An HBCU Saved My Life

In 1983, I graduated from high school with a 1.69 GPA, equivalent to a D– minus. Leading up to my graduation, I spent the bulk of my school days in a room designated with the name closet, as it was indeed a janitor’s closet that had been cleaned out to hold special education classes. No more than 5 to 8 students could fit in the room at one time with a teacher. I remember the horrid smell of cleaning supplies to this day! You see, early on, I was labeled as LD (learning difficulty), “Special Ed!” Very few people knew. We took great care not to allow anyone to see us run into our Special Ed class. I remember my best friend, Marshall, and I would wait until the bell would ring and dash into the closet like Batman and Robin, 5 seconds before the bell rung, so as not to be late to class and avoid anyone who might know us. We were very popular, well he was. LOL!

Marshall was a year ahead of me in school. He was a starter for both varsity football and basketball, and I was a bench warmer! I considered him my big brother. We went everywhere and did everything together. He got a scholarship to VSU, and I wanted to follow behind him! The only issue was I wasn’t as talented, I didn’t know how to write or spell, and my vocabulary was minuscule, to say the least.

So, my Special Ed teacher decided to help me put letters together for schools that I wanted to attend. She said I had to write to them and that she would help me correct the grammar. That’s when I got scared because I didn’t know how to write or spell, but I tried my best because I knew only one of three was going to happen to me when I graduated– McDonald’s, Marine Corp, or college. I sent letters to VSU, Norfolk State, Hampton, Howard, Fresno State, and several other schools that I never knew existed. Hell, I didn’t even know anything about college at all; no one ever spoke to me about them until my senior year of high school.

I remember like it was yesterday, every response to my letters was a rejection, until a letter from Hampton University came in the mail. I just knew they would give me a football scholarship, not even thinking that I had no talent; or my depressing 1.69 GPA. I was 100% green! My teacher and I opened the letter, and they rejected me outright but gave me a ray of hope towards the end of the letter. They said your GPA is too low for entry into Hampton, but we suggest contacting Elizabeth City State University (ECSU) in North Carolina.

So, I sent a letter to ECSU, and they responded with an invitation to their open house. I was so excited! I had no idea where North Carolina was, let alone how to get to ECSU. I didn’t have a car or money to catch a bus. So, I worked the whole summer and purchased a Dodge Dart from Marshall’s older brother, who owned a car repair shop for $250. With Marshall’s help, I put a brand new radio and speaker system in the car that I purchased from some dude selling them from the back of a truck for $100.

It was rusty red on one side and primer on the other side. It was the ugliest car you would ever want to see, let alone ride in. But it was mine. I remember Marshall and I were riding down the street and saw a rug someone put out on the curb. We came back later and picked it up, and I cut it up to fit in my new $250 car. I was ready to drive to ECSU in North Carolina!

The time came for me to head out to college, so I mapped out my trip, filled my tank, put all my belongings in that car, which wasn’t much, and headed off to ECSU. I had $50 in my pocket, which was given to me by one of my best friends’ mom.

I started out driving down I-95 South, that’s all I knew. I came to the fork in the road saying I-64 stay in the left lane and I-95 stay in the right lane. So I stayed in the right lane down I-95. I drove for hours until I saw the sign, “Welcome to North Carolina.” I perked up and got so excited. I just followed the signs, then I saw a sign that said Elizabeth City, I took that exit; I drove and drove for hours on end. I had never driven so far in my life.

I saw these tall, funny-looking trees and was in awe, I have never seen anything like them in my life, and I remember how neatly they were lined up in rows. (I later learned they weren’t trees at all, but rows of corns).

Not passing or seeing any other cars on the road, I became afraid; my gas was getting low. I was lost on some back road, heading to ECSU. I did what I only knew to do, and that was to pray. You see, my grandmother always told me in times of trouble, pray to the Lord, and that’s what I did. I was 18 years old, never been out of the Commonwealth of Virginia and never no more than 20 to 30 miles away from home, and yet here I was, somewhere in North Carolina, driving on a back road looking at these funny trees, in a 1972 Dodge Dart, that I put together with gum and spit.

I remember like it was yesterday. I was coming around a sharp curb, and suddenly, I heard this loud blood-curdling noise and smoke coming from the engine of my car. I was so afraid! My car drifted slowly off to the right side of the road. I got out and opened the hood to the engine; black smoke was billowing out of the engine like crazy! It was so thick that I wasn’t able to see the engine for a few minutes.

Finally, the smoke began to clear, and I looked down and saw this massive hole in the middle of the engine with oil spilling onto the engine; this was causing the thick black smoke. I really begin to pray because I hadn’t seen any houses or stores for miles.

I thought to myself and said, I can’t be too far from ECSU. I’ve been driving for hours. So, I decided to walk the rest of the way to ECSU. I grabbed everything that I was able to carry in my hands and started walking.

I got about half a mile when two white dudes in a pickup truck and gun rack on the back window drove past me. They slowed down and backed up; my heart began to race like never before. I didn’t know what to do, so at first, I thought about running; I knew I wouldn’t get far because they were in a truck, and I had bags in my hands.

So, if they started something, I made up in my mind that I would fight; they pulled up slowly beside me, I stopped, put my bags down, and said hi. They were like, boy, what are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere? I said, I’m from Virginia, and I’m headed to college.

