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19-year old Andre Williams started kindergarten with the expectation that, 13years later, he would graduate. It may have taken him an extra year but on June 6th, he did, indeed, accomplish that goal.
Getting to this point was anything but a given, however.
Andre’s journey through public school was almost derailed in his senior year when he got caught smoking pot in the Sandalwood High School parking lot. But, instead of being turned over to police and entering the juvenile justice system, Andre got sent to Grand Park alternative school, where he spent a little over a month carefully minding his p’s and q’s.
So when he did walk with his class at Veteran’s Memorial Stadium that rainy Thursday evening, Andre knew he had truly earned the right to be there.
And, just like that, all those years in elementary school, middle school and high school were done.
Andre says he knew that graduating would bring with it a whole new set of grown-up responsibilities and expectations. That doesn’t mean he’s ready for them, however.
“I’m no longer considered that little boy, you know. I’m now considered a man," he says. "I’m now being looked upon as a man so I have to make man-decisions. I have to do things that a man would do. It’s still hitting me that there are things I have to do differently.”
In an environment where everyone is so fixated on that one single moment in time, it just makes sense that the euphoria Andre felt when he walked across that stage in his cap and gown and received his diploma would so quickly be replaced by anxiety.
Duval County School Board member Paula Wright says, unfortunately, that’s the way it works for a lot of graduates. They don’t fully comprehend, she says, that a door has slammed shut behind them.
“It makes it even harder for those students who really don’t have a support system to guide them and help them and perhaps finance them until they make that decision or figure out what it is they want to do,” says Wright.
Fast forward three weeks after graduation. Andre is at home, sitting on his couch with his computer in his lap, checking on his college financial aid application.
The Federal Financial Aid Application, or FAFSA, has a lot of questions. Filling one out isn’t just confusing and time consuming, but it can also be fraught with anxiety. That’s because the government wants to know exactly how much a student’s parents earned and how much they paid in income taxes the year before.
“And sometimes kids don’t complete that because they don’t know the income or there’s no cooperation about releasing their income so it’s a lot of missteps,” says Wright.
Andre’s parents are divorced so he had to decide whether to use his mother’s or his father’s income on the FAFSA. He went with the one who earned less last year because, he figured, that would get him more money for college.
5 years from now, Andre says, he sees himself in graduate school, getting a master’s degree in a field he has yet to choose. He’s not worried, though, because he figures it will all get sorted out once he starts school at Florida State College at Jacksonville in the fall.
According to Wright, a lot of kids head off to college not knowing what they want to major in. But, she says, it might make it a lot easier if schools asked students every now and then: what is it you like?
“That like can determine the college path or the work path so that they can then look at how they’re going to plan their young life.”
Wright says help is coming. There are plans already underway to make sure that every high school has a graduation coach whose job will be to make sure students graduate on time and that they have some idea of what they want to do when they grow up.
As for Andre, he's just trying to take things one day at a time.
"It was exciting for the time being. But once, like they said, the confetti hits the stage and everything's said and done, then it gets real and you realize: I'm not a kid anymore. It's a lot to deal with."