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Smart Enough

Sometimes, being resourceful is all it takes

By Damon Arnold as told to Rachel Stark

I wasn’t a good student. Growing up, never once did I understand the importance that education would play in my life. I wanted to play football, and I knew you had to have a certain GPA to continue to play. I just thought I was taking classes in order to continue to play football.

My mother moved from Cleveland to California when I was 9. She didn’t know anyone in California, but she wanted to make a better life for me. I got kicked out of two high schools, and after the second time, my mother walked straight to her bedroom and slammed the door. I went to her room, and I could hear her talking. She was praying: “God, please help my son. Please help him understand that he’s messing up his life.”

I graduated from an alternative high school, then went on to a junior college called Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, California. I didn’t do well there. So I went to another community college, Citrus College, and that’s where I ultimately received my associate degree.

Even though I didn’t have good grades, I got into California State University, Chico, through a program for first-generation college students. I played football, and I thought I wanted to major in engineering until I heard that you had to do something called math. I ended up majoring in sociology.

I had these men in my life who were like counselors to me. As I was nearing graduation, I remember meeting with one of them for the last time, and he asked me, “What are you going to do with your life?” To be honest, because I was the first person in my family to go to college, I thought I was going to graduate and make $100,000 a year. He told me it doesn’t work like that. Then he asked, “Have you thought about grad school?”

I thought grad school was for real smart people. So when I walked out of his office, everything he said went in one ear and out the other. But then I ran into a friend of mine, and he was smiling from ear to ear. He said, “Damon, I’m going to grad school.” I thought, “Man, you ain’t going to grad school.” Because I took classes with him, and he wasn’t that smart. He said, “Damon, you should go talk to a guy named Dr. Scott.”

Don Scott said he was starting a new program for students who are from the inner city, because he thought it was important that they get a master’s degree and go back and tell their communities how important it is to go to school. My GPA was low – I graduated with a 2.1 – but he told me he’d let me in conditionally for the first semester. If I maintained a B average, he’d lift my conditional status. This was a week before graduation.

I didn’t tell my mother right away. At Chico State, they have what’s called a “black graduation.” It was held at a church, and all the graduates had a chance to go up to the mic and say who played a significant role in our graduating. When it was my turn, I started walking all cool up to the mic. Then I looked directly at my mother, and I start crying. I was boohooing.  Because I’m looking at my mother thinking about all the times I let her down. I’m thinking about all the things she’s done. I told the crowd, “My mother doesn’t know this, but next semester, I’ll be going to grad school.”

At the end of the ceremony, I get over to the edge of the stage, and my mother runs over to me. She looked a little mad. She said, “Damon, we’re in church. You don’t be lying about going to grad school.” I said, “Mom, I am going to grad school. They’re letting me in conditionally.” And my mother said, “Damon, I always knew there was something special inside of you.”

Right then, after I heard my mother and saw her face, I just started going. Grad school was now a challenge to me. That’s why I went on to get my first master’s, my second master’s, and then my Ph.D. I figured out that all I had to do was ask for help, and my professors would help me. I had to be transparent and know that since I’m not good at math, I needed to get a tutor. And that’s how I became Dr. Damon Arnold. It’s not about how smart you have to be, it’s about how resourceful you’re going to be.

I’ve been an academic advisor at Grand Valley State University for 12 years. I believe the most important strategy any administrator, faculty member or staff member can employ when working with students is to meet them where they are. We need to keep the bar high and tell them it’s possible for them to jump over the bar.

I keep my transcripts in my office. I talk about my grades. I want these student-athletes to know that if I can do it, they can do it. I want them to understand that it’s not how you start – it’s how you finish that counts.

Damon Arnold is the director for academic services in the athletics department at Grand Valley State University. He holds an associate degree in behavior science; bachelor’s and master’s degrees in sociology; a master’s degree in sports psychology; and a doctorate in education administration.

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