A former gang member seems completely incongruent with someone named the National Educator of the Year… twice.
Stacey Watson, one of the two speakers at the Pillars Conference held this past Saturday in the Student Union Theater by UB LAUNCH, told the audience of how she broke that boundary with her "good girl gone bad gone good again" story.
Often considered an educator of those that society has deemed unreachable, Watson had led New York State in GED accreditations in the out-of-school youth population since 2002 at the South Buffalo Education Center, where she is executive director.
During her high school career in Buffalo, Watson fell into the "wrong crowd" and became a member of a gang, where she frequently acted as a decoy. However, when a number of her friends were shot, she decided to leave the gang and enroll at Buffalo State College. Watson admitted that she did not feel like she belonged in the collegiate setting, but this sentiment changed when she met an educator who soon took her in and became her lifelong mentor.
"Mentorship as a part of leadership is an absolute necessity," Watson said. "There comes a time where you have to be a grown up and there comes a time when you have to decide whether you are going to live by someone else's rules or you're going to live by what you know is right."
Watson believes that her bad behavior taught her how to be successful. Her former gang affiliations helped her to understand that the population with which she was to be working frequently didn't have strong family ties, which prompted Watson to develop the concept of an "intellectual family."
"Family had nothing to do with blood… a lot of people say those that are involved in gangs are trying to recreate family, and that's 100-percent absolutely true," Watson said. "There is no more validation you can get than a group of people saying, ‘We are behind you, no matter what.'"
By surrounding her students with an intellectual family-support system, she strove to give these individuals another outlet to turn to. Watson described how, on her first day of teaching, she noticed a group of teenagers huddled on a street corner who were likely selling drugs. She dragged them into her classroom – this was the exact population she was trying to target.
"You teach them about an intellectual family, you teach them about the class system, about the importance of giving back to their community; let me tell you what's not difficult for them – fractions, algebra, commas," Watson said. "My students have lived in a world so much bigger than that, that once you get to those nuts and bolts of education, they get it."
Watson described that these students were never told they could be successful. She told of one of her students who always thought he was not intelligent enough to receive his GED, which he needed to fulfill his dream of joining the army. However, she worked with him, and he earned his GED and was able to join the army, where he became a sergeant, led his platoon through two tours in Iraq, learned and taught Arabic to those under his command, and earned a Purple Heart during his service.
"With every one of my students, they walked in the door believing that they were not going to be successful, and they left believing they were. I did not have one student in college that has under a 3.0 grade point average," Watson said. "These are students who, a few years ago, were on the streets. Yet, when given the opportunity to grow, they are so hungry that they excel the same way that I did. All it takes is one significant adult."
Watson has worked on her curriculum for the past nine years, which includes self-esteem, self-awareness, intellectual family, financial reality, social and community awareness, and education. It is currently being published.
"I have travelled all over the state, and now I'm going to the rest of the country with the curriculum and sharing this story with other organizations. I still maintain the highest graduation rate in the State of New York," Watson said. "I sit on the governor's Team for School Engagement and Drop-Out Prevention, I was the youngest person ever nominated for the New York State Board of Regents, and just 10, 15 years ago, I was carrying a gun. Leadership is about what's inside."
The second speaker was David Coleman, perhaps more widely known as the "Real-Life Hitch." Named the National Speaker of the Year 13 times, the "Dating Doctor" addressed UB students in a blunt, candid way about dating and leadership.
Leadership is not something that a position bestows upon an individual; it's something that a situation offers, according to Coleman. It's what the individual does while in that office that matters.
"How do you measure a leadership position? It's not measured by how much you're paid to do it; it's how much you would pay to do it," Coleman said. "How much would you pay to be in student government? How much would you pay to be involved in orientation? Not social dues."
Coleman also spelled out the "A-B-C-Ds" of choosing a significant other. "A" stands for attraction. The person doesn't have to be drop-dead gorgeous, according to Coleman, but one should at least have some level of attraction. The "B" stands for believability – does everything the person says sound like a fabrication? Or does this person seem sincere and genuine? The "C" stands for "chemistry."
"Chemistry is every type of attraction for someone else except for physical. Do they put a smile on your face? Could they make you laugh?" Coleman said. "Did you notice the time with them was enjoyable? Did you wish it could slow down? Did you feel yourself getting closer to them? It's great stuff; it's chemistry."
The "D" stands for desire, which isn't necessarily the desire to marry or "mount" the person, but is, instead, the desire to get to know them better.
"Hitch" also mentioned what he considered the criteria to be when judging whether or not one can truly "just be friends" with an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend. If there is still physical attraction, a romantic interest, or if he or she can make the former significant other jealous by what he says or does, friendship is not an option.
The Pillars Conference brought two very different, yet very striking, speakers to the University at Buffalo. For more information about UB LAUNCH, UB's chapter of the national honor society Mortar Board, visit ublaunch.buffalo.edu.