They asked, “what college, ain’t no college around here?” I said Elizabeth City State University. The one driving turned to his friend in the passenger seat and asked him have you ever heard of Elizabeth City State University. His friend thought for a minute and came out with a “NO.”

I told them, my car broke down, and I can’t get it started. They told me to get in the back of the pickup, and they would take a look at it. I hopped in the back, and we drove to my car, which was not far. They opened the hood and said, you blew a rod; the engine is gone. They asked me what are you going to do? I told them, I guess I would have to walk.

The driver said you can’t walk; you are in the middle of nowhere. He said we’ll give you a ride to the bus station. I told him, thank you, but I don’t have any money. You can have the car and everything in it. I just put a brand new radio and sound system in it; you can have it all.

Fifteen minutes later, riding in the back of the pickup truck, they dropped me off at the Greyhound bus station. I thanked them and went into the bus station and asked the agent for a bus ticket to Elizabeth City. He said ok, that’ll be $150. I was like, huh, are you serious?! I said to the agent, I only have $50, how far will that get me to Elizabeth City? He asked, why are you going to Elizabeth City? I told him I’m going to college! He said, son, $50 won’t get that far. I told him, thanks, but can you get me as close as possible and I’ll walk the rest of the way.

The agent just looked at me strangely. He asked, do you know how far away you are from Elizabeth City? I said, no, I don’t, but it can’t be that far. I’d been driving for hours before my car broke down. He said, son, you are four hours away from Elizabeth City. I almost broke out into tears. I had no car, with only $50 in my pocket, somewhere in North Carolina, and no one to call.

I looked at the agent and just said, please get me as close as you can to Elizabeth City, and I’ll walk the rest of the way; he said ok, sit over there, and I’ll call you up when the ticket is ready. A few minutes later, he called me up to the window and gave me a ticket; it said destination, Elizabeth City. I was like, wow, but I only have $50, and he said no problem. I reached in my pocket to give him the $50, and the elderly white man behind the window looked at me and said, keep your money, son and be sure to make good grades. I was in tears and thanked him from the bottom of my heart.

He told me what bus to get on, and I got on it. Four hours later, I was arriving in Elizabeth City. I got off the bus and asked the agent, how do I get to ECSU? He said you need a cab or something; I was like no, I’m going to walk. He was like you can’t walk that far. I said, how far is it? He said 5 miles that way. I picked up my bags and started walking. OMG, that was a long walk, but I kept going, only stopping here and there to rest. 

I made it to the campus and saw these massive buildings. I fell in love with ECSU at first sight. I didn’t know where to go, so I asked a few of the students, and they pointed me to the small building right in front of Simiral Hall. I signed in and waited to be seen. A lady came out of her office and gave everyone a piece of paper and pencil and proceeded to tell everyone to write down why they decided to come to Elizabeth City.  

I was so afraid because I didn’t want anyone to know that I couldn’t write or spell. But, I had no other choice, so I did the best I could and was the last to turn in my paper. After a few hours of waiting, it was my turn to be seen.

She called my name, and I went into the administrator’s office. (I can’t remember her name to save my life) She said, Mr. Brockman, come in and have a seat. As I sat down, she started shaking her head and said, can I ask you a question? I was like, yes, she said Mr. Brockman, who are you, where did you come from, and how did you hear about Elizabeth City?

I told her everything, my entire journey in getting to Elizabeth City. She sat back in her chair in total shock. She said, Mr. Brockman, we don’t have any records of your paperwork for admission. I read your paper and Mr. Brockman; you can barely write. I looked at the transcript you submitted, and you have a 1.6 GPA. How were you expecting to get into college with these grades? I said I don’t know, all I wanted to do is go to college. She told me to go out and have a seat in the hallway, and she would call me in a few minutes.

She called me back into her office about 30 minutes later and told me that she just got off the phone with Dr. White, the Dean of Admissions, and after discussing your paper and low GPA, and based on that, we are not able to admit you. But, I told him what you went through to get here, and based on your story, which is remarkable, we will admit you for one semester to give you a chance to bring up your GPA. Based on what you do at the end of the semester will determine our decision as to whether you are admitted into ECSU.

She sent me to student counseling to determine my degree track. That’s when I met Mrs. Moring. She greeted me with a smile and asked, so what degree do you want to pursue? I was like, what’s a degree? She started laughing and said, when you finish school, you’ll have a degree, and that’ll determine what classes you take while you are here.

She asked what classes did you like in high school? I said I loved math. She said, then you should get a degree in math. I said, but I like computers too. So she said which one you like the best. I was like, I don’t know I like both of them just as much. Mrs. Moring said the craziest thing after that, she said, why don’t you major in both of them? Huh, I’m not that smart. She said, these words, which I’ll never forget, Mr. Brockman, you are smart, and you can do it. I believe in you, and I’ll be the first one on the other side of the stage when you receive your degrees to shake your hand.

They assigned me a young lady named “Rochelle” who was tasked with going with me to every class and helping me take notes and understand my homework. I had to attend a special class in the evening to go over everything and help me with my spelling, reading, and writing.

At the end of my first semester at ECSU, I finished with a 2.98 GPA. The rest is history!!! God is good! Four and a half years later, I walked across the stage, the only student in my class with two degrees; a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science.

That’s my story, to God be the Glory!


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