By Emmanuel Freeman
NASHVILLE, TN (TSU News Service) — Wanya Smith was honored virtually along with hundreds of graduates at Tennessee State University’s fall commencement on Saturday. But when he envisioned himself actually walking across the stage to get his undergraduate degree, following closely behind were his children, Noah, 3, and Gabrielle, 3.
Smith fathered the two children during his sophomore year at TSU. For some, the responsibility of actively caring for two children and balancing that with schoolwork might be too much. But not Smith. The sixth of 10 children, he had come to college determined to earn a degree – the first in his family to achieve that feat – and nothing was going to stop him.
It didn’t. On Nov. 28, Smith was among more than 700 students who received undergraduate and graduate degrees. The 24-year-old graduated with honors with a Bachelor of Science degree in Family and Consumer Sciences, with a concentration in Child Development and Family Studies.
“I am actually split between being happy and feeling like, ‘It’s about time,’” says Smith, when asked about his excitement of graduating in spite of the struggles he faced during his matriculation.
“I have been struggling with being excited for the last couple of months knowing that graduation is approaching, because it’s taken me much longer than what it was supposed to. I do know it is a big accomplishment knowing where I am coming from, where nine times out of 10 a regular person wouldn’t be where I am, with all the adversities.”
Making it through college with mounting responsibilities of childcare for two toddlers, maintaining an off-campus apartment and schoolwork, amounted to a huge struggle that resulted in him staying longer in college, says Smith. To make it, he at times worked two full-time jobs, seven days a week overnight.
“I had to prepare for the kids coming and so I had to save up, and pay for my apartment, but I was not going to drop out,” says Smith. “After the children were born, I kept up having two jobs. I worked during the day at Dominos and then at night I worked as a valet downtown on Broadway. Of course, my grades started falling, I lost the only two scholarships I had, I changed major and that put me behind, but I was determined not to drop out,” says Smith, of Memphis.
He says the thought of caring for two kids at such a young age did not seem so overwhelming, drawing from his experience of caring for four younger siblings, while growing up at home. Additionally, he says he surrounded himself with very caring mentors at TSU who motivated him.
“I was mentally prepared,” he says. “I had to push on no matter the difficult days. The thought of my own two children and their future, and younger siblings looking up to me drove me to keep going and not give up or drop out.”
Dr. Margaret E. Machara, professor of child development and family studies, who not only taught Smith, but was aware of his situation, calls the young man “an engaged student and an incredible individual.”
“Wanya hasn’t had an easy road to achieve his degree, but even with his challenges, he’s progressed through the requirements in a determined manner,” says Machara. “He’s a proud father, who not only is making a difference in his childrens’ lives, but also looks for ways to improve conditions in the wider society. With his easy manner and mature sense of responsibility, Wanya will definitely make TSU proud.”
George Davis, a TSU graduate and a mentor, met Smith when he (Smith) showed interest in joining Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. He describes Smith as “a resilient person.”
“Wanya has the ability to adapt to his surrounding very quickly and very easily,” says Davis, who earned graduate and undergraduate degrees at TSU. “I really think that when Wanya encounters what others consider impossibility, he sees possibility. He always puts 100 percent in everything that he does. He is a resilient young man who can withstand a lot.”
Smith says co-parenting is vitally important to him, and that he is actively involved in caring for his little boy and girl. For a career, Smith wants to become a school resource management director, to work exclusively with struggling families with young children, to help them get the resources they need.
Amid his hectic college career, Smith also remained active in extracurricularactivities. Besides his fraternity, he is also a member of Hypnotize Dance Troupe, and Black Incorporated. He also helped establish Find Out Dance Troupe at TSU during his sophomore year.