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Education: First-generation college student inspires others

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Kenyatta Grimmage is used to questions. He is the assistant director for admissions at the College of Charleston. A college fair at Waccamaw High last month was a little different.

“The funny thing is, a lot of them are my cousins,” he said.

One girl, after establishing they were second cousins, asked, “How did you turn out so good?” Other cousins ended up in jail.

“I just had determination and the will to be something better,” Grimmage told her. It was his first visit to Waccamaw High since he graduated in 2000.

Grimmage was the youngest boy in his family. His father died when he was 3 or 4. While he was at Waccamaw, two brothers were in jail. His mother worked three jobs. It was cancer that saved his life.

The summer before he entered middle school, Grimmage was diagnosed with lymphoma. “It was the beginning of the worst experience of my life,” he said. But the illness kept him from following the path his brothers took. On Saturday, he received a master’s degree in education from Columbia College.

“I always saw myself as someone who would carry my family,” Grimmage said. “Cancer helped me realize I was that one. God spared my life for some purpose.”

He underwent a year of chemotherapy. He arrived at Waccamaw High when it still had eighth-grade classes. “I really didn’t tell anybody about that,” he said. But his hair was growing back and people kept asking about it.

One was Shasta Ray-Powers, an eighth-grade teacher. “He had this strange baby-doll texture hair,” she said. It was silky and she asked how he got it. “That’s how it came back after the chemo,” he told her. “I didn’t even know he’d been ill,” she said.

She became a mentor, one of many who helped when Grimmage’s mother died in his senior year. “He was totally alone,” Ray-Powers said.

But he was determined. “I promised my mom I would continue to go to school and do something positive in life,” Grimmage said.

He worked at Walmart wrangling shopping carts. He volunteered during the summer at Camp Care, a program in North Carolina for children with cancer. He was a solid B student and got scholarships, including ones from the Charlotte Hornets and the American Cancer Society.

He went to S.C. State, the first in his family to attend college. He graduated with a degree in English, a subject he thought would prepare him for law school.

But in his freshman year, he met Miranda Boyd. “It took me a couple of years to woo her,” Grimmage said. He proposed the year they graduated. “Law school didn’t fit in the picture,” he said.

He went into the management program at Walmart, then worked for Lowe’s Home Improvement. He ended up teaching high school English in the Charleston area. He also learned how to cut hair from his father-in-law who owns a barber college in Goose Creek. “It’s been a blessing as well,” Grimmage said. “Barbers hold a unique position in the community.”

His teaching came to the attention of the director of the Upward Bound Math and Science Center at Trident Technical College, an enrichment program to help high school students get into college. “He said, ‘I like how you inspire young people,’ ” Grimmage recalled. He started teaching at Trident and working summers with Upward Bound before moving to the College of Charleston, where the program is based. “My main purpose is diversity recruitment,” he said. Being a first-generation college graduate “has motivated me a lot in my current career.”

“If you didn’t know where he came from, you wouldn’t appreciate where he is,” Ray-Powers said. “Divine intervention, that’s all it is.”

That also came from his mother, whose faith inspired him and who read him Bible verses every night in the long year of cancer treatments. Grimmage said his success in school came from following the Golden Rule. “Treating people the way you want to be treated will get you farther than anything in life,” he said. “I have a coalition, a village that got me where I am today.” Those relationships developed from the way he treated other people.

“He saw the good and saw the lesson to be learned from his situation,” Ray-Powers said.

It’s a lesson Grimmage said he still shares with prospective college students. Many are pressured to stay home to care for younger siblings or get jobs to support the family rather than go to college. “A lot of students I come across didn’t have that person in their lives who’s been there, done that,” he said. “I let them know my story. You can better your environment.”

Affirmative action is now under review by the U.S. Supreme Court in a case from Texas. Grimmage disputes the idea that black students would be better served by going to what Justice Antonin Scalia called “a less advanced school … a slower-track school where they do well.”

“How does the easy route benefit the person in the long run?” Grimmage said. “My main purpose is to diversify recruitment.”

He took on a master’s degree at Columbia College through evening classes. That was in addition to his day job, weekend barbering and raising three children with Miranda. “It was a challenge, but I worked through it,” Grimmage said. He’d like to get a doctorate.

Although he hasn’t been back to Waccamaw High, he still has ties, like Ray-Powers, who is now retired. He is still in touch with his home-school teacher, Jill Via. Grimmage and his wife were married by the Rev. William Swinton, husband to his guidance counselor, Cheryl Swinton. As a father to two girls and a boy, Grimmage looks back to the lessons from the only men who were his role models, coaches Dennis Lee, Scott Streiffert and Ben Schoen. “That’s where I got my knowledge of what a man really was,” Grimmage said.

And now Grimmage is a model for others. “If anybody is looking for an excuse,” Ray-Powers said, “I flash over to Kenyatta. This is what happens when you want it.”

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