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Perspective | From a homeless shelter to N.C. A&T: One early college graduate’s story of perseverance

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Editor’s Note: Abdur-Raqib Ibn Gant gave this address to the North Carolina State Board of Education on May 13, 2021.

Good Morning Chair Davis, Vice Chair Duncan, Lt. Gov. Robinson, Treasurer Falwell, Superintendent Truitt, and members of the Board:

My name is Abdur-Raqib Ibn Gant, and I am a proud member of the graduating Class of 2021 from Edgecombe Early College High School. Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today about my journey in public education. I come to you today to share my story, my perspective, and my voice.

Let me start by telling you about my dad. My dad was not the type of guy to give up easily, which is why the SWAT team had to break down our front door to make his arrest. The man was a walking contradiction — respected by our Philadelphia community but abusive behind closed doors. No wonder our family could not find anyone in the neighborhood to help us when we needed it. 

But my dad underestimated how strong my mom could be. Mom was tired of his lies, cheating, and abuse. She had power, too. My mom decided to leave before things got too bad and before the kids got too old. But things went from bad to worse too quickly — a car chase, attempted murder, the SWAT team arriving.

Their battering ram left marks on our front door.

I was six months old when my mom, Shirley, escaped with our family to North Carolina. Mom was always transparent with us about why our dad was not around. It was heavy for me as a child to know that my dad tried to kill my mom. 

Looking back, I realize how much it bothered me and also shaped me. I felt the need to be everything that dad wasn’t: good, honest, strong, powerful, grounded. I refused to be broken by a bad situation. But it was not easy. We were in a new place, strange schools, no support network, all on our own. 

Sometimes things were dark, but I learned to see in the dark.

— Abdur-Raqib Ibn Gant

We moved around, lived in a homeless shelter for two months, weathered a couple 500-year floods, finally put down roots in Midlake Estates trailer park in Tarboro. I attended seven different schools in just nine years. Then, a Chinese tire company bought our whole neighborhood, including the trailer park, to build a factory. So we moved again. 

Let me be real honest with you for a minute. I was a good kid in elementary school. I tried hard and wanted to be there. I was curious. I liked learning. But life hit me hard in middle school. I spent a lot of my time in in-school and out-of-school suspension. I had anger building up inside of me without an outlet, and it led to me expressing myself in negative ways. I just didn’t care anymore. Our family had just moved into a homeless shelter, and no one at school seemed to get me.

Later on, I learned a word for all this: trauma.

— Abdur-Raqib Ibn Gant

Both of my siblings dropped out of high school. Mom worked two jobs — still does. The trailer rocked when the wind blew. But our family had a code: I was going to make it. I would be the one. I feel that pressure every day — the first to graduate high school, the first to go to college, the first to start a new path in life.

It is like a hand on my back all the time. 

It has been tough to trailblaze a new path while watching the people I grew up with go different ways. Here’s what people don’t get about opportunities. If you can’t access them, they are no good to you. At Edgecombe Early College, when I was a sophomore, we started building in time during the regular school day for our clubs to meet because we realized that holding them after school didn’t work for kids who rode the bus home. We wanted to make sure everyone had access to clubs, not just those who could provide their own transportation. We had to change our system. 

And this is another thing that people don’t quite get about opportunities. It’s not just enough for them to exist. Students need to see how they fit in, where they belong, why an opportunity should matter to them. Kids need to have a reason to want that opportunity, to feel it, to be motivated to take a risk, to try something new, to stretch themselves. 

As the only Black male in my graduating class, I have been willing to take the road less traveled while everyone else who looked like me went to traditional high schools or dropped out of school. My people at Edgecombe Early College have shown me a degree of love and support that I have never felt before. I do see myself in my school. They have worked hard to make sure I could access the opportunities available to me, like the solar panel class I took on the weekends, just as an example. 

See, the playing field is not always level in the real world, but in school it should be level for every single student. Period.

— Abdur-Raqib Ibn Gant

My school family helped me become my full self. I discovered I am very good at math, and I now plan to be an engineer. In high school, I have had the opportunity and access to do the things I love, such as construction, working with technology such as 3D printers and solar panels, and visiting local manufacturing plants such as Cummins Diesel Engine Plant and LS Cable. Along the way, I also discovered an interest in learning more about my past, which led me to contact my siblings on my dad’s side after 18 years. 

I have lived our school motto: “Be Yourself; Leave Completely Changed.” There are now 16 Black males at our school coming up behind me. They count on me to lead the way.

I am graduating with my high school diploma, an associate of sciences degree, a certificate in facilities maintenance, OSHA 10 and 30 certifications, and a solar energy installation certificate. I have earned $58,000 in scholarships so far, including the Horatio Alger Scholarship; the Mary Ferebee Howard Scholarship; and the McBryde Scholarship. This summer, I am completing a paid internship at Corning’s Edgecombe County facility, which was built right across the street from where I used to live. In August, I will be attending N.C. A&T to become an Aggie engineer.

I know myself. I have a vision for my future. I am ready for what comes next. And this is what we owe each and every scholar in our N.C. public schools. As proud as I am of my accomplishments, I should not be the exception. 

I should be the norm.  

— Abdur-Raqib Ibn Gant

The marks from the SWAT team are still on the front door of my old family home in Philadelphia. I’m ready to put my own marks on the door — the door of opportunity — and not just put marks on it, but push it wide open.

Abdur-Raqib Ibn Gant

Abdur-Raqib Ibn Gant is a graduate of Edgecombe Early College High School. He plans to attend N.C. A&T University.