"The whole idea about higher education is never going to be about grades, the purpose is your understanding, that's why you're here." That was the message from nationally-known author, youth advocate and social entrepreneur Wes Moore as he addressed students at American International College (AIC).
Moore, the author of, "The Other Wes Moore," spoke to AIC students April 6 in the Griswold Theatre. The event was sponsored by the AIC Center for Academic Success, the ACE Program, and the Office of Student Engagement and Leadership Development.
His first book, "The Other Wes Moore," became an instant New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller. It is the story of two boys with the same name, living in the same city. One grew up to be a Rhodes Scholar, decorated combat veteran, White House Fellow and business leader. The other is serving a life sentence in prison for felony murder.
But, Moore said the book is more than that. "This is not an autobiography and it's not a biography: it's a social commentary about what happens when you choose to pay attention and when you choose to be apathetic; how difficult it is to navigate the travails of life and how second chances can actually mean something; and it's about what happens when people grow up with a sense of purpose and a sense of direction."
Moore began a correspondence and relationship with the other Wes Moore that has lasted for several years. Over dozens of letters and prison visits, he discovered that the other Wes had a life not unlike his own: Both had grown up in similar neighborhoods and had difficult childhoods, both were fatherless; they had hung out on similar corners with similar crews, and both had run into trouble with the police. At each stage of their young lives they had come across similar moments of decision, yet their choices and the people in their lives would lead them to astonishingly different destinies.
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"There are Wes Moore's in every one of our schools and every one of our communities and every one of our homes," he told the audience. "Kids who are literally one decision away. People who everyday are straddling the line of greatness and the problem is that they don't even know it," he said.
Moore’s message rang out loud and clear for many of the AIC students.
Shawn Brathwaite, an AIC freshman from Brooklyn, N.Y., said one passage in "The Other Wes Moore" really hit home. In one of their many conversations, the incarcerated Moore shared key insights about the power of expectations. "If they expect us to graduate, we will graduate; if they expect use to get a job, we will get a job; if they expect us to go to jail, then that is where we will end up, too," he said.
"I can relate to this quote because of where I am from," Brathwaite said. "People judge us before they actually get to know the person. But it's up to the person to prove other people wrong, and to overcome obstacles in your life. I believe Mr. Moore is a prime example of someone who has proved those people wrong and used the problems in life as motivation to do better," Brathwaite said.
Imani Stepney, a freshman from Willingboro, N.J., said Moore's book, "gave me insight into struggles other people have encountered and made me appreciate the life we have because it could be worse."
"The name of the book doesn't matter," Moore said. "The most important word in the title of the book is the 'Other'. Our society is full of 'others,' people who may not look like us, people who might not speak like us, people who might live on the other side of town, people who might not be lucky enough to go to AIC, but whose destiny matters as much to the long term safety and security, and long term greatness of our communities as ours does."
Moore told the AIC students that education is the key, but it's not just about grades and degrees. "The most important question you are going to get is not 'What's your major?' but 'Who are you going to fight for?' If the answer is only you, then you are missing the point."
Despite early academic and behavioral struggles, Moore graduated Phi Theta Kappa in 1998 as a commissioned officer from Valley Forge Military College, and Phi Beta Kappa from Johns Hopkins University in 2001, where he also played football and earned a bachelor’s degree in international relations. He then became a Rhodes Scholar, studying international relations at Oxford University.
"If the only thing you get as you walk across the stage at graduation is a degree, if the only thing you can look back on is a transcript, then you really have missed the point of why you are here in the first place," Moore said.
Moore left the students with important food for thought. "Who will you speak for even when it is inconvenient? Who will you step up for even when you feel like no one else is listening? Who will you think about when no one else cares?" he asked.
Kimberly Beebe, associate dean of retention at AIC, said Moore's visit was especially relevant to AIC freshmen. "This was a wonderful opportunity for students, especially first-year students, faculty and staff to hear Wes Moore speak on his experiences. Our first-year students had the chance to read his book and getting a chance to hear him speak made for a great experience," she said.