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FIRST GRADUATE: ‘Long journey’ ends for Smith, his family

By Mary Schulken
ECU Director of Public Affairs

Tremayne Smith
(May 5, 2011)   —   When Tremayne Smith arrived at East Carolina University in 2006, he brought with him a challenge.

No one on either side of his immediate family had a college degree. None of the men in his family, period, went to college.

Now, that’s history.

Smith, 23, president of ECU’s Student Government Association, drum major in its marching band and homecoming king in 2009, received two bachelor’s degrees in commencement exercises Friday. He majored in music education and stayed an extra year to get a second degree in political science.

Reaching that milestone is significant to him.

“I wanted to take away any excuses and doubts for subsequent generations,” Smith said. “The bar has really been raised for my younger cousins. This is very significant because they can’t say it can’t be done.”

A family project

Approximately 10 members of his family traveled from Salisbury to Greenville to share the moment, including his mother, Patricia Watkins, his twin brother, Dewayne, his grandmothers, “Grannie” Shirley Smith and “Grannie” Libby Blackwell and his aunts. Tremayne bought extra copies of his diploma and is having them framed to present to each member of his family.

He is making that gesture because completing his college education was a family project, Smith said. His great-great-grandmother was a slave and his mother, his grandmothers and his aunts have stressed education as the path to a life of success.

“A lot of them did not have the opportunity to do this, and every step I took, they held their breath,” Smith said. “They have been beside me all the way.”

The latest tracking numbers from the U.S. Department of Education show that nationwide, 36 percent of African-American men who enroll in college in NCAA Division 1 schools complete a degree in six years.

The low rank of that completion rate helped feed Smith’s determination, he said

“On a very personal note, being an African-American, and especially a male, there’s a lot of ‘I’m a victim’ attitude out there and I think that’s the wrong point of view,” Smith said. “The attitude should be “I am succeeding in spite of’  … fill in the blank: numbers, attitudes, whatever.”

“I approached college in this way,” he said.

Smith said he has also taken advantage of opportunities when they arose. “I was not afraid to go outside of my comfort zone and do things I’ve never done; join the band, get involved in student government,” he said.

‘Tomorrow’s leader’

Smith offers three pieces of advice for students struggling, as he has, to reach a milestone.

The first, he said, is trust in God. The second: Surround yourself with people you want to be like. The third: “Just know you can do it and get to working and do it,” he said.

Smith has been visible as SGA president for ECU’s 28,000 students, urging students to involve themselves in diverse aspects of campus life. His next stop is Capitol Hill, where he will work for the office of Sen. Kay Hagan as an intern. He plans to give law school a hard look.

Smith’s strong core values, his hard work and his undergraduate education have positioned him for success, said Steve Ballard, ECU’s chancellor.

“ECU prides itself in being the leadership university and training tomorrow’s leaders,” said Ballard. “Tremayne Smith is the best example I know of tomorrow’s leader.”

Meanwhile, Smith is enjoying his family’s moment of pride.  

“They are beside themselves,” he said. “It’s been a long journey.”