Mentorship and Inspiration Help Graduate Student Take Steps Toward His Dreams

© Western New Mexico University

WNMU graduate student and College of Education Academic Advisor Juanwon Anderson-Verdell was recently invited to give the commencement speech for Centinela TK-8 School in Inglewood, CA. Anderson-Verdell graduated from the school himself, and was invited back by his former 6th-grade teacher.

His former teacher felt that the speech would be a good way for Anderson-Verdell to give back to his community. “That is something I really value,” he said, “knowing the circumstances in my community and how students don’t see people like me come back.”

That community, Inglewood, is part of the larger Los Angeles metropolitan area and has seen a number of social challenges over the years.

“Inglewood is a high-level gang activity place with a strong police presence,” said Anderson-Verdell, “It was hard navigating that” growing up.

Succeeding in that environment was especially challenging for Anderson-Verdell because he grew up without his parents as part of his life. Luckily, he had a strong support system, including his aunt, who was his primary guardian.

Anderson-Verdell said he was not always a great student when he was young, and he credits his support system for getting him on track academically. “There are positive influences and negative influences, and whichever one you are attracted to at a young age is the one you are going to follow,” he said. “At the time, I did not have a lot of male figures in my life, until I went to live with my uncle for six months or so, just to give me a male [role model], and then I went back to living with my aunt. Ever since then, I was really focused on my grades and on studying for the SAT and trying to get into college with the help of my guidance counselor. I did not have a computer at home, so I did all my applications in her office. I am a first-generation college student, so I really appreciate her.”

Eventually, Anderson-Verdell went on to study at California State University, Chico [Chico State] where he earned degrees in organizational communication studies and multicultural gender studies.

While at Chico State, Anderson-Verdell had opportunities to see the inner workings of higher education. “I did a lot of work in student affairs, academic affairs, and as an advisor,” he said, noting especially the “cultural programming that I put on for the campus and other initiatives surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

He also had an opportunity to serve as a mentor himself, guiding other first-generation students. “Chico State has a partnership with Inglewood High School,” he explained, “So each 12th grader can go to Chico State, stay for a weekend, and they have an opportunity to meet the Inglewood alumni. I was part of that Inglewood pipeline program, so [at Chico State] I started mentoring the Inglewood High School students.”

These experiences solidified for him that he wanted to pursue a career in higher educational leadership. Upon graduation, he chose WNMU as the next step along that path on the encouragement of a VP of Student Affairs at Chico State who previously worked for WNMU and is in the same historically Black fraternity as Anderson-Verdell, Kapppa Alpha Psi. “We met and we talked, and he became my mentor, and he guided me here.”

Currently, Anderson-Verdell wears multiple hats at WNMU. He is a graduate student in Educational Leadership, he is an academic advisor to the College of Education, and he is a Hall Director for Student Housing.

Anderson-Verdell said that his own educational and life experiences help him in his role as an advisor. “I am in grad school and I am not too far removed from undergrad,” he said, “so I definitely empathize with a lot of the students that are working full time.”

Those same experiences were the subject of his recent commencement address, which was focused on the theme of “Inspiration.” “I reflected on my experiences in elementary and high school, as well as my collegiate experiences and how I got to where I am today,” he said. “When I was asked to go back to Inglewood to speak,” Anderson-Verdell added, “it felt surreal. It just felt like it was full circle.”


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