Winning Essay by Timothy O., University of South Carolina-Columbia
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There have been many famous African Americans throughout history that have been influential and provided great initiative and motivation for so many, but from a distance. For me it was so much more. I actually met that person when, at the age of 13, I started middle school. He was known to all of the kids as Mr. Joe and he was the head of my after-school program.

The first six years of my education I attended a private school, where there were very few African American staff and students. My mom knew the importance of gaining diverse experiences that would ready me to eventually become a productive citizen of society, and I started middle school in public school. Mr. Joe was that person away from my family that was able to show me that the important part of a person is within them, not something external.

Mr. Joe was my leader for three hours each day after school. In the first few days, I learned that Mr. Joe was a man of his word. If he instructed you to do something, it was not an option or a suggestion; he expected it would be done. He taught me that the value of a person rested with actions, not words. He provided guidance to me during a time when I thought that I was all grown up, but actually still really acting like a child. Mr. Joe also taught me the value of work and that it should be accomplished with pride. He may not have been a certified teacher, but he knew the importance of an education. He drilled down on what life could look like if I did not do my school work. He was not ashamed of his background, but he told us many times that you can only go as far as you let yourself go. He said, “The world is full of opportunity and it is open to everyone.”

While I did not know it at the time, he was a mentor to me. Mr. Joe gave me confidence, determination, pride and strength. He showed me what was right and wrong, cared about my grades which made me care about my grades, and was a confidant that I needed at a pivotal point in life. He was a true inspiration to me and to all the other kids at that after-school program. He was that strong hand to help me learn, but at the same time he was a nurturer that helped me grow. I learned so much from Mr. Joe that first year of middle school. He will always be someone that I remember and I give thanks that God put him in my path.

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