editor, is assistant to the chancellor for media relations at Southern University. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.