President Salutes Morehouse graduate Leland Shelton

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Imagine this. You have earned a Phi Beta Kappa key, which makes you a member of the world’s most prestigious academic honor society. In a few days you will graduate from Morehouse College. After a quiet summer spent with family and friends you head off to Harvard Law School.

As you make final preparations for commencement day you miss several telephone calls. You are so busy, You don’t have time to retrieve your voice mail messages. One of the calls you missed was from the White House with perhaps the most exciting news of your life.

Leland Shelton knew his world would forever change after receiving his political science degree from Morehouse. His childhood hero, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Morehouse graduate. However, he told me hearing the President of the United States call his name caught him by such great surprise, his fellow graduates had to help him rise from his seat when the commander in chief told him to stand up.

Here are the words that brought to light Leland’s remarkable life story and propelled him into the national spotlight:

When Leland Shelton was four years old— where’s Leland? Stand up, Leland. When Leland was four-years-old social services took him away from his mama, put him in the care of his grandparents. By age 14, he was in the foster care system. Three years after that, Leland enrolled at Morehouse. And today he is graduating Phi Beta Kappa on his way to Harvard Law School. But he’s not stopping there. As a member of the National Foster Care Youth and Alumni Policy Council, he plans to use his law degree to make sure kids like him don’t fall through the cracks.

When I spoke with Leland it was my intention to learn who and what inspired him to complete his college degree on time. I wanted to learn more about this young man who attended Baltimore City Public Schools. First, of all he was very polite and respectful. His responses were not only articulate; Leland’s words revealed a well-grounded, thoughtful young man fully prepared to envision his life beyond the glare of instant celebrity.

Leland, who graduated from Baltimore’s City College in 2009 said, he was accepted at several colleges including the University of Delaware. However, he knew as a child he wanted to attend Morehouse College. His choice was inspired by watching the 1999 animated feature, “Our Friend Martin.” The movie tells the story of a 12-year-old African American boy who may be held back in the seventh grade, because he is not studying. He is inspired to turn his life around once he learns about the many challenges Martin Luther King, Jr. was able to overcome after completing his Morehouse education.

Leland says his grandparents were a major influence is his life and credits them as the source of his drive and tenacity. “My grandparents raised me. They never had the opportunity to go to college, but I grew up watching all the sacrifices they made for me. I knew I had to make them proud.”

His transition to college was a lonely time for Leland. “When I first came to

Atlanta [to attend Morehouse] I had no friends, no relatives. I was an okay student in high school. But, I immediately decided to dedicate the next four years to not being average” says Leland.

Another important part of his success was the financial and moral support he received from the Black Professional Men, Inc (BPM). Following the advice of his high school guidance counselor

Leland applied for and was award a thousand dollar scholarship from the Baltimore based mentorship organization.

Leland says Rodney Carter, BPM vice president was always there for him. “The money was helpful, but his guidance and mentorship was priceless. Each years BPM hosts a breakfast the Saturday before Father’s Day and awards 12 scholarships to black male high school seniors who have been accepted into some of the country’s most prestigious colleges and universities.”

Two years ago Carter called to tell me one of his students, Fagan Harris, a Stanford grad had been selected as a Rhodes scholar. In terms of high academic achievement that accomplishment would be pretty hard to top. Yet, I think most would agree a presidential shout-out is a unique recognition that not only excites the imagination, it acknowledges a student population often ignored or burdened with negative stereotypes.

As a rising junior Leland interned in the Washington, D.C. office of Senator John Kerry. “I learned a lot about the workings of our Congress. I was provided the opportunity to sit in on congressional hearings on foreign relations and briefings on SNAP benefits, and other welfare issues.” He crafted memorandums to staffers, conducted research and submitted a policy recommendation to a legislative assistant.

When asked about his future, after he completes law school, Leland plans to return to Baltimore and practice child advocacy law.

Congratulations to Leland and all the proud members of the class of 2013, with a special shout out to Jessica Brockington who graduated from Howard University.

For more information about this year’s Black Professional Men’s breakfast and awards ceremony visit: http://www.blackprofessionalmen.org/

Jayne Matthews Hopson writes about academic issues because she believes “only the educated are free.”