Shanard Deas isn’t your typical college student. Not even close. To call his path through higher education circuitous wouldn’t begin to describe the winding journey he’s had. Yet when he crosses the Cistern this week and receives his diploma as a graduate of the Bachelor’s of Professional Studies Program, it will definitely mark a momentous occasion.
Deas, who was born and raised in Charleston, will be the first person in his immediate family to graduate from a four-year college. If you come from his background, he says, college isn’t considered an option. It isn’t considered at all. Survival is the only goal.
“I come from a place where if you make it to 21 years old and you’re alive, then you’re lucky,” he says. “I’ve never been on a college road trip. No one I knew in my community went to college. Our world was about getting a job, possibly getting a trade and surviving; raising your kids and keeping them out of jail.”
So, Deas survived. He survived tough neighborhoods. He survived significant societal oppression. And he survived being rejected by the College the first time he applied. Now, he’s headed for a bright future as an educator.
For over a decade, Deas has worked as a teaching assistant at Morningside Middle School in what he refers to as North Charleston’s “inner city.” He also built a small business as a local radio personality and DJ to help make ends meet. Despite working full time and lacking financial resources, he’s managed to put himself through college over the past two years, excelling as a student at CofC’s North Campus.
“My mom has been my principal motivator,” he says. “She helps me get over my own discomfort with things. She never thought that I couldn’t do anything I set myself to. Back when I didn’t know what to do with my future, she told me to take time off and think about what I really wanted to do. When we were growing up, she worked two and three jobs to keep us all going. She has been amazing. She helped me get through this program by making sure I didn’t have to worry about buying food.”
But just to discover the BPS program, Deas had to survive more challenges. After getting an associate’s degree at Trident Technical College, he thought he could enroll at any college and finish a bachelor’s degree in just two more years. Turns out, the situation wasn’t so straightforward.
“I tried to enroll at three other colleges in the area,” he recalls, “but every person I talked to told me that I’d have to take classes for three plus years or that they wouldn’t give me credit for the courses I had taken. I felt like there had to be somebody who would value what I’d already accomplished. Here I was, a guy with a good career, paying my bills, but every school told me no. It was really discouraging.”
Of course Deas wasn’t interested in the College of Charleston because he’d been turned down here more than 15 years before. Then, his mom stepped in again with some wise counsel. She told him he wasn’t the same person that he was back then, and that he should get over that rejection and give the College another try. So he did. It’s something he’s able to laugh about now.
“The people in the front office at the North Campus were great,” he says. “They told me ‘bring in your transcripts, we’ll see what we can do.’ They were really accommodating.”
Deas enrolled at the North Charleston campus, got set up with a schedule and started taking a full load of classes. And those courses were transformative, he says.
“My classes pretty much changed me,” Deas says. “All of a sudden, I was in class with people from such diverse backgrounds. You have businessmen, you have mothers, you have people who have just started in college. And it becomes clear that everyone’s viewpoint is just as important as someone else’s. That was new for me. Not a lot of people where I work ever ask me what I think. I was given a voice and that was really empowering. I realized, this could be really good.”
And it appears that Deas’ path through the Bachelors of Professional Studies Program has been good – really good. He applied himself with vigor, studying hard and complementing class discussions, lectures and readings with YouTube tutorials and a significant amount of time spent at the Center for Student Learning. His grades were strong enough to qualify him for two scholarships: theOffice of Institutional Diversity’s Departmental Scholarship and the Sue Sommer-Kresse Award. His self-confidence grew tremendously, he says.
“When I say I engulfed myself in learning, that’s exactly what I did,” Deas explains. “And the experience has taught me that you can’t come into this program and not be changed. I’ve definitely been given a different outlook. I never would have thought, coming from my background, that I could ever buy a house. But now, I’m starting to look for a place and find some funding. That microeconomics course I took was a real blessing. It taught me how important money is to everything, and now I apply that productively.”
For Deas, the last two years of study appear to have flowed together almost seamlessly.
“My diversity course really connected me to what was taught in the microeconomics course,” he says, “and that course has strong connections to the global studies course. All of those brought me to the capstone communication course that I’m finishing now. I think this program in applied communications has been an important key to my overall development as a person. I know I deal with people better now. I’m more respectful of the views of others, but I also know that I don’t have to burden myself with their issues and that’s an important change for me.”
Recently, Deas was accepted into Teach for America. After graduation, he’ll learn where the organization will post him. He says he’s looking forward to the respect he’ll have as a full-time teacher and the positive impact he’ll make in a community not unlike the one he grew up in.
Down the road, not too far in the future, he plans to continue his education and get a master’s degree. Somehow you know, that, too, will be an equally momentous occasion.
Article orginally published in The College Today