James Yates is a 2020 graduate of LeMoyne-Owen College. (Courtesy photo)

by James Yates —

Last weekend my Bachelor of Science degree in biology would have been conferred during LeMoyne-Owen College’s commencement ceremony. Although the Magician Class of Spring 2020 did not walk across a stage to receive our degrees, we can still reflect on our time at our beloved institution. Everyone has a story of their journey to complete their degree, and mine came with many challenges and re-routes.

I initially entered LeMoyne-Owen College as a freshman in Fall 2003 on both an academic and athletic scholarship. My mother, an LOC alumnae, wanted one of her children to attend the college she loved so dearly. I attended, but I was not ready for the responsibility of higher education.

Unable to find the balance between academics and my social life, my grades suffered, and I eventually lost my scholarships. In an effort to mature, I enrolled in the Navy. The military provided me with the structure and discipline I needed to move forward. There, I became a diver and joined the Diver Institute of Technology, becoming the first African American diver with the company.

I left the Navy in 2013 ready to pursue my degree again. I attended community college to take courses and boost my GPA. I also tapped into my spiritual side, and grew a deeper relationship with God. Those experiences, paired with the loss of my mother, prepared me to get even more serious about my goal to graduate from college.

In Fall 2018, I returned to LOC as a junior to major in biology and minor in chemistry at 32 years old.

This time around, I truly experienced the magic of LeMoyne-Owen College. It’s a big place in a small space that has produced alumni who impact the world. Professors care about students and work to provide an intimate, family atmosphere for us.

I also applaud our interim president, Dr. Carol Johnson Dean, who has changed the culture of the College. She allows students to advocate for ourselves and also supports us through leadership presence. She and other administrators are at games and student organization events, always cheering us on.

Everything I wanted to do my first time in college, I’ve done. I prioritized the things most important to me: my future, family and faith. I excelled academically and was even voted as Mr. Senior among my class.

This semester, my father passed away. Simultaneously, I became a member of the Chi Psi Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Incorporated. Through that experience, I gained brothers who supported me through my loss and continue to act as extended family. None of that would have been possible without LeMoyne-Owen.

The emotional and spiritual encouragement of my sister, Netasha Wooten, my girlfriend, Savannah Scruggs, and our church and biological families have been my support on the journey of this semester.

Now that my undergraduate college career has ended, I will continue to move forward as I always do, and thanks to LeMoyne-Owen College and self-determination, I have options for my future. I have been accepted into Florida International University’s marine biology graduate program for Fall 2020. I also want to reenter the diving profession.

LeMoyne-Owen still plans to host a commencement ceremony when it’s safe to do so. As every graduate has their own personal reasons for wanting to “walk,” I will proudly participate to honor my mother and fulfill her wishes, even in her death.

The pandemic has changed what we thought that special day would have been, but to the Class of 2020, I say turn up and celebrate yourselves anyway, safely. Just because the degree doesn’t come in the way you imagined doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. Your future still matters!